Hobbes & Darwin

April 5:On this day in 1588, the natural law philosopher Thomas Hobbes was born. Hisfamous description of man’s “nasty, brutish and short” prospectscomes in Chapter XIII of Leviathan (1651).The discussion turns upon Hobbes’s belief that good government is the onlysafeguard against “the natural condition of man,” which brings war ora perpetual fear of it:

In such condition there isno place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequentlyno culture of the earth, no navigation nor use of the commodities that may beimported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removingsuch things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth; noaccount of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all,continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor,nasty, brutish, and short.

Some commentators see theseeds of Social Darwinism in Hobbes. Darwin delivered the first three chaptersof The Origin of Species to hispublisher on this day in 1859. At the end of Chapter Three, “Struggle forExistence,” Darwin observes that, except in “the extreme confines oflife, in the Arctic regions or on the borders of an utter desert,” thenatural world is locked into a battle for survival and domination, and that anyhuman tampering with the outcome will be done in ignorance:

It is good thus to try inimagination to give any one species an advantage over another. Probably in nosingle instance should we know what to do. This ought to convince us of ourignorance on the mutual relations of all organic beings; a conviction asnecessary, as it is difficult to acquire. All that we can do is to keepsteadily in mind that each organic being is striving to increase in ageometrical ratio; that each, at some period of its life, during some season ofthe year, during each generation, or at intervals, has to struggle for life andto suffer great destruction. When we reflect on this struggle we may consoleourselves with the full belief that the war of nature is not incessant, that nofear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, thehealthy, and the happy survive and multiply.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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