Education: Essay

Social Darwinism and the Poor

by Peter Dobkin Hall, School of Public Affair, Baruch College, City University of New York

The impact of British biologist Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), The Descent of Man (1871), and other writings went well beyond the audience of natural scientists to whom it was addressed. Throughout the western world, journalists, academics, and social reformers were quick to appropriate Darwin’s theories about the evolution of life forms to explain trends in social and economic life.

Under the circumstances, this is not surprising. The world was in the midst of vast and frightening changes -- industrialization, urbanization, immigration, class war, and mass poverty -- which no one understood and to which no one could offer solutions. Extrapolations from Darwinism, with its emphasis on evolutionary progress, offered reason for hope that a new and better social order could emerge from the turbulence. At the same time, by highlighting competition and the survival of the fittest as the drivers of evolution, it seemed to explain both the emergence of the fittest -- fabulously wealthy elites and giant corporations, as well as the unfit -- the masses of poor in the teeming city slums.

Social Darwinism, as it came to be known, served the purposes of both liberals and conservatives. Because conservatives believed that many of the traits associated with unfitness -- propensities for idleness, criminality, sexual misbehavior, and alcoholism -- were passed along from generation to generation by heredity, much like hair and eye color, they grimly predicted the growth of a permanent criminal underclass unless steps were taken to prevent it. They were particularly concerned with the impact of sentimental and impulsive charity on the poor. Spontaneous responses to suffering attracted impostors and vagrants from every direction to enjoy the public benefaction,” drawing to the cities the floating vagrants, beggars, and paupers, who wander form village to village throughout the State. The streets of New York became thronged with this ragged, needy crowd; they filled all the station-houses and lodging places provided by private charity, and overflowed into the island almshouses. Street-begging, to the point of importunity, became a custom. Ladies were robbed, even on their own doorsteps, by these mendicants. Petty offenses, such as thieving and drunkenness, increased. One of the free lodgings in the upper part of the city, established by the Commissioners of Charities, became a public nuisance from its rowdyism and criminality (Pauperism 1874, 18-19).

Poor relief, conservatives believed, destroyed the work ethic that motivated the poor to work. “The public example of alms induce many to be paupers who were never so before, while they do not at all relieve the truly deserving, who hesitate to be exposed to such publicity. They are, in fact, an especial assistance to the idle, and a reward to the improvident (Pauperism 1874, 18).

Preventing the growth of this criminal class called for strict measures, beginning with a thorough and discriminating supervision of all charities, public and private; the most careful attention to the education and employment of the poor and their children; the placing of pauper children in good families, at a distance, if possible, form degrading associations; a rigid and exact system of in-door relief, accompanied with labor; the reduction of out-door relief in cities, and the encouragement of emigration to rural districts from the crowded centres of poverty and crime, which most of our largest cities have now become. The position of New York in this respect is exceptional, because it yearly receives a quarter of a million immigrants from foreign countries, and this exposes it to peculiar evils and dangers. While this should be borne in mind, it should not be made an apology for neglect nor an occasion for abuses, but should lead to increased vigilance and activity on the part of magistrates and citizens (26).

In a word, conservatives (then as now) not only blamed the poor for their poverty, but also the dispensers of “indiscriminate” and “sentimental” charity, whose well-intentioned, but ill-informed benevolence served both to perpetuate the sufferings that they sought to ameliorate and to compound them by encouraging the survival of the unfit.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, the most extreme of the conservatives, combining ideas drawn from Darwin, with those of his contemporary Francis Galton, produced theories which urged actions to prevent the disabled and other “unfit” people from perpetuating their kind by segregating them from society in almshouses, asylums, and other congregate institutions and through sterilization. These practices were enacted into law by many states and were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, with Justice Holmes memorably defending government’s right to incarcerate and sterilize by declaring “three generations of imbeciles is enough!” (Buck v. Bell 1927).

Although liberals also drew on Darwinism, they did so in a very different spirit. Where the conservatives emphasized the role of nature -- competition, natural selection, and heredity -- in shaping evolution, liberals stressed the role of nurture -- humanity’s ability to manipulate the environment to foster evolutionary progress. They believed that education, good nutrition, and healthy living conditions could eliminate poverty and criminality. As steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, one of the country’s leading social Darwinists put it, "The best means of benefiting the community is to place within its reach the ladders upon which the aspiring can rise - free libraries, parks, and means of recreation, by which men are helped in body and mind; works of art, certain to give pleasure and improve the public taste; and public institutions of various kinds, which will improve the general condition of the people; in this manner returning their surplus wealth to the mass of their fellows in the forms best calculated to do them lasting good." (Carnegie 1889, 19)

Carnegie echoed the conservatives’ criticism of sentimental philanthropy. One of the serious obstacles to the improvement of our race,” Carnegie declared,
"is indiscriminate charity. It were better for mankind that the millions of the rich were thrown into the sea than so spent as to encourage the slothful, the drunken, the unworthy. Of every thousand dollars spent in so called charity to day, it is probable that nine hundred and fifty dollars is unwisely spent -- so spent, indeed, as to produce the very evils which it hopes to mitigate or cure." (1889, 16)

Carnegie believed that the inequality that inevitably resulted from industrial capitalism was not inherently bad. Competition in society, as in the natural world, sorted people out according to their abilities. But this inequality did not preclude everyone, from millionaire to industrial worker, from playing a useful part in the collective task of human progress.

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, as charities reformers and philanthropists began to systematically study the poor and the causes of poverty, a more discerning perspective on these issues began to emerge which drew on both the liberal and conservative variants of social Darwinism. Amos G. Warner’s American Charities: A Study in Philanthropy and Economics (1894), which became the standard text for social workers in the first quarter of the twentieth century, broke down the causes of poverty into those “pertaining to the individual,” which included race, ethnicity, family, sex, age, habits and personal characteristics, and disease, and those “pertaining to environment,” which included climate, accidents, unhealthful occupations, work of women and children, abode (housing), involuntary idleness (unemployment), diet, clothing, and lack of medical care (Warner 1894, 56). He envisioned two basic approaches to addressing these causes, “therapy” (by which he meant such things as medical treatment, the elimination of child labor, and the improvement of working conditions) and “hygiene,” (which included remedies ranging from improvements in “conditions of life” through institutionalization and sterilization of the unfit.

As a charity reformer, Warner was harshly critical of the almshouse as a means of addressing poverty, disability, and dependency, scorning their undifferentiated approach to a wide range of problems that were products of different causes. The almshouse, he wrote, "acts as the charitable catch-all for the community. Idiots, epileptics, incurables, incompetents, the aged, abandoned children, foundlings, women for confinement, and a considerable number of the insane, the blind, and the deaf and dumb are all dumped together." (Warner 1894, 141)

Such institutions served only to perpetuate criminality, poverty, and deviance.

Warner and other early twentieth century reformers championed the establishment of specialized institutions that could classify, treat, supervise, and reform the dependent and disabled. The chief task of these new institutions was to differentiate the dependent and disabled according to the nature and sources of their problems, separating “all those requiring special scientific treatment” including “the defective classes of teachable age, the deaf, the dumb, and the blind,” as well as the insane, identifying those whose problems were not amenable to therapy -- the feeble-minded and epileptic -- and channeling them into custodial institutions (Warner 1894, 198). Similarly, orphaned and abandoned children, who constituted a substantial proportion of the almshouse population would have to be sorted according to their needs and abilities. “Sequestration, and discipline first,” wrote a Connecticut physician in 1902, “then education in its present day comprehensive sense, are the rational steps towards an ideal standard for the management” of youngsters in need of care and supervision (Down 1902, 221-222).

Reformers did not confine their energies to treating the dependent and disabled. They were also actively engaged in changing the conditions of life for the poor, advocating for the elimination of slums, the enactment of public health legislation, crusading for the elimination of child labor, championing mandatory school attendance laws, and fighting for the creation of parks and playgrounds -- all this premised on the Darwinist idea that a healthy, orderly, and just society fostered the conditions for social, political, and economic progress.

Social Darwinism never constituted a formally articulated philosophy; it was used in a variety of often contradictory ways by writers and thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Regardless of the social and political agendas it gave rise to, the one thing all had in common was a scientific data-based approach to defining and offering solutions to social problems. Whether used to justify laissez-faire or activist public policies, social Darwinism provided a vocabulary and set of concepts that facilitated the emergence of the social sciences and their application to such pressing problems as poverty and social justice.


Carrie Buck v. James Hendren Bell, Superintendent of the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble Minded. 274 U.S. 200 (1927)

Andrew Carnegie. 1889. “Wealth.” North American Review 148, 653-664 and 149, 682-698.

Edwin A. Down. 1902. “Care of Female Misdemeanants” In Connecticut Medical Society, Proceedings of the Connecticut Medical Society 1902. Bridgeport: The Farmer Publishing Company.

Richard Hofstadter. 1955. Social Darwinism in American Thought. Boston: Beacon Press.

“Pauperism in the City of New York.” In American Social Science Association, Conference of Public Charities Held at New York, May 20 and 22, 1874 (Cambridge, MA: Printed for the American Social Science Association, 1874).

Amos G. Warner. 1894. American Charities: A Study in Philanthropy and Economics. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Company.