In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

Influence of Malthus and Darwin on the European Elite

Posted by seumasach on August 4, 2008

I was moved to post this after seeing Richard Dawkins’s latest attempt to resuscitate Darwinism in its entirety(channel 4, UK), under the pretext of opposing creationism. The Malthusian aspect received marked emphasis. The Malthusian agenda seems to be a logical consequence of oligarchy and can be either extensive, the clearing of people from the heartlands to become colonizers, or intensive, culling pure and simple. The alternative of flourishing sovereign states, harnessing technology for the common good and coexisting in harmony is an abomination in the eyes of the elite.

©1995 T.D. Hall, Ph.D.

“There is no exception to the rule that every organic being naturally increases at so high a rate, that if not destroyed, the earth would soon be covered by the progeny of a single pair. Even slow-breeding man has doubled in twenty-five years, and at this rate, in a few thousand years, there would literally not be standing room for his progeny….” –Charles Darwin

The Premises of Classical Darwinism

The first premise of classical Darwinism is that species evolve from other species. The second premise is that Natural Selection is the means of evolution. The third premise is the so-called “Malthus doctrine.” This doctrine maintains that organisms tend to reproduce at a geometrical rate, whereas resources replenish themselves slowly–at an arithmetic rate. Consequently, severe struggle for the means of subsistence becomes inevitable.. It is this premise that is referred to in the subtitle of the Origin … The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

The Malthusian Doctrine: The Effect on the Elite

The Malthus doctrine was set forth by the Reverend Thomas Malthus in one of the most influential of modern essays, the “Essay on the Principle of Population” (1798). In this essay, Malthus argues that because “all animated life [tends] to increase beyond the nourishment prepared for it,” there can be never be real progress or happiness for humankind. Humanity is doomed to procreate itself into destitution.

Before Malthus and his nightmarish visions, the rulers of Europe looked upon large populations as assets; after the “Principle of Population,” they began to view large populations as liabilities. Behind their readiness to embrace Malthusianism was the terrible French Revolution, which had made it very clear that large masses of people can be lethal to ruling classes. In 1789 (first year of the Revolution), the European country with the largest population was …. France.

Leader of the reaction against the French Revolution–and all that it represented–was Britain. England’s initial response to the revolution in France was mild enthusiasm. Certainly there was no need for a similar revolution in England. England had a constitution, one that was greatly admired. However, when inflammatory pamphlets started circulating in England, the voices of reaction began to make themselves heard. The most articulate of those voices belonged to Edmund Burke, who in his younger years had pleaded the cause of the American colonies before Parliament. In 1790, Burke was an old man. An old man with a large estate to support.

On February 9, 1790, Burke arose in the House of Commons and began his critique of the new “democracy.” “Our present danger is … from anarchy, a danger of being led, through an admiration of successful fraud and violence, to an imitation of the excess of an irrational, unprincipled, proscribing, confiscatory, plundering, ferocious, bloody, and tyrannical democracy. On the side of religion, the danger is no longer from intolerance but from atheism–a foul, uncanny vice, a foe to all the dignity and consolation of mankind–which seems in France, for a long time, to have been embodied into a faction, accredited, and almost avowed.” In November of the same year, Burke published his famous Reflections on the French Revolution, which represented the “conservative” position in most convincing terms.

The subsequent excesses of the French Revolution appeared to many to prove Burke’s argument. When news that Louis XVI had been beheaded reached London, George III and most of his subjects were absolutely shocked. There was no more cheering for France. On January 24, 1793, the British government ordered the French minister to leave the kingdom. On February l, France declared war on both England and Holland.

The attitude of the upper classes in England at the time might be summarized by the word “panic.” In the words of the Durants, “panic struck the upper classes of Britain when they found themselves faced by another revolution so soon after the costly revolt of the American colonies. The thousand-year-old world of kings and aristocracies seemed to be collapsing, besieged by peasants burning feudal chateaux and title deeds, and by city mobs imprisoning the royal family and cutting off hundreds of noble heads…..” All this, many Britons felt, was the result of “atheistic” French philosophers (especially Rousseau) and their English counterparts, people like William Godwin (the “Foolish Philosopher”) and Thomas Paine, the “pen of the American Revolution.”

An Exposition of the Malthusian Doctrine

It was against this background that Rev. Malthus committed to paper his pessimistic appraisal of the condition of man. It all began as something of an academic exercise. Thomas’ father was an admirer of Rousseau. Wouldn’t be fun to challenge Father with a view completely different from his own? The father was so impressed by the ingenuity of his son, he encouraged Thomas to publish the piece. Malthus took up the dare and published the “Principle of Population” in 1798.

Populations, whether animal or human, know no internal constraints, the Rev. Malthus argued. Populations simply grow and grow, until checked by Famine, Disease, or War. Do populations exhibit any internal constraints to excessive population growth? Malthus’ answer was “No.” Populations are unprincipled.

Where did Malthus get the idea that unless held in check by severe external factors, populations devastate their environment? Curiously, the same islands that were so important in the formation of Darwin’s thought played a major role in the cogitations of Malthus … the Galapagos.

Malthus and the Galapagos Goats

In the late seventeenth century and early eighteenth, ships would stop at the Galapagos to pick up giant (delicious) Galapagos turtles. The turtles, piled on their backs in the holds of ships, would remain alive for a very long time. Goats, on the other hand, were a lot of trouble. Goats, the standard meat source, had to be fed, and they couldn’t be piled on their backs. For those traveling near the Galapagos, the sensible thing to do was to stop and trade goats for turtles. A great many goats were released on the islands. In time, goats on certain of the islands ate just about every bit of vegetation.

Malthus happened to run across the “Galapagos goats” information in a book on the Poor Laws published by Viscount Townshend in the early 1700s. Gladly Malthus seized upon the data, as it supported him in a long-running debate with his father. What the goat situation indicates, Malthus believed, is that the sexual drive knows no constraints, no internal constraints that is. What is true for the goats is also true for humanity, Malthus supposed. Consequently, populations–whether populations of goats or humans– must be controlled by external factors, by a responsible elite. This point of view was more than welcome to the elites of Europe.

In the opening half of the nineteenth century, throughout Europe, the ministers of monarchy and members of the ruling classes met to discuss the newly discovered “population problem” and to devise ways of implementing the Rev. Malthus’ recommendation that the mortality rate of the poor must be increased.

“Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor,” Malthus declared, “we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations,” and so forth.

Another way to state the main premise of the Malthus doctrine is : “All animated life” is governed exclusively by the sexual-reproductive drive. The “-logy” (logic) behind biology is the “logic of sexual drive.” Thus stated the Malthus concept is an example of “sexual determinism” of the most reductive kind. Why “reductive”? Malthus reduces a complex interplay of factors to just one factor–sexual drive.

Any form of reductive determinism has, on its face, little or no scientific merit. Some very innovative thinkers have been castigated, and cast out of the scientific forum, because of their attachment to reductive determinism. Sigmund Freud is a case in point. Once the label of “sexual determinist” was applied to Freud, Freudian psychology was essentially finished.

The Malthus doctrine, one of the most influential “doctrines” of modern times, never had any scientific basis whatsoever. Malthus took a very unusual situation–that of the goats in the Galapagos–and called it typical, the way things are in the biological realm. If they are not subject to external constraints, all animals will over-run their environment, breed themselves out of existence. Prepared by his theology to take a rather dismal view of humanity, Malthus concluded that humans were no different from the goats. Humans had to be checked by Famine, Disease or War, or by the intervention (or non-intervention) of an ethical elite, or they would over-run the planet, leaving it as barren as the goat-infested Galapagos.

In his later years, Malthus acknowledged his error and revised his position on the “principle” of population. Unfortunately, it was the original view, and not the revised, that came to the attention of Charles Darwin.

The Malthus-Darwin Connection

In putting together his theory of evolution, Darwin was pressed to find an explanation for “variability”–variations in organisms and species. He knew from his observations in the Galapagos and elsewhere that geography was an important factor in speciation. Take members of the same species and put them in different geographical locations, they’ll evolve into different species. So much was certain. What was not clear to Darwin was the mechanism, the means, by which the differentiation occurred. The matter was problematical. Then, in 1838, Darwin read the Malthus’ essay on population.

“In October 1838,” Darwin writes in his autobiography, “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 Malthus idea of “existence as an incessant struggle” suggested to Darwin an explanation for variation that would be regarded as sensible by just about everyone: The “Mother” of variation is none other than the old, familiar struggle for existence. And Natural Selection is the “Dad”–the decider. Dissertations on geographical determinism, dissertations on any type of determinism, not required. Variations existing now are the winners of past and present struggles for existence. Variations of the future will be those that survive the tests of struggle and selection.

Recall the subtitle of Darwin’s book: The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Ever since the French Revolution, the fate of the ruling classes had been somewhat in question. Was the elite losing ground? Was the elite obsolete? “No, indeed,” saith Darwinism. “Elite status is prima facie evidence of evolutionary superiority.” What does it take to maintain that superiority? “Acceptance of the first and foremost responsibility of the elite–to subdue all expressions of unprincipled natural man.”

The Malthus-Darwin position regarding natural man was the direct opposite of the Deistic position of those in the line of Rousseau and Lamarck. For the latter, natural man was divine, close to the Creator. “Civilization” is corruption. For those in the Darwin camp, the opposite is true. Natural man is vicious, and society represents the efforts of “the ethical few” to contain the violence and the destructiveness inherent in natural man.

“Among primitive men,” wrote foremost Social Darwinist T.H. Huxley, “the weakest and stupidest went to the wall, while the toughest and shrewdest, those who were best fitted to cope with their circumstances, survived. Life was a continual free fight, and beyond the limited and temporary relations of the family, the Hobbesian war of each against all was the normal state of existence. The human species, like others, plashed and floundered amid the general stream of evolution, keeping its head above water as it best might, and thinking neither of whence nor whither.” The Hobbesian war of each against all is the natural state of existence.

Further: “One of the most essential conditions, if not the chief cause, of the struggle for existence, is the tendency to multiply without limit, which [tendency] man shares with all living things….” This is the familiar Malthus hypothesis, which Darwin incorporated into his theory.

Further: “The effort of ethical man to work towards a moral end by no means abolished … the deep-seated organic impulses which impel the natural man to follow his non-moral course….” Ethical man is the product of “moral” (as opposed to natural) evolution. Society is an expression of moral evolution. “Society not only has a moral end, but in its perfection, social life, is embodied morality.” The primary, absolutely necessary function of ethical man, and society is to regulate non-moral man. Ethical man “founds his life on a more or less complete self-restraint, which is the negation of the unlimited struggle for existence….” Thus it was that Darwinism (and Social Darwinism) gave the ruling classes of the nineteenth century a new lease on power, a new justification for existence. They were the regulators of the sex-crazed, violent beast–the amoral masses of mankind.

As the quotation which heads this chapter indicates, Darwin fully embraced the Malthus hypothesis that all organisms breed at a geometrical rate and know no internal constraints. This is the hypothesis we label the “Malthus doctrine.” “There is no exception to the rule,” Darwin writes with totally unwarranted certainty, “that every organic being naturally increases at so high a rate, that if not destroyed, the earth would soon be covered by the progeny of a single pair.” What about humans? “Even slow-breeding man,” Darwin states, “has doubled in twenty-five years, and this rate, in a few thousand years, there would literally not be standing room for his progeny….”

The long and short of it is: Darwin took a perverse, elitist, unscientific philosophy (Malthusianism) and made it one of the foundations of modern biology and evolution. Without the legitimization that Darwin provided, Malthusianism would not have survived much beyond mid-century. It was patently part of an hysterical ruling class response to the French Revolution.

Did Darwin knowingly conspire to insinuate into science an abhorrent view of life?–conspire with reactionaries to establish an evolution theory that justified the rulers of the last century and our own in committing numberless crimes against the common people, all in the name of science. “The greatest authority of all the advocates of war is Darwin,” wrote Max Nordau in the North American Review in 1889. “Since the theory of evolution has been promulgated, they can cover their natural barbarism with the name of Darwin and proclaim the sanguinary instincts of their inmost hearts as the last word of science.” In response to the above question, I can enter only an opinion at this point: Darwin was no original thinker; he was great collector and synthesizer of information. Where social theory is concerned, Malthusianism had achieved an orthodox status among Darwin’s associates in the Royal Society. All indications are that Darwin truly believed in the Malthus theory. “As more individuals are produced than can possibly survive,” he writes with apparent sincerity, “there must in every case be a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life. It is the doctrine or Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdom….”

In their enthusiasm for the “Malthus-Darwin doctrine,” some of Darwin’s followers carried the idea of “life-as-fight” to absurd lengths: “T.H. Huxley said that all the molecules within each organism were competing with each other. August Weismann [a German biologist] suggested that the particles of germ plasm were in conflict with each other, so that the ancestors who had contributed them could be seen as struggling with each other as to which should be re-created. Wilhelm Roux developed the theory that the organs were struggling with each other for nourishment, kidneys against lungs, heart against brain. Neither Darwin nor his immediate followers had much feeling for the internal stability and harmony of the organism.”

Interestingly, the “struggle for existence” is rarely discussed any longer as an issue in biology. As Norman Macbeth indicates, “Darwin took it over from Malthus, who was a sociologist (and a grim one) rather than a biologist. It was not derived from a loving contemplation of plants and animals. Such a contemplation would show that there were always more seeds than were needed for the replacement of the parents, but it would not show that ‘each organic being was striving to increase at a geometrical ratio’ or that there was continual struggle….”

Today, in biology, the emphasis is on co-operative relationships among organisms rather than competitive ones. In The Lives of a Cell, for instance, biologist Lewis Thomas writes: “Most of the associations between the living things we know about are essentially cooperative ones, symbiotic in one degree or another; when they have the look of adversaries, it is usually a standoff relation, with one party issuing signals, warnings, flagging the other off….”

The “Survival” Game

After 1859, the Darwinian “vision” of existence as purposeless struggle and of evolution as a haphazard process quickly replaced the Judeo-Christian vision of human life as a purposeful, divinely guided moral struggle. The Darwinian revolution deposed God as Source, and indeed exiled from the realm of “true science” all teleological considerations (considerations as to the purpose and ends of life). “Instead of endorsing the eighteenth-century concept of a drive toward perfection,” writes Ernst Mayr, “Darwin merely postulated change…. By chance this process of adaptation sometimes results in changes that can be interpreted as progress, but there is no intrinsic mechanism generating inevitable advance.”

“Darwin’s new and revolutionary [reactionary] view,” writes Australian scientist Michael Denton, “implied that all the diversity of life on Earth had resulted from natural and random processes and not, as previously believed, from the creative activity of God. The acceptance of this great claim and the consequent elimination of God from nature was to play a decisive role in the secularization of western society….”

Further, the “idea of life as meaningless struggle” played a decisive role in the brutalization of the western world. Guided by the “scientific” ideas that “war is the health of the nation” and that the great threat to the state is over-population, the rulers of late nineteenth century Europe precipitated the Age of Imperialism. After Darwin, the nations of Europe found themselves with “surplus populations.” Nation after nation entered the race to acquire foreign lands. The motive was not greed, it was “survival.” The nations that would survive into the future, it was believed, would be those in possession of vast tracts of land for the dumping of surplus population.

In a very short time, all of Africa was carved up by the European powers. Aboriginal peoples of that continent who objected to slavery were destroyed. Many great tribes, tribes that for thousands of years existed in balance with the environment, were eradicated. It was the “African Holocaust.” Today, the holocaust continues.

Competition for empire (i.e. the possession of colonies for the dumping of surplus population) was a major cause of World War I. In 1901, Arthur Dix, the editor of two Berlin journals, wrote: “A timorous people, which knows not how to use its elbows, may of course put a stop to the increase of population–it might find things too narrow at home. The superfluity of population might find no economic existence. A people happy in its future, however, knows nothing of artificial limitation; its only care can be to find room on the globe for a livelihood for other members of its own race.”

In Britain as Germany’s Vassal (1912), Social Darwinist (and retired German general) F. von Bernhardi writes, “In the interest of the world’s civilization it is our duty to enlarge Germany’s colonial empire. Thus alone can we politically, or at least nationally, unite the German civilization throughout the world, for only then will they recognize that German civilization is the most necessary factor in human progress. We must endeavor to acquire new territories throughout the world by all means in our power, because we must preserve to Germany the millions of Germans who will be born in the future, and we must provide for them food and employment. They ought to be enabled to live under a German sky, and to lead a German life.”

Given such attitudes (not only in Germany, but throughout Europe), war became inevitable. It became inevitable for another reason as well: War was viewed by Bernhardi and other influential hard-core Social Darwinists as an “indispensable regulator” of populations. “If it were not for war,” Bernhardi writes, “we should probably find that inferior and degenerate races would overcome healthy and youthful ones by their wealth and their numbers. The generative importance of war lies in this, that it causes selection, and thus war becomes a biological necessity.”

In the twentieth century, the Malthus-Darwin doctrine conditioned a struggle for power on an unprecedented scale. The twentieth century is the most bloody, the most brutal on record. For the first time, the principal targets of war became populations.

The Concept of Mutual Aid and Cooperation

One who had attempted to stop the carnage was the Russian naturalist and evolutionist Petr Kropotkin. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, Kropotkin argued the view that the key to evolutionary progress is not conflict, but cooperation. In his years of research in Siberian and elsewhere, Kropotkin maintained, he failed to find “that bitter struggle for existence, among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of the struggle for life, and the main factor of evolution. “If we ask Nature,” Kropotkin writes, “Who are the fittest: those who are continually at war with each other, or those who support one another?” we at once see that those animals which acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest. They have more chances to survive, and they attain, in their respective classes, the highest development of the intelligence and bodily organization….”

In 1902, Kropotkin published Mutual Aid–A Factor of Evolution, a thorough, scientific refutation of the idea that struggle for survival is the source of evolutionary progress. It was too late. The Social Darwinists were in command of the field, and they were demanding war. In 1914, the despairing Kropotkin wrote: “When the present war began, involving nearly all Europe in a terrible struggle, and this struggle assumed … a never yet known character of wholesale destruction of life among the non-combatants and pillage of the means of subsistence of the civil population, ‘struggle for existence’ became the favorite explanation with those who tried to find an excuse for these horrors.”

Applied Darwinism and the Nazi Reich

As we all know, the First World War was only the beginning of the horrors. For many twentieth century leaders, “genocide” was regarded as a legitimate tool of state policy. “National Socialism,” said Nazi Deputy Party leader Rudolf Hess in 1934, is nothing but applied biology.” The third premise of classical Darwinism became the foundation of the Third Reich.

“The entire Nazi regime,” writes Robert Jay Lifton, “was built on a biomedical vision that required the kind of racial purification that would progress from sterilization to extensive killing.” As early as the publication of Mein Kampf (1924-26), Lifton indicates, “Hitler had declared the sacred racial mission of the German people to be ‘assembling and preserving the most valuable stocks of basic racial elements [and]…. slowly and severely raising them to a dominant position.’…” For Hitler, the most famous of the twentieth century Social Darwinist politicos, the stakes were absolute: “If the power to fight for one’s own health is no longer present, the right to live in this world of struggle ends.”

Annihilation “In the Name of Survival”

By the middle of our Malthusian century, the great “Superpowers”–the winners of the struggle for dominance–were threatening the annihilation of the entire planet … in the name of survival.

“The twentieth century would be incomprehensible without the Darwinian revolution,” writes Michael Denton. “The social and political currents which have swept the world in the past eighty years would not have been possible without its intellectual sanction… .”49 Among the “currents which have swept the world,” we may list … Imperialism, the mad rush for empire in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth; the rise in the twentieth century of various forms of socialism premised on the idea that the first responsibility of the state is population control, a responsibility inevitably involving emphasis on the elimination of supposedly defective peoples; the First and Second World Wars; the so-called Cold War; and the numerous late twentieth century “hot” wars.

Since the establishment of Darwinism as the West’s official evolutionary theory, “war’ has been the order of the day. “War,” writes Jacques Barzun, “became the symbol, the image, the inducement, the reason, and the language of all human doings on the planet. No one who has not waded through some sizable part of the literature of the period 1870-1914 has any conception of the extent to which it is one long call for blood,….” 50 The call for blood began with the French Revolution. The blood of the nobility ran in the gutters, and that was something that steeled the hearts of those in the ruling classes. The masses had dared war on their masters. They would pay the price. And pay they did, by willingly engaging in war after war … marching off to the sound of the death drums of Hobbes and Malthus and “our gentle” Charles Darwin. ~

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