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’MALTHUS ON MAN - IN ANIMALS NO MORAL RESTRAINT’

by Robert M. Young

After intensive reflection over several decades I am prepared to announce that there are three and only three possible views about the future: (1) It’s definitely going to be okay. (2) It is definitely not going to be okay. (3) It might be okay under certain conditions. These predictions apply variously to the planet, the human species, life on earth, the universe. Condition three has the most variants, some concerning matters outside human control, some up to us. My aim is to explore the question of how anything can be ’up to us’ in a Malthusian and Darwinian world of animals, including humans, which obeys deterministic laws. I will suggest that These major figures, in laying the foundations of the social and biological sciences, did provide a space for human praxis. These three positions were also the ones available at the end of the eighteenth century. Condorcet (under sentence of death during the Terror and in hiding) was certain that progress would prevail. William Godwin, whose life was a disaster area which got worse and worse, was equally certain about human perfectibility. Malthus was so clearly sallying forth against their optimism that he said so in the title of the first edition of his polemical tract: An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers. The version of his law in this edition was the clearest and starkest. Food supply could only increase arithmetically, population would increase geometrically. He proposed this as a universal law, valid for all populations at all times. (Malthus, 1798 , pp. 4-5, 126-27; 1826, vol. 1, p. 529; Avery, 1997, p. 64).

The imagination is immediately caught by the diverging series of numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 versus 2, 4, 8, 16, 32,64, 132, 268, 536. On reflection, however, we never experience the higher versions of the ratio, e.g., nine bellyfuls of food available to 536 people. The gap never gets anywhere near that wide because of hunger, starvation, famine, disease, pestilence, death and war. The dynamic of the Malthusian Law is that it is an iron law, and the baleful vicissitudes of human history mathematically demonstrates the brakes on human perfectibility.

Ever since 1798 the name Malthus and the adjective Malthusian have stood for pessimism about what human industry can do in the face of population growth. In fact, as he looked further and further into the matter two crucial modifications came to light. Actual statistics, such as he could discover, were widely varying. Indeed, as subsequent writings, including recent reviews of the literature by Roy Porter and Gertrude Himmelfarb, have shown, the jaws of the crunch between the widening divergence of the ratio do not open anywhere near as wide as his law predicted. Our populations did not grow as fast as he predicted, and our industry is much more effective than he imagined. More importantly, the factor which he called ‘moral restraint’, a category we would widen from abstinence to include various forms of birth control, produces checks on population growth that he did not imagine possible. We do have all the bad consequences of scarcity which he predicted, but not always or everywhere.

My understanding is that the parameters he laid down are, in the widest sense, the right ones, but there are deeper causes of population growth than he saw. We cannot hope for human good will and felicity to prevail except in a post-scarcity world, but we do not have one, and one is not in sight. In this paper I am going to try to move back and forth between the nineteenth-century understanding of the widest applications of Malthusianism, on the one hand, and more recent renditions of it, on the other. I suggest that we live in the shadow of his formulation and that the terms he propounded for thinking about these matters are undimmed in their appeal, though not, perhaps, in their final usefulness. Indeed, I believe that a suitably expanded modern version of his most derided conceptualisation is perhaps the most useful one.

But first I want to underpin Malthus’ significance by connecting his law to Darwinism. Malthus is important to Darwin for three reasons. First, as I never tire of pointing out and certain others never tire of seeking to disprove, Darwin’s reading of Malthus in September or October 1838 provided the moment of insight, the key, to the theory of evolution by natural selection. It is basic to Darwinism — a foundation stone for his theory. Second, the tenor, the mood, the rendition of nature which Malthus lent to political economy provided an (I would say the) basis for the tone of Darwinism and extrapolations from it which we associated with the struggle for existence, the survival of the fittest, social Darwinism (a theory to which I have argued Darwin adhered — Young, 1985) and, in general, with pessimistic notions of nature and human history. Third — and perhaps this should be seen as falling inside my first and second points — The Darwin-Malthus link is the weld which holds together humanity with the rest of living and inorganic nature. I think that bond is why scholars persist in attacking the connection to which I was, I believe, the first to draw attention in a systematic, scholarly way (Young, 1968). Marx and Engels and many others did so in a polemical way.

In my opinion Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is the most important idea in the history of science, perhaps in the history of thought, as far as the histories of science and of thought centre of the place of humankind in the great scheme of things. I hasten to add that I feel uncomfortable being a bedfellow of some of those who hold this view in ways which overlap with my approach but also diverge from it, e.g., Michael Dennett and Richard Dawkins. Indeed, Darwin’s theory came to replace the deep and pervasive theory which held everything — the cosmos — together from ancient times to the mid-nineteenth century, ’The Great Chain of Being’, with its principles of plenitude, continuity and unilinear gradation (Lovejoy, 1936), beautifully evoked in Epistle II of Alexander Pope’s ’Essay on Man’ (1733), where we find humanity placed as the middle link in the chain:

 

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;

The proper study of mankind is Man.

Plac’d on this isthmus of a middle state,

A being darkly wise, and rudely great:

With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,

With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,

He hangs between; in doubt to act or rest;

In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;

In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer;

Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;

Alike in ignorance, his reason such,

Whether he thinks too little, or too much:

Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confused;

Still by himself abused, or disabused;

Created half to rise, and half to fall;

Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;

Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurled:

The glory, jest and riddle of the world!

(Pope, 1733, Epistle II, pp. 125-26)

Treating this question of significance somewhat more narrowly, it is said that there have been a number of blows to human arrogance. The concept of the solar system dethroned the Earth from being regarded as the centre of the universe. Darwinism showed that humanity is not the specially created pinnacle of creation. Marxism showed that what humans do is fundamentally conditioned by economic and ideological forces. Freud showed that we do not even have access to the greater part of our motivations, which are unconscious. These explanations mitigate our conception of the human species and our planet as central in the universe and our humanity as characterised by rational intentionality and conscious control over our actions.

If we look at Darwin’s theory as one of the great ideas in the history of science, we can characterise it in two ways. Evolution ranks with gravity, the central concept in physics, and affinity, the key idea in chemistry, as one of the most basic concepts in the natural sciences. Beyond that, however, evolution by natural selection is an all-embracing theory in two senses. It is the law which binds all of life together and defines its relations to the physical environment. And, of course, it binds humanity to the rest of life and nature. Evolution by natural selection is the process which accounts for the history of living nature, including human nature.

All of the above is arguably common knowledge. However, there is a huge problem which is left unresolved by evolution. If we take evolution to be an all-embracing explanation of living, including human, phenomena, then it includes human psychology, society and culture within the causal nexus of deterministic scientific laws. If this is so, what is the basis for morality? Put another way, how should we think of the role of values and morality in human nature. At its most stark, evolution by natural selection proceeds by competition for resources for mates to achieve viable offspring which live to reproduce. How can this conception of the interrelations between creatures be subtle enough to include processes which transcend competition — altruism, charity, generosity, including what Malthus called ’moral restraint’? How can it explain the diversity of customs and mores in different cultures? Providing such explanations is, I take it, part of the project of the new Darwinian sciences, in particular Darwinian psychology. The answers they tend to provide often strike me as less useful than the ones we can gain from more traditional ones employing human purposes, consciously conceived and/or discerned in unconscious motivations which do not rely on selfish genes and competition for mates.

It seems to me to be approaching things the wrong way up to claim that Darwinian explanations provide the most basic accounts for the subtleties and complexities of human relations when literature, philosophy, analytical psychology and other cultural approaches evoke and explore them so well. Perhaps I should say, rather, that it seems wrong-headed to me to offer Darwinian explanations as superior to or as replacements for traditional explorations of such matters in the arts. It may be, of course, that evolution explains humanity and all its works, but we must still find a way of paying due respect to established forms of reflection on human nature and not run headlong into a single explanatory paradigm.

This point becomes an urgent one when science gains access to the mechanisms for altering genetic processes and begins to allow us to reconstruct the genomes and achieve cloning of other species and ourselves. It is too easy to collapse the issues involved and to allow too much authority to scientists in the debates which it is appropriate for us to have about these matters. There is also a common elision which needs to be avoided. It is sometimes thought or implied that since evolution can, in principle, explain everything human, then evolutionists — by which I mean biological scientists — have special insights and authority across all of knowledge. I find this implied in the aggressive stances taken up by some (not all) of the public spokespersons of science. I have in mind, for example, Richard Dawkins and Louis Wolpert, both of whom strike me as delighting in putting down people whose disciplines they assert are made less important and even a waste of time, e.g., philosophy, history and philosophy of science, cultural studies. There was a similar arrogance associated with positivism in earlier decades. There was science on the one hand and confusion on the other; testable hypotheses and muddle, logic and poetry. A whole series of dichotomies was posited with one side reliable and the other markedly less so:

fact-value

science-ideology

nature-culture

science-arts

primary qualities-secondary qualities

mechanism-purpose

outer-inner

rational-emotional

My experience of certain biologists, molecular biologists and scientists who appear on the media and speak in a militant way is that they reproduce the celebration of science at the expense of the rest of knowledge. I advocate complementarity and peaceful coexistence and deplore arrogance. Two examples come to mind. The eminent molecular biologist Sydney (latterly Sir Sydney) Brenner (co-discoverer of the genetic alphabet) was a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge when I was. I invited a distinguished philosopher of science, Mary Hesse, to a college feast, and the person arranging the seating thought it interesting to put them next to each other. When they were introduced and Brenner asked her and was told what her field was, he replied, ‘Haven’t they wound that up yet?’ I told this story in a television debate with Louis Wolpert at a point when he was denigrating scholars whose disciplines involved reflecting on science. His comment was, ‘Quite right!’. Aside from the discourtesy to a college guest, I found this insolence characteristic. I have a similar impression from some of the speculations of Richard Dawkins who discusses religion as analogous to a virus and in one article let slip that he regarded culture in the same light. The implied subtext was that scientists might help us root out these infections and leave us with pure scientific rationality. These people may be right to defend themselves against the charge of being reductionists. It is not at all as obvious to me that they are not philistines.

You could be forgiven for beginning to wonder if I have wandered off my topic, but I don’t think I have, since I am persuaded that Malthus and the desire to pry him and Darwin apart is central to this debate. Malthus was the only political economist among the authors most cited in Darwin’s in his notebooks and early manuscripts and one of the six to be cited ten or more times there as well as in his autobiography (Todes, p. 125, citing Manier). Scientists and their deferential colleagues in the history of science want to keep biology innocent of what they consider to be ideologically-tainted ideas, and Malthus Law is an excellent example of such a potential pollutant. They want to do this, not because they want to keep clear of matters human but because they want to make extrapolations from biology to the human and social sciences and don’t want anyone pointing out that the social and political and ideological conclusions, which they want to claim are pure and legitimate extrapolations from untainted biology, were stuffed into the hat on day one and lie at the foundations of the most basic theory in biology.

But this won’t do. I’ll now have to go over some old ground in the recent history of the history of science. It is nearly universally acknowledged, as I have said, that I started this hare. I have read several accounts in the course of preparing this paper which say so, e.g., a recent one by Jim Moore and a monograph by Daniel Todes entitled Darwin without Malthus. There have been a number of attempts to modify my findings, (one or two arguably Oedipal) by e.g., Bowler, Ghiselin, Mayr, Herbert, Schweber, deBeer. Ingemar Bohlin has even written an admiring but also critical doctoral dissertation on this subject, while a number of others support my position more or less completely, David Kohn, who called my analysis of the Darwin-Malthus link ‘nearly definitive’, being the most eminent of them (Kohn, 1980; see also Oldroyd, 1984). Those who disagree often do so with considerable passion. For example, when I came down to breakfast on the first morning of the conference which led to the publication of The Darwinian Heritage, the venerable Ernst Mayr accosted me before I could get some coffee. ’You are Young. You are completely wrong. It is in my book.’ Michael Ghiselin was equally cordial and says somewhere ‘As a dog returns to its vomit, Robert Young...’ I confess to not properly understanding some of the intricacies and minutiae of the attempts to modify or refute my argument about Malthus role in the origin of Darwin’s theory. I find the connection prominent and quite explicit in his notebooks, his pencil sketch of 1842, in his longer sketch of 1844, in the big Natural Selection book (of which On the Origin of Species was an epitome), in his joint presentation with Wallace, in the structure of the argument of The Origin, in his later books, in his correspondence, in his responses to people who ask about this matter, in his agreement with Wallace that he, too, drew inspiration from Malthus (Letters, vol. 7, p. 279) and in his autobiography, where he said,

 

In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work; but I was so anxious to avoid prejudice, that I determined not for some time to write even the briefest sketch of it (Darwin, 1958a, p. 120).

I am not going to array all this evidence before you; I have done it before (Young, 1985, pp. 40-44). I am going to support it with some new materials and reflections. In preparing this paper I have had recourse to some new sources, in particular, the ten magnificent volumes of Darwin letters which have appeared since 1985. All of this new evidence supports my contentions. For example, there is a letter to Neil Arnott written in February 1869, where Darwin shows that in his own mind his own and Malthus’ conceptions are perfectly fused: ’You put the Malthusian great truth of the "Struggle for existence" very forcibly’ (Letters, vol. 8, p. 90). He elsewhere uses whether or not people share his admiration for Malthus as an acid test of whether or not he considers them intelligent (8: 238, 242). In one letter to Gray he speaks of a critical review of The Origin and concludes: ‘The article is a curiosity of unfairness and arrogance. But as he sneers at Malthus, I am content, for it is clear he cannot reason’ (8: 247). In earlier letters he refers to ‘Malthus’ most logical writings’ (5: 416), ‘the great Malthus’ (2: 423) and ‘the great philosopher Malthus’ (8: 238).

I want to reflect on why I have not bothered to check my own research against the points which some of these people have attempted to score against my account of this matter. First, some are patently only interested in separating Darwin from Malthus on the basis of the political belief that it simply cannot be the case that such a pure scientist would pervert objectivity and neutrality with such ideological stuff as Malthus’ theory. I see deBeer, Mayr and Ghiselin in this light. But others have looked closely at the details of the elements of Darwin’s reasoning, e.g., the difference between inter- and intra-specific competition or how much of a theory had he apparently worked out before October 1838. I suppose I simply have to come clean and say that I don’t really care, because I don’t think the origins of ideas are that logical or repay that kind of scrutiny. A. O. Lovejoy convinced me long ago that the history if ideas is full of lacunae, inconsistencies, partly worked-out ideas and other sorts of messiness, including eccentric readings of their sources and main influences. We have to take our great thinkers as we find them and not try to shoe-horn them into our own philosophical shoes, as I believe Bohlin, among others, has tried to do. I am a lot more interested in Darwin’s account than I am in the perhaps over-zealous scrutiny which leads people to say they know better than he what the precise path, step by step, of his reasoning was, and how he must have thought rather than what he says over and over, on the day and repeatedly, about the course of his deliberations.

I want once again to draw attention to what he says about Malthus. I find it exciting and compelling. It jumps out of the page at us and shouts that it provides exactly what he needed, a dynamism, pressure, something to drive the process of the origination of new species. In the 1844 Essay, he writes, ’It is the doctrine of Malthus applied in most cases with ten-fold force’ (Darwin and Wallace, 1958, p. 116). My favourite passage (which gave me my title for this essay) comes from his 1842 pencil sketch of the theory:

 

But considering the enormous geometrical power of increase in every organism and as every country, in ordinary cases, must be stocked to full extent, reflection will show that this is the case. Malthus on man - in animals no moral [check] restraint - they breed in time of year when provision most abundant, or season most favourable, every country has its season - calculate robins - oscillating from years of destruction.... the pressure is always ready . . . a thousand wedges are being forced into the economy of nature. This requires much reflection; study Malthus and calculate rates of increase and remember the resistance - only periodical.... In the course of a thousand generations infinitesimally small differences must inevitably tell... (Darwin and Wallace, 1958, pp. 46-7)

Sometime between 28 September and 12 October 1838, he read Malthus (probably his brother’s copy). In his notebook ’D’ he wrote (at a later date), ’Towards close I first thought of selection owing to struggle’ (deBeer, 1960-61, Part III, p. 128). Among the pages excised by Darwin for use in writing his great work entitled Natural Selection, one finds the following passage:

 

[Sept] 28th. We ought to be far from wondering of changes in numbers of species, from small changes in nature of locality. Even the energetic language of Decandolle does not convey the warring of the species as inference from Malthus - increase of brutes must be prevented solely by positive checks, excepting that famine may stop desire. - in nature production does not increase, whilst no check prevail, but the positive check of famine and consequently death. I do not doubt every one till he thinks deeply has assumed that increase of animals exactly proportionate to the number that can live. - . . .

Population is increase at geometrical ratio in FAR SHORTER time than 25 years - yet until the one sentence of Malthus no one clearly perceived the great check amongst men...The final cause of all this wedging, must be to sort out proper structure, and adapt it to change. - to do that for form, which Malthus shows is the final effect (by means however of volition) of this populousness on the energy of man. One may say there is a force like a hundred thousand wedges trying [to] force every kind of adapted structure into the gaps in the oeconomy of nature, or rather forming gaps by thrusting out weaker ones (deBeer et al., 1967, pp. 162-3).

In Notebook E, begun in October 1838, the excitement is palpable.

He quotes Malthus:

 

"It accords with the most liberal! spirit of philosophy to believe that no stone can fall, or plant rise, without the

immediate agency of the deity [Malthus wrote "divine power"]. But we know from experience! that these operations of what we call nature, have been conducted almost! invariably according to fixed laws: and since the work began, the causes of population & depopulation have been probably as constant as any of the laws of nature with which we are acquainted." - This applies to one species - I would apply it not only to population & depopulation, but extermination and production of new forms - this number and correlations. (deBeer, 1960-61, Part IV, p. 160, quoting Malthus, 1826, vol. 1, p. 529)

So — Darwin sees his theory as a generalization of Malthusianism. On the next page Darwin mentions ’my theory’ and the small changes involved in the slow process; subsequent pages mention ’the theory’ and ’my theory’.

I return now to the tone and impact of Malthus theory. The laissez-faire economist Adam Smith and the natural theologian William Paley had postulated an invisible hand, maintaining a just and harmonious society. Smith even had his own ‘Law of Population’, whereby population would conveniently rise and fall in response to wage rates. There was for him no limit on the accumulation of wealth, and no problem of population. Indeed, there were fears that population had declined, and its increase was considered an unmitigated good, and if it were to decline, according to Paley, that would be a disaster (Heilbroner, pp. 57-58, 67-70). There was a lot of speculation: the first census was not taken until 1801.

Malthusian pessimism was complemented by Ricardian economics, which replaced the harmony of the invisible hand with the Iron Law of Wages and postulated endless competition. There was a general trend in social theory: the rule was not harmony but structural contradiction, conflict and competition. The natural urge to be generous was declared misguided, since it would only lead to the birth of more and increasingly impoverished offspring (Malthus, 1826, vol. 2, chs 2-7). Parish relief was short-sighted, as was the importing of cheap corn. Only laissez-faire (about which she writes at length) would lead to a sustainable and decently paid and housed working population. The starkest proving ground for these stern ideas was Ireland, and although the name Malthus appears nowhere in Cecil Woodham-Smith’s account of The Great Hunger, the spirit of his doctrine, as well as that of laissez-faire, pervades her argument about the government policy which made the Irish Famine far worse than it would otherwise have been.

After he read Malthus, Carlyle called economics ‘the dismal science’. Godwin complained that Malthus ’had converted friends of progress into reactionaries by the hundreds’ (Heilbroner, p. 71) and described Malthus; theory as ‘that black and terrible demon that is always ready to stifle the hopes of humanity’ (quoted in Heilbroner, p. 76). Malthus’ biographer says that Bonaparte himself was not considered a greater enemy of his species than Malthus. He was said to have defended small-pox, slavery and child-murder, denounced soup-kitchens, early marriage and parish allowances. ’For thirty years it rained refutations’ (Bonar, 1885, p. 2). Between them, Malthus and Ricardo

 

changed the world from an optimistic to a pessimistic one. No longer was it possible to view the universe of mankind as an area in which the natural forces of society would inevitably bring about a better life for everyone. On the contrary, those natural forces which once seemed designed on purpose to bring harmony and peace into the world now seemed malevolent and menacing... Malthus and Ricardo had shown that, left to itself, society would proceed to a kind of barely living hell (Heilbroner, pp. 94-5).

In the Malthusian world preventative checks reduce fertility, while positive checks increase mortality: unwholesome occupations, severe labour, exposure to the seasons, extreme poverty, bad nursing of children, urban conditions, excesses of all kinds, diseases, epidemics, war, plague and famine (Avery, p. 65). In the second, much enlarged edition of 1803, he added a new preventative check, moral restraint from early marriage (Malthus, 1826, vol. 1, pp. 15-16, 15n-17n, 534-35). Now there were three sets of forces which keep population down to the level of subsistence: moral restraint, vice and misery (Malthus, 1826, vol. 1, p. 534). He made no allowance for birth control, which he abominated. The laws of nature and the passions of mankind are much more important causes of human misery than human institutions, which Godwin had blamed for human misery (Malthus, 1826, vol. 2, pp. 27-8). He argued that the Poor Laws should be abolished, and, in the meantime, those benefiting from them should not be better than the worst off of the employed (Avery, p. 75).

If we shift our gaze two centuries onward to the most comprehensive and thoughtful book in the current debate over the future of the earth and its inhabitants, Tom Athanasiou’s Slow Reckoning, we find it littered with the adjective Malthusian, always conveying a hopelessness, always blaming the poor, always evading the question of just where the poor come from and always masking the structured distribution of rewards and of social location. He writes, ‘"Surplus population", the notion upon which Malthusianism pivots, is an economic concept masquerading as a biological one, a concept irreducibly bound to fear, social insecurity, loss of place, unemployment, and what linguist Noam Chomsky called the "unmentionable five-letter word" — class’ (Athanasiou, p. 82, see also pp. 1996, pp. 77, 80, 81). Indeed, Malthus assures us in the last paragraph of the last edition of his Essay that the existing class system will never change (Malthus, 1826, vol. 2, p. 441; see also p. 36). Consider another recent source: in the last volume of his trilogy on social biology, entitled The Legacy of Malthus, Allan Chase characterises Malthus as the ‘sewer of the seed of scientific racism’ (Chase, 1975, p.72) and approvingly quotes a characterisation of his Essay as ‘a propaganda tract favouring certain social arrangements’ (p. 77). Clearly, then, Malthus current place in the firmament is as a whipping boy for liberals and radicals. There is even a web site maintained by conservatives seeking to rehabilitate his reputation.

This is not to say that there is no problem of population. On the contrary, according to Avery,

 

the world can be divided into two demographic regions of roughly equal size. In the first, which includes North America, Europe, the former Soviet Union, Australia, New Zealand and Eastern Asia, populations have completed or are completing the demographic transition from the old equilibrium where high birth rates were balanced by a high death rate to a new equilibrium with low birth rates balanced by a low death rate. In the second region, which includes Southeast Asia, Latin America. the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and Africa, populations seem to be caught in a demographic trap, where high birth rates and low death rates lead to population growth so rapid that the development that could have slowed population growth is impossible (Avery, 1997, p. 107).

There seems to be no middle ground. According to present rates of growth, the world’s population, which was 2.5 billion in 1959 (Boulding in Malthus, 1798, p. vi) will reach 10 billion by 2050, and many countries are exceeding Malthus’ estimate of doubling of population in 25 years (Avery, p. xiii). The problem, as I say, is not that population is not growing. The problem is why and what political and economic steps are or are not taken to remove the causes. Demography, biology, environmentalism and politics meet here.

My take on the persistence of the term Malthusianism and its evocation has two facets. One is simply pessimistic, reflecting the ideological invocation of Malthus by elitists and scare-mongers over two centuries. The other facet is even more stark but it is not despondent. It is the implication that human survival, that of other animals and the fate of the planet are matters of praxis, and praxis, the willed, purposive acting according to a thought-out set of intentions in a moral framework, is nothing but the lineal descendant, mutatis mutandis, of what Malthus, thinking in terms of the choices of his own culture, called ’moral restraint’. Darwin was able to reach his own theoretical formulation by removing moral restraint from the Malthusian theory: ’in animals, no moral restraint’. This was the essential move, leading to an inescapable determinism in the economy of nature. Notice, however, that he made no objection to the concept of moral restraint as a factor in human populations. Indeed, he devoted chapters four and five of The Descent of Man to ‘The Moral Sense’ and ‘...Intellectual and Moral Faculties...’ Darwin did not think deeply about morality, although he did consider that the moral sense had evolved like other functions of the mind.

I turn now to the conundrum which Darwin’s theory bequeathed to biology, anthropology and moral philosophy. As that single sentence signalled in The Origin: ’Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history’ (Darwin, 1859, p. 488), and, as Darwin confirmed in The Descent of Man, his theory brought humanity into the evolutionary story and the process of natural selection. If there is no moral restraint in animals, and if we are animals, it could follow that ’in man, there is no moral restraint’. But that is not what we believe when we hold conferences on the future of the planet and on population control and on global warming and the other issues which will determine if there is to be a future. According to the Worldwatch Institute there are six of them which must be addressed if we are to attain sustainability: stabilising population, shifting to renewable energy, increasing energy efficiency, recycling resources, reforestation and soil conservation (Avery, p. 115). I would add the requirements of care over genetic engineering and over weapons of mass destruction and solving the problems posed by the ozone layer and global warming.

 

So we come back, once again, to Malthus. He built his argument on the terrain that humans, like other organisms, are subject to natural law (Todes, p. 13). We are subject, that is, to the first natural law laid down by the first professor of economics who was also the first professional social scientist and the founder of scientific demography. Yet he also left us in a pivotal place philosophically with his loophole of moral restraint. He was not optimistic about its likely efficacy. I am not sure I am, either, but it is our only hope, and we are in his debt for mentioning it, even if as an afterthought. It leaves us with a space for restraint, by which I do not mean free will in the pure philosophical sense. Rather, I mean relative freedom from overwhelming constraint; a chance to inhibit blindly following sexual urges by means, for example, of sublimation; freedom to relate sympathetically to other people and other creatures and the world about us. It leaves us with a reflexive feature of human nature with which we can reflect on ourselves while being ourselves, ponder human nature and its constructive and destructive potential while remaining fully human, the products of Darwinian evolution and the severe influences from our economic and social conditions which Malthus characterised.

I have read the first and the sixth editions of Malthus’ Essay and of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species with considerable care and find important similarities, especially if I include points made in Darwin’s Descent of Man. All integrate humanity with the rest of living nature in a framework which treats humans and animals as part of nature. There is a single framework of ideas. Both writers also started with relatively pure theories and, as they revised their works with great care in the light of new information and in order to meet objections, watered down their original positions and admixed them with explanatory factors which were not prominent in their first, more polemical and sketchy, tomes. Darwin allowed space for Lamarckian factors and the direct action of the environment in explaining evolution; Malthus allowed more scope for moral restraint. Their contemporary supporters and subsequent interpreters have tried to hold onto the original, relatively unequivocal, theories.

Throughout this essay I have been concerned to hold Darwin and Malthus together and to acknowledge complexity in explanations. My approach is the opposite of reductionism and oversimplification. On the contrary, I am arguing for an integration of the biological and human sciences which does not hand all of our humanity over to the biologists and sociobiologists and Darwinian psychologists, welcome though their insights certainly are. I am proposing an approach to the study of human nature which includes new versions of the concept of moral restraint and opens itself to drawing on moral discourse from ethics, theology, literature, the theatre, cinema, radio, television and the rest of the arts, without dichotomising life and mind, fact and value, science and culture.

At some point we have to take seriously what Darwin thought the role of Malthus was in his thinking. From his most private jottings (carefully excised for inclusion in his big book) and his two sketches (one written lest he die before publishing his findings) and throughout his published work and correspondence, he praises Malthus and acknowledges a profound admiration and debt. People who object to this connection or who wish to circumscribe its role in the origination of the theory of natural selection are failing to take in the forest while concentrating on certain trees. Thirty years ago I wrote about various readings of Malthus in the nineteenth century — by William Paley, Thomas Chalmers, Darwin, Wallace, Spencer, Marx and Engels. My point was two-fold — the common context of biological and social thought and the fact that scientific and philosophical texts, like the Bible, can be read and made use of in a variety of ways. The use which I wish to make is to draw from the deterministic nexus of Malthus and the Malthusian Darwin the idea that a space nevertheless exists for praxis, the pursuit of morally-framed goals. The future of humankind depends on this, and I am glad that Malthus and Darwin, founders of the modern social and biological sciences, granted its potential efficacy. I would like to express the wish that their heirs in the current debates might be as philosophically liberal-minded and sophisticated.

Did you know that Malthus had a hare lip, corrected by surgery, leaving him strikingly handsome? He also had an uncorrected cleft palate, making him difficult to understand,. Both, we are told, were inherited from his great great grandfather. They were his biological inheritance, the refractoriness of nature in his own body, his appearance and his ability to speak and be understood. In spite of these disabilities he won prizes for elocution. Once again, praxis over process, something we can perhaps emulate.

 

I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Anna Mayer of the Cambridge Library Darwin Correspondence Project in my research into Darwin’s letters.

 

Paper presented to conference on ’Malthus, Medicine and Science’ Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, 20 March 1998.

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Copyright: The Author

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ

robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk


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