…if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin. — Charles Darwin (1839)
For most of recorded history, poverty reflected God’s will. The poor were always with us. They were not inherently immoral, dangerous, or different. They were not to be shunned, feared, or avoided. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a harsh new idea of poverty and poor people as different and inferior began to replace this ancient biblical view. In what ways, exactly, are poor people different from the rest of us became – and remains – a burning question answered with moral philosophy, political economy, social science, and, eventually, biology. Why did biological conceptions of poverty wax and wane over the last century and a half? What forms have they taken? What have been their consequences?
The biological definition of poverty reinforces the idea of the undeserving poor, which is the oldest theme in post-Enlightenment poverty discourse. Its history stretches from the late eighteenth century through to the present. Poverty, in this view, results from personal failure and inferiority. Moral weaknesses – drunkenness, laziness, sexual promiscuity – constitute the most consistent markers of the undeserving poor. The idea that a culture of poverty works its insidious influence on individuals, endowing them with traits that trap them in lives of destitution, entered both scholarly and popular discourse somewhat later and endures to this day. Faulty heredity composes the third strand in the identification of the undeserving poor; backed by scientific advances in molecular biology and neuroscience, it is enjoying a revival. The historical record shows this idea in the past to have been scientifically dubious, ethically suspect, politically harmful, and, at its worst, lethal. That is why we should pay close attention to its current resurgence.
This article excavates the definition of poor people as biologically inferior. It not only documents its persistence over time but emphasizes three themes. First, the concept rises and falls in prominence in response to institutional and programmatic failure. It offers a convenient explanation for why the optimism of reformers proved illusory or why social problems remained refractory despite efforts to eliminate them. Second, its initial formulation and reformulation rely on bridging concepts that try to parse the distance between heredity and environment through a kind of neo-Lamarkianism. These early bridges invariably crumble. Third, hereditarian ideas always have been supported by the best science of the day. This was the case with the ideas that ranked “races”; underpinned immigration restrictions; and encouraged compulsory sterilization – as well as those that have written off the intellectual potential of poor children.
In its review of the biological strand in American ideas about poverty, this article begins in the 1860s with the first instance of the application of hereditarian thought I have discovered; moves forward to social Darwinism and eugenics, immigration restriction, and early IQ testing. It then picks up the story with Arthur Jensen’s famous 1969 article in the Harvard Educational Review, follows it to the Bell Curve, and ends with the astonishing rise of neuroscience and the field of epigenetics. It concludes by arguing that despite the intelligence, skill, and good intentions of contemporary scientists, the history of biological definitions of poor persons calls for approaching the findings of neuroscience with great caution.