The Living Age, October 1939
‘Ah,’ said a friend to me, after studying a photograph of the Ascots races, ‘if we only bred human beings with as much care as we breed horses, what a difference it would make! In a few generations men and women would become almost as well worth looking at as horses.’ It was not an original thought. If I remember right, Mr. Shaw once wrote in favor of improving the breed of human beings on the lines followed by the great racehorse owners. Certainly the horse is a powerful argument for the necessity of a sound, even a brilliant, ancestry. When a horse wins the Derby, the experts can usually produce a pedigree, showing that he comes of stock which has produced horses of genius for half-a-dozen or more generations.
Whether human beings could be bred in such a way as to insure the transmission of great gifts from one generation to another is a question to which I do not know the answer. Few men of genius seem to have been a great success as fathers. None of the great English poets has had a son who was a great poet. This is no argument against the importance of breeding, for the mates of men of genius are not chosen as carefully as the mates of racehorses. The breed of racehorses would quickly degenerate if as little regard were paid to the choice of a brilliant mate as is often the case in human marriage. It is, perhaps, because of this carelessness in the choice of wives that so few families are conspicuous for great talents in succeeding generations.
There has never been a family, for example, in which literary talent was hereditary for so long a period as musical talent was hereditary in the family of the Bachs. I took up the Encyclopedia to find out how long this period was, and I learned that ‘the Bach family was of importance in the history of music for nearly two hundred years.’ It seems to have begun with Veit Bach in the sixteenth century, a baker and miller, ‘whose zither,’ it is said, ‘must have sounded very pretty among the clatter of the mill wheels.’ His son became a professional musician, and his grandson had two sons who ‘are among the greatest of J. S. Bach’s forerunners.’ Another grandson was the grandfather of the great Bach. Of the family as a whole we are told that ‘though all the misery of the peasantry at the period of the Thirty Years’ War this clan maintained its position and produced musicians who, however local their fame, were among the greatest in Europe. So numerous and so eminent were they that in Erfurt musicians were known as “Bachs,” even when there were no longer any members of the family in the town.’ Of Bach’s own sons, moreover, five became musicians—surely the most remarkable instance of inherited talent on record.
It is possible, but not probable, that the Bachs were more than usually wise in their choice of wives. It is also possible that succeeding generations adopted music as their profession, not merely as a result of inherited talent, but because of the musical environment in which they grew up. Still, many families have grown up in a musical environment without producing a breed of Bachs. The sons of great poets are commonly brought up in a bookish environment, but few, if any, of them have written great literature.
There are some people who maintain that, though talent may be hereditary, genius is not. Clever parents produce clever children, they say, but genius seems to exhaust something in the stock; and, when a man of genius appears, his descendants are likely to be no abler than the children of ordinary men. I doubt generalizations of this kind. It is clear enough that genius of a particular kind cannot be transmitted; but it is probable that, in the family of a man of genius as well as in the family of a man of talent, great abilities can. Still, even among researchers, however carefully the parents are chosen, there is no certainty of the transmission of talent. Again and again we hear of a rich man or woman spending thousands of pounds on a beautifully bred yearling only to discover that the animal is not worth its keep. On the whole, however, so far as I have been able to discover, the theory of breeding for quality works out admirably in the world of horses. If human beings were horses, I should be in favor of it for them, too.
My friend who drew morals from the Ascot photograph, however, might have gone on to point out that breeding is not enough, that training is also important, and to have asked whether human beings are as carefully trained as horses. In some cases, no doubt, they are; but in many cases, it is probable, much less regard is paid during training to the individuality of the horse.
I speak as an ignoramus, but I have been told that there are horses that must be allowed to run their own kind of race, and that are almost certain to lose if a determined jockey tried to impose his will on them. Other horses—so I have been told—cease to race if they are allowed to get in front too soon, and others like to be in front all the way. Some respond at a crisis to the whip; some the whip merely makes stubborn. There are horses that lack courage when overtaken, and other horses whom a challenge near the winning-post inspires to redoubled efforts. All such things the trainer has to take into account, and it is only by taking them into account that he earns the title ‘wizard’ in the sporting press.
The principles of horse-training are applied to the education of human beings today much more widely than they used to be. Imagine what a difference it would have made, when Shelley was at Eton, if there had been a master as wise in the art of training as Fred Darling or Joe Lawson. On the other hand, since human beings are not horses, I wonder whether Shelley would have been a better poet as a result. It is possible that a conventional education against which he rebels may be the best education for a poet. His individuality becomes stronger because of its struggle for existence against a system that tries to reduce it to a commo measure. I doubt whether any poet’s genius would benefit if he were trained by schoolmasters and professors for a poetic career as carefully as a horse is trained for the Derby. The human being, I fancy, is by nature more rebellious than the horse; and it may be that poets are most fortunate when in early life they are encouraged only by their friends and discouraged by nearly everybody else.
The more I think of Ascot, indeed, the most doubtful I become that if can teach us anything of human beings. After all, in a democratic country a human being is brought up to be partly free, whereas in all countries a horse is brought up to be largely a slave.
Almost all systems of education, it seems to me, produce excellent human beings. I dislike boarding schools in theory, but how admirable a type of citizen often emerges from them! If we knew as much about horses, we might devise an ideal system of education. But we do not. That is why, though the trained horse is always better than the untrained horse, the untrained human being is occasionally better than the trained human being. It is also why you will never have at Ascot human beings as perfect in their way as the horses on which they lose their money.