The Pre-Natal Culture Dogma

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Francis D. Tandy

Public Library, Denver, Colo.

The theory that the condition of the mother exerts much influence upon the character of her unborn offspring is very plausible. Had it not been so, it would never have gained the number of believers it has had in widely scattered places and in many different times. But something more than plausibility is needed in this age of scientific inquiry. A good measure of proof is demanded of all the theories which clamor for recognition.

In support of their theory, the believers in pre-natal culture offer a large number of cases, in which certain influences having been brought to bear upon the mother, the child has manifested characteristics corresponding to those influences. To base a theory upon this kind of evidence—the fact of two events happening in sequence—is one of the gravest logical fallacies. When one event happens after another, the first may or may not be the cause of the second. Even the fact that they frequently happen in sequence is not sufficient evidence. The connection between the two events must be demonstrated. Even then, a single instance in which the sequence is not maintained will be sufficient to invalidate the generalization. The observance of these conditions is all that separates science from superstition.

In past times it was observed that shortly after a certain old woman looked at a beautiful young girl, the latter fell sick and died. Similar events had been noticed before in connection with the same old woman, and so she was burnt as witch. We regard this as superstition. Why? Simply because the connection between the "witch" looking at the girl and the death of the latter is not demonstrated. This point is of vital importance in all correct reasoning. You may produce a thousand, a million, or even ten million sequences and any generalization made from them will be valueless, unless the connection between the events of each sequence can be fairly well traced. This is the weak point in the theory of pre-natal culture.

The Darwinian theory of evolution is accepted to-day by practically everybody. Even theologians are forced to accept its main propositions. But the followers of Darwin are divided upon the point of whether acquired characteristics are transmitted to offspring or not. That innate characteristics are so transmitted is held by both sides. The question is whether the result of a whole lifetime devoted to the cultivation of certain faculties, has even the smallest tendency to affect the character of the offspring. If this question is open in regard to the effect of one generation, it is unsettled in regard to the effect of innumerable generations. In fact, the disputants on both sides are quoting cases involving thousands of generations, in support of their arguments. So the question really is, does the acquired culture of innumerable generations have any effect upon offspring? When such a question as this is in dispute, it is hard to give the question of pre-natal culture any consideration whatsoever. When the theory of use inheritance is proven—if it ever is—the question of the effect of a few months culture upon human offspring may be better worthy of consideration.

But even if these general considerations be overlooked, the possibility of pre-natal culture is by no means proven. Psychologists are agreed that the mind of a child is but very poorly developed at the birth. The first time a sensation is received, it leaves but a very slight impression upon the brain. As it is repeated it becomes more fully known and classified. One sensation offers a basis of comparison with other sensations and gradually the sphere of knowledge is widened. At one month of age very few babies can distinguish between two objects. At two months a certain amount of power of distinction is common. The experience of sensations received during the first month and during the pre-natal period, merely offers a basis for comparison with subsequent experience. It is not sufficient of itself to enable a baby to distinguish between two objects. From this degree of intelligence— or rather, almost absence of intelligence—deduct the experience that has been gained from sensations received during the month of life, and the mental-development of the child at birth is what is left.

It may almost be said that at birth the child's mind is absolutely blank. In fact the development of the brain would lead to such a conclusion. "According to S. van der Kolk and Vrolik it appears that in their relative proportions, the lobes of the brain in a new born child hold just the mean between those of a chimpanzee and an adult man. In the adult orang, however, the same proportion obtains between its different lobes and those of a new born child"<ref>Periz First Three Years of Childhood, p. 5.</ref> Before birth, then, the brain of the embryo must be of a lower stage of development than that of an adult orang. In the earlier periods of the life of the embryo lower and still lower stages of mental development are found. Before birth, therefore, the child is so poorly equipped mentally that it can hardly make any use of such impressions as it receives. Furthermore certain physiological causes prevent it from receiving nearly all impressions. It is surrounded by a fluid, which deadens to a very great extent anything which might otherwise 'produce a sensation. A sense of pressure, either from a sudden blow or from steady impact, a certain degree of heat or cold, these are about the only impressions which it can receive from without. Even these sensations are robbed of whatever educational effect they might otherwise possess by the low mental development of the subject.

Passing through the fluid which surrounds the embryo is a cord which unites the child to its mother. This is practically the only channel through which subtle mental changes could be conveyed. But, as far as is known, thought is a form of nervous action and cannot be communicated in any other manner than by nervous activity. There are a few nerves at each end of this cord, but for over three feet of its length there is not a nerve in it. It is made up of blood vessels and delicate connective tissue, through which the blood of the mother passes to nourish the child and no thought or intelligence can be communicated through it.

The fact that the embryo receives its nourishment, in the form of pure arterial blood, directly from its mother, establishes a very close connection between them. Anything that effects the health of the mother is very likely to effect the quantity or quality of the blood supplied to the offspring. So sickness or lack of nourishment in the mother is liable to produce sickness or lack of nourishment in the offspring. In the same way, any disease from which the mother suffers is very likely to be transmitted in her blood to the child. Any of these causes may retard the proper physical development of the child and, in turn, may react upon its mental development. Keep the mother healthy and her blood-state good, and the child will receive proper nourishment, and, in consequence, will develop as it should. If the mother is morose, sickly or fretful, the chances are that the embryo will not receive sufficient nourishment and it will be born into the world, a puny, sickly and, consequently, fretful child. In such a case, it is not that the child inherits the mother's fretfulness, but rather that it suffers from its mother's indigestion. These effects may usually be largely, if not wholly, counteracted by subsequent hygienic treatment.

This much truth there is then in the pre-natal culture theory; that if the mother be kept in good health, other things being favorable, the embryo will be properly nourished and will develop into a healthy child; that if these conditions be not observed the mental and physical development of the child will probably suffer. But this is very far from the theory of those who claim that the mental condition of the mother, for at most a few months, produces well-nigh overwhelming powerful tendencies in her offspring.

In spite of all these reasons for their lack of faith, those who do not believe in pre-natal culture are perpetually asked to explain this phenomenon or that. It is not incumbent upon the supporters of the negative position to explain such things. They have done their work when they have overthrown the arguments of the affirmative. This is another law of reasoning which is perpetually overlooked in popular discussions. The whole burden of proof and the difficulty of explaining the universe are constantly being thrust upon the negative. Explanations are asked for all kinds of things, and most of them are inexplicable. Prof. Huxley used to say that the one great need of the evolutionary doctrine was an adequate theory of variation. Why one son of certain parents should be a poet and another a sculptor, we do not know. What we do know, is the fact that their mother read poetry before one was born and studied sculpture before the birth of the second, could not have been the cause of the characteristics. The same may be said in regard to birthmarks. The theory that these marks are caused by some unsatisfied longing of the mother, is almost too absurd for serious consideration. We know that a certain amount of variation exists in all species, the human race included. When that variation takes certain peculiar directions, the uneducated mind immediately jumps at a cause for it. If the variation is of such a nature that it reminds the mother of a certain incident of her pregnancy or a certain unsatisfied longing she had, she immediately magnifies that longing or that incident and all the other countless longings, to which pregnant women are subject, and innumerable other incidents are forgotten and the one in question is proclaimed as the cause of the variation.

The literature of the world has been ransacked for evidence of the truth of prenatal culture. Even the bible has not escaped. Men and women who repudiate its authority on every other point, suddenly discover in the story of Laban's cattle, a divine inspiration for the guidance of man. If they would but look around and see the whole mountains of evidence opposed to their theory.which goes unnoticed from its very abundance, they would assume a more modest tone.

Note—Mr. Tandy wishes to disclaim any intention of instructing the medical profession in physiology. This article was written as a popular refutation of a popular superstition.


Source: Francis D Tandy, “The Pre-Natal Culture Dogma,” The Colorado Medical Journal 3, no. 10 (October 1897): 377-381.