[Francis Galton, letter to the Editor of The Times, 31 May 1910.]

Heredity and Tradition


Sir, -- In your issue of May 30 , Sir E. Ray Lankester maintains it to be almost unthinkable that "definite belief, or what we call specific knowledge,'' could be transmitted organically from one generation to another, and that very much of what is commonly ascribed to organic inheritance is really acquired through education.  The question, in short, refers to the parts played respectively by Nature and by Nurture.  I am not sure of the exact meaning to be attached to the terms "specific knowledge " and "definite belief," as applied to other animals than man, but it seems to me that; a hen-reared duck shows, a specific and definite belief that water is suitable for swimming in by taking to it, notwithstanding the cries and gestures of its foster parent.

Similarly. that the terror of monkeys in a menagerie at the sight of a snake, or. that of an artificially incubated chicken at the cry of a hawk or, again, the impulse that seizes on the neuter females of a hive to massacre their brothers, whether the hive be reared from a single queen or otherwise, all rank as specific and definite impulses.  Very many other illustrative cases could be adduced that will occur to most readers.

Sir E. Ray Lankester quotes Speech as part of the great tradition of man. It is so, no doubt, in its developed form, but not in its  elementary condition of mere cries expressive of elementary wants. Each kind of animal has  its peculiar cry. I have long since instanced  the cuckoo, which, though nurtured in the nests of birds that chirp and twitter, utters its familiar note as soon as it, is grown up. 

Much more is inherited than educability -- namely the propensity  to act in the same way under similar circumstances which characterizes all animals of the same race, whether they have been reared from eggs and had no maternal teaching; or otherwise. Fowls reared in incubators, fish in fish farms, dragon‑flies, moths bred for silk or for show, each sort behaves after its kind in well-known ways, whether the individuals have been taught or left wholly to themselves.

To some persons it seems almost profane to place the so-called material and non-material matters upon the same plane of thought, but the march of science is fast obliterating the distinction between the two, for it is now generally agreed that matter is a microcosm of innumerable and, it may be, immaterial motes, and that the apparent vacancy of space is a plenum of ether, that vibrates throughout like a solid.