Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/April 1887/Social and Physiological Inequality

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 30 April 1887  (1887) 
Social and Physiological Inequality
By Henry Dwight Chapin



THE subject of the hour is the social problem. Viewed in the light of the pressing questions demanding settlement—questions really of life and death—the new science of sociology overshadows all others in importance. The air is full of the angry clamor raised by different cliques and classes, all arguing from the standpoint of their own interests. The strain to which society is thus subjected must be relieved, if possible, by broad and unprejudiced reasoning in the line of causes. In this manner only can the possibilities and limitations of relief be suggested. It is evident that in the present state of society many are hopelessly worsted in the effort to gain, not a competency, but a moderate sustenance. Numerous irrelevant causes and cures are constantly being proclaimed for this glaring evil, leaving the essential causes untouched. The mutterings of discontent heard on all sides have their basis largely in the belief that the fault lies in a friction resulting from an artificial social order. Economic laws are really, at bottom, the outcome of physiological laws and conditions. Assuredly, laws of Nature are fundamental and must underlie economic laws; the latter may be modified, but not essentially altered by artificial social relations. Certain reformers are fiercely attacking our social system as the ultimate cause of misery, entirely overlooking the fact that social conditions are merely the resultant and aggregate of individual characteristics. As long as these remain unchanged, society may be repeatedly disintegrated, but the same abuses will as regularly spring up. Those who are demanding more social equality must first see to it that there is more individual equality. It is a favorite corollary of our political system that all men are born equal. Unfortunately, legal equality is not physiological equality. In fact, there is no such thing as equality. Much of the restlessness of the age is the endeavor to institute formulas and laws of equality while no such real element exists. Two stupendous factors are present in all life, physical as well as mental—heredity and environment. These all-controlling influences are present, for good or evil, in varying proportions in different lives. With the generation of life heredity, whose mysterious effects we must recognize without understanding, has done its best or worst for the beginning existence; its potency has been in the past, acting perhaps through long reaches of time. With commencing life comes in the new element of environment, as the complement of heredity, to enhance the evil trait, or perhaps obliterate it; too often to sow the seeds of physical and mental weakness in a constitution that was given a healthy start. To insure correct environment and habit, particularly in the early years of life, is of vital importance to the well-being and efficiency of the individual. This, unfortunately, is not, and in many cases can not, be done. Hence the fearfully unequal physical, mental, and moral equipment of mankind, that allows the minority to have too much, the majority too little, of the world's necessities and comforts.

This question, however, has a broader interest than is merely involved in economics. One of the ultimate aims of life upon earth is the perpetuation of the species, an essential incident of which is the struggle to live. This aim of life in Nature is seen in all creations, from trees and insects up to man. Under the term "struggle of life" are included many complex factors. Such problems as how to conserve and prolong life, how to lower the death-rate in children, how to produce good hereditary development, how to strengthen the bodies and minds and enlarge the spiritual bounds of men—all these, and many other questions, are included in a conception of this struggle. It is evident that those are the best conditions of life that lead to the highest development of the physical, mental, and moral faculties, and the largest and best growth of the species. The all-important question is this: How are the present conditions of society favoring and how subverting a successful struggle on the part of many of its members? How far do they tend to cripple the best development of life? This larger and more absorbing question includes the narrower one we are here discussing, as to the observed inequalities of society. It is too large a theme for a single essay. A brief glance at the varying conditions that produce social inequality may be of interest.

1. Unequal Physical Development.—As a rule, the more bodily vigor a person possesses the better will be his chance of getting on in the world. Many people fail because they have not the physical strength for prolonged and successful effort. What fair chance, then, has a child beginning life in an overcrowded tenement-house, all of whose bodily functions are from the first contaminated? The cells, of which the human body is but an aggregate, might at this time by healthy surroundings and physiological living, have marked upon them an impress of lasting vigor; by foul air and improper nourishment they likewise have sown in them the seed of an early degeneration. After a large dispensary experience, I have no hesitancy in saying that the great majority of children brought up in the tenement-houses of New York are, in greater or less degree, affected by a constitutional taint, usually scrofulous or rachitic. Such a vicious condition grows by what it feeds on. Each generation will get worse from the addition of hereditary influences to the faulty environment, unless something is done to check these evils. It is not difficult to foresee what will result in a community if a large proportion of its inhabitants are, by reason of their physical organization, seriously handicapped in the struggle for existence. The dirt and discomfort, in the midst of which thousands live at our very doors, would, astound many among the better classes who are always wondering at the shiftlessness of the poor. A suggestive paper was read before the British Medical Association in 1885, showing the large influence that bodily comfort has in lowering the death-rate. The same influences that can increase mortality among the poor are also operative in curtailing their efficiency and usefulness.

2. Unequal Méntal Development.—Some of our modern materialistic philosophers would have us believe that mind is a function of body—a sort of secretion of the brain. While this bald conception will not commend itself to many, it certainly is true that mind acts through nervous organization, the integrity of which stands in a direct relation to the most efficient mental manifestation. In the physical growth of man a completely developed brain is the highest type of organization. The normal action of the mind is much modified by the health or disease of the nervous elements, which are constantly aftected by the condition of the vital organs. As a rule, therefore, an efficient mind is an accompaniment of a well-acting body. It is true that brute strength is frequently seen accompanied by signs of only inferior mental life, but in such cases the evolution of the higher nerve-centers, together with proper education of the mind, has been in abeyance for generations, with resulting stagnation. In the intensely close competitions of the present day a certain mental acumen is absolutely necessary to attain any measure of success. The man who has not the mental equipment to figure a close bargain will as inevitably succumb to the one who can, as the bird with the longest beak or strongest claw will vanquish its weaker antagonist. The physically and mentally weak inevitably yield before the law of the survival of the fittest in our modern civilization. This law may be more immediately apparent in its action on physical than on mental life, yet it is as real in one as in the other sphere. Hereditary taint and bad hygienic surroundings produce in many such a condition of weak lungs as to develop, by the ordinary and necessary exposure of life, the disease known as consumption. Death results, and such people die because their lungs are not fit, or strong enough, to survive in the conditions of their environment. Our dispensaries and hospitals are now crowded with such unfortunates who are bound to succumb, sooner or later, to this unerring natural law. Persons with vigorous lungs, who can do the world's work and thrive under conditions that destroyed the former class, are living examples of a physical survival of the fittest. But there is just as much a mental as a physical exemplification of this law. The dull wit can not be made to accomplish that which is easily done by the acute mind—can not live the same life. A man who digs a canal must, in order to do the only thing within his capacity for earning a living, become the tool of the mentally "fitter" man—the engineer—who has the intellectual skill to plan such a work. Disgusted at his uneven lot, the laborer would often strike down the man whose mental superiority makes possible the earning of his bread. Trades-unions in attempting to reduce all work and wages to a dead level, in spite of the varying abilities of different workingmen, are striving to accomplish a reversal of natural law. As for any permanent success in this matter, they will find it about as difficult to change the operation of the law of the survival of the fittest, as the law of attraction of gravitation. A state or society might as well decree that the man with the strong lungs should not live any longer than the one with weak lungs, as attempt to restrain the fertile, active mind, and limit its performance by the capacity of the dull brain. At the same time, we should strive to find out the preventable causes of mental as well as of physical inferiority.

The child from the swarming tenement-house, after a desultory and unpractical schooling, is quickly transferred to shop or factory, where the struggle of life must be begun on a pitiably insufficient physical and mental training. A practical, industrial education does not appear to be within the conception of our public schools. This is just the line of education that would make them useful to the poor. We are hearing much at present of the dignity of manual labor; but work of the hands, unless in a measure directed by the head, is rather a lame accomplishment. Workingmen often show an inability to get along, because they have not sufficient mental equipoise to direct their affairs properly, as well as their work. They are continually being victimized by political manipulators and social quacks from this cause. Social conditions that keep men and women hopelessly toiling all their lives on one low plane are lamentable, but biological law shows us that heredity and a terribly unfavorable environment have of necessity precluded the physical and mental acuteness necessary to reach a higher level.

3. Unequal Moral Development.—In character, no less than in body and mind, do we see vast differences among men. From the perfect activity of a well-balanced will to the uncertain energy of a vacillating character, there are innumerable variations. Such gradations do not stand in any ratio to intellectual culture. Moral power depends largely upon material environment. It does not flourish with filth or famine. Self-respect, that fundamental necessity for the higher attributes, can not well exist in rags and dirt. Moral rectitude is with difficulty conserved when the contact of individuals is too close. The excessive overcrowding so often seen in the tenements of great cities is as destructive of virtue as of physical health. I have seen sexual diseases engendered, even in childhood, that will not only cripple the development of the individual, but be propagated to future generations. Probably the most prolific cause of vice in densely populated centers is the condition here noted. This is only one aspect of a great subject. It is not necessary to believe that moral nature has been acquired by the slow processes of evolution to appreciate the preponderating influence of heredity in the manifestation of will-power and kindred phenomena. Two individuals may start in life apparently with equal chances and hindrances. One succeeds, the other fails; one is only stimulated by obstacles, the other is disheartened and conquered by them; one has inherent possibilities in his nature that are utterly absent in the other. The mysterious potentialities of different natures are often more easy of recognition than of explanation. There are many peculiar and diverse ways in which the action of the moral nature is exhibited, according to its development, in human affairs. Thus some men display most exemplary conduct in certain relations of family and society, but show an utter absence of the moral sense in dealing with competitors.

There are, unfortunately, at the present time, too many object-lessons exemplifying a strangely irregular moral development. Men who calmly exhibit the greatest depravity in pushing schemes for their own interest, recklessly bribing officials and buying legislators, may yet show apparently the record of a most proper private life. A man who wrecks a bank, thereby spreading distress and ruin wide-spread, is found to be the kindest of fathers. The evil done by forcing a corner in the market that will put some of the necessaries of life beyond the reach of the needy multitude, can not be compensated for by subscribing to a charity. Railroad-wrecking and dishonest speculation form an incongruous mixture with benevolence. Qualities that are subversive of all civic virtues and tend to the very disintegration of society, appear to flourish by the side of a sort of goodness, finding expression, perhaps, in one or two directions.

The faculty of the mind, as well as the organ of the body, that is used the most, undergoes the highest development and works with preponderating efficiency. If there is an absence of a properly regulated human and moral feeling to hold a check on such excessive keenness, the results are unfortunate. The over-development of acquisitiveness and the under-development of certain moral faculties, have enabled individuals to distance competitors and crowd better men to the wall. Some men may have too high a sense of honor to compete successfully with others not so endowed. Doubtless, many of the shiftless and lazy like to consider that they are too honest to succeed. But often this is true of better men. Intense selfishness is too exclusively the mainspring of endeavor in our modern civilization. While the inferior development of physical and mental functions keeps a large proportion of mankind in unequal subjugation to the minority, the under-development of certain parts of the moral nature is actually an aid to worldly success. This is a pregnant thought, and shows how the development theory can throw side-lights on all angles of a social question.

There is, then, a direct relation between an individual's heredity and environment and the complete soundness and efficiency of that individual. In the struggle for existence, where all the conditions for successful and vigorous life have unavoidably been present in poorest degree, it inevitably follows that competition with more vigorous minds and bodies must result in hopeless defeat. Hence the absurdity of most of the ideas advanced for the relief of social wrongs. Appeals are being continually made to Government to remedy this unfortunate state of affairs. But Government can not help or prevent the operation of natural law. These laws of Nature have been permanently established by the Deity, and no set of men acting temporarily as figure-heads of society can alter their operation. Human life, to be satisfactory, must be conducted according to a knowledge and in conformity with these laws. All that Government can do and should do is to strive to furnish and insist upon the most favorable natural conditions or environment possible for the people—in other words, give them the best chance. Beyond this, nothing can be done by Government. It can not alter a man's ancestors. The Scriptures, as well as the state, tell us to work out our own salvation.

No altered laws will compensate for defective knowledge or willpower in the regulation of human affairs. A man or a sect with a panacea is always popular. It is disagreeable to face the fact that the causes of most of the ills of life are complex and often difficult of removal. Universal specifics are thus numerous. The statement that people like to be humbugged is as true of social as of physical ills. They shift from one to another of the many quacks who can point to a single and sure road out of all their troubles. Two leading theories have been advanced to reorganize society—socialism and communism. As a sentiment, socialism is in keeping with the highest conception of the relation of man to man; as an organization, it is the enemy of society, since it is not in correlation with the present structure and development of human nature. The underlying sentiment of socialism claims that every man should have a fair opportunity to make a comfortable living and a chance to develop what is best in himself and family. At present this is impossible in many cases. It will continue to be impossible until the weak can be strengthened by more favorable environment for a more efficient struggle in life.

Communism recognizes the evils resulting from the fearfully unequal distribution of wealth, and would force a general division. As human nature is now constituted, this is an idle conception. The wealth that is universally distributed and equalized to-day will tomorrow be again in the hands of the few. Legislators can not prevent this unerring economic law due to fundamental differences in men's development and equipment. Beer-garden philosophers would bring everybody to a level—the lowest level—well exemplified in themselves. In the different strata of society, if men could only be leveled from below up in physical and mental weakness and inefficiency; from above down in unscrupulous sharpness with lacking moral sense, society would be in a condition of more stable equilibrium. No radical alteration in social order will be possible until human nature has slowly been prepared for it by a corresponding alteration. Social reconstruction must be preceded by a reconstruction of man's nature. Has modern society, then, nothing to answer for? Can it calmly point to the inexorable laws of evolution as responsible for social wrongs? Assuredly not. Society must be held in a measure responsible for the crippling environment of so many of its members. The labor that is treated as a pure commodity, to be purchased in the lowest market, will be apt to sink to that level. The manufacturer sees in the excessive division of labor a way to quick profits; hence even pins must be made, from head to point, by different artisans. This plan may produce sharp pins, but it makes dull men, whose children will probably be duller yet.

Trades-unions and labor organizations sin more in this respect, however, than the greediest capitalists. The leaders by sternly repressing all efforts of the men to better their condition, by checking all ambition to become skillful, by stopping apprentices from learning trades, and by striving to produce a general level of remuneration, are reducing laborers to the condition of slaves.

Modern industrial civilization is adapted to make the sharp sharper and the dull duller, which is only another way of saying concentration of wealth and diffusion of poverty. Society should strive to atone for its fearful inequalities, not by division and almsgiving, but by strengthening the weak for more successful effort. It must aid the poor and unfortunate by giving them a chance to help themselves. Giving to charities is esteemed generous; it is a truer generosity for the keen man of affairs not to ruinously undersell his less acute neighbor and thus perhaps force him to depend on charity. Above all, no social relief that is not based upon essential causes can be permanently successful. Social reformation that is not in harmony with the underlying laws of Nature will always be a failure. It must follow in the lines indicated by a logical study of the sciences of biology, physiology, and even of pathology. Social law must conform to natural law. All artificial adjustments only complicate existing troubles in leaving untouched the real causes of these troubles. If several men are in a boat that capsizes, all will struggle to reach the shore, but the man who can not swim will sink, although all the legislatures of the world forbid death by drowning. He sinks in obedience to a natural law, attraction of gravitation, the operation of which, to his destruction, he is not expert enough to avoid in an unaccustomed environment. If society will prevent such accidents, it must do it in the natural way of strengthening its members and teaching them how to swim, plainly showing the possible consequences of such a neglect, and not bv issuing fiats against misfortune. This is the natural as distinguished from the artificial method of dealing with a social question. A persistent struggle for continuous and successful life, with intervening accidents or catastrophes, always possible, forms the ever-present condition of physical as well as of social living. Much of our daily energy is necessarily expended in repairing continual bodily waste that the process of life entails, in fighting off disease or avoiding accidents. Life can truly be defined as a struggle for existence. With reference to life in society, Carlyle, in his terse, strong style, puts it thus: "No man lives without jostling and being jostled; in all ways he has to elbow himself through the world, giving and receiving offense. His life is a battle, in so far as it is an entity at all." Sociology must try and determine why many fight such a losing battle, by seeking closer counsel with the laws and teachings of physiology.

The lazy, inefficient, and even the criminal classes, are an inevitable by-product of our complex modern civilization. They are not accidents, but accretions. They are developed by laws that it is the duty of social science to discover and obviate, instead of indulging in idle moralizing. These laws must be evolved by a slow and patient study of social phenomena interpreted by biological methods. When these laws are understood, it will be seen that a sound education is the measure of relief. I use this word in no narrow or conventional sense, but meaning the development of the whole being in the line of the highest strength and efficiency of the various parts. Every effort of the philanthropist, the social reformer, and the Government must be invoked to prevent degradation and degeneration in the poorer classes, and raise them to a better status. The laws of healthy development must be taught, and the consequences of their neglect in the habits of life be shown.

A young man who will marry early and raise a large family in a closely populated center will inevitably involve himself in poverty and his family in misery. Such apparent facts must be laid before the young in time to prevent mistakes that can not be rectified. One of the unfortunate factors in the social question is that the poorest and often the physically unfittest classes are usually the most prolific, for which they sometimes receive needless and undeserved praise. It is the business and duty of Government to do all in its power to prevent or mitigate any environment that all experience shows will produce not only physical and mental inefficiency, but sufficient degradation of the moral sense to make criminals. To this extent can Government profitably interfere in a social question. It may be contended that Government is not a philanthropic institution, and hence it is without its scope to consider means to elevate the shiftless and unfortunate. It may also be argued that Government can not consistently interfere even with the degradation of people without assuming a right to regulate all their affairs. But, outside of all theoretical objections, no one will deny the right and duty of Government to look out for itself. Self-preservation is a law that applies to governments as well as to individuals. Any factors that threaten the stability of organized society, threaten at the very same time the very existence of governments. Hence, when scientific and hygienic laws show that certain environments degrade and degenerate men, they must be prevented, although appearing to interfere with the liberty of the subject. No legal shibboleth must be allowed to stand in the way of such action. Government in its function of preserving itself, and looking out for the best good of the majority, must prevent a minority from living in any way it can take cognizance of that plainly lessens their health and efficiency.

In spite of caste, society is homogeneous. One section can not suffer long without affecting all. If one part is much diseased, the healthy part will sooner or later feel the infection. More equable health will equalize opportunity. Political communism is a dream of agitators. The toiling, weary, worsted masses look in vain to such a chimera. Deliverance must come from within. Our popular agitators are impatient of a few weeks' delay in righting the wrongs of society. Reform of this kind that is measured by months is superficial and uncertain. Nature in progressing is prodigal of time, but operates with certainty and thoroughness.

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