Read before the Sociological Society of London.

American Journal of Sociology, Volume 11; Issue 1; July, 1905; 11-25


It is proposed in the following remarks to meet an objection that has been repeatedly urged against the possible adoption of any system of eugenics, [Eugenics may be defined as the science which deals with those social agencies that influence, mentally or physically, the racial qualities of future generations] namely, that human nature would never brook interference with the freedom of marriage.

In my reply I shall proceed on the not unreasonable assumption that, when the subject of eugenics shall be well understood, and when its lofty objects shall have become generally appreciated, they will meet with some recognition both from the religious sense of the people and from its laws. The question to be considered is: How far have marriage restrictions proved effective, when sanctified by the religion of the time, by custom., and by law ? I appeal from armchair criticism to historical facts.

To this end, a brief history will be given of a few widely spread customs in successive paragraphs. It will be seen that, with scant exceptions, they are based on social expediency, and not on natural instincts. Each paragraph might have been expanded into a long chapter, had that seemed necessary. Those who desire to investigate the subject further can easily do so by referring to standard works in anthropology, among the most useful of which, for the present purpose, are Frazer's Golden Bough, Westermarck's History of Marriage, Huth's Marriage of Near Kin, and Crawley's Mystic Rose.

1. Monogamy.-- It is impossible to label mankind by one general term, either as animals who instinctively take a plurality of mates, or who consort with only one; for history suggests the one condition as often as the other. Probably different races, like different individuals, vary considerably in their natural instincts. Polygamy may be understood either as having a plurality of wives, or as having one principal wife and many secondary but still legitimate wives, or any other recognized but less legitimate connections; in one or other of these forms it is now permitted--by religion, customs, and law--to at least one-half of the population of the world, though its practice may be restricted to a few, on account of cost, domestic peace, and the insufficiency of females. Polygamy holds its ground firmly throughout the Moslem world. It exists throughout India and China in modified forms, and it is entirely in accord with the sentiments both of men and women in the larger part of negro Africa. It was regarded as a matter of course in the early biblical days. Jacob's twelve children were born of four mothers, all living at the same time, .namely, Leah and her sister Rachel, and their respective handmaids Billah and Zilpah. Long afterward the Jewish kings emulated the luxurious habits of neighboring potentates and carried polygamy to an extreme degree. For Solomon see I Kings II :3; for his son Rehoboam see 2 Chron. II :21. The history of the subsequent practice of the custom among the Jews is obscure, but the Talmud contains no law against polygamy. It must have ceased in Judea by the time of the Christian era. It was not then allowed in either Greece or Rome. Polygamy was unchecked by law in profligate Egypt, but a reactionary and ascetic spirit existed, and some celibate communities were formed, in the service of Isis, which seem to have exercised a large, though indirect, influence in introducing celibacy into the early Christian church. The restriction of marriage to one living wife subsequently became the religion and the law of all Christian nations, though license has been widely tolerated in royal and other distinguished families, as in those of some of our English kings. Polygamy was openly introduced into Mormonism by Brigham Young, who left seventeen wives and fifty-six children. He died in 1877; Polygamy was suppressed soon after. [Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol. XVI, p. 827]

It is unnecessary for my present purpose to go further into the voluminous data connected with these marriages in all parts of the world. Enough has been said to show that the prohibition of polygamy, under severe penalties by civil and ecclesiastical law, has been due, not to any natural instinct against the practice, but to consideration of social well-being. I conclude that equally strict limitations to freedom of marriage might, under the pressure of worthy motives, be hereafter enacted for eugenic and other purposes.

2. Endogamy.-- Endogamy, or the custom of marrying exclusively within one's own tribe or caste, has been sanctioned by religion and enforced by law, in all parts of the world, but chiefly in long-settled nations where there is wealth to bequeath and where neighboring communities profess different creeds. The details of this custom, and the severity of its enforcement, have everywhere varied from century to century. It was penal for a Greek to marry a barbarian, for a Roman patrician to marry a plebeian, for a Hindu of one caste to marry one of another caste, etc. Similar restrictions have been enforced in multitudes of communities, even under the penalty of death.

A very typical instance of the power of law over the freedom of choice in marriage, and which was by no means confined to Judea, is that known as the Levirate. It shows that family property and honor were once held by the Jews to dominate over individual preferences. The Mosaic law actually compelled a man to marry the widow of his brother, if he left no male issue. [Deut., chap. 25] Should the brother refuse, "then shall his brother's wife come unto him in the presence of the elders, and loose his shoe from off his foot, and spit in his face; and she shall answer and say, So shall it be done unto the man that doth not build up his brother's house. And his name shall be called in Israel the house of him that hath his shoe loosed." The form of this custom survives to the present day, and is fully described and illustrated under the article "Halizah" (= "taking off," "untying") in the Jewish Cyclopedia. Jewish widows are now almost invariably remarried with this ceremony. They are, as we might describe it, "given away" by a kinsman of the deceased husband, who puts on a shoe of an orthodox shape which is kept for the purpose, the widow unties the shoe, spits, but now on the ground, and repeats the specified words.

The duties attached to family property led to the history, which is very strange to the ideas of the present day, of Ruth's advances to Boaz under the advice of her mother. "It came to pass at midnight" that Boaz "was startled 5 and turned himself, and behold a woman lay at his feet," who had come in "softly and uncovered his feet; and laid her down." He told her to lie still until the early morning and then to go away. She returned home and told her mother, who said: "Sit still, my daughter, until thou know how the matter will fall, for the man will not rest until he have finished the thing this day." She was right. Boaz took legal steps to disembarrass himself of the claims of a still nearer kinsman, who "drew off his shoe;" so Boaz married Ruth. Nothing could be purer, from the point of view of those days, than the history of Ruth. The feelings of the modern social world would be shocked, if the same thing were to take place now in England.

Evidence from the various customs relating to endogamy show how choice in marriage may be dictated by religious custom, that is, by a custom founded on a religious view of family property and family descent. Eugenics deal with what is more valuable than money or lands, namely, the heritage of a high character, capable brains, fine physique, and vigor; in short, with all that is most desirable for a family to possess as a birthright. It aims at the evolution and preservation of high races of men, and it as well deserves to be strictly enforced as a religious duty, as the Levirate law ever was.

3. Exogamy.--Exogamy is, or has been, as widely spread as the opposed rule of endogamy just described. It is the duty, enforced by custom, religion, and law, of marrying outside one's own tribe, and is usually in force among small and barbarous communities. Its former distribution is attested by the survival, in nearly all countries, of ceremonies based on "marriage by capture." The remarkable monograph on this subject by the late Mr. McLennan is of peculiar interest, It was one of the earliest, and perhaps the most successful, of all attempts to decipher prehistoric customs by means of those now existing among barbarians, and by the marks they have left on the traditional practices of civilized nations, including ourselves. Before his time those customs were regarded as foolish, and fitted only for antiquarian trifling. In small fighting communities of barbarians, daughters are a burden; they are usually killed while infants, so there are few women to be found in a tribe who were born in it. It may sometimes happen that the community has been recently formed by warriors who have brought no women, and who, like the Romans in the old story, can supply themselves only by capturing those of neighboring tribes. The custom of capture grows; it becomes glorified because each wife is a living trophy of the captor's heroism; so marriage within the tribe comes to be considered an unmanly, and at last a shameful, act. The modem instances of this among barbarians are very numerous.

4. Australian marriages.--The following is a brief clue, and apparently a true one, to the complicated marriage restrictions among Australian bushmen, which are enforced by the penalty. of death, and which seem to be partly endogamous in origin and partly otherwise. The example is typical of those of many other tribes that differ in detail.

A and B are two tribal classes; 1 and 2 are two other and independent divisions of the tribe (which are probably by totems). Any person taken at random is equally likely to have either letter or either numeral, and his or her numeral and letter are well known to all the community. Hence the members of the tribe are subclassed into four subdivisions: A1, A2, B1, B2. The rule is that a man may marry those women only whose letter and numeral are both different from his own. Thus, A1 can marry only B2, the other three subdivisions, A1, A2, and B1, being absolutely barred to him. As to the children, there is a difference of practice in different parts: in the cases most often described, the child takes its father's letter and its mother's numeral, which determines class by paternal descent. In other cases the arrangement runs in the contrary way, or by maternal descent.

The cogency of this rule is due to custom, religion, and law, and is so strong that nearly all Australians would be horrified at the idea of breaking it. If anyone dared to do so, he would probably be clubbed to death.

Here, then, is another restriction to the freedom of marriage which might with equal propriety have been applied to the furtherance of some forms of eugenics.

5. Taboo.-- The survival of young animals largely depends on their inherent timidity, their keen sensitiveness to warnings of danger by their parents and others, and their tenacious recollection of them. It is so with human, children, who are easily terrified by nurses' tales, and thereby receive more or less durable impressions.

A vast complex of motives can be brought to bear upon the naturally susceptible minds of children, and of uneducated adults who are mentally little more than big children. The constituents of this complex are not sharply distinguishable, but they form a recognizable whole that has not yet received an appropriate name, in which religion, superstition, custom, tradition, law, and authority all have part. This group of motives will for the present purpose be entitled "immaterial," in contrast to material ones. My contention is that the experience of all ages and all nations shows that the immaterial motives are frequently far stronger than the material ones, the relative power of the two being well illustrated by the tyranny of taboo in many instances, called as it is by different names in different places. The facts relating to taboo form a voluminous literature, the full effect of which cannot be conveyed by brief summaries. It shows how, in most parts of the world, acts that are apparently insignificant have been invested with ideal importance, and how the doing of this or that has been followed by outlawry or death, and how the mere terror of having unwittingly broken a taboo may suffice to kill the man who broke it. If non-eugenic unions were prohibited by such taboos, none would take place.

6. Prohibited degrees.-- The institution of marriage, as now sanctified by religion and safeguarded by law in the more highly civilized nations, may not be ideally perfect, nor may it be universally accepted in future times, but it is the best that has hitherto been devised for the parties primarily concerned, for their children, for home life and for society. The degrees of kinship within which marriage is prohibited is, with one exception, quite in accordance with modern sentiment, the exception being the disallowal of marriage with the sister of a deceased wife, the propriety of which is greatly disputed and need not be discussed here. The marriage of a brother and sister would excite a feeling of loathing among us that seems implanted by nature, but which, further inquiry will show, has mainly arisen from tradition and custom.

We will begin by giving due weight to certain assigned motives. (1) Indifference, and even repugnance, between boys and girls, irrespectively of relationship, who have been reared in the same barbarian home. (2) Close likeness, as between the members of a thoroughbred stock, causes some sexual indifference; thus highly bred dogs lose much of their sexual desire for one another, but will rush to the arms of a mongrel. (3) Contrast is an element in sexual attraction which has not yet been discussed quantitatively. Great resemblance creates indifference, and great dissimilarity is repugnant. The maximum of attractiveness must lie somewhere between the two, at a point not yet ascertained. (4) The harm due to continued interbreeding has been considered, as I think, without sufficient warrant, to cause a presumed strong natural and instinctive repugnance to the marriage of near kin. The facts are that close and continued interbreeding invariably does harm after a few generations, but that a single cross with near kinsfolk is practically innocuous. Of course, a sense of repugnance might become correlated with any harmful practice, but there is no evidence that it is repugnance with which interbreeding is correlated, but only indifference, which is equally effective in preventing it, but quite another thing. (5) The strongest reason of all in civilized countries appears to be the earnest desire not to infringe the sanctity and freedom of the social relations of a family group, but this has nothing to do with instinctive sexual repugnance. Yet it is through the latter motive alone, so far as I can judge, that we have acquired our apparently instinctive horror of marrying within near degrees.

Next as to facts. History shows that the horror now felt so strongly did not exist in early times. Abraham married his half-sister Sarah: "she is indeed the sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife." [Gen. 20: 12.] Amram, the father of Moses and Aaron, married his aunt, his father's sister Jochabed. The Egyptians were accustomed to marry sisters. It is unnecessary to go earlier back in Egyptian history than to the Ptolemies, who, being a new dynasty, would not have dared to make the marriages they did in a conservative country, unless popular opinion allowed it. Their dynasty includes the founder, Ceraunus, who is not numbered; the numbering begins with his son Soter, and goes on to Ptolemy XIII, the second husband of Cleopatra. Leaving out her first husband, Ptolemy XII, as he was a mere boy, and taking in Ceraunus, there are thirteen Ptolemies to be considered. Between them, they contracted eleven incestuous marriages, eight with whole sisters, one with a half-sister, and two with nieces. Of course, the object was to keep the royal line pure, as was done by the ancient Peruvians. It would be tedious to follow out the laws enforced at various times and in the various states of Greece during the classical ages. Marriage was at one time permitted in Athens between half-brothers and half-sisters, and the marriage between uncle and niece was thought commendable in the time of Pericles, when it was, prompted by family considerations. In Rome the practice varied much, but there were always severe restrictions. Even in its dissolute period, public opinion was shocked by the marriage of Claudius with his niece.

A great deal more evidence could easily be adduced, but the foregoing suffices to prove that there is no instinctive repugnance felt universally by man to marriage within the prohibited degrees, but that its present strength is mainly due to what I called immaterial considerations. It is quite conceivable that a non-eugenic marriage should hereafter excite no less loathing than that of a brother and sister would do now.

7. Celibacy.--The dictates of religion in respect to the opposite duties of leading celibate lives, and of continuing families, have been contradictory. In many nations it is and has been considered a disgrace to bear no children, and in other nations celibacy has been raised to the rank of a virtue of the highest order. The ascetic character of the African portion of the early Christian church, as already remarked, introduced the merits of celibate life into its teaching. During the fifty or so generations that have elapsed since the establishment of Christianity, the nunneries and monasteries, and the celibate lives of Catholic priests, have had vast social effects, how far for good and how far for evil need not be discussed here. The point I wish to enforce is not only the potency of the religious sense in aiding or deterring marriage, but more especially the influence and authority of ministers of religion in enforcing celibacy. They have notoriously used it when aid has been invoked by members of the family on grounds that are not religious at all, but merely of family expediency. Thus, at some times and in some Christian nations, every girl who did not marry while still young was practically compelled to enter a nunnery, from which escape was afterward impossible.

It ,is easy to let the imagination run wild on the supposition of a whole-hearted acceptance of eugenics as a national religion; that is, of the thorough conviction by a nation that no worthier object exists for man than the improvement of his Own race; and when efforts as great as those by which nunneries and monasteries were endowed and maintained should be directed to fulfil an opposite purpose. I will not enter further into this. Suffice it to say that the history of conventual life affords abundant evidence, on a very large scale, of the power of religious authority in directing and withstanding the tendencies of human nature toward freedom in marriage.

Conclusion.--Seven different subjects have now been touched upon. They are monogamy, endogamy, exogamy, Australian marriages, taboo, prohibited degrees, and celibacy. It has been shown under each of these heads how powerful are the various combinations of immaterial motives upon marriage selection; how they may all become hallowed by religion, accepted as custom, and enforced by law. Persons who are born under their various rules live under them without any objection. They are unconscious of their restrictions, as we are unaware of the tension of the atmosphere. The subservience of civilized races to their several religious superstitions, customs, authority, and the rest is frequently as abject as that of barbarians. The same classes of motives that direct other races, direct ours; so a knowledge of their customs helps us to realize the wide range of what we may ourselves hereafter adopt, for reasons as satisfactory to us in those future times as theirs are or were to them at the time when they prevailed.

Reference has frequently been made to the probability of eugenics hereafter receiving the sanction of religion. It may be asked: How can it be shown that eugenics fall within the purview of our own? It cannot, any more than the duty of making provision for the future needs of oneself and family, which is a cardinal feature of modern civilization, can be deduced form the Sermon on the Mount. Religious precepts, founded on the ethics and practice of olden days, require to be reinterpreted to make them conform to the needs of progressive nations. Ours are already so far behind modern requirements that much of our practice and our profession cannot be reconciled without illegitimate casuistry. It seems to me that few things are more needed by us in England than a revision of our religion, to adapt it to the intelligence and needs of the present time. A form of it is wanted that shall be founded on reasonable bases, and enforced by reasonable hopes and fears, and that preaches honest morals in unambiguous language, which good men who take their part in the work of the world, and who know the dangers of sentimentalism, may pursue without reservation.


It was stated in the Times, January 26, 1905, that at a meeting of the Senate of the University of London, Mr. Edgar Schuster, M.A., of New College, Oxford, was appointed to the Francis Galton Research Fellowship in National Eugenics.

"Mr. Schuster will in particular carry out investigations into the history of classes and families, and deliver lectures and publish memoirs on the subjects of his investigations."

Now that this appointment has been made, it seems well to publish a suitable list of subjects for eugenic inquiry. It will be a program that binds no one, not even myself; for I have not yet had the advantage of discussing it with others, and may hereafter wish largely to revise and improve what is now provisionally sketched. The use of this paper lies in its giving a general outline of what, according to my present view, requires careful investigation, of course not all at once, but step by step, at possibly long intervals.

I. Estimation of the average quality of the offspring of married couples, from their personal and ancestral data.--This includes questions of fertility, and the determination of the "probable error" of the estimate for individuals, according to the data employed.

a) "Biographical Index to Gifted Families," modern and recent, for publication. It might be drawn up on the same principle as my "Index to Achievements of Near Kinsfolk of Some of the Fellows of the Royal Society."[See Sociological Papers, Vol. I, p. 85.] The Index refers only to facts creditable to the family, and to such of these as have already appeared in publications, which are quoted as authority for the statements. Other biographical facts that may be collected concerning these families are to be preserved for statistical use only.

b) Biographies of capable families, that do not rank as "gifted," are to be collected, and kept in manuscript, for statistical use, but with option of publication.

c) Biographies of families, which, as a whole, are distinctly below the average in health, mind, or physique, are to be collected. These include the families of persons in asylums of all kinds, hospitals, and prisons. To be kept for statistical use only.

d) Parentage and progeny of representatives of each of the social classes of the community, to determine how far each class is derived from, and contributes to, its own and the other classes. This inquiry must be carefully planned beforehand.

e) Insurance-office data. An attempt to be made to carry out the suggestions of Mr. Palin Egerton,[8 Ibid., p. 62] of obtaining material that the authorities would not object to give, and whose discussion might be advantageous to themselves as well as to eugenics. The matter is now under consideration, so more cannot be said.

II. Effects of action by the state and by public institutions.

f) Habitual criminals. Public opinion is beginning to regard with favor the project of a prolonged segregation of habitual criminals, for the purpose of restricting their opportunities for (1) continuing their depredations, and (2) producing low-class offspring. The inquiries spoken of above (see c) will measure the importance of the latter object.

g) Feeble-minded. Aid given to institutions for the feeble-minded are open to the suspicions that they may eventually promote their marriage and the production of offspring like themselves. Inquiries are needed to test the truth of this suspicion.

h) Grants toward higher education. Money spent in the higher education of those who are intellectually unable to profit by it lessens the sum available for those who can do so. It might be expected that aid systematically given on a large scale to the more capable would have considerable eugenic effect, but the subject is complex and needs investigation.

i) Indiscriminate charity, including outdoor relief. There is good reason to believe that the effects of indiscriminate charity are notably non-eugenic. This topic affords a wide field for inquiry.

III. Other influences that further or restrain particular classes of marriage.-- The instances are numerous in recent times in which social influences have restrained or furthered freedom of marriage. A judicious selection of these would be useful, and might be undertaken as time admits. I have myself just communicated to the Sociological Society a memoir entitled "Restrictions in Marriage," in which remarkable instances are given of the dominant power of religion, law, and custom. This will suggest the sort of work now in view, where less powerful influences have produced statistical effects of appreciable amount.

IV. Heredity.-- The facts, after being collected, are to be discussed, for improving our knowledge of the laws both of actuarial and of physiological heredity, the recent methods of advanced statistics being of course used. It is possible that a study of the effect on the offspring of differences in the parental qualities may prove important.

It is to be considered whether a study of Eurasians -- that is, of the descendants of Hindoo and English parents--might not be advocated in proper quarters, both on its own merits as a topic of national importance and as a test of the applicability of the Mendelian hypotheses to men. Eurasians have by this time intermarried during three consecutive generations in sufficient numbers to yield trustworthy results.

V. Literature.--A vast amount of material that bears on eugenics exists in print, much of which is valuable and should be hunted out and catalogued. Many scientific societies, medical, actuarial, and others, publish such material from time to time. The experiences of breeders of stock of all kinds, and those of horticulturists, fall within this category.

VI. Co-operation.-- After good work shall have been done and become widely recognized, the influence of eugenic students in stimulating others to contribute to their inquiries may become powerful. It is too soon to, speculate on this, but every good opportunity should be seized to further co-operation, as well as the knowledge and application of eugenics.

VII. Certificates.--In some future time, dependent on circumstances, I look forward to a suitable authority issuing eugenic certificates to candidates for them. They would imply more than an average share of the several qualities of at least goodness of constitution, of physique, and of mental capacity. Examinations upon which such certificates might be granted are already carried on, but separately; some by the medical advisers of insurance offices; some by medical men as to physical fitness for the army, navy, and Indian services; and others in the ordinary scholastic examinations. Supposing constitution, physique, and intellect to be three independent variables (which they are not), the men who rank among the upper third of each group would form only one twenty-seventh part of the population. Even allowing largely for the correlation of those qualities, it follows that a moderate severity of selection in each of a few particulars would lead to a severe all-round selection. It is not necessary to pursue this further.

The above brief memorandum does not profess to deal with more than the pressing problems in eugenics. As that science becomes better known, and the bases on which it rests are more soundly established, new problems will arise, especially such as relate to its practical application. All this must bide its time; there is no good reason to anticipate it now. Of course, useful suggestions in the present embryonic condition of eugenic study would be timely, and might prove very helpful to students.


[This section was communicated to the Sociological Society in supplement to three papers, viz.: "Eugenics: Its Definition, Scope, and Aims" (vide American Journal of Sociology, Vol. X, pp. 1-25), and the first two sections of this article.]

Eugenics strengthens the sense of social duty in so many important particulars that the conclusions derived from its study ought to find a welcome home in every tolerant religion. It promotes a far-sighted philanthropy, the acceptance of parentage as a serious responsibility, and a higher conception of patriotism. The creed of eugenics is founded upon the idea of evolution; not on a passive form of it, but on one that can to some extent direct its own course. Purely passive, or what may be styled mechanical, evolution displays the awe-inspiring spectacle of a vast eddy of organic turmoil, originating we know not how, and traveling we know not whither. It forms a continuous whole from first to last, reaching backward beyond our earliest knowledge, and stretching forward as far as we think we can foresee. But it is molded by blind and wasteful processes, namely by an extravagant production of raw material and the ruthless rejection of all that is superfluous, through the blundering steps of trial and error. The condition at each successive moment of this huge system, as it issues from the already quiet past and is about to invade the still undisturbed future, is one of violent internal commotion. Its elements are in constant flux and change, though its general form alters but slowly. In this respect it resembles the curious stream of cloud that sometimes seems attached to a mountain top during the continuance of a strong breeze; its constituents are always changing, though its shape as a whole hardly varies. Evolution is in any case a grand phantasmagoria, but it assumes an infinitely more interesting aspect under the knowledge that the intelligent action of the human will is in some small measure capable of guiding its course. Man could do this largely so far as the evolution of humanity is concerned, and he has already affected the quality and distribution of organic life so widely that the changes on the surface of the earth, merely through his disforestings and agriculture, would be recognizable from a distance as great as that of the moon.

As regards the practical side of eugenics, we need not linger to reopen the unending argument whether man possesses any creative power of will at all, or whether his will is not also predetermined by blind forces or by intelligent agencies behind the veil, and whether the belief that man can act independently is more than a mere illusion. This matters little in practice, because men, whether fatalists or not, work with equal vigor whenever they perceive they have the power to act effectively.

Eugenic belief extends the function of philanthropy to future generations; it renders its action more pervading than hitherto, by dealing with families and societies in their entirety; and it enforces the importance of the marriage covenant by directing serious attention to the probable quality of the future offspring. It sternly forbids all forms of sentimental charity that are harmful to the race, while it eagerly seeks opportunity for acts of personal kindness as some equivalent to the loss of what it for bids. It brings the tie of kinship into prominence, and strongly encourages love and interest in family and race. In brief, eugenics is a virile creed, full of hopefulness, and appealing to many of the noblest feelings of our nature?