Unnatural Selection by August Strindberg


The Baron had read in The Slaves of Life with disgust and indignation that the children of the aristocracy were bound to perish unless they took the mothers’ milk from the children of the lower classes. He had read Darwin and believed that the gist of his teaching was that through selection the children of the aristocracy had come to be more highly developed representatives of the genus “Man.” But the doctrine of heredity made him look upon the employment of a foster-mother with aversion; for might not, with the blood of the lower classes, certain conceptions, ideas and desires be introduced and propagated in the aristocratic nursling? He was therefore determined that his wife should nurse her baby herself, and if she should prove incapable of doing so, the child should be brought up with the bottle. He had a right to the cows’ milk, for they fed on his hay; without it they would starve, or would not have come into existence at all. The baby was born. It was a son! The father had been somewhat anxious before he became certain of his wife’s condition, for he was, personally, a poor man; his wife, on the other hand, was very wealthy, but he had no claim to her fortune unless their union was blest with a legal heir, (in accordance with the law of entail chap. 00 par. 00). His joy was therefore great and genuine. The baby was a transparent little thoroughbred, with blue veins shining through his waxen skin. Nevertheless his blood was poor. His mother who possessed the figure of an angel, was brought up on choice food, protected by rich furs from all the eccentricities of the climate, and had that aristocratic pallor which denotes the woman of noble descent.

She nursed the baby herself. There was consequently no need to become indebted to peasant women for the privilege of enjoying life on this planet. Nothing but fables, all he had read about it! The baby sucked and screamed for a fortnight. But all babies scream. It meant nothing. But it lost flesh. It became terribly emaciated. The doctor was sent for. He had a private conversation with the father, during which he declared that the baby would die if the Baroness continued to nurse him, because she was firstly too highly strung, and secondly had nothing with which to feed him. He took the trouble to make a quantitative analysis of the milk, and proved (by equations) that the child was bound to starve unless there was a change in the method of his feeding.

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What was to be done? On no account could the baby be allowed to die.

Bottle or foster mother? The latter was out of the question. Let us try the bottle! The doctor, however, prescribed a foster mother.

The best Dutch cow, which had received the gold medal for the district, was isolated and fed with hay; with dry hay of the finest quality. The doctor analysed the milk, everything was all right. How simple the system was! How strange that they had not thought of it before! After all, one need not engage a foster mother a tyrant before whom one had to cringe, a loafer one had to fatten; not to mention the fact that she might have an infectious disease.

But the baby continued to lose flesh and to scream. It screamed night and day. There was no doubt it suffered from colic. A new cow was procured and a fresh analysis made. The milk was mixed with Karlsbad water, genuine Sprudel, but the baby went on screaming.

“There’s no remedy but to engage a foster mother,” said the doctor.

“Oh! anything but that! One did not want to rob other children, it was against nature, and, moreover, what about heredity?”

When the Baron began to talk of things natural and unnatural, the doctor explained to him that if nature were allowed her own way, all noble families would die out and their estates fall to the crown. This was the wisdom of nature, and human civilization was nothing but a foolish struggle against nature, in which man was bound to be beaten. The Baron’s race was doomed; this was proved by the fact that his wife was unable to feed the fruit of her womb; in order to live they were bound to buy or steal the milk of other women. Consequently the race lived on robbery, down to the smallest detail.

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“Could the purchase of the milk be called robbery? The purchase of it!”

“Yes, because the money with which it was bought was produced by labour. Whose labour? The people’s! For the aristocracy didn’t work.”

“The doctor was a socialist!”

“No, a follower of Darwin. However, he didn’t care in the least if they called him a socialist. It made no difference to him.”

“But surely, purchase was not robbery! That was too strong a word!”

“Well, but if one paid with money one hadn’t earned!”

“That was to say, earned by manual labour?”


“But in that case the doctor was a robber too!”

“Quite so! Nevertheless he would not hold back with the truth! Didn’t the Baron remember the repenting thief who had spoken such true words?”

The conversation was interrupted; the Baron sent for a famous professor. The latter called him a murderer straight out, because he had not engaged a nurse long ago.

The Baron had to persuade his wife. He had to retract all his former arguments and emphasize the one simple fact, namely, the love for his child, (regulated by the law of entail).

But where was a foster mother to come from? It was no use thinking of looking for one in town, for there all people were corrupt. No, it would have to be a country girl. But the Baroness objected to a girl because, she argued, a girl with a baby was an immoral person; and her son might contract a hereditary tendency.

The doctor retorted that all foster mothers were unmarried women and that if the young Baron inherited from her a preference for the other sex, he would grow into a good fellow; tendencies of that sort ought to be encouraged. It was not likely that any of the farmers’ wives would accept the position, because a farmer who owned land, would certainly prefer to keep his wife and children with him.

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“But supposing they married a girl to a farm labourer?”

“It would mean a delay of nine months.”

“But supposing they found a husband for a girl who had a baby?”

“That wasn’t a bad idea!”

The Baron knew a girl who had a baby just three months old. He knew her only too well, for he had been engaged for three years and had been unfaithful to his fiancee by “doctor’s orders.” He went to her himself and made his suggestion. She should have a farm of her own if she would consent to marry Anders, a farm labourer, and come to the Manor as foster mother to the young Baron. Well, was it strange that she should accept the proffered settlement in preference to her bearing her disgrace alone? It was arranged there and then that on the following Sunday the banns should be read for the first, second and third time, and that Anders should go home to his own village for two months.

The Baron looked at her baby with a strange feeling of envy. He was a big, strong boy. He was not beautiful, but he looked like a guarantee of many generations to come. The child was born to live but it was not his fate to fulfil his destination.

Anna wept when he was taken to the orphanage, but the good food at the Manor (her dinner was sent up to her from the dining-room, and she had as much porter and wine as she wanted) consoled her. She was also allowed to go out driving in the big carriage, with a footman by the side of the coachman. And she read A Thousand and One Nights. Never in all her life had she been so well off.

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After an absence of two months Anders returned. He had done nothing but eat, drink, and rest. He took possession of the farm, but he also wanted his Anna. Couldn’t she, at least, come and see him sometimes? No, the Baroness objected. No nonsense of that sort!

Anna lost flesh and the little Baron screamed. The doctor was consulted.

“Let her go and see her husband,” he said.

“But supposing it did the baby harm?”

“It won’t!”

But Anders must be “analysed” first. Anders objected.

Anders received a present of a few sheep and was “analysed.”

The little Baron stopped screaming.

But now news came from the orphanage that Anna’s boy had died of diphtheria.

Anna fretted, and the little Baron screamed louder than ever. She was discharged and sent back to Anders and a new foster mother was engaged.

Anders was glad to have his wife with him at last, but she had contracted expensive habits. She couldn’t drink Brazilian coffee, for instance, it had to be Java. And her health did not permit her to eat fish six times a week, nor could she work in the fields. Food at the farm grew scarce.

Anders would have been obliged to give up the farm after twelve months, but the Baron had a kindly feeling for him and allowed him to stay on as a tenant.

Anna worked daily at the Manor and frequently saw the little Baron; but he did not recognise her and it was just as well that he did not. And yet he had lain at her breast! And she had saved his life by sacrificing the life of her own child. But she was prolific and had several sons, who grew up and were labourers and railway men; one of them was a convict.

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But the old Baron looked forward with anxiety to the day on which his son should marry and have children in his turn. He did not look strong! He would have been far more reassured if the other little Baron, the one who had died at the orphanage, had been the heir to the estates. And when he read The Slaves of Life a second time, he had to admit that the upper classes live at the mercy of the lower classes, and when he read Darwin again he could not deny that natural selection, in our time, was anything but natural. But facts were facts and remained unalterable, in spite of all the doctor and the socialists might say to the contrary.

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