Review of Études sur la Selection chez l'Homme by Dr. Paul Jacoby
The first edition of Dr. Jacoby's book appeared in 1881, when it was the brilliant thing to identify genius and crime with each other and with degeneracies of various sorts. This work fell in with the general current of the time, but proved of more lasting value than those of the Italian school of criminologists. Dr. Jacoby is at some pains to point out, in this edition at least, that most cases of what is generally called crime and madness are at quite opposite ends of the scale in point of view of their symptoms. The pessimistic tone of the work has, however, not lessened in its later edition, nor has the author seen reasons for regarding the greatest achievements of mankind other than as the steps taken on the road toward degeneracy.
The explicit aim of the work is to show the process of selection in the development of
the human animal. There can be no question of the learning and industry of the author. The
two instances of selection in human history which he has presented are the histories of
families who have held for a number of generations royal power, and the fate of talented
families in France during the eighteenth century. Under the Roman Empire he follows the
descendants of Augustus to Nero with unwearying detail. Then, with more conciseness, he
deals with the principal dynasties of Europe from the fourteenth to the eighteenth
centuries. The results of the selective action of the peculiar social position of the
family of Augustus he sums up as follows:
"Here is a family which nature and fortune
had treated as their favorite child. Beauty, exceptional intelligence, talents of all
sorts nature and fortune had lavished their gifts upon it. If the first generation was not
numerous - one son and one daughter - the second counted already from a dozen to fifteen
members. And yet this family is represented in its fourth generation only by a monstrous
and grotesque actor, abject and sanguinary, soiled by all the vices and all the crimes,
and whose only child died in the cradle. And to reach this actor the family passes through
imbecility, epilepsy, nervous affections, incest, parricide, fratricide, shamelessness,
(408) monstrous debauches, the bloodiest ferocity, sterility, premature death, assassination, poisoning, suicide, drunkenness, misfortune and disgrace " (pp. 317 f).
The European dynasties reveal as complete family disintegration and disappearance. And if one wishes to follow this disintegration into its details of degeneration, its neuropathies and psychopathies, and its ultimate, unavoidable and fortunate sterility, he has only to turn over the pages crowded with the distressing, sickening, and finally monotonous diagnosis of this royal clinic.
The story of the remarkable men and their families in France during the eighteenth century passes over into the study of the city. The city is the group that attracts the remarkably endowed from the whole country. Here those who rise above the level of common humanity intermarry, and selection of talent takes place in the sense of the biologist. A moment's thought will at once call up the evidence which the author must present of degeneration emphasized in the statistics of city life and death. Beside these and the consideration of the acknowledged early dying out of the families of remarkable men, there is a chapter on the history of the world's aristocracies, including the Spartan citizens, the puritan aristocracy of Berne, and the nobility of England. It is a commonplace of history that there has been no aristocracy, however good or bad its habits and blood, which has not in a comparatively few generations run out, unless it has continued its existence by additions from the outside.
In such an investigation as this there are two factors intimately related: selection and heredity. Yet they by no means are uniformly causally active. For example, polydactylism or albinism are hereditary, but the possession of an abnormal number of fingers does not lead to intermarriage among those who have this peculiarity. For the purposes of this study it is necessary that hereditary conditions should be found which at the same time lead to interbreeding of those who are subject to these conditions. The author -- who is an alieniest -- naturally turned his attention to nervous troubles which, while being hereditary in a prominent degree, are generally conceived of as influenced by social conditions. Supposing therefore that the data and the interpretation of the statistics are adequate, the question still remains, as to how far it is that the social conditions which are unquestionably responsible for the selection, i.e., the intermarrying of those within a certain social class, are also necessarily responsible for the degeneration which accompanies this social differentiation. Belonging to an aristocratic class is unquestionably the cause of aristocratic selection,
(409) i.e., of the continual intermarriage of those belonging to that class. It has yet to be proved that the degeneration, which has been noted in aristocracies for example, is due to the social differentiation -- and the selection that accompanies it.
Dr. Jacoby's proof of his doctrine it is a little difficult to disentangle. The seeming progress of the argument is this: a display of the most detailed and presumably typical form of the degeneration which he is discussing; second, the presentation of a number of examples of the same process, under the same conditions; finally, the generalization of the causes and effects of this degeneration as found in large social groups. The first step is a minute medico-psychological analysis of the different members of the house of Augustus. Here we are familiarized with a certain unvarying course of the disease. The second step presents us with a more summary display of analogous phenomena among the dynasties of Europe from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Finally, the men of talent and their families lead us up to the city as the social organism where just such a differentiation and selection is going on, on a grand scale, and the table of nervous and mental disorders that are in evidence in urban life seems to complete the proof.
There are certain very evident replies that can be made to this argument. The comparative wealth and the power of monarchs and aristocracies give them opportunities for dissipation with little restraint, and dissipation, carried to excess, is a recognized cause of all the procession of nervous and mental disorders here catalogued. Dr. Jacoby's answer to this argument is, first, that such sober and self-controlled aristocracies as those of Lacaedemonia and of Berne have not shown their ability to maintain themselves, but have died out as surely as have the riotous and noble classes of Europe, while on the other hand these noble classes whether serious or dissipated have all lived in better hygienic conditions than the poverty-stricken masses who have swarmed in the midst of their misery and filth. The constant cause that is present, while other supposed causes are now present and now absent, is the social differentiation and selection. The second rebuttal offered is that the dissipation here is frequently not a cause but an effect.
To these, there are two replies that can be made. In the first place this series of neuro- and psychopathic events that lead up to the extinction of a family are not proved to be the only ones which precede such a result. It is possible for a family to disappear without passing through the wild excesses and mental aberrations of the house of
(410) Augustus. For example, the original New England society is approaching extinction, if we can trust present statistic, but the antecedents are as far from the course of events laid out by the author as possible.
In the second place, while the conditions that lead up to dissipation are not always the presence of opportunity and the absence of restraint, the social causes that predispose to such dissipation are by no means always of the neuropathic order. Unhealthful social ideals, ennui because of the absence of any active interest in life, etc., may predispose a perfectly healthy nature to dissipation. The situation is indefinitely more complicated both biologically and socially than is implied in the formula of Dr. Jacoby.
It is especially necessary to insist upon this from the point of view of the final
generalization of the book--
"From the vast human mass have arisen individuals,
families and races, which tend to elevate themselves above the common level. They have
climbed painfully the abrupt heights, have arrived at the summits-of power, of wealth, of
intelligence, of talent -and once there, they are precipitated to the bottom, and
disappear in the abysses of madness and degeneracy. * * * Men seem to have been organized
- if we may be allowed to express ourselves thus -with a view to equality. All distinction
in classes - political, economic and intellectual - and all selection which is the natural
and logical consequence of these distinctions, are equally fatal to humanity, to
elect as well ,is to the rest of men, producing lack among the latter, and excess among
the former of the element which is the principle of the differentiation of the class***
But nature seems to wish to avenge herself for this violation of her laws, striking
cruelly the chosen, the fortunate, pursuing them to the fourth, the seventh generation
" (pp. 616 and 618)."
In other words the unusual and exceptional man, whatever be the peculiarity that distinguishes him from the crowd, is an unnatural growth in human society, and as soon as selection takes place on the basis of this unnatural position of his, the unnatural character of the man passes over in his posterity into degeneration. The proof is that all classes in the history of human society have tended to die out; but classes are groups which have been selected out on the basis of some social peculiarity, and have interbred with each other so that continual selection with reference to this peculiarity has been the result.
As before noted the problem is indefinitely more complex than this statement of Dr. Jacoby implies. It is primarily a question of the persistence of the family, but the family biologically defined and
(411) socially defined are two different things, and any investigation that would carry conviction would have to be based on the histories of families among the mass of mankind as well as within its 'classes.' How persistent is the average family? Does it die out by a process of degeneration? The reader who is not trained either as an alienist nor as a statistician feels that this wealth of specific details must be interpreted on the basis of a larger and more massive body of facts than is here presented.
There is another implication which is not made specific but which is constantly felt in reading Dr. Jacoby's work. It is that the exceptional man is unnatural, abnormal, and that even if he performs a valuable social function he does it at the expense of his own disintegration. The psychological justification for this is given in part, when analyzing the position of the autocratic ruler, such as the Roman emperor. Unfortunately this analysis is not extended to other exceptional individuals with whom the work is later occupied. Still it goes far to account for the author's doctrine and bias.
The author, as alienist, explains the phenomena of insanity, in a great degree, not by the abnormal increase in power of some impulse, but by the weakening of the self, the ego. The basis of all conscious activity is the reflex, which may however be inhibited by other reflexes. The perceptions and ideas which arise in consciousness tend to pass over into action through these reflexes unless so checked. Organized conscious control, therefore, depends on the presence of a group of ideas which hold in check the different ideas and their reflexes arising in consciousness through association. The self, or ego, is such a group of ideas, strongly interrelated, persistent through powerful associations, which acts therefore as an arbiter in the struggles of ideas to rise above the threshold and become effective through conduct. Education is the process of forming such an organized group of ideas into a self, and mental disease is the disintegration of this self. In a word Dr. Jacoby's psychology is Herbartian, which shows the same mechanical adaptability to the phenomena of psychiatry that has characterized it in pedagogy.
The autocrat is shown to lack the possibility of forming any such self as is above
described, or if such can be conceived of as arising in him through education, it must be
enfeebled by his own conditions of life.
" Power must enfeeble the will, the self,
and render the man thus less capable of resisting his desires, his instincts, his
suggestions, and reinforce therefore reflex action and render more direct the
transformation of perception into movement, into action, in annulling more
(412) or less the activity of the controlling centers. Power, by its moral influence on the personality, should produce in the cerebral life a funcytional trouble, the nature and character of which are identical with that which we find at the beginning of mental diseases and serious nervous affections (p. 30)."
This makes a brilliant introduction for the study of the early Caesars, though it utterly fails to explain Trajan, Aurelian, Marcus Aurelius, in whom power itself had become a functional activity that carried with it its own control. From such emperors we go by an unbroken series to the executive officers of monarchies and republics, whose power is so normal an expression of human social conduct that its control arises out of the very situation which has bestowed it upon the individual. Autocracy, such as that of the Caesars, can be readily admitted to be a predisposition to mental derangement. Tiberius exclaimed to his friends, "Ignoros, quanta bellua esset Imperium." But the absolute power of the competent general, of the industrial engineer, of the competent expert in any direction, has no such tendency, and the psychology of Dr. Jacoby carries with it no comprehension for this fundamental difference between the lawless autocrat and the expert; for the talented individual of any sort, in so far as he becomes a power in the community, in so far as he comes under the rubrics of Dr. Jacoby's investigation, is essentially an expert. For him the self is not a functional entity that arises out of and exists with the social relations that make it possible, but an intellectual mechanism, which arises by a series of associations of ideas. These associations may be strengthened by education and the influence of the social environment, but that social function renders any endowment, any group of powers however exceptional, a normal material out of which to build up a self, is a conception that does not belong to Herbartian social psychology nor has it entered into the ideas out of which this book has arisen. The psychological point of view, therefore, from which the material of the book should be interpreted, if this is correct, is that of determining how far the lack of social function, and hence of control, has been responsible for the degeneration and extinction of privileged classes. Biological interpretation would show how far selection has served to emphasize the socially abnormal characteristics of these groups and the psychopathic and neuropathic results of these abnormal conditions.
GEORGE H. MEAD.
UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO