Political Descent: Malthus, Mutualism, and the Politics of Evolution in Victorian England by Piers J. Hale, Hardcover | Barnes & Noble
Political Descent: Malthus, Mutualism, and the Politics of Evolution in Victorian England

Political Descent: Malthus, Mutualism, and the Politics of Evolution in Victorian England

by Piers J. Hale

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Historians of science have long noted the influence of the nineteenth-century political economist Thomas Robert Malthus on Charles Darwin. In a bold move, Piers J. Hale contends that this focus on Malthus and his effect on Darwin’s evolutionary thought neglects a strong anti-Malthusian tradition in English intellectual life, one that not only predated the


Historians of science have long noted the influence of the nineteenth-century political economist Thomas Robert Malthus on Charles Darwin. In a bold move, Piers J. Hale contends that this focus on Malthus and his effect on Darwin’s evolutionary thought neglects a strong anti-Malthusian tradition in English intellectual life, one that not only predated the 1859 publication of the Origin of Species but also persisted throughout the Victorian period until World War I. Political Descent reveals that two evolutionary and political traditions developed in England in the wake of the 1832 Reform Act: one Malthusian, the other decidedly anti-Malthusian and owing much to the ideas of the French naturalist Jean Baptiste Lamarck.            
These two traditions, Hale shows, developed in a context of mutual hostility, debate, and refutation. Participants disagreed not only about evolutionary processes but also on broader questions regarding the kind of creature our evolution had made us and in what kind of society we ought therefore to live. Significantly, and in spite of Darwin’s acknowledgement that natural selection was “the doctrine of Malthus, applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms,” both sides of the debate claimed to be the more correctly “Darwinian.” By exploring the full spectrum of scientific and political issues at stake, Political Descent offers a novel approach to the relationship between evolution and political thought in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Editorial Reviews

Bernard Lightman

“In his exploration of the crucial role of Malthusian thought in the evolutionary theory of liberal radicalism, Hale has provided scholars with a sort of sequel to Adrian Desmond’s Politics of Evolution. Hale shows that the debate over the validity of Malthus split liberal radicals into opposing camps. This is a novel approach to the relationship of evolution and political thought in the Victorian and Edwardian periods. It makes sense of what previously has been a confusing mass of debates involving important political thinkers and scientists who at first glance appeared to be allies. Impressive in its scope, Political Descent is a bold and exciting book.”
Janet Browne

“In this fascinating new book on the history of evolutionary biology, Hale explores the effects of Darwinism on the intertwined political, social, and natural economies of nineteenth-century Britain. Yet it is Darwinism with a difference. Instead of Charles Darwin, it is Malthus who is the focus of attention—and the rise and fall of Malthus’s ideas of competition, survival, overproduction, and success. Some biological thinkers rejected Malthusian ideas expressly because of their link with capitalism and explored other forms of evolutionary progress in human society. Others such as Thomas Henry Huxley continued to believe in a Malthusian gladiatorial arena. Hale presents incisive accounts of theorists such as Spencer, Mill, Hume, and the Duke of Argyle, and relocates Darwin’s theories of moral and social evolution into the broader context of political change. This new light on the explosion of evolutionary thought after Darwin is extremely welcome.”
Peter J. Bowler

“Hale’s survey reveals the full complexity of the political views that were derived from Darwin’s theory, with significant implications for how we view that theory today. He also demonstrates the roles played by non-Darwinian evolutionary theories, which influenced both the supporters and opponents of ‘social Darwinism.’”
Michael Ruse

Political Descent by Hale is a provocative and fresh rereading of the Victorian debates after Darwin about cooperation and altruism among humans. I never realized that I could learn so much new or that so often I would be forced to go back and reevaluate long-held beliefs. This is scholarship at its best and even better is a really good read. Highly recommended.”
Journal of British Studies - Frank N. Egerton

"[A] wide-ranging historical narrative. . . . Ambitious."

"This book is packed with information about the political dimensions of Darwinian evolution in Victorian England. All the important characters make an appearance, and Hale painstakingly traces the interconnections of their thinking as well as their stark differences. The chapter on Herbert Spencer builds on the groundbreaking work of Robert Richards but adds a number of new dimensions. Darwin’s own contributions regarding the evolution of humans are carefully traced, particularly the evolution of ethics. . . . The last chapter explores the anticipation of the 20th century arising from Darwinism, especially the impact on George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells and the hopes that were dashed by WW I. Finally, a fascinating afterword about the present addresses two central current issues: the attack on evolution by fundamentalist, literalist Christians in the US and the relationship between biology and politics today. Fully indexed, with lengthy references. An excellent text and a treasure for researchers in history, history of science, and political science. Highly recommended."
Annals of Science - Alison Bashford

"Hale’s welcome study tracks freshly for us the wide array of social and political ends and ideals to which knowledge of natural history could be put. It is an important contribution."
Times Literary Supplement - Gregory Radick

"A revelatory group portrait of socialist-Darwinian London of the 1880s and 90s."
Times Higher Education - Simon Underdown

"Meticulously researched and compellingly argued. . . . Ideas can, and do, take on lives of their own and impact in ways beyond the conception of their originators. One could safely argue that Malthus, a priest schooled in the Church of England’s 39 articles of religion at the University of Cambridge, would at the very least have been troubled by Darwin’s work, just as Darwin disagreed with those who sought to subvert his theory to suit their own views of how the world should look."
Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences - Chris Renwick

"Makes significant contributions to a wide range of interconnected historiographies and will become a standard work on the intersection of biology and politics. . . . The book will also come to be considered also as a significant contribution to an emerging new historiography on Malthus: the figure who seldom appears in person in Political Descent but haunts its discussions throughout."

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University of Chicago Press
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Political Descent

Malthus, Mutualism, and the Politics of Evolution in Victorian England

By Piers J. Hale

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-10852-0


Every Cheating Tradesman: The Political Economy of Natural Selection

I have received in a Manchester Newspaper rather a good squib, showing that I have proved "might is right," & therefore that Napoleon is right & every cheating Tradesman is also right. CHARLES DARWIN TO CHARLES LYELL, 4 May 1860

Mockingbirds and finches were all well and good, but when it came to thinking seriously about the possibility of transmutation Darwin had had man in mind from the first. His notebooks and diary from his circumnavigation of the globe aboard H.M.S. Beagle and after show clearly that he had been deeply affected by what he had seen of the various native peoples he had encountered during the voyage—and by none more so than the natives of Tierra del Fuego. Within a year of returning to England, Darwin was speculating upon exactly where the logic of human evolution might lead. "Origin of man now proved," he had written in Notebook M. "Metaphysics must flourish.—He who understand baboon would do more toward metaphysics than Locke." His mind racing, he had no time for full sentences, correct spelling, or punctuation. "The mind is a function of the body." "Oh you materialist!" he condemned himself. What the historian of science Jonathan Hodge has called Darwin's "notebook programme" was to prove the basis of Darwin's work for the rest of his life.

Darwin had joined Beagle as naturalist in December 1831 after the ship's captain, Robert FitzRoy, had lamented not having someone aboard with this type of talent and experience on his previous voyage. Darwin was more than adequately qualified; he had not only studied geology, marine biology, botany, chemistry, and entomology during his time at Edinburgh and Cambridge, but medicine as well. As the Darwin scholar John van Wyhe has pointed out, it is a myth, albeit a well-established one, that Darwin joined Beagle merely to be FitzRoy's gentleman companion—as historians have long maintained. Certainly, conventions of class and naval discipline meant that months at sea could be a lonely experience for a ship's captain, despite the cramped conditions. On this voyage the ship's cramped quarters were occupied by more than seventy men, and so it was clearly important to FitzRoy that Darwin was a gentleman. However, as Van Wyhe contends, FitzRoy's stipulation that the naturalist who accompanied him should be a gentleman was indicative not only of his own preference for company at dinner, but it also spoke more deliberately to the status of the position he was eager to fill. As historians of science are aware, in the mid-nineteenth century "naturalists" might be either gentlemen practitioners or collectors of an altogether different breed. As Van Wyhe concludes, "Continuing to portray Darwin as 'companion' rather than 'naturalist' obliterates the most conspicuous example of the long, gradual transformation towards scientific professionalization in the life sciences." Thus, while Darwin was certainly taken on board as naturalist, as FitzRoy made clear to John Stevens Henslow and George Peacock, through whom the opportunity was relayed to Darwin, the position was for a "gentleman naturalist" who was also to dine at the captain's table. FitzRoy was both a talented seaman and a firm disciplinarian, and he and Darwin got on tolerably well, with only one recorded exception: whereas Darwin came from a liberal Whig family that had long been involved in the movement to abolish slavery, FitzRoy was a Tory who thought slavery a benevolent paternalism, and so despite the fact that to question a captain's opinion would have been a mutinous act for any of the crew, Darwin could not let FitzRoy's views on the matter go unchallenged and on one occasion they argued vehemently enough about the subject for Darwin to fear he must leave the ship.

In this chapter, I recapitulate those aspects of Darwin's 1832 encounter with the natives of Tierra del Fuego that illustrate the ways in which his beliefs about political economy informed the way he made sense of the relationship "between savage and civilised man." Historians have noted the connections that have often been made between political economy and natural history, and that Darwin made these sorts of connections was not unusual. Indeed, Darwin scholars have addressed this issue directly, noting Darwin's debt to Malthus in particular. Here, though, I suggest that, at least before his conversion to Malthusian thinking, Darwin was very much indebted to his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, for his political-economic as well as his natural-historic worldview. Further, while historians have long recognized the importance of Malthusian political economy for the development of Darwin's evolutionary ideas, there remains debate as to exactly what Darwin took from Malthus. Darwin read Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population in 1838, not long after his return from the voyage, and doing so certainly led him to recognize the importance of individual variations within a population. However, here I argue that Darwin cited Malthus as vehemently as he did for explicitly political reasons as well. Not only was he determined to distance his own evolutionary views from those of the politically radical Lamarckians who were being decried as heretics in theology and mere speculators in science, but he also intended to ground his own liberal politics in nature as well. As Adrian Desmond and James Moore have pointed out in their biography of Darwin, "Darwin's biological initiative matched advanced Whig social thinking" and natural selection was "a mechanism that was compatible with the competitive free-trading ideals of the ultra-Whigs." But I do not believe that this is an adequate account; there is more that needs to be said on the politics of Darwin's evolutionary views. Although Darwin had initially intended to include an account of human evolution in Origin, he made the last-minute decision to leave man out for fear that he might otherwise prejudice his readers against the validity of his work. This had significant implications for the reception of his theory, for in excluding man he also excluded any reference to the point that Malthus had made in the later editions of his essay, that humans might avoid the dire consequences of struggle by a reasoned evaluation of their circumstances, by working hard, and by exercising moral restraint from reproduction. As scholars have long noted, the Malthus that Darwin invoked in Origin was the Malthus of the 1798 first edition, not the 1826 sixth edition of the work, which was the one Darwin actually read. Thus, while Darwin clearly viewed man as a moral as well as a rational animal—a species that not only secured its own progress by each man evaluating his actions in light of their likely consequences—mankind was also a species that had evolved to have deeply "other-regarding" ethical sentiments, a point to which I shall return in chapter 3. This was not something that was borne out in Origin. Thus, when his contemporaries applied the insights of Origin to humanity, they did so in quite a different way than Darwin had had in mind. Initially relieved that he had succeeded in distancing his views from the revolutionary politics of the radicals, Darwin was later dismayed to see his work then held up as a vindication of the most heartless political individualism and an endorsement of "every cheating Tradesman." In the ensuing furor about apes and angels, Darwin looked to the geologist Charles Lyell, and then to the anatomist Thomas Huxley, to publish an account of human natural history that reflected what he really thought about the nature of man and man's place in nature. However, as the evolution debates moved on from comparative anatomy to focus upon the origin of mind and morals, it was Alfred Russel Wallace who eventually came up with the goods, in a paper he presented to the Anthropological Society of London in 1864: "The Origin of Human Races and the Antiquity of Man Deduced from the Theory of 'Natural Selection.'" Darwin was ecstatic. Having championed Wallace's article as "the best paper that ever appeared in the Anth[ropological] Review!," Darwin was thus doubly disappointed when Wallace later rejected the adequacy of his own argument.

Refitted as a survey vessel, Beagle left Devonport dockyard on 27 December 1831. She did not drop anchor in English waters again until she sailed into Falmouth Harbor on 2 October 1836. By all accounts, when Darwin left England he was as conventional as the next man when it came to his views on religion, creation, and transmutation. At least this is what he would later tell people. And this might well have been so if the "next man" had a political radical and avowed transmutationist for a grandfather, a skeptical Unitarian for a father, and had studied primitive life forms under the auspices of an internationally renowned Lamarckian naturalist at a medical school in the most radical city in Britain. It was Doctor Robert Grant who had taught Darwin during his time in Edinburgh. He was a political radical, an atheist, and a revolutionary Francophile. He admired Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus, and had sought Charles out and taken him under his wing shortly after he had arrived in the Scottish capital. The two quickly became close and worked together on sea sponges, as Lamarck had done. Of course, Darwin had subsequently studied at Cambridge, which was still a bastion of Anglican orthodoxy and conservatism even though the university had returned its first Whig MP by a very narrow margin in 1829. Darwin had witnessed the trouble that an association with atheism and materialism might bring during Robert Taylor's visit to the town. Taylor, an avowed atheist and republican, was a graduate of St. John's who had taken holy orders. Having lost his faith, he had returned to his alma mater and publicly laid down a challenge to the presumptive faith of the university. Dubbed the "Devil's Chaplain" and calling himself an "infidel missionary," he invited debate about the foundations of Christian belief but had been run out of town by a mob for his troubles. Whatever else Darwin might have taken from the contrasting influences of these two university towns, he certainly came away with a full appreciation of the breadth of political and religious controversy that might surround transmutationist ideas.

Making full sense of all that he had seen on the voyage would take Darwin much of the rest of his life, but it is evident that he had approached the question of the origin of new species with the presumption that there was much about man that allied him with other animals. As the historian Robert Young has pointed out, this in itself was not a particularly unusual position, but of particular significance was the fact that to Darwin man appeared to be almost infinitely malleable. The effects of environment appeared to play a large part in this. At least this was so in the early days of Darwin's thinking on the subject. But always important too were the interactions between organisms. In this, man was no exception. What was evident in the latter case, though, was that human interactions were influenced in large part by the moral character of the individuals concerned and by the politics of society.

Darwin was not alone in framing his perceptions of human nature in the context of ongoing debate about moral character and political economy—two areas of study that were considered to be intimately related. Nor did the conclusions he drew go uncontested. But it is significant that it was his impressions of the native peoples he encountered as he circumnavigated the globe that first led him to think seriously about this issue, and it was in this regard, as he later acknowledged, that "the voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life, and has determined my whole career."

When Darwin first set eyes upon the natives of Tierra del Fuego, he thought the naked and wild savages who followed Beagle along the coast as much animal as man. However, when, in the company of a landing party, he came face to face with them, he could not but reflect upon the similarities as much as the differences between these painted savages and the Englishmen who made up the ship's company. It is likely, too, that the thoughts that dawned on Darwin were shared to some extent by at least some of his shipmates. After all, traveling with them had been three Fuegians, each of whom had had the benefit of three years of the best education that the Church Missionary Society could provide. Newly civilized and dressed accordingly, they had even been invited to St. James palace by King William IV and there were presented to Queen Adelaide. Now, FitzRoy's intention was to see them repatriated in the company of a young missionary named Matthews, reestablished in their native land as a spiritual beacon on a Godless shore.

En route from England, Darwin had become particularly friendly with the Yámana Fuegian who had been christened Jemmy Button, and thus when he first encountered the Fuegians in their native condition he was deeply impressed by the difference that environment and education could make in a man—even in only a few years. "It was without exception the most curious and interesting spectacle I had ever beheld," he later wrote. "I could not have believed how wide was the difference, between savage and civilized man. It is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, in as much as in man there is a greater power of improvement."

The analogy between wild and domestic animals, as well as that between man and animal, would prove telling, and although the historian Camille Limoges has argued that Darwin only arrived at this analogy after he had essentially worked out his theory in 1842 and that even then he adopted it as a rhetorical device in order to convince his readers, like Jean Gayon I think otherwise. Limoges's argument rests on his detailed analysis of Darwin's notebooks and the fact that Darwin does not use the term "natural selection" to describe his own ideas until 1842—long after he had developed the core of his theory. This may be so, but as Jean Gayon has pointed out in his own account of the development of Darwin's theory, Darwin's notebooks are rife with references to and reflections upon heredity taken from his interactions with domestic breeders, and it was in this context that he worked out his theory. Further, and as is evident here, Darwin was also clearly applying analogies from domestic to natural breeding to make sense of and articulate his conception of the differences between Fuegians and Englishmen.

Clearly already on Darwin's mind were thoughts about what had facilitated the comparative rise of Englishmen above the dreadful state of the barely human savages he now saw before him—or what had held the Fuegians back. Darwin was led to speculate not only upon the role of education in this improvement of mankind, but also on the action of the environment and of habituated behavior in shaping a man's life and character. "What a scale of improvement is comprehended between the faculties of a Fuegian savage & a Sir Isaac Newton," he mused. Darwin was struck not only by the savage nature of the Fuegians, but by the harsh and inhospitable nature of the environment in which they made their home. "The climate is certainly wretched," Darwin noted. "Their country is a broken mass of wild rocks, lofty hills & useless forests, & these are viewed through mists & endless storms." This was truly a desolate landscape, the weather making the place "thoroughly detested ... by all who know her." The people were only too clearly accommodated to their surroundings. "I never saw more miserable creatures," he confided to his diary. They are "the most abject and miserable creatures I any where beheld." His horror turned to fascination, and his reflections spilled over into a lengthy footnote in his published account of the voyage, in which he compared the degraded South Sea islanders, the Esquimaux, and even the Aboriginal Australians, favorably to the degraded beings he saw before him. His conclusions were stark: "I believe, in this extreme part of South America, man exists in a lower state of improvement than in any other part of the world." "Viewing such men," he continued, "one can hardly make oneself believe they are fellow-creatures"—and yet, despite himself, and with Jemmy as compelling evidence, he did.


Excerpted from Political Descent by Piers J. Hale. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author

Piers J. Hale is assistant professor in the Department of the History of Science at the University of Oklahoma. He lives in Norman, Oklahoma.

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