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Darwin and Malthus | Étienne Gilson | From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, Species, and Evolution | Ignatius Insight

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Editor's Note: The extensive endnotes (four pages in length) for this excerpt have not been included here.



It is not difficult to discover the connections which at an early date tied together the thought of Darwin and that of Malthus. Darwin himself told the public of it, but for a long time yet the sense and the bearing of Darwin's discovery of Malthus will be puzzled over.

The more one comes to know Darwin, the more one is persuaded that, from the day when he conceived the idea of transformation of species, he felt charged with the scientific mission of revealing to men a truth which was in his eyes indubitable; but this scientific truth was at the same time the reverse of a religious certitude which he himself had lost. The antireligious always has a bit of the religious in it. Strictly speaking, a scientific negation of the religious makes no sense, because the two orders are strangers to each other and because there is no sense of the word "truth" common to the two orders on which they might be able to meet. This abstract distinction is, however, contradicted by the psychology of the believer. There is in Darwin the scientist a propagandist charged by his own conscience with delivering men from a harmful error. Not having ever doubted the literal truth of the account of Genesis, he was frightened, finding himself in the presence of his new idea. A world came apart, in his mind, under the pressure of its spirit. Many of those who today judge that his uneasiness was without objective basis would then without doubt have shared his fear. They are like those who in the twentieth century are astonished that it was possible in the seventeenth century to judge the theses of Richard Simon as dangerous to the faith. At least Darwin had the courage to accept his own idea with all its consequences. In a letter to his friend Joseph Hooker, dated January 11, 1844, that is to say, about fifteen years before the publication of On the Origin of Species, Darwin said: "At last gleams of light have come, and I am almost convinced (quite contrary to the opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable."

If species are not fixed, what is the cause of their variation? Darwin was much less able to neglect the question which had been posed before him by Lamarck, whose doctrine he knew well enough to feel authorized to reject as absurd. His own discovery of 1844 was not in his eyes that of the variability of species, for that uncovered to him simultaneously the cause of their variations. To depart from Lamarck had been to depart from a bit more audacious and technically perfected Buffon. Darwin himself truly believed in the transformation of species only when he was able to catch sight of the cause of their transformations, natural selection, which Lamarck had not imagined. The theory was virtually complete in his mind when he had discerned the essential parameters of the problem: the struggle for existence, the spontaneous variations in the heart of the species [au sein des espèces] with the tendency to divergence which they entail, the hereditary transmission of variations favorable to the perpetuation of the species, and finally the analogy between the results of natural selection and those of domestication.

The last characteristic is disconcerting, for to argue from domestication to natural selection is to compare a case of intentional and directed transformation to those cases where the cause of the operation is unknown. That stockbreeders put to profit certain spontaneous variations and favor them, to obtain a new variety, is a fact, and it is even a fact which is intelligible. A conscious process of selection goes on in stockbreeding, an intentional choice is made, the end of which is obtaining a new variety. It is the triumph of teleology. On the contrary, natural selection does not imply someone who selects. Darwin was fairly reproached for using the expression, though he thought the reproach unjustified. But he never completely renounced the use of the term, for it responded to a need of his intellect.

Some have wished to define a purely scientific position on the problem by showing that the analogy of two selections, the natural and the artificial, is not an essential factor of it. In order to reason thus, the historian needs to substitute an ideal scientific problem instead of that which really presented itself to Darwin, and how can one be sure that one is not setting aside one of the necessary factors by doing this? In order to explain completely the formation of new species from spontaneous variations which have become hereditary, it is still necessary to explain orthogenesis, that is to say, to show why, or how, certain of these variations arrange themselves in a linear series, to result finally in new organs. Darwin did not wish either to content himself with chance or to invoke a single goal to explain this remarkable phenomenon, which is at the heart of the problem. He was disposed to speak about it only from a single analogical circumstance, that of domestication by horticulturalists and stockbreeders. Now these choose with intelligence; at times they select by a sort of genius. And to speak of natural selection is to speak of nothing if it is not to suggest that everything happens in nature as if one saw there the work of a selector, which one knows, however, is not the case. The notion is only extrascientific if one disregards the fact to which the notion corresponds.

We have seen Darwin assure us that he read Malthus for amusement, but this reading found him well-prepared to appreciate the doctrine of the struggle for existence. Already persuaded of the mutability of species, he sees immediately in the struggle for survival a means of explaining that it was possible for autoselection to proceed without a selector.

In The Descent of Man Darwin refers the reader to the memorable essay On the Principle of Population, As It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, by the Rev. T. Malthus. What of interest did he find there?

The first edition of the essay dates from 1798. Its author, the Reverend Malthus, belonged, then, to the clergy and presented himself as such. Himself an excellent man, without doubt even an upright Christian, he did not like the poor. It was not he who had written the celebrated sermon of Bossuet "On the Eminent Dignity of the Poor in the Church". Certain of his contemporaries were astonished at his sentiments: "Parson," William Cobbett addressed him contemptuously, "I have during my life detested many men, but never anyone as much as you." He was not a detestable man; he was simply a man with a theory, that is, that the poor ought not exist, and if they exist, they do not have a right to assistance. Perhaps he made the mistake of expressing himself as if the poor themselves could do something about their poverty. His consolation was that in committing them from their birth to parish nurseries part of the problem was resolved, since 99 percent of them died thereby in the course of their first year.

Malthus did not deny the fact, but this manner of doing away with the future poor appeared costly to him. The immediate cause of the evil was the Poor Law. The details of that law do not concern us; it suffices to know that the taxes imposed upon the non-poor for assistance to the poor had attained a level such that the contributors to it were exasperated. The parochial workhouses necessitated by the law were naturally in the charge of the clergy, and one would not be much deceived, perhaps, in thinking that the personal reaction of Malthus against the existence of the poor and the necessity of aiding them had not come to him despite the fact that he was a member of the clergy, but rather because he was such.

If the existence of the poor is prejudicial to the future well-being of society, what one does to come to their assistance, although doubtless humanly inevitable, ends by injuring the community. Malthus did not say that it was not necessary to sustain [nourrir] the poor; he insisted only that they had no right to be maintained, and, true or not, his proposition did not sound very evangelical.





The demonstration of the matter is very simple. It rests upon two postulates and one fact. The postulates are that (1) food is necessary to the existence of man and (2) the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state. The fact is that "the power which man has to populate the earth is indefinitely greater than that of the earth to produce sustenance for man". In meditating on this fact, Malthus proceeded even to propose a mathematical formula about it: "Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio: subsistence increases only in arithmetic ratio."

It is hard to say whether Malthus took his mathematical formula with complete seriousness; at least it was, to his mind, a striking manner of expressing the incontestable truth that, left to the natural play of conflicting forces, populations increase more rapidly than the means of their subsistence. At any rate he inferred from this that the Poor Law ought to be abolished because every law of this sort only perpetuates and multiplies the ill-adapted for whose existence it wishes to find a remedy. The measures taken by virtue of these laws work against nature, whose law is simply that people [des gens] for whom there is not sustenance do not have the right to exist. From that comes his conclusion, logically correct but not what one would expect from a man of the church and a Christian, that "we are bound by justice and honor to formally deny that the poor have a right to be succored." Assuredly, Malthus does not counsel the extermination of the poor, but he asks that an effort be made to secure from the poor themselves voluntary agreement to abstain from procreation.

This is to say that we live today in the age of Malthus. He would certainly be in favor of all contraceptive procedures, probably in favor of free, or even obligatory, abortion, in brief, in all legal measures for the limitation of births. Living in a time which did not possess the means of limiting natural fecundity, he gave over such concerns to the methods of good advice, exhortation, and, if possible, persuasion—without deluding himself about the efficacy of these methods.

When marrying a couple belonging to the lower class, the clergyman ought to draw their attention solemnly to "the inconvenience, and even the immorality" of marrying each other without knowing whether they will be able to support their infants. If, despite this exhortation, a poor man does marry, as he has the right to, nature alone will be entrusted with punishing this fault, but the chastisement will be inevitable. The poor man who marries ought to foresee that he will have to suffer the consequences of his error. "He ought to know that the laws of nature, which are the laws of God, have condemned him to suffer, him and his family, for having defied their warnings; that he had no claim, no right upon society to receive from it the least parcel of sustenance above that which he is justly entitled to procure by his work, and that his only recourse is private beneficence, which does not go far." If parents abandon their infants, they ought to be held responsible for this crime. Anyway, the young "are, comparatively speaking, of little value to society, since others will take their places immediately". Only the certitude which comes from the formulation of apodictic truth could give to Malthus the courage to set forth such principles so deliberately, as if the poor infant could be held responsible for the fault committed by those who have "inflicted life" on him.

But that was not what interested Darwin. He was particularly struck by that other Malthusian principle by which, in any case, nature herself necessarily eliminates most of what she produces. There are, in Malthus' first essay, passages which Darwin could not have failed to note. For example:
Through the animal and vegetable kingdoms, nature has scattered the seeds of life abroad with the most profuse and liberal hand. She has been comparatively sparing in the room and the nourishment necessary to rear them. The germs of existence contained in this spot of earth, with ample food, and ample room to expand in, would fill millions of worlds in the course of a few thousand years. Necessity, that imperious all pervading law of nature, restrains them within the prescribed bounds. The race of plants and the race of animals shrink under this great restrictive law. And the race of man cannot, by any efforts of reason, escape from it. Among plants and animals its effects are waste of seed, sickness and premature death. Among mankind, misery and vice. The former, misery, is an absolutely necessary consequence of it. . . . This natural inequality of the two powers of population and of production in the earth, and that great law of our nature which must constantly keep their effects equal, form the great difficulty that to me appears insurmountable in the way to the perfectibility of society.
One cannot read these lines without asking oneself why Darwin did not inscribe Malthus in the number of his predecessors in the "Historical Sketch" prefixed to the third edition of the Origin. It is probably that the problem presented by Malthus was not by nature biological and that, a moralist and economist, he had no place in a history of the origin of species. Malthus, whose problem was to know how to bring about the happiness of society while freeing the rich from the burden of sustaining the poor, did not set for himself any problem of selection concerning them. He did not search out in any of the poor signs of spontaneous variation deserving to be cultivated and transmitted by heredity. A Malthusian eugenics was possible on the face of it. Such did not take form, however, and it is really a kind of natural and spontaneous eugenics which Darwin described. Of all the readers of Malthus Darwin is almost the only naturalist who found in him that which he needed. If, as one is strongly tempted to believe, Malthus himself did not owe his observations to Charles Bonnet, there would be reason to see here a unique case at that date of a science of man serving as a pilot science for a science of nature. But for Darwin Malthus did not count among the number of naturalists; he thus did not have the right to appear among the scientific precursors of his doctrine.

There remains Malthus' passages where his doctrine of population is applied expressly to plants and animals. There it is applied with a necessity even more strict than to human populations. Man can struggle against overpopulation. Societies are capable of arranging things so as to produce more food, as they do moreover in our days. They can at least try to persuade individuals to reduce the number of conceptions and of births, a persuasion more especially efficacious as they put at the disposal of individuals more means of doing so. Nature, however, is incapable of preventing a vegetable or animal species from invading the whole earth—one would say today the whole universe. Nature contents itself with causing, by crude and haphazard means, a sort of autolimitation of species. She relies on the struggle for life to care for the permanent regulation of the multiplication of living beings by assuring the survival of the fittest and the corresponding elimination of the unfit. Darwin used a law of political economy for his own biological purposes. Even if he did once write the expression "struggle for existence", Malthus never thought of "natural selection", which remains the special property of Darwin.



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Étienne Gilson (1884-1978) was a renowned French philosopher and historian of philosophy, and a member of the prestigious French Academy. He was a prominent leader in the twentieth-century resurgence of the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. Among his books are The Unity of Philosophical Experience, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, and The History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages.



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