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Myth-Making and Malthus

Neil Thomas
Image: Thomas Malthus, by John Linnell, via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: We are delighted to present a series by Neil Thomas, Reader Emeritus at the University of Durham, “Natural Selection: Discovery or Invention?” Find the full series here. Professor Thomas’s recent book is Taking Leave of Darwin: A Longtime Agnostic Discovers the Case for Design (Discovery Institute Press).

The intellectual journey towards the idea of the evolution of species made by Erasmus Darwin’s famous grandson was clearly not one of straight inductive inference (“working on Baconian principles,” as Charles liked to claim). And this is for the very good reason that his conclusions had not been made manifest in patiently collected data from fieldwork of his own. Darwin’s later descriptions of his theory as having been a response to hard facts papered over the extent to which he had been indebted to the theoretical structures of various others. If anything, Darwin’s method was to pick up opinions from elsewhere and then search for ways of backing up those opinions by observations made in the field (rather than the other way around). In that sense it might be more accurate to borrow a term used by anthropologists and classicists to describe Darwin’s modus operandi: mythopoeisis (myth-creation/creative confabulation), that which Michael Denton referred to as the weaving together of a great cosmogenic myth1 and to which Bonfire of the Vanities author Tom Wolfe referred somewhat archly as cosmogonism (which Wolfe defined as a fruitless search for a Grand Theory of Everything).2

Survival of the Fittest

This bit-by-bit manner of working can be observed to continue when we come to what Darwin claimed to be that other major influence on his thinking, the work of the political scientist and demographer, Thomas Malthus, author of the famed (or ill-famed) Essay on the Principle of Population3 (satirized in Charles Dickens’s figure of Scrooge with his manic obsession with overpopulation). One of Malthus’s major themes concerned competition between humans for scarce resources to survive, that which Herbert Spencer was later to lexicalize as the battle for the survival of the fittest. After reading Malthus out of personal interest, it dawned on Darwin how he might usefully appropriate the Malthusian analogy, redirecting Malthus’s ideas about laissez-faire capitalist societies to the struggle for existence in the wider biological world.4

Darwin as Magpie

After reading Malthus, everything seemed to click into place for Darwin. Like a magpie building its nest, Darwin could see that he could, in a purely additive way, annex older evolutionary ideas to his present ensemble of ideas on evolution to “complete the picture.” With the acquisitive instincts of a born specimen collector, Darwin must have felt that with Malthus he had netted the final idea to squirrel away into his kit-box of ideas which, cumulatively, were to issue into his proclamation of what he termed, a trifle disingenuously, “my theory.” The newer Malthusian ideas will have dovetailed rather satisfactorily with ideas he had already picked up from grandfather Erasmus and from other less formal sources. Voilà!  

Or as Victorian historian Kathryn Hughes recently put it in perceptibly ironic tones, after picking up animal-rearing tips inter alia from his barber (William Willis) and ideas of competition for scarce resources from Malthus, “the happy coincidence of a chatty hairdresser, a roiling populace and a forty-year old economic treatise had given Darwin the key to unlocking his theory of natural selection.”5 Darwin’s journey of questing imagination cum cerebration had now reached  a successful conclusion.

Next, “Darwinian Theory: Science or Speculative Philosophy?”

Notes

  1. Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (Bethesda, Maryland, Adler and Adler, 1986).
  2. Tom Wolfe, The Kingdom of Speech (London; Jonathan Cape, 2016).
  3. Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Human Population, edited by Anthony Flew (London: Penguin, 1970).
  4. Using that analogy, he concluded that “favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The results of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work […] I saw, on reading Malthus on population, that natural selection was the inevitable result of the rapid increase of all organic beings […Malthus] gave me the long-sought clue to the effective agent in the evolution of organic species.” Cited by Antony Flew, Essay on the Principle of Population, Introduction, pp. 49-50.
  5. Kathryn Hughes, Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in an Age of Decorum (London: Fourth Estate, 2018), p. 99.

Neil Thomas

Neil Thomas is a Reader Emeritus in the University of Durham, England and a longtime member of the British Rationalist Association. He studied Classical Studies and European Languages at the universities of Oxford, Munich and Cardiff before taking up his post in the German section of the School of European Languages and Literatures at Durham University in 1976. There his teaching involved a broad spectrum of specialisms including Germanic philology, medieval literature, the literature and philosophy of the Enlightenment and modern German history and literature. He also taught modules on the propagandist use of the German language used both by the Nazis and by the functionaries of the old German Democratic Republic. He published over 40 articles in a number of refereed journals and a half dozen single-authored books, the last of which were Reading the Nibelungenlied (1995), Diu Crone and the Medieval Arthurian Cycle (2002) and Wirnt von Gravenberg's 'Wigalois'. Intertextuality and Interpretation (2005). He also edited a number of volumes including Myth and its Legacy in European Literature (1996) and German Studies at the Millennium (1999). He was the British Brach President of the International Arthurian Society (2002-5) and remains a member of a number of learned societies.

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An Essay on the Principle of Populationbiologycapitalismcosmogenic mytheconomicsevolutionKathryn Hugheslaissez-fairemagpieMichael DentonmythopoeisisNatural Selection: Discovery or Invention? (series)survival of the fittestThe Bonfire of the VanitiesTom WolfeWilliam Willis