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Julio Muñoz-Rubio*

(*Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México)

The influence that Political Economy exerted over Darwin has been studied on several occasions. This influence played a decisive role in the Darwinian conception of natural selection. It can be affirmed that the individualist principles of Political Economy are strongly rooted in the Darwinian vision of the world and form an inseparable part of his theory, his ideology and his culture. This is particularly true in what is referred to Malthus' influence. It is possible to realize that some of the elements Darwin established in his work concerning human evolution are present in Malthus' work in a rudimentary way; that shows that the influence he exerted over Darwin is wider than usually tended to think, and that forms part of the hegemonic view of the times in which both lived and that they share with the overwhelming majority of the intelectuals of their times.

The same structure of Malthus' work allows us to come near to an exam of his concept on the development of society and thus to understand how he could be constitited as an important antecedent for Darwinian idea. After a brief introduction on the general thesis from which Malthus begins, he makes an extense analysis of the dyamics of human populations, starting by those considered to be the most primitive and progressively advancing towards the ones considered the most civilized, that is to say, those of Western Europe. Malthus points out, in such a way, the existence of "positive" and "preventive" checks (namely wars, hungers, epidemies on one side and education and abstinence on the other) that appeared in that order in the history of humankind in order to avoid uncontrolled population growth:

"The sum of all these preventive and positive checks, taken together, forms the inmediate check to population; and it is evident that, in every country where the whole of the procreative power cannot be called into action, the preventive and positive checks must vary inversely as each other, that is, in countries either naturally unhealthy, or subject to a great mortality, from whatever cause it may arise, the preventive check will prevail very little. In those countries, on the contrary, which are naturally healthy, and where the preventive check is found to prevail considerable force, the positive check will prevail very little, or the mortality be very small."

So Malthus establishes a base for conceiving human progress. How the change of a country passing from unhealty to healthy is going to operate?: the struggle, the dispute for the scarce available resources is the mechanism that enables some human beings to survive and progress and obligates forces others to perish:

"Such a state of things has powerfully contributed to generate that ferocious spirit of warfare observable among savages in general and most particularly among the Americans. Their object in battle is not conquest, but destruction, The life of the victor depends on the death of his enemy; and in the rancour and fell spirit of revenge with which he pursues him, he seems constantly to bear in mind the distress that would be consequent of defeat."

"And the frequent contests with tribes in the same circunstance with themselves would be so many struggles for existence, and could be fought with a desperate courage inspired by the reflection that death would be the punishment of defeat and life the prize of victory.

In these savage contests, many tribes must have been utterly exterminated. Many probably perished by hardships and famine. Others, whose leading star had given them a happier direction, became great and powerful tribes, and in their turn sent off fresh adventures in search of other seats."

This transit from a primitive social state towards a more advanced shows a paralelism with Darwin's, that becomes even clearer when Malthus states that:

"The capacity of improvement in plants and animals, to a certain degree, no person can possibly doubt...In human life, though there are great variations from different causes, it may be doubted whether since the world began any organic improvement whatever of the human frame can be clearly ascertained. The foundations, therefore, on which the arguments for the organic perfectibility of man rest are unusually weak, and can only be considered as mere conjectures. It does not however by any means seem impossible that by an attention to breed a certain degree of improvement similar to that among animals might take place among men. Whether intellect vould be communicated may be a matter of doubt; but size, strength, beauty, complexion and perhaps even longevity, are in a degree transmissible... As in the human race, however, could not be improved in this way without condemning all the bad specimens to celibacy, it is not probable that an attention to breed should ever become general; indeed I know of no well-directed attempts of this kind, except the ancient family of Bickerstaffs, who are said to have been very succesfull in whitening the skins and increasing the height of their race by prudent marriages, particularly by that judicious cross with Maud, the milkmaid, by which some capital defects in the constitutions of the family were corrected."

It is true that Malthus manifests some doubts in this part of his work, but he is anyway admitting the possibility that the physical characteristics of human beings, being transmitted to next generations, might lead to an improvement of the race, and also admits that this happens by means that later Darwin would name in a similar way. The reading of this part of Malthus' work reminds us of Darwin's points of view concerning artificial selection. This is an important coincidence among both. Malthus refutes the idea that an improvement in race could lead to a complete prefection, but the possibility of obtaining a variation of the physical characters is already present. Besides, Malthus outlines some parameters of the "improved" race. Where he does not leave margin for doubt is in that the white skin and the increased height are the characteristics of the superior race. For Malthus it is possible to find some humnan groups which are better than others and additionally to find a consequence of social development: the elimination, early or late, though partial, of all those that are not the best. Such would be an inevitable consequence given the constancy of the laws of the Universe. With all this, Malthus leaves the door open for further researches on matters that at the time when the "Essay was written, were still very poorly studied and for which Malthus himself starts establishing the first bases.

Darwin took up again the general Malthusian scheme, But he was not alone. Other authors came to his aid in order to explain the similarity among the mechanisms that act on plants, animals and human beings allowing their distribution, modification or extintion. Greene mentions Francis Galton, Walter Bagehot, W. R. Greg, David Page and Herbert Spencer among other authors.

When the points of view of Darwin, Bagehot, Greg, Page and Spencer on the particular are compared with those of Malthus, the existent coincidences among all of them are observed. The transference to Darwinism of the Malthusian concept of "struggle for existence" in authors like Bagehot, was mentioned some decades ago, pointing out that such a transference caused that a thesis originated to solve problems of Economics an Politics, in the end, was of a great utilitty to solve problems of natural sciences.

F. Galton stated that only birth control could make a counterwight to the tendency of civilization to weaken society, allowing it the elimination of his weakest and inferior members. M. Greg manifested his conviction that the strongest and most favoured will succeed in competition, exterminating, governing and leaving aside the inferior races and tribes, regardless of any moral consideration. Walter Bagehot asserted that progress is the result of conflict among races, tribes and nations, among which mixtures could be produced with a variability until a certain point benefical. This thesis is shared by David Page, who thinks that progress is the result of the reiterated raising of new and more advanced races, originated in the struggle for existence.

Darwin, determined to find a general scientifc explanation for the evolution of all species of the planet, launched an offensive against creationism, that affirmed that human beings were the product of an independent creation from that of the other animals. When carrying out this enterprise, Darwin affirmed that: "My object [...] is solely to shew that there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties." He carefully red the above mentioned authors, coincided in general terms with all them and with Malthus, Political Economy and with the ideology of laissez faire. In this sense, from the start of the "Descent of Man" he clearly stablished that:

"The enquirer would next come to the important point, whether man tends to increase at so rapid a rate, as to lead to ocassional severe struggle for existence, and consequently to benefical variations, whether in body or mind, being preserved, and injurious ones eliminated. Do the races of species of men, whichever term may be applied, enroach on and replace each other, so that some finally become extinct? We shall see that all these questionsm, as indeed is obvious in respect to most of them, must be answered in the affirmative, in the same manner as with the lower animals"

Darwin recognized that the action of natural selection on moral, intelectual and physical faculties, the efects of mental and moral exercise and the influence of social institutions, public opinion, etc, are the factors of human evolution and that competition among individuals, tribes, races and nations were the motor of progress of humankind; such competition was conceived as a necessity and in this he coincides with political economists of his times. According to him, it is a constant that a higher intelligence of the individuals will yield to a major sucess in comparision with the less inteligents and therefore they will leave a more numerous descendance than the latter:

"We can see that in the rudest state of society, the individuals who were the most sagacious, who invented and used the best weapons or traps, and who were the best able to defend themselves, would rear the greatest number of offspring. The tribes which included the largest number of men thus endowed would increase in number and supplant each other tribes [...] At the present day civilised nations are everywhere supplanting barbarous nations, excepting where the climate opposes a deadly barrier; and they succeded mainly, though not exclusively through their arts, which are the products of the intellect. It is therefore highly probable that with mankind the intellectual faculties have been gradually perfected through natural selection; and this conclusion is sufficient for our purposes."

All of which becomes clearer in the next paragraphs:

"Now, if some man in a tribe, more sagacious than the others, invented a new snare or weapon, or other means of attack or defense, the plainest self-interest, without the assistance of much reasoning power would prompt the other members to imitate him; and all would this profit [...] If the new invention were an important one, the tribe would increase in number, spread and supplant other tribes. In a tribe thus rendered more numerous there would always be a rather better chance for the birth of other superior and inventive members. If such men left children to inherit their mental superiority, the chance of the birth of still more ingenious members would be somewhat better [...]"

"When two tribes of primeval man, living in the same country, came into competition,if the one tribe included [...] a greater number of corageous, sympathetic and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would without doubt succeed best and conquer the other [...] A tribe possessing the above qualities in a high degree would spread and be victorious over other tribes, but in the course of time it would, judging from past history, be in its turn overcome by some other and still more higlhly endowed tribe. Thus the social and moral qualities would tend slowly to advance and be diffused throughout the world."

And then Darwin concludes that this is the process that has led and will lead to an almost continuous progress of civilization and virtue:

"Obscure as is the problem of advance of civilisation we can at least see that a nation which produced during a lengthened period the greatest number of highly intelectual, energetic, brave, patriotic and benevolent man, would generally prevail over less favoured nations."

Further on, he adds something that shows with more clearness the Malthusian character of his conception about social development:

"If the various checks specified in the last paragraph [...] do not prevent the reckless, the vicious and otherwise inferior members of society from increasing at a quicker rate than the better class of men, the nation will retrograde as has occurred too often in the history of the world. We must remember that progress is no invariable rule. It is most difficult to say why one civilized nation progresses more at one time than at another. We can only say that it depends on an increase in the actual number of the population, on the number of the men endowed with high intelectual and moral faculties as well as on their standard of excellence. Corporeal structure, except so far as vigour of body leads to vigour of mind, appears to have little influence."

Concerning natural selection Darwin expressed that it is precisely in the most primitive civilizations where it is presented as the most important mechanism of human evolution:

"But as man suffers from the same physical evils with the lower animals, he has no right to expect an immunity from the evils consequent on the struggle for existence [...] When we see in many parts of the world enormous areas of the most fertile land peopled by a few wandering savages, but which are capable of supporting numerous happy homes, it might be argued that the struggle for existence had not been sufficiently severe to force man upwards to his highest standard. Judging from all that we know of men and the lower animals, there has always been sufficient variability in the intellectual and moral faculties, for their steady advancement through natural selection."

Nevertheless, this mechanism is still present in contemporay Western civilization:

There is appartently much truth in the belief that the wonderful progess of the United States as well as the character of the people, are the results of natural selection; the more energetic, restless, and courageous men from all parts of Europe having emigrated during the last ten or twelve generations to that great country, and having there succeded best."

The Darwin's discourse coincides with those of Galton, Bagehot, Greg and Malthus. For all of them human nature is determined by struggle, desires of domination and submissions. They spoke in terms of the clever facing the clumsy, the wise facing the fool, the strong facing the weak, the ambitious, brave and sagacious facing the lazy and indolent; in terms of attack and defence. Darwin does not have a distinct position. The most sagacious, wiste and inventive individuals are the ones who will triumph and have an opportunity for leaving a more numerous progeny. For him, the open contest is where it is proved who has the major opportunities for surviving and leaving a major progeny.

Henceforth, the community will exist as an analytical category subordinated to the individual. Darwin explains social progress in terms of the existence of capable and uncapable individuals, of the best an less-endowed with intelectual abilities to develop. In human populations exist individuals with diverse physical, intelectual and moral faculties. But Darwin does not reflect on why just some of them excel at a given time and contribute to the development of community whereas others do not. He treats this capacities as something innate and natural. Darwin manages the idea that natural selection can be a mechanism by means of which these type of individuals reach sucess in a certain moment. In so doing he falls into biological reductionism and determinism. For Darwin, Hobbesian thesis of the permanent state of war af all against all is the expression not of a set of social forces with historical and specific character, or else of economical factors privatives of a historical phase, but the inevitable result of the inescapable law of nature. This is obviolusly coherent with his system of thought. He clearly expressed that "Nevertheless, the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree, not of kind" According to this central thesis, there are no laws of society that cannot be explained basically in terms of general biological laws. Appearence of humankind did not result in any qualitative change. In short, it is an ahistorical view.

Darwin, at the end of his life wrote a widely-known letter to W. Graham, on july 3, 1881, in which he moulded the ahistoricity of his view of society:

"I could show fight on natural selection having done and doing more for the progress of civilization than you seem inclined to admit. Remember what risk the nations of Europe ran, not so many centuries ago, of being overwhelmed by the Turks, and how ridiculous such an idea now is! The more civilized so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for exsitence. Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilized races throughout the world. "

According to this idea, Otoman empire was beforehand destined to be defeated due to the inherent superiority of the Caucasian races it had challenged. Political, social, economic, in short, cultural factors that at a certain moment allowed the peak of that empire and later hastended its fall did not play a predominant role.

The influence of Political Economy is represented in this aspect of darwinian theory. For Darwin it is clear that a better-endowed individual is in better conditions for leaving a more numerous progeny, for he is more capable of defeating his opponents and establish his own rules. If we extend this concept to a social scale, a community of this type of people will possess these capacities as well. Therefore, it is necessary to search for the measures to allow the major part of the progeny to come from that type of fittests individuals, races, tribes and/or nations. If it is not done so and if proliferation of persons belonging to weak and primitive groups is allowed, a period or social retreat could happen. Any mechanisms that causes the descendance of the weakest to increase will be an obstacle for the progress of a tribe or a nation, therefore, it is necesary to eliminate that possibility, augmenting the obstacles for the foolest and reckless and eliminating them for the wisest. In this aspect of Malthus' and Darwin's works a paralelism exists that night be expressed as: Positive cheks, so important for the control of population growth in ancient times or among the most backward tribes, play for Malthus an analogous role to Darwin's natural selection, while preventive checks, that is to say, Malthusian's "moral restraints", are the conceived in terms of the good preparation in Darwin's work. In this last aspect there are not fundamental differences among both authors.

The common parameter that both Malthus and Darwin, along with other studious of the laws of biological and social evolution find in order to postulate competition as the basic process on which change and development rests, is that of scarcity of resources, either economic, labour or natural. According to this, the features of all living beings will be determined in a good part by such scarcity; the struggle established among all of them is in order to get the major part of the few resources available to survive. When Darwin and the other evolutionists already cited take this idea up again and extend it to the whole set of populations, they build a system of ideas that has two characteristics. First, as it has been explained above, it is a reductionist view that does not explain clearly the basic aspects in which human beings differnatiate from the other living species. Secondly, this is observed in a natural way, it is part of a fixed natural law. In so pretending to erase the fundamental barriers that separate animals from human beings, the living world, human beings included, is presented to Darwin as an entity completely subject to biological laws. In this way, and denying the process of a distinct creation, which was defended by the most retrograde sectors of society, Darwin, correctly attempted to strip living world of an antropocentric image of nature, and particularly of living world. However, he was limited in the development of this task because he was supporting himself on an equally anthropocentric view of nature and of living world based on the laws of free competition, belonging to capitalism. This view limited enormously his model and, contradicting his manifest purposes, favoured him to be continually introducing anthropocentric elements in order to explain the dynamics of growth and development of biological populations and particularly animal behaviour. In other words: biologization of society resulted also an antropologization of nature. In order to reafirm this basically anthropocentric conception, Darwin extrapolated to the whole living world a notion of progress extracted also from Political Economy, namely the idea originally set forth by Adam Smith (and later taken up again by Milne-Edwards and others) that the increases on industrial productivity would be in a direct proportion to division of labour at manufactures. He expressed:

"The best definition of advancement or progress in the organic scale ever given, is that by Von Baer; and this rests on the amount of differentiation and specialization of several parts of the same being, when arrived, as I should be inclined to add, at maturity. Now as organisms have become slowly adapted by means of natural selection for diversified lines of life, their parts will have become, from the advantage gained by the physiological division of labour, more and more differentiated and specialised for various functions."

The problem is that this analogy has been made after analizing the progress among human beings in a phase of history. Hence, it does not take any effort to apply it again to the dynamics of humankind, since the definition comes originally from there. If besides, class differences among animals and human beings have been eliminated, competition is posed as the moving force of history and natural selection as the variation-producing mechanism, the most natural conclusion is that Western-Europe civilization would be, according to the inviolable laws of nature, the most developed one, and even inside it different degrees of advance could be found.

The discourse coming form such a conception of living beings' behavior is characterized by the asignation to the different species of a series of clearly human concepts in order to try to understand the behaviour if animals mainly. This vocabulary has impregnated the discourse of Biology as time goes by. Young has compiled a series of terms such as submission, order, aggresion. competitivity, domination, worker, slave. soldier queen, combat, altrusim, selfishness, leadership. territoriality, etc. utilized in the contemporary work by E. O. Wilson de E. O. Wilson: "Sociobiology: The New Synthesis", in order to show the anthropocentric character of that discipline. In order to show how deep-rooted is this antropocentric discourse in the work of Darwin, I cite the following terms, coming form "The Origin of Species": prosperity, love, hate, success, possession, happines, dominance, imitation, subordination, weapons, charms, and of course, advantage, competition, fitness, struggle and selection; all of which are present from the beggining to the end of that work, and constitute the basis for the use and abuse of the above terms at modern Ecology, Ethology and Sociobiology at least. This vocabulary is nothing but a series of proyections of an historical and cultural experience, particular of human society, to the whole set of the living species.

The use of metaphors is inevitable in science. Countless cases of transposition of terms and concepts from a sphere of knowledge to another exist, and Biology would not have any particular reason for being exceptional. It is necessary to find an explanation not so much for the general use of metaphors, but in order to explain why, in particular moments of the history of science, some metaphors are chosen instead of others. I think Darwin used these metaphors instead of others because were terms deeply rooted in the culture and values of the middle and high classes of the British society in which he lived and with which was fully identified.

It is possible to note that when Darwin talks about intelligence, sagacity or inventive capacity of human beings, he does not treat such qualities as cultural nor -as was mentioned earlier- as historical phenomena. According to him, if those cualities exist, they will necesarily and inevitabily express, themselves, and with great probability will dominate laziness and indolence, and thus, to the members of a non-enterprising tribe or race. All along this reasoning the importance of cultural and historical factors as elements that can reinforce or inhibit sagacity, intelligence and inventive capacity occupies a secondary place in the analysis. This is a characteristic of a biologicist view of human being.

After certain state of social development is reached, society is inmersed in a cumulus of structures and social insitutions, rules, legislations, behavior norms, lifestiles, moral values and ideologies that pursue the control of the existence of human beings so that it develops inside the limits of what is considered to be good, useful or beneficial. The existence of human beings in a given society is a net of extremely complex relationships that can repress or reinforce the intelectual and moral capacities of the individuals. The debate with Social Darwinists (including Darwin) is whether this social conditions in which each individual develops, are predetermined or not by race or sex, and moreover, if those capacities can be modified along generations due to mechanisms distinct to the biological ones. The Darwinian conception, as erasing the existent borders between human beings and other species, limits the possibility that human beings are able to modify these capacities with their practice along history and inside a socitey and a culture specific for a historical phase.

This is the benfit that biologicist conception of the human being -that, as I have attempted to show is, at the same time an anthropocentric conception of nature- lends at last to present social and economic orders, covered under the robe of the apartent objectivity and neutrality that scientific knowledge provides. Malthus was pioneer in the attempts to find "true", "objective" and "neutral", reasons but above all overall insuperable and irremediables in relation to the social inequalities, although his scope was still relatively narrow because he refered exclusively to human population, but without doubt Darwin and Darwinism have advanced very much in that sense. It should not seem strange, therefore, that a so close comparsion between the behavior of human being in this capitalist society and the behavior of the other species, particularly the so-called "social species", has been effected; nor that the dynamic view and corresponding values of this stage has been extended to the set of the other living beings. The discourse that political economitsts elaborate has a starting point that constitutes its central aspect: The defense of private property. Darwin shares that defence. It has been clearly shown, for example, that Darwin was opposed to the existence of trade unions because he considered that they caused prejudice to the competitive dynamics of society and besides, he conceived the accumulation of capital as indispensable for progress, as can be clearly proved:

"In all civilised countries man accumulates property and bequeaths it to his children. So that the children in the same country do not by any means start fair in the race for success. But this is far from an unmixed evil; for without the accumulation of capital the arts could not progress, and it is chiefly through their power that the civilised races have extended and are now everywhere extending, their range, so as to take the place of the lower races."

In this sense, he was effecting a defence of the interest of a precise social order. Of course this should not be reduced to the vulgar idea that this objective was present in his mind in every moment of his research, but the discourse that he and many of his contemporary colleagues were able to build, has an ideological foundation that intends to make a defence of the laws of capitalist market, and through it, of the conpetitive behavior proper to this society, which nevertheless, is not eternal. It is just that, a phase in the development of history and therefore has a transitory character.


I am especially grateful to doctor Carlos López-Beltrán from the Instituto de Investigaciones Filosóficas of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) for the revision and suggestions to the present work. I wish to thank also to doctors Ambrosio Velasco-Gómez and Alejandro Herrera-Ibáñez from the same Institute; to doctors Marco A. Martínez-Negrete and Edna M. Suárez-Diáz from the Facultad de Ciencias of the UNAM, to doctor Juan S. Nuñez-Farfán, from the Centro de Ecología of the UNAM and to doctor Jorge Martínez-Contreras, from the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana (UAM) of México City for their valuable comments and suggestions.


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