Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) was an English political economist and historian who in 1798 published a book called "An Essay on the Principle of Population". This document started a reaction against the earlier writings of Godwin, Condorcet and others, who reinforced the principles of emancipation and enlightenment which ensued after the French Revolution. Malthus' theories put forward here and in later works have a surprising influence even today.
He proposed that poverty, and thereby also vice and misery, are unavoidable because population growth will always exceed food production. The checks on population growth were wars, famine, and diseases. Malthus proposed "sexual abstinence" for the working class as a means by which the population excess could be diminished and a balance achieved. In this way, the "lower" social classes were made totally responsible for social misery.
This solution was based on the hypothesis that population increased in geometric progression (2, 4, 8,16, 32, 64, 128 and so on) while food production increased in arithmetic progression (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and so on). The situation already existing in his time would get worse, according to his claims and would reach alarming proportions. His basic idea can be shown pictorially in the following diagram.
Malthus was one of the earliest, but not the last, to turn away from the economic solutions of that period, and seek to solve social problems, such as poverty, through the use of biological measures. His premises, presented as facts and his figures with an air of mathematical authority, were impressive and convincing, although his ideas were based solely on some small travels and minor observations. However, despite the grand display and presentation, some of his critics realised the absurdity of it all. Both of the growth-rates were arbitrary, for there were no statistics on population increase or food production, before or during this time, which would have permitted a forecast for the future. Apart from this, no one knew lust how much land was actually cultivated or partially cultivated and how much was barren
Malthus' presentations had the impact of a bomb; his mathematical and geometrical explanations and diagrams had a hypnotic effect, and only a few asked on what his claims were actually based. His theory has retained its persuasive power to such an extent that many of our present authorities use it as a basis of operation. Yet neither Malthus nor his later disciples ever managed to put forward any scientific proof for his theory, and in fact excellent scientists have at various times disproven Malthus' theory and the ideology resulting from it.
However, with the book, Malthus created an atmosphere which not only prevented a real solution to the social problems, but also promoted the repressive legislation which worsened the conditions of the poor in England. It was reasoned that better conditions for the poor would only encourage them to further propagate, putting those who were capable of work at a disadvantage. Malthusianism then moved forward to achieve its greatest triumph in 1834 with a new law providing for the institution of workhouses for the poor, in which the sexes were strictly separated to curb the otherwise inevitable over-breeding. This type of thinking has an inherent devaluation of human life through fear that the ever increasing population of lower classes will devour the more civilised or "better" people. This kind of philosophy, of course, urged the calling forth of drastic measures to handle the problem. The first resurgence took place a hundred and fifty years after his death, resulting in the birth-control movement, a principle which is based on Malthusianism. Following the Second World War, the idea was again taken up and today receives new momentum in the "population explosion" campaigns.
Charles Robert Darwin [1809-1882], English naturalist. After years of research work formulated in 1859 his theory of evolution in his book "The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or The Preservation of Favoured Race In the Struggle for Life". Without at that time going into a study of mankind, he tried to explain the development of life-forms in terms of a struggle for existence. The result of this struggle would be a natural selection of those species and races who were to triumph over those weaker ones who would perish.
During his research he came across Malthus' essay and suddenly saw that his own theory could be expanded to include all life in the struggle for existence that would be inevitable if food production was to lag behind the growth-rate of the population. And so Darwin took over the false doctrine of Malthus and made it a cornerstone of his own theory. In 1871 he published his next large work entitled "The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex" which was based on his earlier book but which dealt almost exclusively with man. In it he came to the reasonable conclusion that both in physical structure and physiological behaviour, there was no difference between man and other mammals. However, the idea that this was also applicable to mental and moral qualities, shows that he was on unsound ground. Although Darwin was an excellent naturalist, he was not a very good philosopher. In his attempt to explain the social development of Man as a struggle for existence and selection through natural means, he compounded the error that Malthus had made by yet another attempt to apply a biological solution to philosophical and social problems. Darwin's speculations, to be found in his "Notebook", that thought was a brain secretion, is completely without basis.
Modern theories of evolution finally succeeded in clarifying this confusion by separating the development of man into two different steps, animal and psycho-social. Despite this, Darwin's theses and those of his followers have been very influential over a long period. They caused a significant shift in the social thinking of that time, the consequences of which can still be felt today.
Francis Galton [1822-1911] was an English psychologist and a half-cousin of Darwin. Very erratic in his thought processes, he was unable to complete research in even one area. Hardly would he begin a research project before throwing out a theory and then move on to a new field leaving the proof of the theory to others. He was so fascinated with Darwin's theory, that he spent an unusually lengthy period of years trying to prove that mental abilities were hereditary. In 1869 he published his book "Hereditary Genius" and in 1883 "Enquiries into Human Faculty". In his "Enquiries" he undertook to transfer his hereditary theories from the individual to the whole race.
Galton extended Darwin's theory of natural selection into a concept of deliberate social intervention, which he held to be the logical application of evolution to the human race. Galton was by no means satisfied to let evolution take its course freely. Having decided to improve the human race through selective breeding, brought about through social intervention, he developed a subject which he called "Eugenics", the principle of which was that by encouraging better human stock to breed and discouraging the reproduction of less desirable stock, the whole race could be improved.
The pseudo-science resulting from the fusion of Darwin's evolutionary theory with social and political theories.
Charles Darwin was a very humane man, who probably would have been greatly enraged at the extremes to which his theories were taken. He had made a tragic error in attempting to extend the biological law of the struggle for survival to the social life of man. In so doing he played into the hands of "experts" of later generations, by giving them the impressive scientific justification for their barbaric actions of "natural selection", "preservation of favoured races" and the "struggle for life". It was passages of the following type in "The Descent of Man" that would have been most welcomed by them:
"With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed."Social theories based on the "survival of the fittest" had been circulating before the publication of "Origin of Species", and even before Darwin himself. Herbert Spencer, a social theorist and scientist had already propounded the social implications of this theory some years before the appearance of Darwin's book:
"The well-being of existing humanity, and the unfolding of it into this ultimate perfection, are both secured by the same beneficent, though severe discipline, to which the animate creation at large is subject; a discipline which is pitiless in the working out of good; a felicity- pursuing law which never swerves for the avoidance of partial and temporary suffering. The poverty of the incapable, the distresses that come upon the imprudent, the starvation of the idle, and those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong... are the decrees of a large far-seeing providence..."or, in plain language, the fittest survive. In a later edition of "Origin of Species", Darwin himself described Spenders "survival of the fittest" phrase as being more accurate than his own "natural selection". Finally, in Darwin's work the social theorists had found the scientific rationale that lent respectability to their arguments. This fusion came to be known as Social Darwinism, a movement that gained increasing momentum with its demands for social legislation in accordance with the principle of "the fittest must survive", and its effects were calamitous for later generations.
Racism and Racial Hygiene
Although the beginnings of racism lie far back in history, its actual modern development really begins with the Frenchman, Arthur Count de Gobineau [1816-1882] who published his classic racist pronouncement "Essay on the Inequality of Human Races" in 1853-1857. Greatly misinterpreted by others, he wrote in a romantic fashion of a fair-haired Aryan race that was superior to all others. Gobineau maintained that remnants of this race could be found in various countries in Europe constituting a tiny racial aristocracy decaying under the overwhelming weight of inferior races. He made no special claims for the superiority of German Aryans, nor markedly denigrated other races. His racialism embraced not so much the races as the classes, the aristocracy versus the proletariat. Nevertheless, his ideas were widely distorted to fit the racial superiority theories of others. Hardly noticed in his own country, he enjoyed great popularity in Germany.
As we have already seen, an amalgamation of ideas occurred shortly before the turn of the century. Darwinism, united with social theories, became Social Darwinism, which in turn included Eugenics. In 1890 Gobineau's book was revived and in 1894 the Gobineau Association was founded in Germany. His writings were popularised at this time by the Pan-Germans, an extremely nationalistic and anti-Jewish group who, though small in numbers, were very strong, their members including a high proportion of teachers.
In 1899, Gobineau's disciples Houston Stewart Chamberlain [1855-1927], an Englishman holding German citizenship, published his two volume work, "The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century", in Germany. It proved immensely popular and ran into many editions. Departing from Gobineau's rather flowery ideas, he upheld the German race to be the purest form of Aryanism and damned the inferior races, the Jews and Negroes, as degenerate.
Chamberlain combined the scientific fact of the existence of different races with an enriched mystical significance attached to one race, the Aryans, who had supposedly existed since the dawn of time. These mystical Aryans were held to be responsible for all the great cultures of the past, each of which had declined because the Aryans allowed other races to intermix with them resulting in the fall of that civilisation-Egypt, Greece, Rome all perished.
Eugenics, Social Darwinism and Racial Hygiene now join hands, although Eugenics is the only one of these that one could manage to call a science. It is a movement which has attracted many medical men, and these have given the scientific means of assisting Social Darwinism in its endeavours to favour the fittest, and Racial Hygienists in their efforts to improve the race.
From this point on, Eugenics, Social Darwinism and Racial Hygiene fused so strongly that it would prove a useless endeavour to try to differentiate between them.
Return to Introduction
Return to Table of Contents
Return To Liz Toolan's Homepage