Hormones, Heredity, and Race: Spectacular Failure in Interwar Vienna

Hormones, Heredity, and Race: Spectacular Failure in Interwar Vienna

Hormones, Heredity, and Race: Spectacular Failure in Interwar Vienna

Hormones, Heredity, and Race: Spectacular Failure in Interwar Vienna


Early in the twentieth century, arguments about "nature" and "nurture" pitted a rigid genetic determinism against the idea that genes were flexible and open to environmental change. This book tells the story of three Viennese biologists--Paul Kammerer, Julius Tandler, and Eugen Steinach--who sought to show how the environment could shape heredity through the impact of hormones. It also explores the dynamic of failure through both scientific and social lenses. During World War I, the three men were well respected scientists; by 1934, one was dead by his own hand, another was in exile, and the third was subject to ridicule.

Paul Kammerer had spent years gathering zoological evidence on whether environmental change could alter heredity, using his research as the scientific foundation for a new kind of eugenics--one that challenged the racism growing in mainstream eugenics. By 1918, he drew on the pioneering research of two colleagues who studied how secretions shaped sexual attributes to argue that hormones could alter genes. After 1920, Julius Tandler employed a similar concept to restore the health and well-being of Vienna's war-weary citizens. Both men rejected the rigidly acting genes of the new genetics and instead crafted a biology of flexible heredity to justify eugenic reforms that respected human rights. But the interplay of science and personality with the social and political rise of fascism and with antisemitism undermined their ideas, leading to their spectacular failure.


Nature and nurture were pitted against one another for most of the twentieth century. in the minds of many, they still are. Is an attribute learned or instinctive? Or is it a mix, more learned or far more hereditary? This kind of separated partitioning was, however, not prominent at the beginning of the century. At that time, many important thinkers still accepted the long-held idea that persistent changes in the environment could alter the nature of heredity, so that an individual developed under the influence of heredity that was molded by his or her environment. There could even be several kinds of heredity, some of which were especially amenable to environmental change. These thinkers fused heredity and the environment in a way that made the question of which contributed more to a trait either irrelevant or meaningless.

Scientific debates on the issue began in earnest in the 1880s with the ideas of the German zoologist August Weismann and the rise of the new genetics. These debates turned on one of the most contentious concepts in the study of heredity in the early twentieth century: the issue of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Can offspring inherit as hereditary attributes that their parents have acquired? Weismann denied it. This book tells the story of three Austrian scientists who challenged Weismann and, in the years around World War I, proposed a modern explanation of how the inheritance of acquired characteristics might occur. They believed that hormones were the key. Through hormones, individual adaptations—acquired adjustments that improved life in one generation—could, once entrenched via exercise or practice, become hereditary in subsequent generations. the sex hormones, the three men argued, were especially likely to mediate these environmental changes in heredity.

Weismann had proposed that the hereditary material (then called the “germ-plasm”) was isolated and sequestered. It lay hidden deep within “germ”

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