Synopses & Reviews
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 Darwinand#8217;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. and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;
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 Darwinand#8217;s acknowledgement that natural selection was and#147;the doctrine of Malthus, applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms,and#8221; both sides of the debate claimed to be the more correctly and#147;Darwinian.and#8221; 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.
andldquo;These essays display the impressive range of Robert J. Richardsandrsquo;s abilities as an intellectual historian and historian of science, as they explore the disparate sources of Darwinian thought in romanticism, theology, ethics, aesthetics, and linguistics. They dispel the notion that Darwin saw the world as purposeless, amoral, and red in tooth and claw, and they bring out the complexity and nuance of Darwinandrsquo;s accounts of the origins of mind, morals, language, emotions, and humanity. It becomes clear, even before we get to the title essay, that Darwin was an unlikely fountainhead for Nazi ideology, and, for that matter, a poor figurehead for other -isms sometimes connected to him, from social Darwinism, to neo-Darwinism, to atheism and materialism. Richards also gives us an unusually sympathetic treatment of Ernst Haeckel, defends him against oft-repeated accusations of fraud, and reveals a strong affinity between his Darwinism and Darwinandrsquo;s own.andrdquo;
and#8220;This collection of essays by Robert J. Richards, todayand#8217;s preeminent historian of evolutionary theory, shows the scholarship and intellectual daring we have come to expect from this author.and#160;Knowledgeable and sympathetic toward Charles Darwin, Richards also shows great empathy for Darwinand#8217;s contemporaries, from supporters like Ernst Haeckel to rivals like Richard Owen and Herbert Spencer. Witty and engaging on the surface, Richardsand#8217;s authoritative dismissal of the hypothesis that the roots of Nazi thinking are to be found in the fertile soil of the Origin of Species proves that the volume is held together by a deep moral seriousness and the conviction that the past really matters to the present.and#8221;
“Scholarly and wide-ranging.” Yvonne Sherratt, University of Bristol
and#8220;An illuminating look at what makes Darwinian theory so slippery, and so magnetic, even to those of us outside the sciences.and#8221;
andldquo;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 attentionandmdash;and the rise and fall of Malthusandrsquo;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 Darwinandrsquo;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.andrdquo;
andldquo;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 Desmondandrsquo;s Politics of Evolution. Hale shows that the debate over the validity of Malthus split liberal radicals into opposing camps.andnbsp;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.andrdquo;
andldquo;Haleandrsquo;s survey reveals the full complexity of the political views that were derived from Darwinandrsquo;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 andlsquo;social Darwinism.andrsquo;andrdquo;
andldquo;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.andrdquo;
and#8220;Scholarly and wide-ranging.and#8221;
"Richards considers Darwin's theory of natural selection in relation to moral purpose and moves from there to Darwin's principle of divergence and the crucial problem of transmutation of species. Subsequent chapters provide a thoughtful, fresh review of Haeckel's alleged fraud with regard to vertebrate embryos and developmental stages. Herbert Spencer's notion of social Darwinism and the cogent arguments from earlier chapters are brought to bear on the question that occupies the latter part of the book: addressing whether or not Hitler was inspired by Darwinian doctrine to justify his view of race and the preservation of Aryan character. The author brings compelling logic and considerable insight to this question as well as knowledge about who did influence Hitler's thinking. . . . Recommended."
andquot;[A] wide-ranging historical narrative. . . . Ambitious.andquot;
andquot;Haleandrsquo;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.andquot;
andquot;A revelatory group portrait of socialist-Darwinian London of the 1880s and 90s.andquot;
andquot;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 Englandandrsquo;s 39 articles of religion at the University of Cambridge, would at the very least have been troubled by Darwinandrsquo;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.andquot;
andquot;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.andquot;
In tracing the history of Darwinandrsquo;s accomplishment and the trajectory of evolutionary theory during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most scholars agree that Darwin introduced blind mechanism into biology, thus banishing moral values from the understanding of nature. According to the standard interpretation, the principle of survival of the fittest has rendered human behavior, including moral behavior, ultimately selfish. Few doubt that Darwinian theory, especially as construed by the masterandrsquo;s German disciple, Ernst Haeckel, inspired Hitler and led to Nazi atrocities.and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;In this collection of essays, Robert J. Richards argues that this orthodox view is wrongheaded. A close historical examination reveals that Darwin, in more traditional fashion, constructed nature with a moral spine and provided it with a goal: man as a moral creature. The book takes up many other topicsandmdash;including the character of Darwinandrsquo;s chief principles of natural selection and divergence, his dispute with Alfred Russel Wallace over manandrsquo;s big brain, the role of language in human development, his relationship to Herbert Spencer, how much his views had in common with Haeckelandrsquo;s, and the general problem of progress in evolution. Moreover, Richards takes a forceful stand on the timely issue of whether Darwin is to blame for Hitlerandrsquo;s atrocities. Was Hitler a Darwinian?
is intellectual history at its boldest.
Reading the sixth edition of Thomas Robert Malthusand#8217;s Essay on the Principle of Population
famously led Charles Darwin to arrive at his theory of natural selection, for many have studied what Darwin took from Malthus and the influence of political economy on the theory of natural selection. In a bold move, Piers J. Hale contends that this focus on Malthus and his effect on Darwinand#8217;s evolutionary thought has neglected a strong anti-Malthusian tradition in English intellectual life, one that not only predated the 1859 publication of the Origin of Species
but which persisted throughout the Victorian period at least until the First World War. Political Descent
reveals that there were two evolutionary and political traditions that developed in tandem in England: the one Malthusian, the other decidedly anti-Malthusian and owing much to the transmutationist ideas of the French naturalist Jean Baptiste Lamarck. The split mirrored the rift in English radicalism that followed in the wake of the 1832 Reform Act. These two traditions developed in a context of mutual hostility, debate, and refutation.and#160;
About the Author
Robert J. Richards
is the Morris Fishbein Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Science and Medicine; professor in the Departments of History, Philosophy, and Psychology and in the Committee on Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science; and director of the Fishbein Center for the History of Science and Medicine, all at the University of Chicago. He is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, The Tragic Sense of Life
, also published by the University of Chicago Press. He lives in Chicago.
Table of Contents
1 and#149; Introduction
2 and#149; Darwinand#8217;s Theory of Natural Selection and Its Moral Purpose
Appendix 1 The Logic of Darwinand#8217;s Long Argument
Appendix 2 The Historical Ontology and Location of Scientific Theories
3 and#149; Darwinand#8217;s Principle of Divergence: Why Fodor Was Almost Right
4 and#149; Darwinand#8217;s Romantic Quest: Mind, Morals, and Emotions
Appendix Assessment of Darwinand#8217;s Moral Theory
5 and#149; The Relation of Spencerand#8217;s Evolutionary Theory to Darwinand#8217;s
6 and#149; Ernst Haeckeland#8217;s Scientific and Artistic Struggles
7 and#149; Haeckeland#8217;s Embryos: Fraud Not Proven
8 and#149; The Linguistic Creation of Man: August Schleicher and the Missing Link in Darwinian Theory
9 and#149; Was Hitler a Darwinian?