Peckham Experiment 13 The Birth of a Family


So, as we watch the moving scene, we see emerging from the more amorphous crowd pairs of young courting couples. Immediately their marriage is decided upon, if one or both are members, then both have the privilege of complete overhaul followed by a joint consultation in which the engaged couple and the man and the woman biologist who have examined them, all take part. This pre-marital or first ‘family consultation’ follows the same lines as any other family consultation, and the subsequent talk has a topical bearing upon the stage of development of the pair. As individuals they, like tadpoles, have been in a ‘larval’ phase from which they are about to emerge. Already step by ;step through their courtship each has begun to develop, and they are now ready to complete their metamorphosis becoming a complete organism.—a ‘family’. And this is no intangible ‘spiritual union’; it is a biological reality, seated deep in the physiology of both man and woman who throughout their courtship have little by little been influencing each other by their proximity and contact, and are now to confirm this procession of changes in mating. It is explained that just as in immunology it is the last massive dose of innoculation that liberates, so in the procession of biological function it is mating that brings liberation of two individuals into their new orientation, and endows them with new potentialities as a ‘family’.

Discussion of such questions as the difference in sexual appetite and sensitivity of the male and female partners follows naturally at this consultation. So also does a discussion of pregnancy and its significance in stamping the seal on their unity. Seen in this getting as the means by which they may achieve maturity, having a child is lifted from the plane of easy sentimentality or from the perhaps now more common balancing of expediencies, and comes to appear to them as natural for their own growth as sunlight—of which one can have too much as well as too little. The inference that they quite naturally and quickly draw from this approach is the importance of being in fullest health at this time so that they may enjoy to the full all that lies before them —and especially pregnancy when that comes.

Neither is it merely psychological adjustment that they will look for in their marriage, but a physical and chemical tuning of paired strings that are to sing in harmony. Moving thus towards mutuality of function they may find that as time goes on everything that comes into their ken—even the smallest and most insignificant trifle—will take on a new character; and this will find its expression not only in new vision and new understanding, but in a new pattern of action, as the individual point of view of each is resolved into the organismal point of view of the new ‘family’ they have formed. Everything in the future turns on a knowledge of this supreme and dominant factor in Nature—the prototype of all creation—parenthood.

This biological interpretation of the significance of mating is particularly arresting:—to the woman who is apt to feel that in marriage she will have achieved her goal; to the man who is apt to regard his development as parallel to, if not independent of that of his wife. Early a dawning realisation comes to both of them that marriage is no state once achieved to be stereotyped, fixed and held on to in unchanging conformity to a design limbed in the mazy dreams of courtship, nor on the other hand to be calculated up in the bleak terms of economics and expediencies. It is a great adventure, ever changing, deepening, widening, not only with changed circumstances but with the changes that are going on in each of them as their lives unfold in the mutuality of function.

So from the outset this pair are alive to the fact that children are not the only novelty that is likely to emerge from the new function of their coming parenthood; the fruits of their unity may be rich and various and may appear in every aspect of their life, not merely in the intimacy of their personal relationships but in their contacts with their neighbours and in their society in general; maybe in the world of affairs, in business, in politics and perhaps even in budding statesmanship; in the world of thought, of art and science; indeed in every realm they touch according to their capacity—according, in fact, to the richness of the home they build together.

The Home

Let us for a moment leave the young family and turn our consideration to the biological significance we give to this word ”home’. By ‘home’ it will be seen that we do not mean the four walls of a flat nor a house with garden attached, but the field of function invoked by ‘parenthood’.

At marriage, a young couple are starting out as a new nucleus of biological potentiality. As this new-born organism begins life in its new environment, like a germinating seed throwing out exploratory root-hairs into the soil and unfolding shoots into the air and sunshine, the pair will seek—not consciously nor intentionally any more than a growing shoot intentionally seeks the light—for material from which they can draw sustenance and grow. As a result of the mutual synthesis which they now effect through continuous incursion into their environment, they will grow out—first in one direction, then in another —with each thrust extending their functional field and rendering the environment bit by bit familiar—that is to say, of the family. Thus progressively permeating their environment with the action-pattern peculiar to their own expression of ‘parenthood’, with their own growth their ‘home’ grows with them.

We call it ‘protean’, this home that is slowly built up, and Proteus-like it is, for the human family may come to be made upof several highly individualised entities whose excursion is not limited, like that of the plant, to the soil in which they are planted. From their lodgment around the domestic hearth these individuals may set out on adventures into every sphere, and the nutriment that they may gather is of a nature varied enough to satisfy every hunger of the questing human spirit. In fact, as the family grows, to such far distant realms of thought and action may they reach, so independent, so dissociated do they seem, the husbands and wives, sons and daughters, that we are content to regard them as self-contained entities, forgetting that, from the functional standpoint, the prospecting tips that each individual sends out are the growing-points of one organism, bringing into the family sphere of influence a new morsel for digestion at its hearth or nucleus—to feed every member of the family. The ‘home’ then is no material fabric; no castle walls set against the impact of society to exclude the world. It is the specific zone of functional potency that grows about a live parenthood; a zone at the periphery of which is an active ‘interfacial membrane’ or ‘surface’ furthering interchange—from within outwards, and from without inwards—a mutualising membrane between the family and the society in which it lives. This home has its points of progression, like those associated with the tips of the root hairs or the coleoptiles of the shoots. These are the contact-points of absorption of nutriment for the family and they are set between the foreign and the familiar in the environment.

Thus as the parenthood implicit in the unity of the mated pair becomes with the increasing co-ordination of their unity more explicit, or differentiated, so the home they ‘grow’ about them gathers in extent and content. It is a zone permeated by the specificity of the organism; a zone in which all the members of the family move in familiarity and hence in biological freedom. The home then is as it were a ‘body’ of potent and specific biological influence wrapped about the family. In health it is cumulative, increasingly specific and individualised as it grows and differentiates through the ever-extending functional excursion of the family.

It may seem far fetched that such dissociated entities as fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, should constitute an organismal entity, and indeed that anything as intangible as afield of function should constitute a ‘home’. Yet it should not be difficult to grasp. As separate entities, the adult members of a grown family appear to be a mere aggregate of individuals each as self-directing as seems each single bee. But as we have already seen (chapter 1), it is the colony of bees which is the organism composed of many discrete working members, or organs—queen, workers, drones— held together in functional organisation. While the hive, like the family dwelling, is the point at which the organism can be observed in its compact form, the ‘home’ of the bee is delineated by the range and dispersion of the individual bees in their search for nectar and pollen, and can cover many gardens and many fields. We say the home of the salmon is the sea, although its breeding place is in the sandy pool of an upland stream. So we define the ‘home’ as the zone in which the action-pattern of an organism is inscribed, and within which the biological ‘force’ or potency of its unity is maintained.

And this, being a zone of biological influence, represents no one-way ‘pull’. The family does not carry on this process of ingestion and the gradual extension of the home at the expense of passive environment that is gradually being robbed of its wealth and exhausted of its diversity by predatory exploitation. In function—that is in health—the very reverse is the case. The effect of family action is further to enrich and to diversify the environment, just as the bee by transport of pollen diversifies the variety and enhances the exuberance of the flowers and fruits of the garden—a very clear example of mutuality of synthesis.

So with the human organism in its health or wholeness, the ‘home’ is to be measured not only by the scope of the facultative action of the individual members of the family—their honey and pollen-gathering power, but also by their fertilising and virilising power on society, in fact by the mutuality of synthesis engendered in organism and environment.

Looking through the glass walls of the Centre, as the cytologist may under his microscope watch living cells grow out in a culture medium, it is only a ‘section’ of the family in action—its leisure activity—that we can see. The function of the human family covers a far wider field. Its home should include not only the excursion of its members to the Centre, but to the factory lathe, to the school, to the grocer’s counter, the tennis court, the picture gallery or to the orchestral concert—wherever in fact the individual members of the family are free to move and to cull nutriment. From the biological point of view all these should be in such relation to the home that each may feed and enrich the whole organism. In such a way what each does becomes as relevant to the family as are the excursions of the bee to the hive when it delivers the honey. All action not so related to the family-nucleus is biologically dis-‘organised’, and hence ill-adapted to serve as a nutrient factor for the organismal life. It is only when ‘processed’ by the family that that which is alien in the environment can be rendered familiar, and hence wholly digestible and not anaphylactic to its growing members. Where all the experience of the members of each family is not thus functionally incorporated into the home, we have a starved and sick society.

As in any pre-marital consultation the talk ranges over the biological possibilities that arise with the birth of the ‘family’ at marriage, it seems to give the pair foundation for unexpressed hopes and aspirations that might otherwise quickly dissipate in the rude winds of circumstance, or through diffidence—so common in the prevalent foreshortened social environment—fail to find expression. It has been one of our commonest experiences during these consultations to see the young couple look at each other and nod, as if to say—”I told you so”—as though our talk had confirmed some of their own but half expressed intuitive speculations. Here and there the repercussions of this talk find immediate expression in the nature of the ‘home’ they set out to build. In this new light, the material things with which they set up house become a means to an end; not the end in themselves. ‘Home’ is no longer merely the possession of relatively expensive furniture, so big that later on they will have to sell the washstand to get the baby’s cot into the bedroom, so highly polished that the parlour suite will form a fetter about the child as it grows, so precious that its maintenance may compete with a more responsible, if less well paid job for the man, and so on. Neither perhaps—as they well might have done—will the pair now delay unduly the coming of their first child lest it should divert their small income from material ends, and become an embarrassing responsibility separating them from each other or interrupting their comfortable and pleasant state of life—for they already grasp that pregnancy is the natural and most potent means to their own maturing.

So here in the pre-marital consultation the family’s use of the Centre’s ‘pool of information’ is critically focussed. It enables the pair on the threshold of marriage to set out with some knowledge matched to those of their needs usually described as ‘spiritual’. This new family, now sensing that they are involved in furthering the process of living, seem no longer to feel themselves just straws tossed in the wind of events, but part of and one with Nature. At this supreme moment of lively apprehension—the time of mating—they move more quickly to a better understanding than at any other time of what they are and how they work. They set out from the beginning knowing that marriage is no estate to be guarded, but a great and new opportunity to fulfil their destiny sustained by the abiding laws of Nature.

It is one of the most heartening experiences to take part in a pre-marital consultation ; to see dawning in the comprehension of one or other of the pair the meaning for them of this biological interpretation of their situation; to hear comments which show that they have caught the sense of its import; to note the way in which he takes hold of her arm as they rise to go, leaving us with the unequivocal impression that they have got a grip on something which is going to make just that difference to their whole lives.

‘Biological Junctions’

And here for a moment we must digress to consider and to stress the importance of this phase in the life cycle for the furtherance of health. Just as, pollen-fertilised, the ovule of the old plant drops to the ground to form yet a new plant, so likewise at the time of mating we see the dehiscence from the old family organisation and the planting of a new family in new social soil. It is a time at which, as a result of a natural process, individuals may shed their skins and leave behind them the furniture and habits of the past.

The life process in organism is not represented by one smooth and steady curve of progressive growth—mere growing bigger from the start. Before growth proceeds there is a period of what is called ‘differentiation’, when in the undifferentiated, i.e. relatively amorphous primary substance, the lines upon which growth is ultimately to proceed are laid down in conformity with the inherent and specific design of the species. We see such a process typified in the silent conversion of the egg into the high anatomical organisation of the chick within the confines of the egg shell. ‘Silent’ and obscured from view though this process of re-orientation of living material may be, it is nevertheless crucial to the growth that is to follow. The characteristic of such periods of differentiation in the life cycle is the throwing of the living material into a fluid or more plastic phase—its impressionability, its quick compliance alike to the influence of the intrinsic contained design and to the extrinsic impact of the environment. The phases of differentiation constitute what might be described as ‘biological junctions’ at which the traveller changes trains and may take another direction from the one in which he has been travelling. The time of puberty has always been intuitively recognised as one of these periods. In this book we have shown that the times of mating and of pregnancy in the family are others.

In studying pregnancy we have indications which suggest that a susceptible diathesis can be changed for the better at such physiological periods. It may in fact be no old wives’ tale that we can “grow out of things naturally”. It is more than probable that the individual can shed his old constitution during such times of translation—a belief firmly held by the intuitive clinician of the old school. That such a shedding does not occur with any regularity or certainty in no way denies its being able to happen—given suitable circumstances. But we cannot comfortably sit back and hopefully wait for this salutary change to occur, for there is no guarantee that the circumstances of modern society are favourable. Furthermore, just as the influence of the metamorphosis may be for good, so also new vicious constitutional habits may equally and indeed often do supervene at these phases. The point of practical significance is that, as knowledge grows, we should be able to utilise these physiological phases to enhance health; and particularly to reclaim that majority of individuals who in present conditions—as we have seen in an earlier chapter—are in compensative existence.

In this connection it is interesting to note that these periods of differentiation, the biological junctions at which the direction and habitus may change, are just those periods which are neglected by medical, educational and social workers alike. True, sporadic educational efforts have been made to touch the adolescent, but up to now they have intensified his isolation from the body of society; a procedure which we have seen is inimical to the natural development of his biological potentiality at this period. Courtship and mating and the conceptional periods of parenthood escape social and educational influences of every sort. Maternity and Child Welfare we have; both come too late. And as for mating and marriage, there remains only the marriage ceremony, an empty, almost mocking symbol which once stood for the serious care and concern our ancestors devoted to this crucial period of the birth of a new human family.

Growing into a man or a woman—or later into a family—is of course a natural process, as growing into a flower or fruit is natural. But the plant cultivator pays especial attention to the soil before planting the young plant, and before its flowering. So likewise the social soil in which the human organism grows, demands the maximum care and attention that we can give at these natural biological periods of differentiation. This problem of cultivation is a biologist’s not a pathologist’s problem. To the biologist the use of the ‘biological junctions’ constitutes the primary feature of his technique in the cultivation of Health.

The Early Days of Marriage

Let us return to the Centre and, using it as an observatory, watch the young family after their marriage. Though the pair are now united, this new organism is as yet wholly undetermined in its functional organisation. We are not surprised therefore to find that in the early days of marriage, for a time they take no conspicuous part in the life of the Centre and from the social point of view are largely lost sight of. This seeming withdrawal reminds us of nothing so much as the state of the fertilised cell in the brief period of apparent quiescence after conjugation before the almost frenzied re-arrangement of its chromatic particles as it begins to develop. The pair have in fact for the time being gone into what might be called a centripetal phase of function.

This preliminary withdrawal from society may be one of the reasons why young married couples have not hitherto come within the ken of any social administration whatsoever; why they tend to disappear from ‘clubs’, and why they have so conspicuously escaped all educational influence at this most impressionable of periods. It must also be noted that it is a stage at which all too often development becomes arrested, and from which it may never proceed, except, perhaps, through the accident of an unwanted pregnancy which ruptures their social encystment, leaving a fragmented ‘membrane’ of contact ill-adapted to functioning in mutuality with their environment.

Although they may seem to shun society at this stage, we find nevertheless that they are eager for further understanding of the process that is enveloping them, and are anxious to make use of the information that the Centre holds for them. And here it must not be forgotten that such facts as the Centre has to offer are becoming available to these new-born families in circumstances which make it possible for them to be acted upon, according to and in measure of each family’s capabilities for action. Very unlike the situation of the average young urban family, when they are ready to emerge into social life and activity, they find themselves already embedded in a society rich in possibilities, by no means fully probed yet already in some measure familiar to each of them. This offers them a jumping-off ground when they do burst into the growing phase of their new-found unity. The Centre with its abundance of unorganised ‘raw material’ is there for them as something to be rendered contextual, to be defined and made specific in the home that they will grow.

Here then in the Centre is a situation in which the ‘practice’ of Health in its positive cultural aspect becomes for the first time possible:—family culture on a rational basis, beginning with the enrichment of the soil before marriage.

We have given a rough sketch of the progress of the family going forward in conditions in which there are many more chances of experience, or ‘food’ for physical, mental and social digestion, than can be found elsewhere in modern urban civilisation. We must not suppose, however, that the Centre is a stage which has all the ‘properties’ that any young family could use. Far from it. The properties available are only such as we, in our experimental essay, know how to provide; such as our very restricted finances allow us to provide ; and such as the circumstances of modern life beyond our control permit.

In the four years of the Centre’s existence these young married couples have been all too few for statistical study and the time all too short to see any but the first fruits of their subsequent development. There has been no time for the children of member-families growing up in the Centre surroundings, to come to mating and pass into maturity. All that has been demonstrated so far is the alacrity with which those families who come early enough use the knowledge that is available, and the certain courage and assurance with which they have begun to build up a mutual family life and home. In contrast to what we find in those joining the Centre four, six, eight years after marriage, this in itself must be counted positive evidence of the value of a cultural approach as a means of enhancing Health.