Popular Science Monthly/Volume 41/June 1892/The Survival of the Unfit

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IS modern civilization advancing along satisfactory lines toward a higher development? We hope and believe so, but there are not a few who consider such a question an open one. Both the pessimist and optimist can have much to say on either side of this problem. The forces at work in society are diverse and complex, acting like the ceaseless operation of a complicated engine that is constantly pushing on, throwing some up and some down, and leaving many a wreck behind. It is of pregnant interest to study the destructive factors at work in society that not only produce the unfit, but also tend to their survival. This question derives its principal significance from the apparently hopeless task of dealing with the unfit. Science and theology, from widely divergent poles, appear to reach much the same conclusion with regard to delinquents. Darwinism and Calvinism present about an equally hopeful consideration for the unfortunates of our race. One says heredity and environment; the other, predestination and foreordination. Both suggest the witty aphorism of Dr. Holmes, that the proper time to begin the treatment of some diseases is a hundred years before birth.

A glance at some statistics, published in the United States census reports will be interesting in this connection. The following figures are taken from a table showing the number of insane, idiotic, blind, and deaf-mutes in the United States, in the years named, respectively, according to the census:

1880. 1870. 1860. 1850.
Defectives 251,698 98,484 68,451 50,994
Total population 50,155,783 38,558,371 31,443,321 23,191,876

According to these figures, the population a little more than doubled in thirty years, while the number of defective persons returned was nearly five times as great as it had been thirty years before. During the decade from 1870-'80 the increase in population was 30 per cent; during the same interval of time the apparent increase in the defective classes was a little more than 155 per cent. There is much talk about the increase of insanity in our day, and statistics appear to bear witness to the truth of such reports. The following shows the ratio of insane population to the entire population for the whole country in different years:[1]

1860 1 to 1,310.
1870 1 to 1,100.
1880 1 to 570.

The latest report of the Census Bureau states that the total number of insane persons treated in both public and private institutions during the year 1889 was 97,535, while during the year 1881 there were 56,205 treated; showing an increase in the nine years of 41,330, or 73·53 per cent. This percentage of increase, when compared with the percentage of increase of population in the last decade, namely, 24·86, does not necessarily indicate an increase in the proportion of insane persons to population, but rather a great increase in the amount of asylum accommodation provided, and a willingness on the part of the public to make full use of all the facilities thus offered. The bulletin states that the figures for the actual number of insane in the United States can not be determined until the work of eliminating all duplicate reports of cases has been completed.

The ratio of insane in public and private institutions of the United States is to the entire population as 1·56 to 1,000.[2] As these figures represent only institutions to which large numbers of the mildly insane are never sent, they point to an increase in insanity. Objections may be made to figures tending to show a relative increase of the defective classes, on the ground that statistics are now much, more carefully collected than formerly, which is certainly true. It may be said, however, that errors in the returns of the defectives were not confined to this class, but were more or less distributed among the different elements of population. The accurate collation of defectives is a task of great difficulty. While their number is now relatively better known than formerly, their absolute number will never be as accurately tabulated as other parts of the community, but a study of statistics shows that they tend to increase.

With regard to paupers, the recent census shows the total number in almshouses to be 73,045.[3] The number reported in 1880 was 66,203. The ratio of almshouse paupers to the total population at that time was 1 to 758; the ratio in 1890 was 1 to 857, showing a decrease. This decline in the ratio is attributed to the very muck smaller number of paupers cared for in the almshouses in the North Atlantic division. It is interesting to note that the foreign population of this country contributes, directly or indirectly, very nearly three fifths of all the paupers supported in almshouses. There is no way of learning the number of outdoor poor which is large as they are supported, partly or in whole, by private charity. Mrs. Lowell estimates that the number of paupers in the public and private institutions of New York city, totally supported at any one time, is about 28,000. The cost of maintaining them during 1890 was $3,794,972. She further states that, if we go back forty years, we find that the increase of contributions of public funds to private persons for the support of private paupers has been from $9,863 in 1850 to $1,845,872 in 1890, and that the amount is nearly two hundred times what it was forty years ago. The increase of expenditure for public paupers, through the hands of public officials, has been at a much less ratio, increasing from $421,882 to $1,949,100 during the same interval of time.[4]

What is society to do with its horde of defectives? Unfortunately, it does practically nothing to check their production. The sources of the muddy stream are left untouched, while larger and larger reservoirs are being constantly built to collect and conserve the contaminated flow. One can not help noticing how this humanitarian age is abundantly equipped with asylums, almshouses, reformatories, and hospitals of all kinds. If the good accomplished by such agencies could be measured solely by relief of suffering and cure of disease, the results would be nothing but gratifying. A collateral danger is in keeping alive sickly and defective classes, who are often as prolific as they are inefficient. In our civilization these institutions have become a necessity, but their abuse should be carefully guarded against. What is urgently needed are homes or retreats where poor convalescent patients can recuperate after their discharge from the hospital. As it is, such people, in a weakened condition, have no place to seek the needed rest, and either fall victims again to a former disease, or become chronic invalids. Here would seem to be a more fruitful field for philanthropy than the building of additional hospitals. Above all, more of an effort should be made to get at the roots of the cause than to temporize so with the effect. Municipal governments annually devote large sums of money for the care of the sick, the criminal, and the insane, but devote no energy to investigating and striving to prevent the factors that are constantly at work in producing these classes. Here, if ever, an ounce of prevention is equal to many pounds of cure. The Department of Public Charities and Correction of New York city, with its 15,000 wards, received $2,166,237 in 1891, and requests an appropriation of $2,877,245 for 1892. If a part of the money that is annually devoted to keeping alive the helpless and suffering could in some way be diverted toward remedying unhealthy domiciles, relieving overcrowded tenements, dissipating polluted air and foul gases, supplying the best food at cheap rates, educating the masses in the simple principles of hygienic living, closing the saloons, and in many like ways checking the sources of disease and degeneration, this knotty problem would find its best solution. The way we can cure is by preventing. We permit factors to exist that degenerate men physically, mentally, and morally, and then bring up a clumsy, mechanical, outside philanthropy to try and reform by patchwork.

Probably one of the greatest dangers to organized society is found in the criminal classes. The laws of the production and confirmation of criminals, with their treatment, should be among the most thoughtfully studied branches of political science. The number of convicts in penitentiaries in 1880 was 35,538, while in 1890 it was 45,233, an increase in ten years of 9,695, or 27·28 per cent, and during this interval the total population increased only at the rate of 24·86 per cent.[5] Again, the total number of prisoners in county jails in 1880 was 12,691; in 1890, 19,538, an increase in ten years of 6,847, or at the rate of 53·95 per cent.[6] Coming to the inmates of juvenile reformatories, we find the number reported in 1880 was 11,468; in 1890, 14,846, an increase of 3,378, or 29·46 per cent.[7] It is thus shown by recent statistics that the various grades of criminal population are increasing more rapidly than the population at large. The same results have been shown by previous census reports. It must also be remembered that a large number of actual criminals are not under confinement, and are hence not included in the figures showing their increase. It has evidently become a vitally important question for decision by society as to the best plan to pursue toward the criminal. In dealing with this problem too much stress is popularly laid upon merely punishing the malefactor. Popular conceptions of the nature of punishment have varied widely with the age. The earliest enactments of penalty were, in form, vindictive; next retributive; and, finally, as the highest conception, reformatory. While the State, uninfluenced either by vindictive feeling or pity, deprives criminals of liberty for a time as a measure of self-protection, it must adopt some mode of treatment during incarceration. The old plan consists in getting a certain amount of work out of them to aid in their support, but without making any effort at reform. The unexpressed idea appears first to get even with them, and then kick them out upon society, usually to begin depredations again. An abnormal mental and moral atmosphere is diffused in such a prison, and the large congregation of criminals is a school for confirming the vicious. The reformatory plan aims at the prisoner's rehabilitation, so that there may be some hope of right behavior after release. This result is sought by means of physical renovation, industrial and intellectual education, and general moral impression. In order to satisfactorily apply these agencies the science of penology has shown an indefinite sentence with a conditional discharge, including partial oversight after discharge, to be necessary. It is a fact proved by statistics that a large percentage of criminals are defective either physically or mentally, and have had an unfavorable heredity and environment.[8] Under the general system in this country no attempt is made to rehabilitate them during confinement. Criminals are first made to a certain extent by unfortunate heredity and unfavorable social conditions, and then confirmed by imprisonment. "Weak character and environment bring out the unfittest elements, and society by its treatment hastens to provide for their survival. When we see that, according to past census reports, crime has more than doubled every ten years for the past half-century, the importance of this subject becomes manifest. The most practical and successful trial of the advanced method in this country is seen at the Elmira Reformatory. Here the prisoner goes to school and receives the needed bodily and mental training, by which it is endeavored to form a stable base for moral improvement.

In conclusion, we must repeat that, in our consideration of the defective and delinquent classes, more attention should be given to prevention. Let our greatest energies be devoted to combating the conditions that are at work in society producing the unfit, rather than so industriously providing for their survival. When such a class is formed, it should be permanently isolated from the rest of society. Recent legislation in Ohio adjudges a person an habitual criminal when convicted of a third offense, under which he may be held for life. This law is based upon sound physiology and psychology. Such a permanent quarantine should be applied to all tramps, cranks, and generally worthless beings. Society must do this for protection, not punishment; to avoid their contamination; and, above all, to prevent the propagation of their kind. Advanced sociology will devote its principal energies to avoiding the production of the unfit, and then see to it that they do not survive beyond one generation. Here lies the only solution of this difficult problem—first prevention, next permanent isolation.

  1. Dr. C. L. Dana, in Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, April, 1882.
  2. Census Bulletin, No. 62, May 9, 1891.
  3. Census Bulletin, No. 90, July 8, 1891.
  4. Christian Union, August 25, 1891.
  5. Census Bulletin, No. 31, February 14, 1891.
  6. Census Bulletin, No. 95, July 14, 1891.
  7. Census Bulletin, No. 72, May 27, 1891.
  8. Of 552 convicts received at the State Penitentiary for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in 1886, 263 were found in a condition of impaired health, and 174 were in an unsound mental condition, as follows: Insane, 12; epileptics, 7; mentally undeveloped, 61; weak intellect, 77; idiotic, 17: 159 were inclined to grave diseases of the neurotic type, which tend to modify the moral, mental, and physical condition from inheritance of bad formation.