When scholars give examples of the influences of Darwin’s work, especially as to the extremes his ideas could be taken to, they love to cite Alfred Wallace’s 1864 essay “The Origin of Human Races and the Antiquity of Man Deduced from the Theory of ‘Natural Selection’”. Wallace states his belief that Darwin’s law of the struggle for life “leads to the inevitable extinction of all those low and mentally undeveloped populations” and this results from “the inevitable effects of an unequal mental and physical struggle” with Europeans who are superior. The lower races are doomed.
Of course, scholars could have quoted Darwin making the same point, but they rarely do. Darwin says the same thing as Wallace in The Descent of Man (1871) and he made this point even earlier in letters. Just before On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, Darwin informed Charles Lyell that he believes natural selection is continuing to work on the human intellect with “the less intellectual races being exterminated.” Three years later, he is telling another correspondent that when all the lower human races are gone, “in consequence how much the Human race, viewed as a unit, will have risen in rank.” But many scholars would prefer to stick it to Wallace or other Darwinists rather than Darwin himself.
Wallace would grow to have doubts about applying natural selection to mankind in the same way it is applied to plants and animals, but even in that early paper, he revealed a tendency to be less severe than Darwin. He recognized that savages (“the rudest tribes”) are “social and sympathetic” and take care of their sick and feeble, so that “The action of natural selection is therefore checked.” Darwin objected to this positive assessment of savages as social and scribbled in the margin of his copy of this paper, “Does not act … only civilized man!” Already, despite all they had in common, Wallace was thinking a little differently about human beings.
In another paper, only a year after “The Origin of Human Races”, Wallace considered that competition with western civilization was detrimental to savages and that Europe should draw back from going full tilt at these native cultures. It is “unwise and unjust,” he said, to “expose them at once to the full tide of competition with our highly elaborated civilisation …” Such competition will lead to their extermination. He clearly did not think this was inevitable or something to be celebrated.
He was not the only one to see the dangers of competition to Aborigines. In 1837, the Rev. Montagu Hawtrey, a missionary in New Zealand, argued that even if we gave natives full equal rights with white people, we would still end up destroying them. “[W]here one of the parties is immeasurably inferior to the other, the only consequence of establishing the same rights and the same obligations for both will be to destroy the weaker under a show of justice.” Why does this happen? In a word: Competition. Britain, he says, has become a highly competitive society where “every individual is more or less in a state of competition with every other individual.” The natives will not be able to keep up. Unfettered competition will drive Aborigines to extinction. Hawtrey’s comments are a reminder that this social world of intense competition was Darwin’s cultural context.
Near the end of Darwin’s life, Wallace wrote to tell him that he was rethinking whether the Malthusian population principle (which had inspired both of them, as Wallace reminded him) can work with human beings in the same way as with the rest of nature. He said an American socialist had made this suggestion. Darwin responded to this letter, but not to this point. He did tell Wallace that he hoped he would not abandon science for politics. And applying the lens of competition to nature is not political?
What everyone, including Wallace and Darwin, had forgotten was that Malthus himself had pointed out that his population principle does not work out among human beings as it does with nature in the wild. It is purer, severer, more intense in the natural world than it is in human society. Also, Malthus did not like what he saw in colonialism, in its tendency to exterminate native peoples. He had no philosophy that the lower races must be doomed and wrote that “the right of exterminating, or driving [them] into a corner where they must starve … will be questioned in a moral view.” It was immoral and unthinkable for him.
I take note of these aspects of Malthus because some scholars blame him for the harshness in Darwin’s vision of natural selection. But Malthus did not make Darwin interpret the struggle for life as ruthlessly as he did for human beings. Malthus’ advice would have been to hold back from that. Humans are not like other animals who have no control over their situation. Darwin took Malthus, or his principle, to a place he did not want to go. Darwin did this all on his own without any instruction from Malthus.
Of the three, Darwin was the most extreme. Fatal competition was at the heart of Darwin’s system for both nature in general and for humanity. He could live with it if competition sometimes had devastating effects. Some form of the word appears about 70 times in Origin. It is not surprising that he would be unmoved by Wallace’s suggestion to reconsider how the pressure of limited food production affects human population. That pressure creates competition which was key to his thinking. It also just so happens that competition was a major component of British society. Wallace was capable of questioning his own basic assumptions. Darwin not so much.
We have three thinkers—Wallace, Darwin, and Malthus—all of whom saw the importance of the principle “more are yearly bred than can possibly survive” (as Darwin phrased it), yet each of them employed it in different ways with respect to humankind. How does one explain this? Different temperaments perhaps.
All three were British and Christian, but those are broad categories. It means they shared some cultural context. Wallace in addition was working class and had gone to work at an early age. That does not necessarily mean one would have more sympathy for the downtrodden and powerless, but in Wallace’s case, it did. Malthus has been interpreted as a mean-spirited economist, indifferent to the fate of the poor. But he was critical of Adam Smith for devoting too much attention to the wealthy and not enough to poor people. He believed there was little one could do for the poor, but little did not mean nothing.
Maybe it all does come down to temperament. Maybe there were adults who influenced then as children. Whatever it was, it is important to see how distinct each one was, even where they relied on a shared, crucial insight.
© 2014 Leon Zitzer