Darwin’s Metaphor: Nature’s Place in Victorian Culture

by Robert M. Young





Among some historians of science a new awareness is developing, and its sense is that our work is much less unlike that of other historians than we have hitherto supposed. Both historians of science and other sorts of historians are coming to see that their interests cannot be compartmentalized, that – to put it crudely science happened in history and has influenced historical events increasingly. That there was a need for these changes in attitude implies that both historians of science and other sorts of historians have tended to make two related assumptions: first, that scientific ideas and findings can be dealt with as relatively unequivocal units with fairly sharply defined boundaries and clear-cut linear influences; and second, that “nonscientific” factors played relatively little part in shaping the development of scientific ideas. There have been reactions against these assumptions, which have, however, led to a rather polarized situation with “internalists” and “externalists” conducting relatively unconnected studies. What has not been evident is an approach which considers that varied influences and varying interpretations coming from inside and outside the “scientific” community as traditionally defined are the rule and not the exception. Rather than having internalists versus externalists in the history of science, with both of these groups relatively separated from other sorts of historians, an approach might be developed which routinely considers social and political factors in scientific research and scientific factors in social, economic, and political history. What have been seen as peripheral or specialist



interests for both historians of science and other historians might come to be seen as constitutive of the studies of both.

This essay attempts to break down barriers, in one small area, between the history of science and other branches of history. For Malthus was undoubtedly important in the history of political, economic, and welfare theory and was at the same time a crucial and acknowledged influence in the evolutionary debate. In considering his influence I also want to show just how available his theory was for interpretation in very different senses both by various evolutionists and by others whose views were markedly different. In a sense I want to marry history of socioeconomic theory and history of biology or – to alter the metaphor – to show that Malthus, Paley, Chalmers, Darwin, Charles Lyell, Herbert Spencer, A. R. Wallace, and others were part of a single debate. Indeed, even some aspects of Marxist apologetics and Soviet biological theory can be included in this common context. In doing this I hope to counter at least two sorts of analyses which have attempted either to absorb Darwin into social theory or to diminish Malthus’ role in the development of evolutionary theory. Instead of seeing Malthus as an influence outside of biology, I should like to indicate the ways in which his theory and its assumptions about nature were at once pervasive in the biological literature of the first decades of the century and a part of an ongoing debate within natural theology which was at least as important to Darwin and Wallace as the question of the mechanism of evolution. Finally, I want to suggest that the distinction between social and biological issues – which was in turn based on the distinction between man and animals which evolutionary theory was supposed to break down from 1859 onwards – was broken down in principle well before the turn of the century.


When one looks back at Malthus from a post-Darwinian vantage point, his principle of population – the Malthusian law that population, when unchecked, increases geometrically while at most the food supply can increase arithmetically – can be seen as a natural law about man. It is an important step in the series of developments which overcame the belief that man and his environment were in harmony, and it resulted in man’s being seen as an animal


a part of nature in mind and body. From this point of view then, Malthus was a biologist, a human ecologist. Indeed, it was evolutionism which brought the distinction between mind and body into question: if man is considered a person for social purposes, he remains an organism from a biological point of view. Looking back once again, one sees Malthus as the source of the view of nature which led to Social Darwinism – the social struggle for existence, the survival of the fittest.

In the writings of Condorcet and Godwin, Utopian speculation had reached a stage which contemplated indefinite progress toward the complete absence of struggle among men: no illness, no sexual urge, no cares. William Godwin’s place in the history of economics, social theory, and literature has been assessed. In the history of evolutionary theory, however, his role has, as far as I know, received no attention. It was essentially a negative one, but it was significant nonetheless. His views on the indefinite perfectibilty of man beyond all the constraints of the earth, animal nature, and social conflict provided the limiting case of eighteenth-century optimism. In the early editions of his Political Justice, Godwin argued that man could transcend both inorganic and organic nature as well as his own passions. Reason was supreme, birth and death could conceivably cease to occur, and society could approach perfect harmony. The significance of this view for the history of evolutionary theory is that it so affronted Malthus’ sense of reality that it occasioned his Essay. Even though Malthus softened his doctrine in later editions, it altered the image of nature from benign harmony to an inexorable imbalance between nature’s supply of sustenance and man’s need for both food and sex. It was this doctrine which served as an important catalyst for the development of evolutionary theory. Godwin had gone too far in removing man from nature. Malthus’ reaction provided the essential change of perspective for putting man into nature once and for all. As William Hazlitt put it, Malthus’ Essay “made Mr. Godwin and the other advocates of Modern Philosophy look about them.”

The second major occasion of Malthus’ reaction was another version of belief in inevitable progress, that of Condorcet, whose Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain was composed while revolutionary Paris was at the height of the Terror and its author was under sentence of death and in hiding. These


circumstances help to highlight the incongruity between man’s hopes as described in his optimistic essay and the actual environment in which he found himself. Condorcet believed that reason and science would lead to indefinite perfectibility. Free inquiry, liberty, and justice would increasingly triumph over tyranny, superstition, and prejudice, and science provided the model for man’s enlightenment. Human life would be prolonged indefinitely, and both the physical and mental constitution of man would undergo limitless improvement. Slavery and war would cease, and the acquired perfections of an individual might be transmitted to the next generation by inheritance. Improvements in domesticated animals lent credence to this hope. There was a possibility that the population might exceed the means of subsistence, but this day was far away and posed no threat to the indefinite perfectibility of the human race.

Malthus observes, in the additions made to the Essay in 1817, that

it is probable, that having found the bow bent too much one way, I was induced to bend it too much the other, in order to make it straight. But I shall always be quite ready to blot out any part of the work which is considered by a competent tribunal as having a tendency to prevent the bow from becoming finally straight, and to impede the progress of truth.

Malthus concentrates first on the impediments to progress, and the perspective on man’s place in nature was radically changed.


Malthusianism played a central role in a debate in which social and biological ideas were part of a common intellectual context. Smith points out that nearly every issue of the Quarterly Review and Edinburgh Review contains an article on or reference to the Malthusian debate. Malthus’ biographer says that it rained refutations of Malthus for thirty years. The resulting controversy sprouted everywhere. Malthus’ ideas were as commonplace in the first half of the nineteenth century as Freud’s were in the twentieth. One partial bibliography of the controversy (1793-1880) is thirty pages long. In 1825, Hazlitt reported that Godwin was something of a living ghost, while Malthus was one of those rare men who “has not left opinion where he found it.”

Robert Wallace, Godwin, Condorcet, and even Paley, among


many others, had acknowledged some version of potential disproportion between population and food supply, but the perspective within which they viewed it prevented them from taking it seriously as a genuine prospect for mankind. The problem was absorbed in the general aura of optimism, and lingering doubts were put to sleep with the promise of progress overcoming the obstacle should it arise.

William Paley considered the issue more directly. That is, he accepted the fact of the conflict, but he placed it in a perspective which was still fundamentally optimistic. He reacted in a way which was to become characteristic of sophisticated theologians’ responses to scientific findings: not to deny the fact but to absorb it in a generalization which was once again comforting. The ways of God were reconciled to man. The earlier generation had not felt the need for reconciliation so acutely. Paley addressed himself to Malthus’ theory in his Natural Theology (1802). The last chapters are concerned with the personality, natural attributes, unity, and goodness of the Deity. He begins this part of his argument by rejecting the gradual origin of species by natural means. It is when he turns to the “Goodness of the Deity” that he defends design: “Nor is design abortive. It is a happy world after all.” “But pain, no doubt, and privation exist. . . .” “Evil, no doubt, exists; but it is never, that we can perceive, the object of contrivance.” Animals devouring one another is, however, a worrying case. Can this be deemed evil? No, since immortality would otherwise be out of the question; pursuing prey affords pleasure to the pursuer; and a quick death is preferable to a slow one. Nature is very fecund; indeed it displays “superfecundity.” Think of gnats and plagues of mice. This excess is easy to regulate, much easier than it would be to replenish a scarcity. Even so, nature cannot receive and support all her progeny. Superabundance requires destruction, otherwise any animal could overrun the world. “It is necessary, therefore, that the effects of such prolific faculties be curtailed. In conjunction with other checks and limits, all subservient to the same purposes, are the thinnings which take place among animals, by their action upon one another.” Species keep one another within bounds. “Though there may be the appearance of failure in some of the details of Nature’s works, in her great purposes there never are.” Paley concludes quite comfortably: “We have dwelt the longer on these considerations, because the subject to which they


apply, namely, that of animals devouring one another, forms the chief, if not the only instance, in the works of the Deity, of an economy, stamped by marks of design, in which the character of utility can be called in question.” But, of course, the contrivances are beneficial if only we take a broad view. He provides benevolent justifications for private property, bodily pain (noting the comfort that derives from the cessation of the latter), disease, mortal disease (“The horror of death proves the value of life”), and death (“All must be changed”). When Paley arrives at an explicit statement of the Malthusian doctrine, it is expressed in the same perhaps even more – reassuring terms, under the heading of the evils of civil life. Paley says that these

are much more easily disposed of than physical evils: because they are, in truth, of much less magnitude, and also because they result from a kind of necessity, not only from the constitution of our nature, but from a part of that constitution which no one would wish to see altered. The case is this: Mankind will in every country breed up to a certain point of distress. . . . The order of generation proceeds by something like a geometrical progression. The increase of provision, under circumstances even the most advantageous, can only assume the form of an arithmetic series. Whence it follows, that the population will always overtake the provision, will pass beyond the line of plenty, and will continue to increase till checked by the difficulty of procuring subsistence. ([fn.] See a statement of this subject, in a late treatise upon population.) Such difficulty therefore, along with its attendant circumstances, must be found in every old country: and these circumstances constitute what we call poverty, which necessarily imposes labour, servitude, restraint.

He argues that this process may hurt some but increases the mean happiness of all, and goes on to extol the benefits of good government, religion, clean living, and “the possession of well-directed tastes and desires, compared with the dominion of tormenting, pernicious, contradictory, unsatisfied, and unsatisfiable passion.” The chapter concludes with gentle defenses of distinctions in civil life, distribution of money, station, and property. He says, for example, “The distinctions of civil life are apt enough to be regarded as evils, by those who sit under them; but, in my opinion, with very little reason.” Nature’s harmony and man’s moral agency are the universal reassurances for Paley.

A contemporary said of Malthus: “We have repeatedly heard him say that the two converts of whom he was most proud were


Dr. Paley and Mr. Pitt.” Pitt did drop his bill for extending poor relief to larger families. He grasped Malthus’ point: God would not provide food for all the mouths but more than enough mouths for all the food. Paley was a less clearheaded convert. Although he accepted the words of Malthus’ theory, he saw it in a context which was very different from the one which was generated as a result of Malthus’ influence on others. In Paley’s hands and in those of many scientists who tried to include Malthus within a complacent natural theology, the Malthusian principle was a means for periodically reestablishing the harmony of nature. Far from being a mechanism for change, it was a defense of the status quo both in nature and in society. The Malthusian law led to suffering and death, and even to extinction of species, but not to a change in the constitution of nature. I am not suggesting that Malthus felt that his Essay could not be reconciled with natural theology. In fact, the first edition (which Paley read) contained two concluding chapters which were explicitly concerned with the relationship between his view and “our ideas of the power, goodness and foreknowledge of the Deity” – Malthus’ attempt, as he put it, to “Vindicate the ways of God to man.” His intention is to look the actual phenomena of nature full in the face. If this view gives, as he says “a melancholy hue” to human life then this view must be explained and justified. It is explained in terms of the necessity for evil in order to produce exertion, exertion to produce mind, and mind to produce progress. “Necessity has with great truth been called the mother of invention.” Man is sinful, inert, sluggish, and averse to labor, unless compelled by necessity. “Had population and food increased in the same ratio, it is probable that man might never have emerged from the savage state.” Once man reached the civilized state, the Malthusian law became a check upon further progress. Paley almost exclusively stressed harmony and benevolence at the expense of the unpalatable facts. Harmony, not struggle, was the keynote. The disharmony between man and nature which Malthus had made the basis of his antidote to optimism was not prominent in Paley. He did not go to the extremes of Condorcet and Godwin in arguing that men were indefinitely perfectible and could live indefinitely long, but he did emphasize that pain and death and extinction were adjustments in order to reestablish harmony.

Lest these views be considered the ultimate in sanguine approaches


to pain and suffering, it is worth noting that they represent a considerable modification of Paley’s earlier ideas on population. Seventeen years earlier, in his Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, he had argued that the quantity of happiness in a given district depends on the number of people and that “. . . the collective happiness will be nearly in the exact proportion of the numbers, that is, twice the number of inhabitants will produce double the quantity of happiness . . . consequently, the decay of population is the greatest evil that a state can suffer; and the improvement of it [is] the object which ought, in all countries, to be aimed at in preference to every other political purpose whatsoever.” He noted that food supply was an “insuperable bar” but that the bar never operates, since there is so much fertile land, and man is such an industrious cultivator. Increase of population was an unqualified good, and his argument is devoted to means of furthering this end. In the light of Paley’s earlier views, the statements in his Natural Theology are temperate.

Since Darwin was strongly influenced by both Malthus and Paley, this is the appropriate place to make the point that their respective roles in the development of his evolutionary theory were strikingly different. Although Paley accepts Malthus’ theory, he does so in a way which was unlikely to draw Darwin’s attention to the significance of conflict in nature. Darwin read Paley’s Natural Theology while an undergraduate at Cambridge (indeed, everyone did: it remained a set book for all undergraduates until 1921). He tells us in his autobiography that the logic of Paley’s Evidences and his Natural Theology

gave me as much delight as did Euclid. The careful study of these works, without attempting to learn any part by rote, was the only part of the Academical Course which, as I then felt and as I still believe, was of the least use to me in the education of my mind. I did not at that time trouble myself about Paley’s premises; and taking these on trust I was charmed and convinced by the long line of argumentation.

Although a strong case can be made for the influence of Paley on Darwin’s view of adaptation, it would be extremely difficult to maintain that Paley’s version of Malthus could have influenced or did influence Darwin when he was casting about for a mechanism for evolutionary change seven years later. It was when he read Malthus in 1838 that he was struck by an interpretation of nature


which reinforced that gained from Lyell (who also uses Malthus to explain problems of ecology and extinction) and from the study of domesticated animals. Thus, Paley and Malthus influenced Darwin in very different ways. Paley stresses perfect adaptation; Malthus stresses conflict. These were, at one level, antithetical. Darwin synthesizes them. Struggle both explains and produces adaptation.

Many of Darwin’s examples in On the Origin of Species are the same as Paley’s. Where Paley had considered each adaptation to be a separate proof of God’s wisdom, power, and goodness, Darwin considered it a problem requiring a natural explanation. Nevertheless, Darwin retained the requirement that each adaptation must be beneficial: “Natural selection will never produce in a being anything injurious to itself, for natural selection acts solely by and for the good of each. No organ will be formed as Paley has remarked, for the purpose of causing pain or for doing an injury to its possessor.”


Malthus dropped the chapters on natural theology from the second edition of his Essay, although it is still possible to see his original theodicy at work. He also acknowledged his authorship, increased its bulk many times, and changed the subtitle. The first subtitle had referred to the principle of population “as it affects the future improvement of society, with remarks on the speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and other writers.” The second edition (1803) referred to “a view of its past and present effects on human happiness; with an inquiry into our prospects respecting the future removal or mitigation of the evils which it occasions.” Malthus turns his attention from speculations on the perfectibility of man and society to amassing data on the effects of the principle and to a new check on population which does not come under the head of either vice or misery. He softens some of the harshest conclusions of the first essay by including this factor of “moral restraint” from marriage. As with the exclusion of natural theology, the distinction between editions is not complete. The doctrine of moral or prudential restraint from marriage until one could support a wife and family was not absent from the first edition, but it was not stressed. Even so, Malthus was right to


distinguish the second edition as “a new work.” Another important change in the second and later editions was that the Essay became less of a personal and polemical tract. The criticisms of Godwin and Condorcet remained, but the attack on the poor laws, which was secondary in the Essay of 1798, usurped the position of the attack on perfectibility. The doctrine of “moral restraint” and the criticism of public charity provided the source for a very different interpretation of Malthus which replaced Paley’s harmonious view of nature based on a deist’s view of God with a Calvinist interpretation of the Deity as an implacable Old Testament Judge.

Paley’s Natural Theology provided the inspiration for a series of remarkable works which – in eleven volumes – bored the public with a dropsical version of the thesis that all of nature shows design and that the argument is cumulative, case by case. The Earl of Bridgewater left £8,000 for a work

On the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation; illustrating such work by all reasonable arguments, as for instance, the variety and formation of God’s creatures in the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms; the effect of digestion, and thereby of conversion; the construction of the hand of man, and an infinite variety of other arguments; as also by discoveries ancient and modern, in arts, sciences, and the whole extent of literature.

The intentions of the will were carried out by the President of the Royal Society, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Bishop of London, who, in turn, chose the Rev. Thomas Chalmers, Professor of Divinity in the University of Edinburgh, to write the first of the eight works, entitled On the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God as Manifested in the Adaptation of External Nature to the Moral and Intellectual Constitution of Man, which appeared in two volumes in 1833, and went through six editions. The Bridgewater Treatises on the Power Wisdom and Goodness of God as Manifested in the Creation are of interest, because they constituted an encyclopedia of preevolutionary natural history. They were commissioned and appeared while Darwin was on the 40,000-mile voyage of the Beagle around the world, during which he studied the distribution of fossils, of live animals, and of South American species. These were the facts which led him to believe that species might be mutable. Chalmers’ treatise is particularly interesting for two reasons. First, it was one


of two on man (N. B. nature was adapted to man, not the other way around): a separate one was commissioned on man’s body; and, second, because Chalmers was besotted with the Malthusian Law, which he interpreted very differently from Paley. Sin and moral restraint were the most important concepts in Chalmers’ natural theology. Where Malthus had stressed a dismal law of nature alleviated by moral restraint, Chalmers focused on moral restraint itself.

Chalmers saw his life’s work as the unification of religious doctrine and laissez-faire economic theory. His writings embraced natural theology, political economy, and geology (a combination that was not unusual in the period). In his Political Economy (1832) he argued that “the right economic condition of the masses is dependent on their right moral conditions, that character is the parent of comfort, not vice versa.” Since at least 1808 he had been arguing in particular against state charity on Malthusian grounds. He claimed that more state charity meant an end to individual industry. If there were more charity, the demand would rise to exhaust it. He said that Malthus’ theory would have convinced him even without examples. “But it seldom happens that a speculation so apparently paradoxical is so well supported by the most triumphant exemplifications.”

It is quite vain to think that positive relief will ever do away the wretchedness of poverty. Carry the relief beyond a certain limit, and you foster the diseased principle which gives birth to poverty…….. The remedy against the extension of pauperism does not lie in the liberalities of the rich; it lies in the hearts and habits of the poor. Plant in their bosoms a principle of independence – give a high tune of delicacy to their characters – teach them to recoil from pauperism as a degradation.

The panacea was that men should reform their habits by means of the influence of the Scriptures. Only 10 percent of pauperism could be attributed to genuine misfortune; the rest was moral sloth. “The shame of descending [into pauperism] is the powerful stimulus which urges them to a manly contest with the difficulties of their situation; and which bears them through in all the pride of honest independence.”

Chalmers’ Political Economy, published a year before his Bridgewater Treatise, repeated this point ad nauseam. Its subtitle conveys the context: On Political Economy, in Connection with the Moral State


and Moral Respects of Society. Chalmers’ litany is represented by the following passage:

It is not by means of economic enlargements, but of moral principles and restraints, that the problem of our difficulties is at length to be fully and satisfactorily resolved. No possible enlargement from without will ever suffice for the increasing wants of a recklessly increasing population. We look for our coming deliverance in a moral change, and not in any, or in all, of those economic changes put together, which form the great panacea of so many of our statesmen. Without the prudence, and the virtue, and the intelligence of our common people, we shall only have a bulkier, but withal as wretched and distempered a community as ever; and we repeat, that a thorough education, in both the common and Christian sense of the term, forms the only solid basis, on which either the political and economic wellbeing of the nation can be laid.

The criticisms of a contemporary reviewer help to illustrate this use of the moral theory in Malthus in an extreme form (in contrast with Paleyan harmony on the one hand and with Darwinian naturalism on the other). G. Poulett Scrope, who had distinguished careers in both political economy and geology, begins his review of Chalmers’ Political Economy in the Quarterly by praising Chalmers as a pastor but adds that

we cannot pretend to rate him so highly as a political arithmetician……. We shall not be suspected of undervaluing the efficacy of a Christian education, when we hesitate to believe that this is the only desideratum in our civic and national economy, or the only remedy for the existing evils of our social conditions capable of affording us the least glimpse of hope.

(Where some feared education lest the poor read Tom Paine, Malthus advocated the study of political economy, and Chalmers the Bible.) Scrope points out Chalmers’ well-known inveterate hostility to any public provision for the poor – his adherence to the Malthusian theory of population, and the Malthusian remedy for its apparent excess, “the prudential check.”

The one main principle to which every argument on every subject is there referred, and by which every question is decided, is the Malthusian axiom….. From this axiom the obvious deduction is, that all enlargements of the means of subsistence do more harm than good….. that all improvements in agriculture are curses and that we should not increase subsistence but check the increase of the persons to be subsisted!


Economic remedies for improving the condition of the lower classes only generate further misery “for the very reason that they are immediately beneficial” – thereby encouraging breeding.

It is, indeed, [Scrope continues] an extraordinary monomania which affects these gentlemen. The idea of an ultimate limit to the globe’s possible productiveness tyrannizes over their imaginations, and gives rise to the strangest opinions and rules of conduct. Dr. Chalmers overtops them all: his whole soul is absorbed by the frightful prospect of the time when every rood of soil on the face of the earth shall maintain its full complement of human beings . . .

Scrope feels that “to persuade us to have recourse to it [the Malthusian specific] NOW, is indeed right midsummer madness – the ne plus ultra of moonstruck, Laputan philosophy.” In the concluding passages he says, “We submit, therefore, that the true policy deducible from the Malthusian premises, is, that we should not merely abolish the poor laws, but go on to dispatch the surplus population as it appears.” Recovering himself, Scrope grants that Chalmers, having himself exhausted all other palliatives as selfdefeating,

brings us in triumph to the “argal” at which he has been all along straining, viz. that since nothing can make food keep pace with population, all our efforts should be turned to make population keep pace with food; and the only specific for this is “prudential restraint upon marriage” self-imposed by each individual, and inculcated by a Christian education.

This has the effect, he concludes, of freeing the government “from all responsibility for the sufferings of the mass of the community, by throwing the blame entirely on Nature and the improvidence of the poor themselves, and declaring the evil to admit of no remedy from any possible exertions of the legislature.”

Chalmers’ natural theology removes Malthus’ theory from the status of something to be explained away à la Paley and places it at the center of a different interpretation of nature. Indeed, to turn now to his Bridgewater Treatise, Chalmers explicitly takes Paley to task for stressing God’s natural attributes at the expense of his moral ones. Academic natural theologians like Paley, he continues, are apt to stress God’s benign virtues and “to overlook the virtues of the Lawgiver and Judge.”

When we take this fuller view of God’s moral nature – when we make account of the righteousness as well as the benevolence – when we yield


to the suggestion of our own hearts, that to Him belongs the sovereign state, and, if needful, the severity of the lawgiver, as well as the fond affection of the parent – when we assign to Him, the character, which, instead of but one virtue, is comprehensive of them all – we are then on firmer vantage-ground for the establishment of a Natural Theology, in harmony, both with the lessons of conscience, and with the phenomena of the natural world.

When we consider only the infinite benevolence of the Deity, we produce a natural theology which cannot explain “the numerous ills, wherewith the world is infested.” It remains a complete mystery why “there should be any suffering at all.” Chalmers has no such problem: “. . . it will be found,” he says, “that the vast amount of human wretchedness, can be directly referred to the waywardness and morbid state of human will – to the character of man, and not to the condition which he occupies.” Thus, the Malthusian law becomes the center of both political economy and natural theology.

Two passages convey the full force of Chalmers’ rendering of Malthus:

… for throughout, political economy is but one grand exemplification of the alliance, which a God of righteousness hath established, between prudence and moral principle on the one hand, and physical comfort on the other. However obnoxious the modern doctrine of population, as expounded by Mr. Malthus, may have been, and still is, to weak and limited sentimentalists, it is the truth which of all others sheds the greatest brightness over the earthly prospects of humanity – and this in spite of the hideous, the yet sustained outcry which has risen against it. This is a pure case of adaptation, between the external nature of the world in which we live, and the moral nature of man, its chief occupier. There is a demonstrable inadequacy in all the material resources which the globe can furnish, for the increasing wants of a recklessly increasing species. But over and against this, man is gifted with a moral and a mental power by which the inadequacy might be fully countervailed; and the species, in virtue of their restrained and regulated numbers, be upholden on the face of our world, in circumstances of large and stable sufficiency, even to the most distant ages. The first origin of this blissful consummation is in the virtue of the people; but carried into sure and lasting effect by the laws of political economy, through the indissoluble connection which obtains between the wages and the supply of labor – so that in every given state of commerce and civilization, the amount of the produce of industry and the produce of the soil, which shall fall to the share of the


work-men is virtually at the determination of the work-men themselves, who, by dint of resolute prudence and resolute principle together, may rise to an indefinitely higher status than they now occupy, of comfort and independence in the Commonwealth. This opens up a cheering prospect to the lovers of our race; and not the less so, that it is seen through the medium of popular intelligence and virtue – the only medium through which it can ever be realised. And it sheds a revelation, not only on the hopeful destinies of man, but on the character of God – in having instituted this palpable alliance between the moral and the physical; and so assorted the economy of outward nature to the economy of human principles and passions. The lights of modern science have made us apprehend more clearly, by what steps the condition and the character of the common people rise and fall with each other – insomuch, that, while on the one hand their general destitution is the inevitable result of their general worthlessness, they, on the other, by dint of wisdom and moral strength, can augment indefinitely, not the produce of the earth, nor the produce of human industry, but that proportion of both which falls to their own share. Their economic is sure to follow by successive advances in the career of their moral elevation; nor do we hold it impossible, or even unlikely – that gaining, every generation, on the distance which now separates them from the upper classes of society, they shall, in respect both of decent sufficiency and dignified leisure, make perpetual approximations to the followship and enjoyments of cultivated life.

The rule of God is the rule of a steadfast Malthusian. The moral order depends on it:

It enters into the very essence of our conception of a moral government, that it must have sanctions – which could not have place, were there either to be no dispensation of rewards and punishments; or were the penalties, though denounced with all the parade and proclamation of law, to be never executed. It is not the lesson of conscience, that God would, under the mere impulse of a parental fondness for the creatures whom He had made, let down the high state and sovereignty which belong to Him; or that He would forbear the infliction of the penalty, because of any soft or timid shrinking from the pain it would give to the objects of His displeasure. There is nothing either in history or nature, which countenances such an imagination of the Deity, as that, in the relentings of mere tenderness, He would stoop to any weak or unworthy compromise with guilt. The actual sufferings of life speak loudly and experimentally against the supposition; and when one looks to the disease and the agony of spirit, and above all the hideous and unsparing death, with its painful struggles and gloomy forebodings, which are spread universally over the face of the earth – we cannot but imagine of the God who


presides over such an economy, that He is not a being who will falter from the imposition of any severity, which might serve the objects of a high administration. Else all steadfastness of purpose, and steadfastness of principle were fallen from. God would stand forth to the eye of His own creatures, a spectacle of outraged dignity. And He of whom we image that He dwells in an unviolable sanctuary, the august monarch of heaven and earth – with a law by subjects dishonoured, by the sovereign unavenged – would possess but the semblance and the mockery of a throne.

There is a perfectly good basis in Malthus’ Essay for Chalmers’ reading: “Hard as it may appear in individual instances, dependent poverty ought to be held disgraceful. Such a stimulus seems to be absolutely necessary to promote the happiness of the great mass of mankind; and every general attempt to weaken this stimulus, however benevolent its intention, will always defeat its own purpose.” Malthus’ specific proposals reflected no hesitation over applying strong sanctions: “To this end, I should propose a regulation to be made, declaring, that no child born from any marriage, taking place after the expiration of a year from the date of the law, and no illegitimate child born two years from the same date, should ever be entitled to parish assistance.” The Dickensian workhouse was, in part, a consequence of the views which Malthus and Chalmers shared.

Chalmers does not shrink from the existence of evil, suffering, and struggle, but all are absorbed into a moral context. This is what is most remarkable about his treatise. The choice of author and his treatment of the subject in terms of a stern, Old Testament, judicial, and vengeful God, instead of the psychological and even the ethical discussions of the day, are significant. Indeed, the failure to discuss the data of man’s relationship to nature is also significant. In spite of the title of the treatise, man is considered neither naturalistically nor psychologically. (Aspects of the psychological theories of Thomas Brown are discussed but only those which are concerned with the conscience.)

In complaining about the redundancy of the Bridgewater Treatises, another reviewer of Chalmers says that

Dr. Chalmers is in fact the only writer amongst the eight who occupies a territory which he may call his own. But the manner in which he came into the possession of it will not, perhaps, be deemed perfectly legitimate. That able divine was requested to point out the adaptation of


external nature to man’s intellectual and moral constitution. This certainty must be admitted to be a task of extreme difficulty in the execution. We all perceive the relation of external nature, composed of the fertile earth, its varied produce, the sea, the atmosphere, the sun, and especially our own satellite, to our physical necessities; but their adaptation to the intellect, which seeks higher objects of contemplation, is not so obvious. Dr. Chalmers was, therefore, reduced to the necessity of considering men in general as “external nature,” in relation to an individual of the species; by this contrivance he has been enabled to shape his theme to his own studies, and to furnish us with two volumes on metaphysics and ethics! The books will doubtless have their admirers, but we apprehend that they are not of the class of literature which the Earl of Bridgewater had in his view when he made his will.

He goes on to say that Chalmers’ work in the pulpit, the professorial chair, and the closet of the political economist is admirable and worthy of respect for his genius. Nevertheless, these volumes are disappointing. Ordinary ideas are complicated by endless mazes of language and neologisms. In sum, an unworthy work. However, in the context of a study of the uses to which Malthus’ theory was put, Chalmers’ view represents the extreme of an anti-naturalist interpretation in a sense which was different from his contemporaries. The most relevant contrast is with the eighteenth-century optimists. Where Godwin and Condorcet predicted indefinite progress by means of reason and the effort of thought, Chalmers held out the same hope if men would only obey their consciences and engage in the requisite moral struggle: if they failed to do so they would suffer the penalties of a Stern Judge.


Paley emphasized nature’s harmony, and Chalmers concentrated on the wars of nature and society in an entirely moral context. Darwin took Paley’s answers and converted them into questions. Adaptations needed explaining: they were not each evidence of piecemeal designs; they came to be. How? It is here that Darwin removed “moral restraint” from the Malthusian doctrine, which he then applied in the first instance to animals, not to man, and used as an answer to the question of how Paley’s beautiful adaptations came to be. The Malthusian doctrine is then, secondarily,


reapplied to man. In the crucial passage in Darwin’s Autobiography, written thirty years after the event, he gives the proper emphasis to his reading of Malthus:

In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, 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 a new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work; but I was so anxious to avoid prejudice, that I determined not for some time to write even the briefest sketch of it.

In order to demonstrate this influence, it is worth exploring Darwin’s remarks on Malthus, moving backward from his mature work to his earliest evolutionary notebooks. In The Variation of animals and Plants under Domestication (1868), he recalls the genesis of his theory. As he pondered the evidence gathered in his travels in South America, he was left with an

inexplicable problem [of] how the necessary degree of modification could have been effected [for evolution to have occurred], and it would have thus remained forever, had I not studied domestic productions, and thus acquired a just idea of the power of Selection. As soon as I had fully realized this idea, I saw, on reading Malthus on Population, that Natural Selection was the inevitable result of the rapid increase of all organic beings; for I was prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence by having long studied the habits of animals.

In the first edition of On the Origin of Species (1859) Darwin introduces his argument by reviewing the order of presentation. His first chapters are devoted to the subjects of variation under domestication and under nature. The summary continues, “In the next chapter the Struggle for Existence among all organic beings throughout the world, which inevitably follows from their high geometrical powers of increase, will be treated of. This is the doctrine of Malthus, applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms.” More are born than can survive. This leads to struggle for existence; any slight favorable variation will lead to a better chance of survival and be naturally selected, and this new form will be


propagated to future generations. In 1859 he wrote to A. R. Wallace, as follows:

You are right, that I came to the conclusion that selection was the principle of change from the study of domesticated productions; and then, reading Malthus, I saw at once how to apply this principle. Geographical distribution and geological relations of extinct to recent inhabitants of South America first led me to the subject: especially the case of the Galapagos Islands.

In the passage in his autobiography in which he mentions the effect of reading Malthus, he continues, “In June 1842 I first allowed myself the satisfaction of writing a very brief abstract of my theory in pencil in 35 pages; and this was enlarged during the summer of 1844 into one of 230 pages, which I had fairly copied out and still possess.” In the 1844 Essay, he writes:

It is the doctrine of Malthus applied in most cases with ten-fold force. As in every climate there are seasons for each of its inhabitants of greater and less abundance, so all annually breed; and the moral restraint, which in some small degree checks the increase of mankind, is entirely lost. Even slow-breeding mankind has doubled in twenty-five years, and if he could increase his food with greater ease, he would double in less time. But for animals, without artificial means, on an average the amount of food for each species must be constant; whereas the increase for all organisms tends to be geometrical, and in a vast majority of cases at an enormous ratio.

In the pencil sketch of 1842, written as cryptic notes, Darwin again stresses the importance of removing moral restraint from Malthus’ doctrine in order to arrive at his own theory:

But considering the enormous geometrical power of increase in every organism and as every country, in ordinary cases, must be stocked to full extent, reflection will show that this is the case. Malthus on man – in animals no moral [check] restraint – they breed in time of year when provision most abundant, or season most favourable, every country has its season – calculate robins – oscillating from years of destruction…. the pressure is always ready . . . a thousand wedges are being forced into the economy of nature. This requires much reflection; study Malthus and calculate rates of increase and remember the resistance – only periodical…. In the course of a thousand generations infinitesimally small dilterences must inevitably tell…


If one looks closely at Darwin’s working notebooks, which he began in 1837 as a place to put all his notes and reflections on the “species question,” there is unequivocal evidence for Malthus’ role in the actual formation of Darwin’s idea. Sometime between 28 September and 12 October 1838, he read Malthus. One can often go directly to Darwin’s marginal notes in assessing the role of some of the influences on him, but in this case he was in London and almost undoubtedly read his brother’s copy. In his notebook “D” he wrote (at a later date), “Towards close I first thought of selection owing to struggle.” Among the pages excised by Darwin for use in writing his great work entitled Natural Selection, one finds the following passage:

[Sept] 28th. We ought to be far from wondering of changes in numbers of species, from small changes in nature of locality. Even the energetic language of Decandolle does not convey the warring of the species as inference from Malthus – increase of brutes must be prevented solely by positive checks, excepting that famine may stop desire. – in nature production does not increase, whilst no check prevail, but the positive check of famine and consequently death. I do not doubt every one till he thinks deeply has assumed that increase of animals exactly proportionate to the number that can live. – . . .

Population is increase at geometrical ratio in FAR SHORTER time than 25 years – yet until the one sentence of Malthus no one clearly perceived the great check amongst men. – there is spring, like food used for other purposes as wheat for making brandy – Even a few years plenty, makes population in man increase & an ordinary crop causes a dearth. take Europe on an average every species must have some number killed year with year by hawks by cold &c. – even one species of hawk decreasing in number must atfect instantaneously all the rest. – The final cause of all this wedging, must be to sort out proper structure, and adapt it to change. – to do that for form, which Malthus shows is the final effect (by means however of volition) of this populousness on the energy of man. One may say there is a force like a hundred thousand wedges trying [to] force every kind of adapted structure into the gaps in the oeconomy of nature, or rather forming gaps by thrusting out weaker ones.

In notebook “E,” begun in October 1838, Darwin writes, “Epidemics seem intimately related to famine, yet very inexplicable.” (This refers to the chapters on epidemics in Malthus’ essay.) Darwin goes on quoting Malthus and adds his own italics and exclamations; the sense of excitement is palpable:


“It accords with the most liberal! spirit of philosophy to believe that no stone can fall, or plant rise, without the immediate agency of the deity [Malthus wrote “divine power”]. But we know from experience! that these operations of what we call nature, have been conducted almost! invariably according to fixed laws: and since the work began, the causes of population & depopulation have been probably as constant as any of the laws of nature with which we are acquainted.” – This applies to one species – I would apply it not only to population & depopulation, but extermination and production of new forms – this number and correlations.

On the next page Darwin mentions “my theory” and the small changes involved in the slow process; subsequent pages mention “the theory” and “my theory.”

It appears, then, that it was the removal of Malthus’ idea of “moral restraint” and an emphasis on the concept of “population pressure,” which left a natural law about plants and animals, that characterized Darwin’s interpretation. He was, in effect, reverting to the purity of the inescapable dilemma of Malthus’ first edition. It is “the strong law of necessity” which Malthus emphasizes repeatedly in both editions, even though in the second it lies side by side with the partial palliative of “moral restraint.” References with this deterministic basis appear in tens of places in both editions and might themselves have influenced Darwin’s application of the principle to man: for example, “Elevated as man is above all other animals by his intellectual faculties, it is not to be supposed that the physical laws to which he is subjected should be essentially different from those which are observed to prevail in other parts of animated nature.” One could go on to cite Malthus’ analogies of population studies with the laws of mechanics and ballistics and the invocation of Newton, as well as his opposition to miraculous explanations, but there are sources enough for these elements of Darwin’s view. In particular, Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, the work which most influenced Darwin (as it did Wallace and Spencer), contains many references of this kind, including innumerable passages on struggle: for example, “In the universal struggle for existence, the right of the strongest eventually prevails; and the strength and durability of a race depends mainly on its prolificness, in which hybrids are acknowledged to be deficient.” Without working systematically I have seen fifteen other references to struggle in volume two alone. Indeed, Lyell used the


concept of struggle to explain many of the facts of geographical distribution and of extinction but refrained from applying it to the problem of the origin of new species. It seems that Malthus legitimated the idea of a law of struggle, impressed Darwin with the intensity of struggle, and provided a convenient natural mechanism for the changes which Darwin was studying in the selection of domesticated varieties. It gave Darwin the analogy he needed to move from artificial to natural selection. He tell us that this was an essential step in his reasoning: indefinite variation and natural selection could produce new species.


Whereas Darwin had returned from six years of fieldwork with the question of evolution in his mind, Alfred Russel Wallace had gone to the field convinced that evolution occurs and attempted to find out how. He had been led to this conclusion by Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation and George Combe’s phrenological doctrines, along with Lyell’s Principles and Darwin’s Journal of Researches. The fact that he came to these questions about ten years after Darwin, and as a result of reading Chambers and Combe, gave a different emphasis to his inquiries. It was man’s place in nature which interested him most. Recall that Darwin wrote more on plants than on animals and more on animals than on man. His The Descent of Man was, as he said, unoriginal. With Wallace it was different. The ubiquitous Malthusian principle operates as a benevolent dispensation to keep man in touch with the laws of nature in the influential works of Chambers and Combe. But, in the same period 1844-5, Wallace read Malthus’ Essay itself. Speaking of this period Wallace says in his autobiography:

But perhaps the most important book I read was Malthus’s “Principles of Population,” which I greatly admired for its masterly summary of the facts and logical induction to conclusions. It was the first work I had yet read treating of any of the problems of philosophical biology, and its main principles remained with me as a permanent possession, and twenty years later gave me the long-sought clue to the effective agent in the evolution of organic species.

Wallace was then in his early twenties. A few pages later he refers to the reading of Malthus as one of the two events which formed


the turning point in his life, “without which work I should probably not have hit upon the theory of natural selection and obtained full credit for its independent discovery.” Indeed, Wallace first uses the concept of struggle as applied to man, in a Malthusian context. In 1853, he wrote, “It is the responsibility and self-dependence of manhood that calls forth the highest powers and energies of our race. It is the struggle for existence, the ‘battle of life,’ which exercises the moral faculties and calls forth the latent spark of genius.” Similarly, in his 1855 paper in which Wallace advocates evolution without supplying a mechanism, he quotes a passage from Lyell describing the struggle for existence. But his theory still lacked the essential ingredient, the concept that only the fittest survive the struggle for existence. When Wallace did hit upon the idea of survival of the fittest, it was in the context of ethnological investigations into the origin of human races in the Malay Archipelago. We have four accounts of this from Wallace, and they all exhibit the feature of beginning with Malthus’ theory applied to the human species and then extended to other species.

… while again considering the problem of the origin of species, something led me to think of Malthus’ Essay on Population (which I had read about ten years before), and the “positive checks” – war, disease, famine, accidents, etc. – which he adduced as keeping all savage populations nearly stationary. It then occurred to me that these checks must also act upon animals, and keep down their numbers, and as they increase so much faster than man does, . . . it was clear to me that these checks in their case must be far more powerful…. While vaguely thinking how this would affect any species, there suddenly flashed upon me the idea of the survival of the fittest …

The second account, written in 1903, also contrasts animals and man in degree of effect. The locus classicus for Wallace’s version of the theory (and indeed, one of the most dramatic descriptions of a scientific discovery) occurs in his autobiography and shows clearly that recalling Malthus’ theory was the crucial experience in the formulation of his own hypothesis.

At the time in question [1858] I was suffering from a sharp attack of intermittent fever [malaria], and every day during the cold and succeeding hot fits had to lie down for several hours, during which time I had nothing to do but to think over any subjects then particularly interesting me. One day something brought to my recollection Malthus’s


“Principles of Population”, which I had read about twelve years before. I thought of his clear exposition of “the positive checks to increase” – disease, accidents, war, and famine – which keep down the population of savage races to so much lower an average than that of more civilized peoples. It then occurred to me that these causes or their equivalents are continually acting in the case of animals also; and as animals usually breed much more rapidly than does mankind, the destruction every year from these causes must be enormous in order to keep down the numbers of each species, since they evidently do not increase regularly from year to year, as otherwise the world would long ago have been densely crowded with those that breed most quickly. Vaguely thinking over the enormous and constant destruction which this implied, it occurred to me to ask the question, Why do some die and some live? And the answer was clearly, that on the whole the best fitted live. From the effects of disease the most healthy escaped; from enemies, the strongest, the swiftest, or the most cunning; from famine, the best hunters or those with the best digestion; and so on. Then it suddenly flashed upon me that this self-acting process would necessarily improve the race, because in every generation the inferior would inevitably be killed off and the superior would remain – that is, thefittest would survive. Then at once I seemed to see the whole effect of this, that when changes of land and sea, or of climate, or of food-supply, or of enemies occurred – and we know that such changes have always been taking place – and considering the amount of individual variation that my experience as a collector had shown me to exist, then it followed that all the changes necessary for the adaptation of the species to the changing conditions would be brought about; and as great changes in the environment are always slow, there would be ample time for the change to be effected by the survival of the best fitted in every generation. In this way every part of an animal’s organization could be modified exactly as required, and in the very process of this modification the unmodified would die out, and thus the definite characters and the clear isolation of each new species would be explained. The more I thought over it the more I became convinced that I had at length found the long-sought-for law of nature that solved the problem of origin of species. For the next hour I thought over the deficiencies in the theories of Lamarck and of the author of the “Vestiges”, and I saw that my new theory supplemented these views and obviated every important difficulty. I waited anxiously for the termination of my fit so that I might at once make notes for a paper on the subject. The same evening I did this pretty fully, and on the two succeeding evenings wrote it out carefully in order to send it to Darwin by the next post, which would leave in a day or two.


I wrote a letter to him in which I said that I hoped the idea would be as new to him as it was to me, and that it would supply the missing factor to explain the origin of species. I asked him if he thought it sufficiently important to show it to Sir Charles Lyell, who had thought so highly of my former paper.

… I was, of course, very much surprised to find that the same idea had occurred to Darwin, and that he had already nearly completed a large work fully developing it.

A real gent.

Three years later (and sixty-four years after the event) Wallace took the trouble to reread the sixth edition of Malthus’ essay and to supply the Linnean Society with his recollection of the chapters which had, as he recalled, impressed him most. It was not the passages on natural law or the strictures on improvability and the hope from the exercise of “moral restraint” of the second volume but the cumulative effect of chapters three to twelve, especially three to eight, of volume one. These contain 150 pages of excruciatingly detailed travelers’ accounts and histories of the checks on the population of primitive societies, parts of the world outside Europe and Scandinavia, and ancient Greece and Rome. It is a catalogue of details of bestial life, sickness, weakness, poor food, lack of ability to care for young, scant resources, famine, infanticide, war, massacre, plunder, slavery, cold, hunger, disease, epidemics, plague, and abortion. Wallace goes on to list passages which particularly struck him and concludes:

I then saw that war, plunder and massacres among men were represented by the attacks of carnivore on herbivore, and of the stronger upon the weaker among animals. Famine, droughts, floods and winter’s storms would have an even greater effect on animals than on men; while as the former possessed powers of increase from twice to a thousand-fold greater than the latter, the ever-present annual destruction must also be many times greater….. Then there flashed upon me . . .

and so on, including a ringing debt of gratitude to Lyell’s “Immortal Principles of Geology” which impressed him even more deeply. Wallace had been working as a naturalist and pondering the problem of the origin of species for thirteen years; he had published a paper on the theory sans mechanism three years earlier. As


a naturalist he needed no more facts. He needed a new perspective, and an ethnology steeped in struggle provided it to his fitful mind.

Wallace’s later views can also serve to introduce the negative side of Malthus’ influence in biological and social theory. While his interest in man and the origin of races had led to his codiscovery of the mechanism of natural selection, Wallace’s belief in the perfectibility of man led him to turn away from the all-sufficiency of the survival of the fittest. He came to make exceptions about man’s brain, and his aesthetic and moral faculties and to turn increasingly to the anticipation of human needs by some force transcending nature. Having rejected the principle of utility as an adequate explanation of human evolution, it is not surprising that he went further and rejected its Malthusian source. He wrote to Darwin in 1881 that Henry George’s Progress and Poverty had convinced him that Malthus’ law did not apply at all to human evolution. George argued that nature could not be blamed for man’s failure to distribute her bounty fairly. Voluntarist cooperation and reform replaced struggle as the mechanism for social change. Wallace came to agree with George that Malthus’ theory has no bearing “whatever on the vast social and political questions which have been supported by reference to it.” He saw Progress and Poverty as “making an advance in political and social science equal to that made by Adam Smith a century ago.” George had been called “arguably the most potent socialist influence in his generation.” By the time he wrote The Wonderful Century in 1898, Wallace’s socialist hopes for the future of society led him to reject social struggle completely, and to embrace a belief in inevitable progress with no mechanism specified. When, near the end of his life, Wallace reconsidered the question “Is Nature cruel?” and discussed the purpose and limitations of pain, he provided a neat way of reconciling Malthusian struggle in the animal world with a non-Malthusian view of human progress. His solution was almost Cartesian in its simplicity. Animals felt much less pain than men – almost none at all. Indeed, uncivilized races felt less than civilized ones.


Before venturing further into the relations between Malthus, evolution, and socialism, I want to turn to the last of the three


most eminent evolutionists. While Wallace drew away from Malthus and the all-sufficiency of the mechanism for human evolution suggested by “the survival of the fittest” (as his interest in social issues developed), Herbert Spencer provides the penultimate case which I wish to consider. His main interest was always man and society. According to John Burrow’s Evolution and Society: A Study in Victorian Social Theory, Spencer, like Darwin and Wallace, drew his mechanism of evolution from Malthus’ population theory. Burrow is mistaken but in an interesting way. In 1851 Spencer published his first book, a defense of laissez-faire social theory in opposition to the manipulations of the Benthamites. Social Statics contained views (derived in part from phrenology) which served as the basis of his later evolutionary thinking. In 1852 he wrote an essay entitled “The Development Hypothesis” in which he advocated evolution but provided no detailed discussion of the mechanism by which evolution occurred. The main thesis of his brief argument was that “continual modifications due to change of circumstances” was much more plausible than special creation. In the same year he published an essay entitled “A Theory of Population, Deduced from the General Law of Animal Fertility.” The natural inference is that belief in evolution combined with the population theory and applied to animal fertility, produced the same result as it had in the theories of Darwin and Wallace. On the contrary, there was no such synthesis in Spencer’s theory. The Malthusian law is not mentioned until a few pages before the end, where pressure on population is called the proximate cause of progress. The principle of natural selection is also mentioned but not developed or extended beyond human society.

After pointing out these passages in retrospect, Spencer remarks in his autiobiography:

It seems strange that, having long entertained a belief in the development of species through the operation of natural causes, I should have failed to see that the truth indicated in the above-quoted passages, must hold, not of mankind only, but of all animals; and must everywhere be working changes among them……. Yet I completely overlooked this obvious corollary – was blind that here was a universally-operative factor in the development of species.

The reasons which he gives for this oversight are ignorance of the phenomena of variation and his belief in the inheritance of


acquired characteristics. Lyell had attempted to refute Lamarck’s theory (which included “use-inheritance”) in the Principles of Geology, and this refutation was almost universally accepted. With characteristic perversity, Spencer rejected Lyell’s refutation and became a convinced Lamarckian. The main feature of Spencer’s explanation was not population pressure but Progress itself. Spencer agreed with Lamarck that nature had an inherent progressive tendency. He garbled the Lamarckian theory and considered the mechanism of this progress to be the inheritance of learned modifications. Indeed, his next work, begun almost immediately, was on psychology. Inspired by G. H. Lewes’ Biographical History of Philosophy and informed by a copy of J. S. Mill’s Logic which George Eliot gave him, Spencer abandoned the psychological theory of phrenology and became an associationist. Spencer’s Principles of Psychology, published in 1855, contained a consistent evolutionary interpretation of all learning and an extension of associationism from the tabula rasa of the individual to that of the race. Habits are inherited as built-in dispositions in the nervous system.

In the introduction, in his collected Essays, to an essay written two years later and entitled “Progress: Its Law and Cause” Spencer says, “Though the idea and illustrations contained in this essay were eventually incorporated in First Principles, yet I think it well here to reproduce it as exhibiting the form under which the General Doctrine of Evolution made its first appearance.” The works under review in the original essay in the Westminster Review were von Humboldt’s Cosmos, the ninth edition of Lyell’s Principles of Geology, and the fourth edition of William Carpenter’s Principles of Comparative Physiology. Thus, Spencer’s topics are the universe, the earth, and life – typical Spencerian subject matter. He does not ignore struggle, but he certainly subordinates it to his own explanatory factor: Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics, the concept of physiological division of labor, and that mysterious process which seems to be the key to all change – the transformation “from homogeneity to heterogeneity.” Within this framework the idea of struggle is mentioned with no special emphasis. For example, he says, “The authority of the strongest makes itself felt among a body of savages as in a herd of animals, or a posse of schoolboys.” He had made similar statements in Social Statics. This is not related to Malthusianism or described as a


force for change in its own right but is an example of the transformation from homogeneity to heterogeneity, resulting in division of labor in society. He says at an earlier stage that the law of organic progress is the law of all progress – in the development of the earth, life, society, government, manufacture, commerce, language, literature, science, art. “From the earliest traceable cosmical changes down to the latest results of civilization, we shall find that the transformation of the homogenous into the heterogenous, is that in which Progress essentially consists.” His litany is “Progress is not an accident, not a thing within human control, but a beneficent necessity.”

In 1886 Spencer pointed out that although he had been heavily criticized for continuing to believe in the inheritance of acquired characteristics, Wallace had abandoned the survival of the fittest as a mechanism for human evolution, and in his later writings Darwin was allowing an increasingly greater role for mechanisms other than natural selection in the evolution of animals. Indeed, the closer he got to mind and society, the more Darwin employed use-inheritance. Spencer says in the preface to a separately published edition of 1887 that the reason he had clung so tenaciously to the inheritance of acquired characteristics in biological theory was because it had such important implications for psychology, ethics, and sociology. These implications led him to write the essay, which was entitled “The Factors of Organic Evolution.” He granted that the Malthuslan factor might operate in mental phenomena of simpler kinds, but “use and disuse” was the chief factor in the development of man and society. Unless this were so, he pointed out, we could not be assured that society would progress en masse as quickly as it is seen to be doing. Progress on the Malthusian model was too indirect and too slow. Far from being an application of Malthus, the sanguine belief in inexorable evolutionary progress which was characteristic of Spencer was more reminiscent of the doctrines which prompted Malthus to write the polemical first edition of his Essay on the Principle of Population. Spencer’s laissez-faire optimism is far closer to Rousseau, Condorcet, and Godwin than to Malthus. True, Spencer had a place for struggle, but it basked in the light of Progress. This must be the real source of nature’s energy. Thus, Spencer’s evolutionary theory provides a negative case: it was fundamentally anti-Malthusian. Although he considered the Malthusian mechanism


in the same period when he was working out his evolutionary theory, he passed it by, for it did not provide a sufficient guarantee of social progress, and he had turned to biology in search of that certainty.


There are a number of ways one could develop this progression involving the uses to which Malthus was put, the most obvious being to attempt a British version of Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought. Malthus, Darwin, and Spencer provided some rationalizations for British imperialism as well as for the American robber barons. But a tidier solution is to recall the Marxist view of Malthus and of the mechanism of evolution. As noted in Chapter 1, when Marx first read Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1860, he wrote to Engels that “although it is developed in the crude English style, this is the book which contains the basis in natural history for our view.”

For all their enthusiasm over Darwin’s naturalistic interpretation of man, Marx and Engels found themselves embarrassed by Darwins avowed debt to ‘Malthus’ population theory, since they had denounced the latter as a libel against the human race and Malthus as a plagiarist, a bought advocate, a shameless sycophant of the ruling classes who had well-earned the hatred of the English working class. In the Dialectics of Nature, Engels wrote that “Darwin did not know what a bitter satire he wrote on mankind and especially on his countrymen, when he showed that free competition, the struggle for existence, which the economists celebrate as the highest historical achievement, is the normal state of the animal kingdom.”

Marx and Engels were attempting to prize Darwin and Malthus apart. This has remained the Marxist line on Malthus, as Ronald Meek’s edition of Marx and Engels on Malthus shows. An article in the Modem Quarterly illustrates the position: Fyfe argues that Marx exposed Malthus as a bourgeois fraud and that Malthusian theories “serve to disguise the fact that human suffering is due to the defects of a political system, by seeking to explain it as due to the operation of natural phenomena.” The value of neo-Malthusian theories to the capitalist and imperialist is “to deflect attention from the real causes of desperately low living standards by setting up pseudo-scientific ‘laws.”‘ Why do Marxists oppose Malthus’


theory? For the same reason that earlier meliorists had done so: it limits human self-improvement and stresses struggle as an almost inescapable impediment to progress rather than as a mechanism for inevitable progressive change. Fyfe argues that in the USSR “within our lifetimes the unlimited possibilities of man’s control over his environment, once an assertion of a reasoned belief, a prediction, are being realized in actuality.”

Twentieth-century expressions of the intimate fusion of social and evolutionary theory which characterized the nineteenth-century debate were not confined to the pages of the Modern Quarterly. Indeed there was a smooth transition to very recent debates on the laws of biological inheritance. (It would be misleading to suggest that there are many simple recent examples in biology which support my thesis as easily as the following.) G. H. Lewes and Herbert Spencer were the inspiration of I. P. Pavlov’s classical research on conditioned reflexes, and it is only very recently that the Darwinian version of evolution, including the Watson-Crick solution of the genetic code, could be taught, and the relevant scientific subjects could be studied, in the Soviet Union. The belief in changing animal (and human) nature by the “Lamarckian” inheritance of acquired characteristics was an orthodoxy. A statement by the Presidium of the USSR Academy of Sciences claimed in 1948 that the Russian version of “Lamarckianism” – the Lysenko-Michurin theory of inheritance – was the only acceptable one, “because it is based on dialectical materialism and on the revolutionary principle of changing nature for the benefit of the people.” Ten years later, as Soviet geneticists began an orderly retreat from this position, a reviewer of the waning orthodoxy pointed out that the proponents of Michurinism “assert that [the] gene theory of heredity opposed to it is a pseudo-scientific, idealistic conception of development associated with the reactionary ideology of the imperialistic bourgeoisie.” The disagreement between Lysenko-Michurinist believers in inheritance of acquired characteristics and the neo-Darwinian geneticists was “not the conflict of two points of view in a single system; it is a class struggle between two systems, two ideologies.” The ideology “of bourgeois scientists makes it utterly impossible for them to discover objective laws of nature, and they are, so to speak, forced consciously or unconsciously to distort these laws in accordance with the class interests of the bourgeoisie, to create a ‘pseudo-scientific reactionary’ genetics – the gene theory of heredity.” This


is a blatant example of the dominance of political ideology over well-attested scientific findings in the twentieth century, but it was also an international scandal. When it became clear that Watson and Crick were likely to win the Nobel Prize for their allegedly pseudoscientific reactionary findings, modern genetics was finally allowed to begin developing in the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, it is not unlikely that a future historian will find that the neat division between biological and social science which most current scientists believe to have been established is less absolute than it now appears.


I have tried to show how five aspects of Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population were developed by different by figures in the debate on “man’s place in nature” in the nineteenth century. First, his on theodicy was muted by Paley, who (as the eighth edition of the Britannica put it in 1859) absorbed struggle in a “higher illumination than Reason alone affords us.” Second, the palliative of “moral restraint” which was added to the second edition of Malthus’ Essay became a scourge for the punishment of the sinful in the hands of Thomas Chalmers. Both Paley and Chalmers had interests in the established order of society and of nature. Third, Darwin tells us that he seized on the image of nature as at war and used Malthus’ view of natural law as applied to man as his authority for extending the principle of selection from the breeders’ wishes to nature, that is, from artificial to natural selection. Once “moral restraint” was discounted, the law of struggle became the source of the marvelous adaptations of the natural theologians. Fourth, Wallace was impressed by the actual phenomena of human suffering in the environment, and having grasped this with respect to man, he applied it analogously to all of nature. Wallace also serves as a transitional figure for the fifth reading of Malthus. Progress became a watchword for his later writings on man and society. As this occurred, Malthus was progressively abandoned. Spencer’s preoccupations with social progress were such that Malthus never found a place in his evolutionary theory, since Malthus had stressed the impediments to Godwin’s and Condorcet’s belief in indefinite progress. These impediments were also anathema to the social philosophy of Marx and Engels, who wanted to


embrace Darwin while rejecting Malthus. Similarly, and perfectly appropriately, their Russian interpreters embraced the theory of learning and its extension to the race which was furthest from the Malthusian doctrine. They, like Spencer, wanted evolution only as a scientific guarantee for indefinite social progress.

It is hoped that this argument may have provided some evidence for the theses that influences in the history of science can be exploited as variously as in political and social history and that claims for progressive separation of “objective” natural science and woolly social science can find no support in the history of evolutionary theory. The integration of the history of science with other aspects of history is now established in seventeenth-century studies. It would appear that historians of the nineteenth century could well apply this approach to their period with similar interesting results.