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17 January 2012

The Man of Mystery Who Seeks the Secret of Life

The World Magazine

Editor's Note: The following article, originally published in The World Magazine in 1907, describes the work of American biologist Prof. Charles Davenport, a Harvard professor of zoology and one of the leaders of the American eugenics movement, who was director of the Cold Spring Laboratory, where he was at the time researching heredity. (Three years later he would go on to found the Eugenics Records Office, with funding from Mary Harriman, the Rockefeller family, and the Carnegie Institution.) This shows how eugenics was popularised in the United States during the early part of the 20th century. Seeing an article like this published in a mainstream magazine seems inconceivable today. However, back then the idea of improving the human race, enhancing its intellect and capacity for the good, was considered a moral obligation, while the idea of inflicting on the unborn a lifetime of deformity, disability, and disease cruel and inhumane. Scientists like Charles Davenport saw themselves as leading the next stage in human evolution—a massively important enterprise.

There is a little round house down on Long Island, a house of mystery to the natives. It is a chicken-house, but no eggs or chickens from it find their way to markets. Near it are other houses, inhabited by rabbits, guinea pigs, cats. In another house lives a tall, bearded, broad-shouldered man who is as much of a mystery to the farmers as is the little group of houses in which he spends his life.

“What does he do with the chickens and rabbits and things?” the Long Islanders ask of one another.

“Some kind of experiments,” is the vague and unsatisfactory answer.

If you ask them what kind of experiments they will shake their heads. They haven’t the faintest idea. If they were to ask the experimenter what he was doing they would get no answer. He is a taciturn man who wastes no words. And, as the natives could not understand if he were to tell them he makes no attempt to enlighten them.

This experimenters, this dweller among chickens, rabbits, cats and guinea pigs that never reach the market, is Dr. Charles Benedict Davenport, and his aggregation of strange houses near Cold Spring Harbor is called the Station for Experimental Evolution.

The Eternal Riddle of Creation

Now, what is Dr. Davenport doing with this live stock to which he devotes so much of his time? What are these mysterious experiments he is constructing so quietly and so earnestly?

He is seeking the secret of life!

He is trying to lift the veil from the great mystery of heredity.

He hopes that these fluffy yellow chickens will tell him the answer to the eternal riddle of creation.

Why did your brother William go to the bad, though born of such virtuous and respectable parents? And why, on the other hand, are you endowed with such superlative genius? Both of you had the same parents, the same environment, the same education; yet he is a disgrace to the family, while you are making its name famous. How did it come about, this tremendous difference between your character and his? It is that he inherited from some forgotten ancestor some abnormal trait that had been dormant in his parents, or is it that in him are united certain traits of his father and certain other traits of his mother which, though harmless in themselves, have in combination proved the ruin of his life? And why did not these perversities crop out in you? Are the talents which make you illustrious due to the traits conferred upon you by your parents, or are they the result of your own efforts?

Some of the readers of The Sunday World may be able to answer these questions; but not one of them, if asked to explain the WHY and the HOW of it all, could give an intelligent answer.

It is this WHY and this HOW that Prof. Davenport has placed before him, and he will not be satisfied until the chickens have told him why and the rabbits have answered his how.

If Prof. Davenport could live a thousand years he would have men and women in his experimental station: but it takes so long to rear several generations of men and women that human beings are at present out of the question as subjects for experiment. The principles of heredity are the same, however, in a man and in an oyster, in an eagle and in a guinea pig. Chickens, rabbits, and cats breed so rapidly that in the course of a few years Prof. Davenport is able to trace through several successive generations the characteristics of the parents with which he starts, noting the effects of cross-breeding, the “jumps” or “sports” that sometimes unaccountably arise. He has obtained in one year 1,500 offspring from one pair of fowls and has reared 500 of these to maturity.

The principle upon which he is working is that the characteristics of any individual—whether man or guinea pig—are derived almost solely from inheritance; environment having only a modifying influence. This theory, which has been accepted by most naturalists for many years, Prof. Davenport’s experiments have proven correct.

While a member of the faculty of Harvard and later of Chicago University, Dr. Davenport returned each summer to his home at Cold Spring Harbor overlooking Long Island Sound. He made but little effort to meet his neighbors, and after the first year or two they ceased to wonder at the man who seemed to prefer the company of his birds, his chickens, cats, rabbits, vegetables and flowers to theirs.

Three years ago Dr. Davenport had carried his study of life as far as the time he could spare from his university work would permit. He had made only a beginning, but the possibility ahead seemed to him to be limitless. He determined then and there to devote all the remainder of his years to the study of life.

Lessons Learned from Lower Animals

With no more facilities at the start than the rude houses a farmer builds to house his chickens and his livestock, Dr. Davenport accomplished wonders. So remarkable were the reports he made that the Carnegie Institution at Washington appropriated money to build a modern laboratory on the shores of Long Island Sound in order that he might better carry on the work.

The Carnegie Laboratory had scarcely been started, however, before the widow of a wealthy resident of Long Island gave the money needed to erect a complete biological hall for Dr. Davenport. Both laboratory and the hall will be completed and opened this spring.

Tall, well above the average height, his broad shoulders, massive back and mighty arms give Dr. Davenport the appearance of a man of great strength, an athlete. There is little to denote the student and scientist till one sees his eyes: dark and deep set, they seem to see everything, even to the minutest details. A heavy mass of hair covers his head and his face bears a heavy beard.

Thus far he has made no effort to collect and arrange the laws and rules that govern heredity. What he may do in the future he will not say, but the possibilities in the experiments he is conducting are infinite.

“If we are to study the human organism we first must study that of the lower order of animals,” says Dr. Davenport.

No chemical experiments were ever made with greater care than attends the experiments conducted by Dr. Davenport with his chickens and cats. If in these lower orders of animal life he could trace through successive generations markings and traits that are common and characteristic, and if through this observation he could establish the laws that govern such matters, Dr. Davenport believes he would be on the road to solving the secret of heredity.

It is in a most unscientific-looking building that Dr. Davenport has thus far carried on his experiments with his chickens. Built some distance from the site of the new laboratory, the chicken-house is circular and subdivided into many compartments. In each of these is a rooster and one or more hens. Attached to the leg of each hen is a brass tag, with a number on it, to identify her. When she goes to lay and egg in one of the nests a trap springs and she cannot escape until somebody comes to release her. Then here number is written on the shell of the egg with the date of laying and it is put aside.

The eggs are hatched in incubators, each of which is provided with what the experiments call a “pedigree tray,” divided into many small compartments, in each of which are put the eggs on one hen. The compartment in each case bears the same number as the hen, so that there can be no question of the parentage of the chickens hatched. As soon as each chick emerges from the shell, and is removed from the pedigree tray, a brass tag with a number is attached to its leg.

The individual chick represents only one link in the chain of generations, which are duly recorded in the breeding books of the Evolution Station, which are illustrated with photographs.

The secret has been to ascertain the result of crossing, not breeds of chickens, but characteristics. A “rose” comb is a characteristic; another is whiskers on the feet. These are matters of utmost importance, because characteristic, as Dr. Davenport says, is the “unit of evolution”.

Once in a while it happens that some change occurs in the substance of the germ cell from which a creature, animal or vegetable, springs. This gives rise to an entirely new characteristic—a “jump,” as Dr. Davenport calls it. Breeders would term it a “sport”.

“Evolution proceeds by such jumps,” says Dr. Davenport. “Every jump means a characteristic gained—a new trait. When, in the evolution of a race, a new characteristic is added, it is a step ahead. When a characteristic drops out, it is a step backward.

Now, the experiments made at the Evolution Station, so far as they have gone, appear to show that in all kinds of creatures, including human beings, characteristics are reluctant to blend. These dominant traits, as they are commonly called, persist to an extraordinary extent. A good illustration in point is afforded by the famous “Hapsburg lip,” which in that reigning family persisted from the fifteenth century to the present day. During that period the Hapsburgs have been constantly intermarrying with outsiders, but the peculiarly formed lip has held on.

The chemist, in his every day business, makes various kinds of molecules by a proper admixture of atoms. Similarly, suggests Dr. Davenport, we may be able, when more is know about such matters, to mix and arrange characteristics in the breeding of animals so as to meet the certainty despite requirements. It is a hope fraught with wonderful possibilities; and its bearing upon the problems concerned in the propagation of race horses, cattle, sheep, dogs and other creatures useful to man is too obvious to require emphasizing.

Dr. Davenport says that new characteristics, when once developed, are reluctant from the first to blend, and hence are likely to be preserved and perpetuated. They tend to remain, as they began, distinct units of evolution, not to be easily obliterated.

A modern chicken, says Dr. Davenport, is a structure built up out of such accidental variations—each one of them a “sport,” or “jump,” perpetuated by breeding. By this means (utmost pains being taken to preserve and make the most of every new and desirable characteristic) all of the many widely differentiated strains of poultry have been developed, through control of matings, from the original “jungle fowl” of Southern Asia—a reddish brown bird, known to science as Gallus bankiva, which somewhat resembles the ordinary game chicken in general appearance.

To quote, in conclusion, one more utterance on this interesting subject by the experts of the Evolution Station, it is declared to be a matter of easy proof that a female peculiarity may be transmited through a son or to a granddaughter. This at first may seem rather a strange idea; but every breeder knows that a rooster which is the offspring of a fine layer will hand down the laying ability to the pullets of his “get”; and the same rule appears to the bull that is the progeny of a productive “milker”.

Unquestionably the law works equally well the opposite way, and a women in whose family the men have a tendency to baldness is likely to bequeath this predisposition to her sons, even though she and her daughters are gifted with luxuriant tresses.

Moulding the Man of the Future

Of the statistical study of evolution, the work that he is doing now, Dr. Davenport wrote recently:

We shall get possession of the laws of evolution so that we can not only reconstruct the past, but also predict the future development of the race.

The importance of knowing the methods of evolution is partly theoretical, like the importance of astronomical investigation, and partly practical. For, on the one hand, a rapid and thorough-going improvement of the human race can probably be effected only by understanding and applying these methods; and, on the other hand, the improvement of live stock and of food plants must depend on a knowledge of the laws of phylogenesis.

How appalling is our ignorance, for example, concerning the effect of mixing races as contrasted with pure breeding; a matter of infinite importance in a country like ours containing numerous races and subspecies of men. How little do we know of the direct effect of climate on “blood;” a matter of concern in a land of such diversified geography. In our fast-filling earth all problems will some day be secondary to that of raising more grain or beef to the acre; then at the least the biologic evolutionary problems will be recognized as paramount. It is for us to anticipate in part the future demands of biology. The State experiment stations of our day are doing something in this direction, but for the most part in too narrow a fashion. For the future, broad, far-reaching experiments in evolution are required, with a quantitative study of causes and results.

And it is this work the quiet, noncommunicative man of Cold Spring Harbor is doing. In a far-reaching way he is studying the laws that have resulted not only in his own being but in the existence of every one else.

That he will ever be able to determined the laws that will permit him to make the man of the future what he wills, he admits he does not know, but that he will be able to predict and prophecy the character and style of the men of future generations he honestly believes.

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