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Old Wine in New Bottles: How Darwin Recruited Malthus to Fortify a Failed Idea from Antiquity

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

Shortly after publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, many amongst the classically educated British elite viewed his purportedly new evolutionary ideas with skeptical bemusement for being a trifle passé. “I cannot understand why you scientific people make such a fuss about Darwin. Why, it’s all in Lucretius,” yawned premier Victorian educator and poet Matthew Arnold to a biology professor in his circle.1

Surely anybody with knowledge of the classical thought-world must know, Arnold pointed out, that the Greek Epicurus and his Roman follower, Lucretius, taught that the answer to the world’s awe-inducing complexity was to be sought not in a once-and-for-all divine creation but in different shapes and objects generated at random by the chance interaction of atoms (such in brief being the ancient philosophy of Atomism). Plants and animals had simply “evolved” via an extended process of trial and error, reminiscent of what Darwin would later term natural selection. Darwin’s largely random process of evolution had long before 1859 been posited as being responsible for the slow evolution of all Earth’s sentient species. In some cases that evolutionary journey had been unsuccessfulresulting in creatures not properly equipped to compete for resources or to produce offspring. Such creatures were destined to extinction, in contradistinction to vigorous and perfectly formed specimens able to adapt and reproduce.2

Epicurus and Lucretius

For Epicurus and his Atomist colleagues, then, nature amounted to little more than a series of emergent combinations and recombinations driven by contingent occurrences (that ill-understood process even today described entirely nebulously as “complexification”). In short, life and mind were for Epicurus and Lucretius not fundamental or aboriginal to the world but had developed as emergent properties of particular types of atomic configurations. Such notions clearly antedate and anticipate Darwinian conceptions of spontaneous generation (abiogenesis)3 and the survival of the fittest. The modern culture wars supposedly unleashed for the first time by Darwin had in point of historical fact had a vigorous ancient counterpart in an ancient binary argued about just as much in the classical world as in the era post-1859. Materialist philosophers in antiquity would pit themselves against the teleological convictions of such leading philosophers as Plato and Aristotle who espoused the belief in a creative mind (nous) and an original Unmoved Mover, the conception later endorsed by Thomas Aquinas and incorporated in Christian theology in the Middle Ages. Strange as it might at first seem, Darwinism, when viewed from a purely philosophical perspective, might best be understood, as Arnold suspected, as an epigonal, late sub-branch of ancient speculative thought rather than as science in the modern sense with its demands for rigorous proof rather than unsubstantiated conjectural flights. 

A New Lease on Life

The bemusement felt by Matthew Arnold and others concerning Darwin’s giving a new lease on life to a minority and commonly disdained strain of speculation from distant antiquity was only compounded when both Darwin and Wallace reported their twin epiphanies upon reading Thomas Malthus’s writings on the subject of the survival of the fittest in human population groups. Many of Darwin’s contemporaries expressed puzzled surprise over Darwin’s preoccupation with the work of the celebrated economist and demographer. Darwin’s own son, Francis, felt the whole matter of natural selection to be self-evident and expressed surprise that his father had found his reading of Malthus such a revelation when many others such as Erasmus Darwin, the Swiss naturalist Alphonse de Candolle, William Paley, and Charles Lyell had already described the same struggle for existence in comparable terms. 

Karl Marx’s colleague Friedrich Engels too was unimpressed by the Darwin/Malthus connection, writing that it was not necessary to have consulted Malthus in order to perceive the struggle for existence because this was a conviction all too securely lodged in the politically uncharitable mindset of the upper classes in 19th-century Europe. Engels in fact suspected that the Malthusian idea had in origin been inspired by its author’s covert sympathy for the individualist ideology of the arriviste merchants then acquiring a sphere of power in Europe. Support for that view came from the fact that Malthus’s ideas hit upon such a chord of recognition in Britain that that they were instrumentalized politically to alter the older but more generous Elizabethan Poor Law (under the new law the poor had to compete for work or else be consigned to the workhouse).4

Darwinian Forerunners

There thus arose a consensus amongst many of Darwin’s peers that there was no need to invoke the name of Malthus in discussions of evolution since others had considered similar issues without feeling the need to have recourse to the demographer — and not just in remote antiquity. William Irvine once observed that “the idea of variations selected by competition was a commonplace of Victorian thought, not likely when developed in conversation to impress clever men as a dazzling ingenuity.”5 And one curious aspect of the publication of Origin was that Darwin, preparing himself mentally for imputations of impiety, was caught off-guard to be accused instead of plagiarism. Following the publication of Darwin’s Origin a number of persons came forward to stake a claim to having discovered the very phenomenon which Darwin regarded as his own intellectual fiefdom, natural selection.6 Rebecca Stott has even gone so far as to conclude that Darwin’s theory “was just as much the discovery of British clergymen, doctors, fruit-farmers and gentlemen-naturalists working away with microscopes in the British provinces.”7 One of the “contenders” for Darwin’s crown, the prosperous Scottish horticulturalist Patrick Matthew, even made the express declaration that the conception of natural selection “came intuitively as a self-evident fact without the effort of concentrated thought.” He certainly did not need “Malthusian spectacles” to consider the matter.8

Quite so. But what such commentators as Patrick Matthew, Darwin’s son, Friedrich Engels, and others perhaps did not fully take into account was that Darwin may have had a self-interested motive in wishing to appropriate Malthus, extrapolating from the demographer’s writings the germ of an idea supportive both of his grandfather’s “transmutational” ideas and of his own, closely related theory of natural selection. What interested Darwin — who had already, albeit unsuccessfully, lobbied geologist Charles Lyell for his support for the theory of natural selection — was the cooption of the demographer to buttress and give prestige to his own theory. Darwin’s move seems at least in part to have been a case of name-dropping in the quest for an authoritative source of confirmation for his ideas.

The following was Darwin’s reaction to his reading of Malthus on the subject of human populations: 

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.9

What is remarkable about that Darwinian gloss and hence in need of further explanation is contained in the words “The results of this would be the formation of new species,” and “the long-sought clue to the effective agent in the evolution of organic species.” Needless to say, Malthus had not advanced or even hinted at the idea that economically successful members of human societies might somehow “morph” over time into forms of “transhumanist” Űbermenschen. Such ideas of human transfiguration would have been far from his thoughts as an economist. That particular idea was clearly an idiosyncratic inference which Darwin chose to read out of Malthus. 

A Logical Corollary

In his own mind Darwin was persuaded to see it as a logical corollary to the basic Malthusian idea despite the fact that it is highly unlikely that Malthus himself would have approved what he would almost inevitably have regarded as an unheralded non sequitur. Darwin’s elliptical reasoning for the awkward conjunction only makes sense in the context of that more than a century of transmutational speculation that he was privy to via his grandfather and of which he regarded himself as the family legatee and indeed trustee. Darwin’s was what psychologists refer to as a singular idea which impelled him to enlist Malthus as the (alleged) authority for both his own conjectures and those of his grandfather. 

Not surprisingly, it was Darwin’s unwarranted determination to go far beyond the bare terms of the original Malthusian idea which was to prove most problematical with his peers. Conspicuously, none of the earlier 19th-century pretenders who, on the basis of chronological priority, had made claims to the “crown” later assumed by Wallace and Darwin, had gone beyond the postulation of micromutational changes to advancing the kind of macromutational revolution in organic morphology proposed in the transmutational thought of Erasmus Darwin and his grandson. To be sure, the idea of large-scale transmutation had once occurred as a theoretical possibility to one of the pretenders, the young Edward Blyth, as early as 1835, only to be as quickly discarded by him. 

Blyth had asked himself the question of whether a large proportion of what were presently considered separate species had descended from remote common ancestors. He soon retreated from this conjecture, realizing that in those circumstances living species would simply blend into each other — a form of hybridization which was simply not observable in nature. After all, had not the great 18th-century French naturalist Cuvier stated that all animal life could notbe fitted into a unilineal ascending system? The species barrier was after all readily observable, an empirical fact: diverse animals constituted a bush rather than a ladder since they belonged to distinct groups: vertebrates, molluscs, articulates, radiata, et al., hence there were many stairways to life rather than one. The molluscan body plan could never “transition” into the vertebrate one because the differences between the two types were insuperable, concluded the French naturalist in what became known as Cuvier’s Law of Correlation.

Blyth very properly submitted himself to self-correction when he realized that what he was musing on was a physiological impossibility. In withdrawing his conjecture, it was clear to him that, in the circumstances he had envisaged in his mind’s eye, living species would routinely evidence hybrid patterns of morphological development not recorded in nature. He amended his initial conjecture in line with observable circumstances by the kind of reality check which Charles Darwin chose to override, doubtless out of a desire to keep faith with the transmutational tradition of his honored grandfather. We may assume, by contrast, that the issue of family piety did not arise for Blyth who was therefore able to adopt a less biased perspective dictated solely by his own empirical experience and observations.

Compounding the Difficulty

It is not as if Darwin did not know of the difficulty his own theory posed. In the following much-cited and indeed admirably honest words Darwin even tacks on the correlated problem of the lack of fossil evidence — which, he concedes, compounds the difficulty of accepting his ideas: 

Why, if species have descended from other species by fine gradations, do we not everywhere see innumerable transitional forms? Why is not all nature in confusion, instead of the species being, as we see them, well defined? […] as by this theory innumerable transitional forms must have existed, why do we not find them embedded in countless numbers in the crust of the Earth?10

“Why indeed,” one might ask. At this point one is involuntarily reminded of the point once made by mid-20th-century American intellectual Gertrude Himmelfarb to the effect that Darwin was prone “to assume that by acknowledging the difficulty, he had somehow exorcized it.”11 In this instance, turning a blind eye to obstacles, it appears that Darwin was driven by family piety towards a form of materialist confirmation bias in what was in reality a social or perhaps more precisely grandpaternal construction of reality. He appears to have read Malthus through the distorting lenses of spectacles he had borrowed from his grandfather. Hence his (Erasmian) hypothesis was that successful members of any given species would not only become stronger and fitter at the micro level but, at the macro level, would eventually develop to become superior forms unrecognizable as having sprung from the older, inferior biological stock. By an aggregation of small incremental differences, he proposed, like his grandfather, that this process will have resulted cumulatively in thoroughgoing transformations, starting from microscopic beginnings in the form of unicellular common ancestors, like bacteria, via numberless further stages up to ape-like intermediaries, thence towards the evolution of Homo sapiens. The results of this extended process would ultimately be nothing less than a series of phylogenetic revolutions — as opposed to those blandly termed “descents with modification” which Charles with misleading understatement was wont to call the process.

Despite his later, well-publicized doubts about his own theory,12 in the period 1838-1859 Darwin appears to have shared with the free-thinking Erasmus the belief that that the process described above was a more probable route along which the animal world might have developed than the doctrine that all species had been created fully formed by a divine power. His invocation of Malthus to give weight to his idea of evolution by natural selection was meant to supply a philosophical underpinning taken from the domain of the social sciences for the views of his grandfather and himself. 

A Touch of Irony

In retrospect we can see that there is a touch of historical irony in Charles’s efforts to fortify the Darwin brand by aligning it with Malthus, which is that the supposedly up-to-date philosophical foundation he sought for his views had already been anticipated more than two thousand years ago at the time of the glory of ancient Greece and Rome. Two millennia of philosophical speculation had effectively given the modern world a simple either/or choice. Darwin, standing on the shoulders of his grandfather, chose the minority Lucretian model whose single (unsuccessful) champion in the preceding century had been the renowned Scottish philosopher, David Hume.13 It was Darwin’s favoring of the Lucretian explanatory model which would come to erode the Aristotelian/Christian conception of ultimate reality, at least for large sections of the intellectual classes. The idea that Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, the early physician Galen, and a host of further distinguished thinkers had long since denounced for its manifest absurdity was now, Phoenix-like, rising from the ashes to which it had been relegated by the leading thinkers of the early Western tradition for well over a thousand years.14

It was undoubtedly a tremendous philosophical coup for Darwin whose knowledge of formal philosophy was limited. It was, however, a victory about which Darwin in later years was to feel profoundly uneasy, as was evidenced when he declined to give the neo-Lucretian duo of Charles Bradlaugh (the first atheist member of the British Parliament) and his ally, Dr. Edward Aveling, his commendation. It seems that Darwin by dint of some unsearchable internal reality check finally acquired the grace to disavow his previous claims of certainty, with the result that in the end he did not know quite what to think about the theist/materialist dispute which he had so unwillingly stirred up and whose effects tormented him to the end of his days. 

Notes

  1. See John W. Judd, The Coming of Evolution (1912) (repr. Gloucester: Echo), p. 13. 
  2. Epicurus’ philosophical speculations were entirely material. He conceived of nature as and only as an aggregate of material entities operated by blind and unvarying natural laws (without enquiring where such “laws” originated, i.e., who or what was their originator).
  3. Darwin once fantasized about this matter in a letter concerning a small, warm pond which he thought might (theoretically) be able to give rise to life forms by unknown chemical combinations.
  4. See on this point Adrian Desmond, The Politics of Evolution (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1989), pp. 2-3.
  5. William Irvine, Apes, Angels and Victorians. A Joint Biography of Darwin and Huxley (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1955), p. 105.
  6. These included the Oxford Professor of Geometry, Baden Powell, the French naturalist Charles Naudin, Robert Grant (Darwin’s Edinburgh tutor), Dr. William Wells (his claim going back to 1813), Patrick Matthew, a well-to-do Scottish farmer and fruit grower, in 1831, and Edward Blyth in 1835. A comprehensive account of Darwin’s predecessors is given by Rebecca Stott, Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists (London: Bloomsbury, 2012).
  7. Rebecca Stott, Darwin’s Ghosts, p. 17.
  8. For a full account of Matthew and other Darwinian predecessors, see also W. J. Dempster, Evolutionary Concepts in the Nineteenth Century: Natural Selection and Patrick Matthew (Edinburgh: Pentland Press, 1995),
  9. cited by Anthony Flew, An Essay on the Principle of Population, edited by Anthony Flew (London: Penguin, 1970), Introduction, pp. 49-50.
  10. The Origin of Species, edited by Gillian Beer (Oxford: OPU, 2008), p. 129.
  11. Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (London: Chatto and Windus, 1959), p. 278.
  12. See on this point Peter Vorzimmer, Charles Darwin: The Years of Controversy: The Origin of Species and Its Critics, 1859-1882(London: London UP, 1972).
  13. See David Hume Dialogues and Natural History of Religion, edited by J. C. A. Gaskin (Oxford: OUP, 2008).
  14. See Tim Whitmarsh, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World (London: Faber and Faber, 2017).