How Charles Darwin’s theories influenced the growth of the welfare state

John Bew in New Statesman:

BoyIn the last two decades of the 19th century, a new word began to appear in the writings of biologists and zoologists across Europe, inspired by the work of Charles Darwin. “Degeneration” referred to a subset of the evolutionary story by which a species or subspecies began to lose ground in the evolutionary game. In his 1880 work Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism, the zoologist E Ray Lankester described the phenomenon as “a loss of organisation making the descendant far simpler or lower in structure than its ancestor”. For social scientists and political commentators, the implications for societies and nations of such findings were arresting. In Britain, discussions about degeneration quickly became entangled with fears of national decline. The world’s greatest empire was losing ground in the race with its rivals but was also suffering the effects of chronic complaints in its collective health: the consequence of more than a century of explosive industrialisation and chaotic urbanisation. In 1888, the Lancet, the foremost journal of British medicine, announced that degeneration was “undoubtedly at work among town-bred populations”, due to “unwholesome occupations, improper [diet] and juvenile vice”. While the process could be reversible, it was no longer possible “to ignore the existence of widespread evils and serious dangers to the public health”.

The story of the British state’s approach to poverty and welfare is not one of simple progress towards more benevolence and enlightened policy, but it does have some crowning glories. The watershed moment remains the publication in 1942 of William Beveridge’s white paper Social Insurance and Allied Services, which declared war on the five “giant evils”: “want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness”. Surprisingly for a government publication, it sold half a million copies, and abbreviated versions were dropped behind enemy lines as a declaration of intent – a domestic version of the Atlantic Charter – indicating the type of nation that Britain aspired to be at the end of the war.

More here.