Welfare Poison: Why everything you believed about the politics of nature-nurture may no longer be true

Welfare Poison: Why everything you believed about the politics of nature-nurture may no longer be true

Maurizio Meloni

In 1910 the British eugenics movement was shaken by a violent debate on the long-term effects of alcoholism. A study of the Galton Laboratory, under Karl Pearson’s supervision, denied the existence of a relationship “between parental alcoholism and defective health in the children.” Challenging the evidence of the so-called ‘temperance doctors’, it argued that “the children of the intemperate are healthier than the children of the sober”—an indirect effect of the more virile constitutions of heavy-drinkers (Elderton and Pearson, 1910). Uproar followed.

The most vocal advocate of the rival group was a doctor, Caleb Saleeby. A eugenicist like Pearson but of a different temper, Saleeby believed in the effects of nurture on human heredity. These effects, however, were mostly negative, “poisons”, as he defined alcohol, lead, morphine, and venereal disease, were all substances “liable to originate degeneracy in healthy stocks” (1910b). Saleeby’s view was far from being exceptional at the time. Various psychiatrists in Europe like Auguste Forel or Emil Kraepelin were supporting similar views of a transferred inferiority from one generation to another because of the exposure to various pathogenic environments, or just bad habits.

Saleeby was a good writer and a subtle polemist and accused Pearson of having cherry-picked figures to deny that alcohol poisoned otherwise healthy stocks. He even claimed to have been “informed that a large German brewery is widely using Professor Pearson’s conclusions for the purposes of advertisement.” (1910a). It is worth noticing that in the same year another fellow of the Galton’s Lab, David Heron, had published a somehow related (though more cautious) report on “the influence of defective physique and unfavourable home environment on the intelligence of school children” (1910) where he made a similar point: there was no direct effect of deprivation on intelligence.

Make no mistakes here. The Pearson group was far from being humanitarian. Famously mocked by their enemies as the “better dead school” (as they didn’t believe in social intervention and preferred to leave everything in the hands of inborn factors), they were simply making a point of principle: environmentally acquired degeneration was not passed through generations. Saleeby was instead a sort of humanitarian eugenicist (not a contradiction at the time): he wanted a better social environment to cure poisoned heredity, but meantime he was not shy to claim for restricted citizenship for the degenerated stocks and their offspring.

More than one century later, and as a result of profound changes in the way we understand the relationship between environmental and biological factors, this nearly forgotten dispute has acquired a new significance. The Saleeby-Pearson debate is important because it shows that there are many ways to be a eugenist: one of which is to believe in the primacy of environmental causation, as Saleeby did. The alignment between supporters of the environment and an anti-eugenic position is far from being a necessary link.

I want to read Adam Perkins’ The Welfare Trait in the context of that debate. The book’s argument is known for its crudity: the welfare state erodes human capital by encouraging the proliferation of an “employment-resistant personality profile”. These antisocial, rule-breaker, and irresponsible people not only “suffer impaired life outcomes, but also transmit that difficulty to their children and thus risk damaging the life chances of the next generation” (4). I will not discuss here the many significant criticisms received by Perkins, from the (mis)use of data to the very questionable language and sweeping generalizations. I am more interested in using Perkins’ book as a taste (or a spyglass) of recent conceptual shifts in the relationship between the biological and the social, and a shifting balance between the power of genes and that of environment in shaping human development.

Superficially, Perkins looks very much a new Pearson: the hate for the welfare, the coldness with which he addresses social issues, and above all the reiteration of a key obsession of mainstream eugenics. This is the belief (expressed by Pearson in 1905 and nearly literally repeated by Perkins) that “we have two groups in the community, one parasitic on the other. The latter thinks of tomorrow and is childless, the former takes no thought and multiplies.”

However, if the style is Pearsonian, it would be wrong to put Perkins on Pearson’s side. Ironically, the key argument of the book is much closer to Saleeby. It is here where Perkins’ book has not been well understood by its critics, perhaps because his key argument is obscured by a Dawkins-styled rhetoric in which Perkins still tries to use genes to explain antisocial people. But this is not where the key argument of the book lies. Perkins’s thesis is very different from mainstream eugenics. He is right when he claims that, “my argument is not the tired old Social-Darwinist dysgenic one that has been offered many times before in intelligence related debates, but rather hinges less on genetic factors and more on the crucial role of childhood disadvantage in forming the employment-resistant personality” (116, my italics). As Perkins states from the very beginning, “genes don’t have much to do with this – the environment is much more important”.

Perkins subtly picks ‘personality’, not intelligence or IQ (which he deems to be highly heritable, i.e. insensitive to the environment), to make his point. Personality is a biological feature which is less heritable than IQ and therefore “makes more room for environmental effects”. This means that a negative social environment (i.e. the welfare state and its benefits) will harm decisively its developmental trajectory. In particular, through behavioural mechanisms like parental neglect and various other disadvantages in early life the antisocial features of the ‘welfare trait’ will be transmitted through generations impairing the development of future citizens. As he says quite frankly, “If it was the case that personality characteristics were not transmitted between generations, then a welfare state that boosts the number of children born to employment-resistant claimants would not affect the personality profile of the population. The child of a welfare claimant would be just as likely to become a conscientious and agreeable ‘solid citizen’ as the child of the employed person” (my italics).

Here we have exactly Saleeby’s thought-style, i.e. that some environmental factors (the welfare state in this case), not a bad gene, acts like a racial poison harming the present generation, and impairing the chances of the generations to be. Critics may believe that this ‘poison-style scenario’, though following other channels, is not very different from a classical eugenics model based on the proliferation of negative genes because of the faster reproduction of ‘inferior stocks’. I think this is not entirely true: an emphasis on environmental induction can help emphasize reversibility, but can also make these dark scenarios all more likely and, above all, quicker. It is interesting to notice that when Perkins takes the genetic explanatory pathway (chapter 6), he feels obliged to recognize that selective-breeding studies would apply in a very limited way to human beings and would be much slower in effects than the environmental route.

Perkins is far from being a Saleeby however, especially because he does not really engage with epigenetics, with the exception of a few references to Meaney’s past work on the effects of maternal inattention in pups. He would have found there plenty of examples of an emerging style for which experience gets under the skin very early in life and decisively shapes health trajectories, future generations included. The curious thing about this body of research is that this experience is nearly only negative or traumatic, never positive, in a curious repetition of Saleeby’s idea of a racial poison, as I have argued in my recent book Political Biology (2016).

This epigenetic plasticity of traits is then sold as ‘good news’ because, epigeneticists say, many of these acquired problems are then reversible via human intervention. This argument is at best profoundly naïve. Even not mentioning the point of who should take care of this form of intervention, it implies a good intentioned society ready to help out people whom we discover now possessing some sort of biological abnormality. Perkins’ example should remind everyone that even among highly qualified academics, this argument can be always turned upside down to be one about the transmission of degenerative traits. It is also curious how Perkins plays the plasticity (not his term) of human traits. All humans are plastic but some (the poor) seem to be more negatively plastic than others. In Perkins’ idiom: the more disadvantaged the family, the stronger the influence of the environment (which needless to say is a poisoned one).

Don’t expect in 5-10 years from now to see biological racism and classism being retold in the language of Dawkins or the bell-curve. The new racism and classism will speak the language of plasticity and look at the key role of environmental causation, the sensitivity of the prenatal period and early experiences, and a sequela of new biological signatures of disadvantage and poverty, be them written in the epigenome, metabolome or in telomeres’ length.

Elderton, E. and Pearson, K. (1910). A First Study of the Influence of Parental Alcoholism on the Physique and Ability of the Offspring. London: Dulau and Co. Ltd.
Heron, D. (1910) The influence of defective physique and unfavourable home environment on the intelligence of school children. London: Dulau and Co. Ltd.
Meloni, M. (2016) Political Biology: Science and Social Values in Human Heredity from Eugenics to Epigenetics. London: Palgrave.
Perkins, A. (2016) The Welfare Trait. London: Palgrave.
Saleeby, C. (1910a) “Professor Karl Pearson on Alcoholism and Offspring”, British Journal of Inebriety 8 (2), pp. 53-66.
Saleeby, C. (1910b) “The methods of eugenics” The Sociological Review, 3(4), pp.277–286.


Maurizio Meloni is Senior Research fellow in the Department of Sociological Studies at the university of Sheffield. He is a social theorist working on the historical, conceptual, and political implications of the life sciences. He has held two EU Marie Curie Fellowships, a Fulbright scholarship, and an Annual Membership (2014–2015) at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, USA.