|Political economist Thomas Robert Malthus.|
His controversial work was Darwin's inspiration.
"In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work”.
It was shortly after his return from his five-year voyage on HMS Beagle in 1836 that Darwin read Malthus. He had been putting in long hours writing up his geological notes, but had been developing his theory of evolution in the few spare moments he could find. Darwin was working up an answer to that "mystery of mysteries", as it had been called, the origin of new species. Naturalists and mineralogists had long been pulling strange and wonderful beasts out of the ground in fossil form, and they needed an explanation. Darwin was already familiar with Malthus's ideas; for even though Malthus had originally developed his controversial political economy in the late eighteenth century, Malthusian economics were going through a renaissance in the 1830s. Malthus had made the case that in society, just as in nature, there would never be sufficient food for everyone to live in luxury, indeed, he had argued that there would always be those who went hungry.
The politics of Malthus's position were evident to all. He had written his essay in an attempt to undermine what he believed to be the unrealistic Enlightenment ideals of universal progress and prosperity, and had received harsh criticism from political radicals for his troubles. “An apostle of the rich,” the poet Robert Southey had called him, both amazed and affronted at the “stupid ignorance of the man”; the essay was “Adam Smith’s book in code, a confession of faith in this system; a tedious and hardhearted book.” Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations had long been the bible of liberal political economy, and Malthus was read as furthering those interests.
Indeed, half a century later, far from being decried Malthus's work was embraced by a new generation who saw the notion that individuals should have to struggle to make their way in a competitive world as speaking to their own times. In the context of the industrial revolution, and of a rising middle class of industrialists and entrepreneurs, the values of hard work, thrift and economic independence prevailed; the suggestion too that the poor were responsible for their own plight made Malthus appear all the more emblematic of the times. Historians have long noted that Darwin's theory of natural selection not only echoed, but endorsed the Whig politics of industrial England, and this, I would contend, was a large part of why evolution was accepted in England as quickly as it was. Indeed, while both historians and the public have often been led by their present preoccupations to focus upon the religious implications to Darwin's work, a full consideration of the many and diverse responses to the publication of Origin shows that evolution was read by contemporaries as having as much to say about politics as to theology.
|'Darwin's Bulldog' Thomas Huxley |
embraced the Malthusian politics of
“It is remarkable how Darwin rediscovered, among the beasts and plants, the society of England with its division of labor, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions,’ and Malthusian ‘struggle for existence.’ It is Hobbes’ bellum omniun contra omnes…” [war of all against all].
|Karl Marx thought Origin endorsed capitalism|
|Peter Kropotkin whose mutualist theory|
of evolution was widely recognized
account of altruistic behaviour in Descent of Man.
Piers J. Hale's new book Political Descent. Malthus, Mutualism and the Politics of Evolution in Victorian England in published this month by Chicago University Press. It is available from the press; from online book sellers and through all good bookstores.