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1798: Darwin and Malthus

Keith Thomson

Well, yes: Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809, thereby giving the answer to the Marxist riddle (Groucho's, not Karl's) "Who was born on Lincoln's birthday?" In 1798—200 hundred years ago—Darwin existed only as the intellectual gleam in his grandfather Erasmus's eye.

The year 1859 is often referred to as the "Darwinian Moment" when our worldview began to change simultaneously in a number of areas. Jacques Barzun developed his popular Darwin, Marx and Wagner (1941) around the fact that in the single year 1859 Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, Marx wrote Principles of Political Economy, and Wagner wrote his opera Tristan and Isolde. Michael Ruse has emphasized that 1859 was also the year that a group of English clergy wrote Essays and Reviews, a liberal (that is, enlightened) view of the evidence for miracles, which distracted a good deal of public attention away from Darwin.

My physicist friend Gino Segré points out that in 1859 Leverrier discovered in the precession of the perihelion of Mercury, the only known exception to Newtonian theory, later explained by Einstein's general theory of relativity. That year, too, Kirchov made the crucial observations on black body radiation that were only later fully explained by Planck's quantum hypothesis.

We could add that 1859 was the year that Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities and John Stuart Mill wrote On Liberty. Also, Fitzgerald translated The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and Trollope wrote The Bertrams. All of which allows one to ask: So what? A case can be made for the importance of almost any year (except perhaps for 1845 and 1849, which seem to have been particularly barren in the literary department, at least).

Why then 1798? Because if we were to claim that a particular year framed the genesis of The Origin, it would be 1798 (or, more generously, the period 1796 to 1798). Erasmus Darwin completed publication of Zoonomia or, the Laws of Organic Life in 1796. 1797 saw the birth of Charles Lyell, the great English geologist, and the death of William Hutton, as great a Scottish one. Above all, in 1798 came the anonymous publication of Thomas Robert Malthus's first version of An Essay on the Principle of Population, as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Some Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and other Writers.

Figure 1. Darwin's ideasClick to Enlarge Image

Malthus attempted to make a science of "the nature and causes of poverty, as Adam Smith had enquired into the nature and causes of wealth." In the process, he became "the best-abused man of his age" and "Malthusian" has become, like its sister term "Darwinian," an epithet for those necessities that constantly challenge the best hopes of the human spirit.

Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834) graduated from Cambridge in 1788 and became a parson the next year. In 1805 he started teaching history and political economy at the college of the East India Company, a post he held until his death. His immediate stimulus for writing the Essay was in part reactive, in part creative. In 1796 (note the date) William Godwin, a clergyman, social philosopher and journalist, had written The Enquirer, a popular book (in the sense both of non-technical and broadly read) summarizing a whole school of progressive thought owing much to the French philosopher Condorcet (for example, his Esquise d'un Tableau Historique des Progrès de l'Esprit Humain 1794). In The Enquirer Godwin promotes the idea of the perfectibility of man and society and of an equality among men driven by the economics of growth. Having proceeded upward from the savage, man will continue toward perfection as a law of nature. In Godwin's utopian economics, population growth means a growth in labor, growth is only good, and can only lead to greater wealth and improvement for all—provided, of course, that institutions (that is, the "established order") change appropriately.

Causes of Poverty

Malthus's father, Daniel Malthus, tended toward Condorcet's views; Rousseau and Hume had been frequent visitors to his house in times past. Robert Malthus took the opposite, distinctly conservative, approach. As they debated over Godwin (especially his chapter on "Avarice and Profusion") together, Malthus Senior urged Robert to develop his notes into what became the Essay, which is built around the simple premise that populations intrinsically grow geometrically and resources only arithmetically.

From this premise, Malthus identified the causes of poverty as follows: "(Because) population does invariably increase where there are the means of subsistence … the superior power of population cannot be checked without producing misery or vice." When population growth reaches the limit of resources, war, pestilence and (as he added in later editions) various forms of moral restraints must inevitably redress the imbalance. Malthus thereby found a natural, law-like obstacle to the perfectibility of man and society. The earthly paradise promoted by Godwin—in which, incidentally, people would become immortal, marriage would be exposed as a sham and passion between the sexes would become extinct—was most definitely not just around the corner. Man was destined, like the animals, constantly to struggle to survive at a level just above subsistence. If this were not so, God would have set us on a different path from the beginning.

One does not have to spend long reading the Essay to discover how bleak was Malthus's opinion of the potential for "improvement of society." "The principal argument of this essay … [tends to show] the improbability that the lower classes of people in any country should ever be sufficiently free from want and labour to obtain any high degree of intellectual improvement."

Where David Hume had written, "Every wise, just and mild government by rendering the condition of its subjects easy and secure will always abound most in people, as well as in commodities and riches" (Political Discourses, 1752), Malthus argued the opposite, the population principle making inevitable a hierarchically structured society with the lower strata grounded in misery, "the necessity of a class of proprietors and a class of laborers…." Malthus also stated that "this must certainly be considered as an evil, and every institution that promotes it is essentially bad and impolitic. But whether a government could with advantage to society actively interfere to repress inequality of fortunes, may be a matter of doubt." (No wonder Marx despised him.)

Malthus was preoccupied not so much with the distribution of wealth per se but rather with the grinding poverty of first a rural and then an industrial poor. In our current debates over "entitlements" and aid to unwed mothers, it is sobering to remember that Queen Elizabeth I was among those who early tried to attack the problems of how to alleviate poverty without institutionalizing it, how to help the needy without removing their incentive to work and how to help the indigent without encouraging them to have larger families.

After Elizabeth, various Poor Law reforms came and went, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, usually with the result of exacerbating rather than improving the situation. The subject attracted the attention of dreamers and realists, revolutionaries and reactionaries, alike. For example, Condorcet proposed something that looks remarkably modern: "A fund should be established which should assure to the old an assistance, produced, in part, by their own former savings, and, in part, by the savings of individuals who in making the same sacrifice die before they reap the benefit of it…." (Malthus, typically, concluded such schemes were "absolutely nugatory.")

Under the Influence

As his detractors were only too happy to point out, Malthus's ideas owed a lot to his extensive reading of David Hume, Adam Smith, Robert Wallace and Joseph Townsend (for example, Townsend's Dissertation on the Poor Laws by a Well-Wisher to Mankind, 1786). In dismissing Malthus, Marx (Karl, not Groucho) complains: "If the reader reminds me of Malthus, whose 'Essay on Population' appeared in 1798, I remind him that this work in its first form is nothing more than a school-boy-ish, superficial plagiary of De Foe, Sir James Steuart, Townsend, Franklin, Wallace, &c., and does not contain a single sentence thought out by himself…" (Capital 1867). And so on, in equally dyspeptic terms. Marx had much more in common with Godwin, who had argued in his Political Justice (1793), "There is no wealth in the world except this, the labour of man. What is misnamed wealth, is merely a power invested in certain individuals by the institutions of society, to compel others to labour for their benefit."

Malthus, who was always seen by his friends as kindly and unassuming, frankly acknowledged that his "principle" was not wholly original; "I mean to place it in a point of view in some degree different from any that I have hitherto seen." That he succeeded is demonstrated by the hatred he brought on himself and by the respect with which he was treated by serious economists like David Ricardo.

Famously, reading Malthus's book (presumably its 6th edition, 1826) triggered in Darwin's mind the idea for a causal mechanism of natural selection. Darwin wrote in his Autobiography (nearly 40 years later), "… [the question] how selection could be applied to organisms living in a state of nature [as opposed to artificial selection, that is] remained for some time a mystery to me. In October, 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population…."

We need to ask what Darwin may have meant by "for amusement." He had also used the term in a journal entry (August 1838): "Read of a good deal of various amusing books paid attention to Metaphysical subjects." The authors in question had been, among others, Edmund Burke, James McIntosh, Henry Lord Brougham, Dugald Stewart, Gotthold Lessing, David Hartley, Thomas Reid and David Hume. We have always known Darwin was a dour fellow, but this is not what we would call amusement. Our present meaning for the word—light entertainment, pleasurable but not serious—represents an evolution from the 17th- and 18th-century meaning of "musing; mental abstraction" by route of "distraction, or diversion of the attention, deception" and "idle, time wasting." One senses that Darwin used the word in the archaic sense and wryly—but perhaps also deprecatingly as Malthus had in a reference to Condorcet: "I refer the reader to the work itself, which will amuse, if it does not convince him."

Similarly, although the date when Darwin adroitly turned Malthus's ideas to the advantage of his own work is always set at 1838 (the authority being the Autobiography just quoted), he did not say he was then reading the book for the first time. Indeed, it is not credible that Darwin should have been previously unfamiliar with Malthus's ideas, at least. Poverty, the unemployed and the questions of Poor Relief were such a constant of early 19th-century life, that Darwin could hardly have missed the subject. His father was a capitalist and his father-in-law a major employer. Harriet Martineau, the radical social reformer, was a constant visitor to his brother's dinner table in London, and his Cambridge mentor The Reverend Henslow was a reform-minded clergyman. Darwin must have been exposed early, not only to the problem but also to Malthus's analyses.

From 1800 to 1830 "population" meant Malthus and his devastatingly simple principle. The Reverend William Paley (Natural Theology 1802), whose works Darwin virtually memorized as an undergraduate, was one of the first converts to Malthus's ideas (having earlier been very much on the Godwin side). Other authors who had referred variously to a struggle for existence or the struggle between species were known to Darwin. For example, De Candolle in 1820 wrote, "All the plants of a given country are at war one with another" (he meant species against species)—a statement that was repeated by Lyell in Volume 2 of his Principles of Geology (1832). This may well be in part what Darwin meant when he wrote that he had been "well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observance of the habits of animals and plants …" (Autobiography).

Whatever the antecedents, Darwin stated that in 1838, on reading Malthus's inexorable arithmetic, "it at once struck me that under these circumstances favorable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavorable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work."

The Limits of Improvement

Malthus had been explicit, however, in denying a cornerstone of Darwin's ideas, namely that artificial selection is a model for change in nature. The passage is worth quoting: "I am told that it is a maxim among the improvers of cattle that you may breed to any degree of nicety you please, and they found this maxim on another, which is that some of the offspring will possess the desirable qualities of the parents in a greater degree … the point of improvement … may be said to be undefined but this is very different from unlimited or indefinite…."

Darwin had read this familiar complaint many times before, most forcefully in Lyell's second volume. Darwin's special genius was to see in Malthus's pessimistic principles the seeds of change, after all. Once variation is granted, the engine of evolution lay in the struggle inevitably caused by confrontation of superfecundity and resource limitations, precisely because it forced choices—selection is, therefore, natural.

It is an amusing [sic] exercise to try to find specific wording in Malthus that might have triggered Darwin's ideas. For example, he refers explicitly to contests between tribes as a "struggle for existence." And one might imagine that Darwin turned upside down Malthus's metaphor of seed germination: "The powers of selection, combination, and transmutation [emphasis added], which every seed shews, are truly miraculous … they chuse, amongst all the dirt and moisture that [surround] them, those parts which best [suit] their purpose…." Perhaps Darwin, typically contrarian, found inspiration in the glaring paradox of Malthus's argumentation about human societies. He is at pains to show that population pressure keeps most societies in a subsistence state, but does not explore fully what factors must have worked to allow others (including turn-of-the-century Britain) to flourish and develop.

It is highly unlikely that Malthus would have been persuaded to the evolutionists's side, had he lived. He would certainly have dismissed Chambers's progressivist Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). In fact, Malthus suited Darwin perfectly in his denial of the notions of steady inevitable progress and improvement toward "perfection" in humans, animals and plants so favored, respectively, by social thinkers like Condorcet and transmutationists like Lamarck and Chambers.

How crucial then was Malthus? One could argue ("for amusement") that if Darwin had not read Malthus, some other event would have triggered his idea of a mechanism for natural selection. He might instead, for example, have read Paley again. Similarly, we know for a fact that if Darwin had not published his ideas on natural selection, someone else would have (Wallace did). We cannot be sure that if Malthus had not been stung into action by Godwin's excesses, The Essay would have remained unwritten. Failing Malthus, someone else might have formulated the population principle powerfully and concisely. Other writers than Godwin popularized Condorcet in English. And so on. The fact remains that Malthus, for all his shortcomings as a social theorist, formulated a principle of population growth that no one has been able to falsify and that forms a foundation stone of the theory of evolution by natural selection.

As for theories of poverty and labor, the last word can be left to Marx (Groucho, not Karl): "Well, what makes wage slaves? Wages!" (Cocoanuts).

© Keith Thomson



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