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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 Darwin's evolutionary thought neglects a strong anti-Malthusian tradition in English intellectual life, one that not only predated the 1859 publication of On 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. 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 Darwin's acknowledgement that natural selection was "the doctrine of Malthus, applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms," both sides of the debate claimed to be the more correctly "Darwinian."
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.
Piers J. Hale is assistant professor in the Department of the History of Science at the University of Oklahoma. He lives in Norman, Oklahoma.
"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 attention – and the rise and fall of Malthus'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 Argyll, and relocates Darwin'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."
- Janet Browne, Harvard University
"Hale's survey reveals the full complexity of the political views that were derived from Darwin'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 the opponents of 'social Darwinism.'"
- Peter J. Bowler, author of Darwin Deleted
"Political Descent 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 about Darwin or that I would be forced so often to go back and reevaluate long-held beliefs. This is scholarship at its best and, even better, is a really good read. Highly recommended."
- Michael Ruse, author of The Darwinian Revolution
"In his exploration of the crucial role of Malthusian thought in the evolutionary theory of liberal radicalism, Piers J. Hale has provided scholars with a sort of sequel to Adrian Desmond's Politics of Evolution. Hale shows that the debate over the validity of Malthus split liberal radicals into opposing camps. 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."
- Bernard Lightman, editor of Victorian Science in Context