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Taussig: The breeding of men, eugenics, and progress. 1911

SOURCE: Frank Taussig, Principles of Economics, Volume II, 1911.  Pages 233-237.

This movement is steadily extending, and is gradually affecting not only those who are usually thought of as being in a more special sense “native born,” but the descendants of the immigrants as well. The influence of free institutions and of free opportunities is to lessen, possibly to destroy, the caste like character of social classes. They lift the second generation of those who immigrate into the United States out of the lowest of the non-competing groups. In that second generation the birth rate, which had been high among the first arrivals, begins to fall. In the United States the rate of pay for common laborers and unskilled factory workers is kept low, not by a continuing high birth rate within the country, but by a high birth rate and low standard of living in the foreign sources of supply. It is in European countries that the millions are born who steadily replenish the lowest stratum. Once they are settled here, the leaven of social and economic ambition slowly but surely affects them. It makes well-nigh certain a relaxation of the rate of growth in population. As, in the course of time, natural resources come to be more completely pre-empted and the possibility of increase is subjected to the conditions of an older country, the Malthusian difficulty, there can be little doubt, will be staved off by the increasing application of the preventive check.

§ 3. The question which now faces the advanced countries, and especially the more prosperous classes in those countries, is whether the preventive check is not likely to be carried too far. The population of France as a whole barely maintains itself ; it is probable that the French well-to-do fail to maintain themselves at all. The native-born population of Massachusetts probably fails to maintain itself; it is well-nigh certain that this is the case among the well-to-do in that state. The causes of the phenomenon are an excess of social ambition, — forethought to the point of timidity. People’s notions as to what is a proper mode of living steadily become more exacting, and the expense of maintaining a family on the conventional scale becomes greater. Marriages take place at a comparatively late age, and the proportion of those who do not marry at all is considerable. Where there is accumulated property, large families are avoided lest the inheritance be split up among too many. The very rich seem to multiply least rapidly of all.

This tendency brings evils. It takes away part of the stimulus which comes from competition and pressure. Children who are too carefully reared, too elaborately educated, too fully assured of support from inherited means, lack courage. It would seem, also, that the children of parents who have led a nervously exhausting life, especially if the parents have married late, lack vigor. A population which marries earlier and multiplies more rapidly, and whose newly accruing members are thrown more upon their own resources, is likely to be more progressive.

Further, the more prosperous strata among the population are those in which intellectual gifts are most likely to appear. They are prosperous in the main because they have such gifts. No doubt there are plenty of commonplace persons in the favored classes among whom multiplication is so markedly restricted. But the able and the intelligent are also preponderantly among them. Hence in this tendency among the well-to-do there is a danger that the quality of the population will deteriorate. Less of the gifted are born, and those who are born are less stimulated by active competition to exercise their gifts to the utmost. The lower strata of the population, on the other hand, multiply most rapidly. Though some individuals of high qualities emerge from among them, the great mass are mediocre, and perpetuate mediocrity. Those few whose unusual abilities enable them to rise, succumb to the social ambitions and inhibitions which prevail in the prosperous class, and, like their new associates, fail to propagate freely.

More and more thought has been given of late years to the strange contrast between our care in breeding animals and our carelessness in breeding men. The human race could be immensely improved in quality, and its capacity for happy living immensely increased, if those of poor physical and mental endowment were prevented from multiplying. But it is very uncertain how far it will prove possible to select for propagation. Though the great broad fact of heredity is unmistakeable, the details of the laws of inheritance are but dimly known to us, above all in their application to man. More light will come in time from what is called eugenics; that is, from systematic inquiry as to the transmittal of inborn and acquired traits from generation to generation, with a view to the possibilities of selection and breeding. In the present state of knowledge, no individual differentiation is feasible; least of all do we know what are the conditions which lead to the birth of individuals having extraordinary gifts. And even if more accurate knowledge comes to be attained, any system of restriction and selection would probably be inconsistent with that striving for freedom of opportunity and for individual development which is the essence of the aspiration for progress. It is difficult to conceive any such system which would not imply the sacrifice of present happiness by countless individuals, for the sake of a cold and distant ideal of ultimate racial improvement. Only some very limited applications of the principle, in extreme cases, seem now within the bounds of possibility. Certain types of criminals and paupers breed only their kind, and society has a right and a duty to protect its members from the repeated burden of maintaining and guarding such parasites. Some sorts of disease and taint are inherited, and it is merciful alike to would-be parents and possible offspring to put a check on their transmission. Beyond this, there is little prospect, under any social system which we can conceive, that mankind will deliberately select a portion among its members as alone privileged to perpetuate the race.

Too much stress should not be laid on what is called “race suicide.” The extent of the drift toward restraint among the well-to-do is often exaggerated. Though prudence might possibly be carried to the point of impending annihilation among the higher strata, it will probably not be. Rapid multiplication and large families in these classes are indeed not likely. But a maintenance of their numbers and a moderate increase are by no means improbable. Something will depend on the ideals which influence their lives. Frivolous ambition, the love of vulgar display, the exaggeration of artificial distinctions, all tend to hesitation in marriage and timorousness in begetting offspring. Higher ideals and ambitions tend to the earlier founding of families and to less limited fecundity.

On the other hand, the good sides of restraint on multiplication should not be forgotten. For mankind as a whole, declining birth rates and lessening pressure on population mean progress, not deterioration. The prevalence of habits of prudence among all strata means a gain in human happiness. Possibly the time will come when this sort of prudence will be carried so far that population in the advanced communities will no longer increase at all. Then a low birth rate will be balanced by a low death rate, avoidable suffering and disease will be reduced to the minimum, the average duration of life will be longer. Progress, then, will perhaps be less; or at least it will be in a different direction, with different consequences, and under different impulses. There is no reason why the arts of production should not continue to advance, and certainly no reason why the intellectual and moral life should not move upward. The struggle and competition of rapidly increasing numbers are not essential for happiness, nor is an approach to stationary population in itself a cause of unhappiness. In such a state — to quote the eloquent words of the most wise minded of the earlier economists, John Stuart Mill — “there would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress; as much room for improving the Art of Living, and much more likelihood of its being improved, when minds ceased to be engrossed by the art of getting on. . . . Only when, in addition to just institutions, the increase of mankind shall be under the deliberate guidance of judicious foresight, can the conquests made from the powers of nature by the intellect and energy of scientific discoveries, be made the common property of the species, and the means of improving and elevating the universal lot.”

1 Political Economy, Book IV, Chapter VI, 2.

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