I have already given one striking instance with blindness during three generations; and Mr. Bowman remarks that this frequently occurs with cataract. With cancer there seems to be a peculiar liability to earlier inheritance: Sir J. Paget, who has particularly attended to this subject, and tabulated a large number of cases, informs me that he believes that in nine cases out of ten the later generation suffers from the disease at an earlier period than the previous generation. He adds, "In the instances in which the opposite relation holds, and the members of later generations have cancer at a later age than their predecessors, I think it will be found that the non- cancerous parents have lived to extreme old ages." So that the longevity of a non-affected parent seems to have the power of influencing the fatal period in the offspring; and we thus apparently get another element of complexity in inheritance.
The facts, showing that with certain diseases the period of inheritance occasionally or even frequently advances, are important with respect to the general descent-theory, for they render it probable that the same thing would occur with ordinary modifications of structure. The final result of a long series of such advances would be the gradual obliteration of characters proper to the embryo and larva, which would thus come to resemble more and more closely the mature parent-form. But any structure which was of service to the embryo or larva would be preserved by the destruction at this stage of growth of each individual which manifested any tendency to lose its proper character at too early an age.
Finally, from the numerous races of cultivated plants and domestic animals, in which the seeds or eggs, the young or old, differ from one another and from those of the parent-species;--from the cases in which new characters have appeared at a particular period, and afterwards been inherited at the same period;--and from what we know with respect to disease, we must believe in the truth of the great principle of inheritance at corresponding periods of life.
SUMMARY OF THE THREE PRECEDING CHAPTERS.
Strong as is the force of inheritance, it allows the incessant appearance of new characters. These, whether beneficial or injurious,--of the most trifling importance, such as a shade of colour in a flower, a coloured lock of hair, or a mere gesture,--or of the highest importance, as when affecting the brain, or an organ so perfect and complex as the eye,--or of so grave a nature as to deserve to be called a monstrosity,--or so peculiar as not to occur normally in any member of the same natural class,--are often inherited by man, by the lower animals, and plants. In numberless cases it suffices for the inheritance of a peculiarity that one parent alone should be thus characterised. Inequalities in the two sides of the body, though opposed to the law of symmetry, may be transmitted. There is ample evidence that the effects of mutilations and of accidents, especially or perhaps exclusively when followed by disease, are occasionally inherited. There can be no doubt that the evil effects of the long-continued exposure of the parent to injurious conditions are sometimes transmitted to the offspring. So it is, as we shall see in a future chapter, with the effects of the use and disuse of parts, and of mental habits. Periodical habits are likewise transmitted, but generally, as it would appear, with little force.
Hence we are led to look at inheritance as the rule, and non-inheritance as the anomaly. But this power often appears to us in our ignorance to act capriciously, transmitting a character with inexplicable strength or feebleness. The very same peculiarity, as the weeping habit of trees, silky feathers, etc., may be inherited either firmly or not at all by different members of the same group, and even by different individuals of the same species, though treated in the same manner. In this latter case we see that the power of transmission is a quality which is merely individual in its attachment.