Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Problems of the Age: 29: Heredity

Problems of the Age: 29: Heredity

By: Ardis E. Parshall - April 19, 2011

For links to other parts of this series, see this chart.

For a statement on the unofficial nature (i.e., personal interpretation for discussion purposes, not necessarily representative of church doctrine) of these lessons, see this notice.


Dealing with Religious, Social and Economic Questions and Their Solution.
A Study for the Quorums and Classes of the Melchizedek Priesthood. 1917-1918.

By Dr. Joseph M. Tanner

XXIX. – Heredity

Its Spiritual Origin. – Much time has been devoted in various social organizations throughout the Church to the discussion of heredity. It has been a subject of debate and scientific research for centuries. Around it all sorts of agreements and disagreements have been hurled, and there is today no definite science of heredity.

The greatest announcement on this subject is to be found in the Book of Genesis, where it deals with the confusion of tongues at the Tower of Babel. The language of the people was confounded and they were scattered abroad upon the earth. From that time on they represented groups of humanity, and in time races were formed out of these groups. This is the greatest law, and perhaps the only commonly recognized law of heredity in the world of thought today. Race heredity is well known; individual heredity has never been agreed upon. While men inherit certain great characteristics of their race, the same cannot be said of the inheritances individually.

We believe in a spiritual existence which we enjoyed before the creation of this earth, and that when bodies are given to us they become simply the tabernacles of a prior living spirit, with certain essential qualities of thought, feeling, and possibilities. With our primeval existence as a starting point, our views of heredity must necessarily be very different from those who look upon this world as the beginning of life. All those who consider the body and spirit as contemporaneous, naturally trace the various qualities and characteristics of life to an earthly parental origin, with the result that thinkers and writers are in hopeless confusion about the law of heredity.

We believe that the negroes constitute a group of inherited qualities, not merely qualities of their earthly parents, but qualities which existed in them before the earth was created. And so with the different races, which express distinct race peculiarities.

The confusion of tongues, therefore, at the Tower of Babel was more than the disruption of a national life and the defeat of an ambition: it was the beginning of race distinction and race distribution upon the face of the earth, – a distribution that enabled each race to receive those spirits that were characteristic of that particular group. It is equally true that we as individuals represent qualities that have come to us through our primeval existence. The question, however, of these individual inheritances is not so evident as it is in the case of general race characteristics. From the same parents a child is often born with those qualities of life which make for higher and better manhood or womanhood, and later a child that has characteristics of an opposite tendency. That difference is not explained by merely temperamental changes in the parents or changes in environment as has been abundantly proved in a wide range of experiments and observations.

Objections. – Any effort, therefore, to fix a rule of inheritance has been abortive. If we had a primeval existence, our qualities of being most depend to a large extent upon that existence, and the law of justice would seem to indicate that we were born into life with certain primeval inheritances which we were entitled to enjoy in a mortal state. Let us take a case for the advocates of a strict law of heredity: a good man marries a good wife; they have good children, and their children’s children are good; and by superior efforts and improved environments they continue, as generations go on, to grow into perfect conditions. These people, having good children who create good environments, escape the burdens, cares, anxieties and sorrows of those who have born to them children who become wayward. The good, who are able to carry a great burden, teach and practice in the highest degree the law of correct living, and have little responsibility as compared with those who are less qualified to assume the heavier burdens of life. We should thus be compelled to reverse the teachings of Christ, “Where much is given, much is expected,” and we should fly in the face of all social progress.

Illustrations. – The doctrine of our primeval existence is fundamentally one of religious belief. We believe that we were first created spiritually, that we were literally, in our spiritual creation, the “sons and daughters of God,” – that among those sons and daughters were Jesus Christ and Lucifer, who were the very antipodes of each other. How would a believer in the law of heredity explain from the standpoint of a pre-spiritual existence, the differences between Christ and Satan? An eminent writer, Samuel George Smith, in his book on Social Pathology, says:

Children born of the same parents, reared under precisely the same circumstances, differ very widely in character and conduct, so that heredity and environment combined seem unequal to the task of a complete explanation of the history of the individual. There is no doubt that heredity and environment is each influential in forming the individual, but in heredity there is as much room for variation as there are numbers in the group considered, and in environment there are such changing elements that no two individuals ever have precisely the same influences. There is a variant of organization which makes each individual of the human race absolutely unique, and without going into the metaphysics of personal choice or desire, there is an unmeasured and probably unmeasurable, variant in the attitude of every individual toward his opportunity. The problems are not easy of solution.

There is much force in the statement that “There is a variant of organization which makes each individual of the human race absolutely unique.” Such a statement goes far to support the doctrine we teach of our primeval existence. Thea attempted rule of heredity is baffling even to itself. Dr. Smith says:

Every living individual who counts back ten generations may have over a thousand grandparents. In the direct line of descent all of them must be considered in the question of his inheritance, but the thousand grandparents of a few generations back are completely lost in the social group, and it is quite evident, apart from any special theories, that whatever the inheritance of an individual may be, it is pretty difficult to give it a scientific definition.

Some of the props upon which heredity is founded are knocked away by the cold facts of history. One of the chief of these is the so-called “law of environment.” The Indians of the American continent have had perhaps the best environment in the world. Archaeology and the Book of Mormon both confirm the fact that they have retrograded from a higher to a lower stage of civilization. Environments did not create in them any progressive advance to a civilized state.

Mendelism. – Much discussion about heredity is based upon certain discoveries in the vegetable world, – the so-called laws of Mendel. Here, too, from our point of view, we are compelled to make a broad distinction. Even scientific writers are abandoning the argument that the same rules apply to life in the animal and vegetable kingdoms as apply to the life of man. It is true that all God created, if we take the account given in Genesis, was created first spiritually. Between that spiritual creation and our own, however, there is a wide difference. We are the direct creations of God – his children; he is our father, who is in Heaven. He is nowhere in Scripture designated as the Father of animals and plants. \Whatever may have been the source of their spiritual creation, or the ultimate end of plant and animal life, there is from the beginning a very distinct difference between them and the human race. It is true that there are likenesses, but there are essential differences that have never yet been bridged over. The progress of animal and human life lie along essentially different course of progress. Much has been said about Mendel’s experiments on peas and on mice. He has shown that in them there is a certain dominance of qualities; that one parent or the other may be transmitted. Quoting from Smith again:

Professor Bateson, one of the leading exponents of the doctrine of Mendel, says that there is little evidence of the transmission of abnormal characteristics, and he naively says that ‘if in the simple matter of color our population and their descendants followed rules such as those which prevail in the color of the sweet pea, of the mouse, and of the cat, the essential facts of Mendelism must long ago have been part of the common property of human knowledge.’ This shows a dawning light upon the eyes of Professor Bateson, revealing to him that the complex human animal cannot be expounded in biological terms.

Family Groups. – this law of Mendel has led to the promulgation of a new theory or law, which is called eugenics. Certain families of criminals and families of superior abilities have been studied to demonstrate the correctness of Mendel’s theory. I again quote from Dr. Smith:

The first is the study of the Jukes by R.L. Dugdale. The family in seventy-five years numbered twelve thousand persons. They cost the state a million and a quarter of dollars in these seventy-five years. They are all descended from one dissolute woman, Belle Juke. Those who have not taken the trouble to read the book or to study the problem regard this classical case as a definite proof that crime, pauperism, and other evils are clearly of an hereditary nature. But one of the most significant statements of Mr. Dugdale is, ‘the tendency of heredity is to produce an environment which perpetuates that heredity,’ or, to put it plainly, the trouble with this family was that every generation of little Jukes was taken care of by depraved Jukes. * * * * *

Dr. Lange of Denmark had given an illustration of degeneration in families. He had found that 44 related families int twenty years had sent no less than 77 patients to the insane asylum. In the same families 358 serious neurophatic cases had appeared in one form or another in a few generations, from which he argued the evil effect of the first neurophatic woman, the founder of the breed.

Further investigations revealed some strange facts about these families, for in them there appeared beside the 77 insane persons, an unusual proportion of gifted men and women. There were two cabinet ministers, one foreign ambassador, three bishops, three generals, nine university professors, and a large number of public officials, and no less than forty-four poets and artists, most of whom were known throughout Denmark. In twenty-eight of these families there were seventy-two individuals who secured very prominent positions through special intellectual ability.

Some of these cases appear to support the theory, but the exceptions are too numerous to speak of the Mendel theory as a law.

Transmitted Qualities. – Is the study of heredity profitable? Within certain limits – race qualities – it has some justification. Scientific men, by their writings, have thrown students of the subject into interminable confusion. It is legitimate enough to approach the subject of heredity from a standpoint merely of investigation. There are about its study many curious conditions of life; they invite wonderment, even study, – but they are not so fixed or so agreed upon that we are justified in speaking of certain transmitted conditions and tendencies as a law. At an earlier period in our investigations on heredity, men undertook to explain the moral and social life of nations by the law of heredity. They considered the law sufficiently established to make it a satisfactory explanation of individual phenomena. The view here taken by Dr. Smith is now quite generally admitted:

It used to be taught that a number of diseases were transmitted from generation to generation. It is now generally agreed that there is no such thing as hereditary disease in any true sense. * * * * It is now agreed that certain diseases may be conveyed to the child in its prenatal condition, or at the time of birth, and that is the only fragment left of the doctrine of hereditary disease. On the other hand, it is well-known fact that tuberculosis in the parents, because of its weakening effect, results frequently in an offspring that may become feeble-minded or insane. This is a further illustration of the general law that the chief bequest to the child of parenthood is strength or weakness.

As disease is not hereditary, so physical mutilations are not transmitted. The Chinese foot needs to be compressed generation after generation.

It is doubtful whether all that is known about laws of heredity can have any particular educational value, more than that of curiosity which comes from the study of related qualities in human life.

There are two very distinct powers that come with the birth of human life: they are the powers of acquisition and the powers of desire. We have laid stress upon the importance of the former to the neglect of the latter. We have been forced, through a false system of education, into the belief and practice that happiness and future welfare are to be measured by our acquisitions. What would often be more helpful to us is the education of our necessities, – what it is proper to desire and what we ought to avoid.

Operations of the Spirit of God. – Of those who fear God the Lord in a vision to Joseph Smith said: “For by my spirit I will enlighten them, and by my power I will make known unto them the secrets of my will; yea, even those things which the eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor yet entered into the heart of man” (Sec. 76:10, Doc. and Cov.).

The dangers of attempting to fix rules for our guidance by the theory of heredity lies in the fact that as a matter of philosophy it can give us nothing tangible about the operations of the Spirit of God. We may even be born of the Spirit. In the nature of things much of our speculations leave no room for the permanent influences which the Spirit of God has on our lives.


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