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Are We A Dying Race?
It is the prevailing fashion at the present time, as it has perhaps been in all previous times, for men to congratulate themselves upon their superiority over their predecessors. That the present generation is superior to all others in its wealth of knowledge is, without doubt, true. It could scarcely be otherwise, since knowledge is naturally cumulative by inheritance. Libraries are inherited, as are horses, lands, and bank accounts. Observation shows that intelligence is transmitted in like manner; and there is abundant reason to believe that health, endurance, and longevity might be increased by the same method of natural accretion.
The practical question to which I wish to call attention is this: While we are evidently growing wealthier and wiser, are we growing stronger or weaker? "Weaker and wiser" the adage runs, and unfortunately the facts sustain the popular impression. Notwithstanding our marvelous accumulations of wealth and wisdom, we are certainly going down physically toward race extinction. This assertion will doubtless appear in the highest degree reckless, and perhaps absurd, in view of the well-known fact that the average length of human life has been doubled within the last two centuries, as is clearly shown by reliable vital statistics. In defense of the position taken, it may be said that vital statistics are not the true measure of the constitutional vigor of the race; the average length of life does not represent the vital capacity of the race. The true measure of vital endurance is not the average longevity, but the number of individuals per thousand or million who attain great age.
Another measure of racial vigor is the power to resist degenerative changes in the individual, as shown by the number of organic diseases; that is, such maladies as result from tissue degeneration. The fact that the average length of life in the city of Geneva two hundred years ago was only about twenty years, while at the present time, in civilized countries, the average longevity is more than forty years, does not indicate that the vigor of the race has doubled. The sole indication is that a sufficient number of persons have been kept alive to double the average.
Sanitarians pride themselves in having saved millions of lives, thus doubling the average length of human existence; and the credit claimed for sanitary science is justly its due. Nevertheless, we must not see in this great increase in the average length of human life an indication that by a continuation of the same method human longevity may be indefinitely or even very greatly increased. Sanitary science is practically a modern innovation. Two hundred years ago artificial means for limiting the natural operation of epidemics, plagues, and pestilences were almost altogether unknown, and consequently these death-dealing agencies operated as a means of natural selection, -- a weeding out of weak, weazened, puny, constitutionally tainted, and feebly resistant individuals, and a keeping alive of the strong, vigorous, pure-blooded, strong-lunged.
When cholera invades a community, although all may be exposed, not all suffer from the disease. The same is true of typhoid fever and similar maladies. The man who has a sound stomach is able to digest cholera germs as well as other vegetables; thus they are rendered incapable of doing him harm. The gastric juice of a healthy man readily destroys typhoid fever germs, and, in fact, germs of every description. The man whose liver is sound, whose hepatic vigor has not been consumed in the disinfection of the blood rendered impure by the absorption of poisons from infected food or the decomposing contents of an overloaded stomach and bowels, is able to combat successfully the poisons generated within the body by the invading microbes of typhoid or yellow fever or malignant malarial parasites, and so to bring the possessor of such a well-kept liver safely through the vital cyclone which we denominate cholera, typhoid fever, or a pernicious malarial attack; whereas the man whose liver has been spoiled by whisky, tobacco, gormandizing, excessive consumption of effete meats, or blistering condiments, succumbs to the onslaught of these disease germs, which would be powerless to injure a perfectly sound man, or one whose vital organs had been maintained measurably intact.
The plagues and pestilences of the Middle Ages acted as a measure of securing the "survival of the fittest," the result of which was a race of men many of whom were capable of living to more than three times the present average span of human existence, -- a fact which is partly obscured by the low average length of life. But this low average was simply the natural result of a high death-rate due to pestilence, which sometimes carried off millions in a single year, and actually depopulated whole cities and provinces; while at the present day sanitary science has shown us how to hold at bay such death-dealing agencies as cholera, yellow fever, smallpox, and other epidemic disorders which are found knocking at the door of our seaports almost weekly, by the erection of a sanitary cordon. The same principle applies to such maladies as scarlet fever, diphtheria, measles, and we may also say pulmonary tuberculosis, or consumption, although the latter has as yet been only to a small degree brought within the pale of sanitary restrictions.