At the outset it is necessary to emphasize the fact that these consequences did not follow as a direct and exclusive result of Darwin’s demonstration of the nature of the evolutionary process. What is now quite clear is that Darwin’s conception of that process per­ fectly fitted the pattern of Victorian social thought and practice. What Darwin’s view of life did was to give that social thought and practice a biological validation, a scientific foundation which it had hith­ erto lacked. Darwin’s views were published at a time
when the Industrial Revolution was at its height in England, and in other lands, including America, was well under way. The galloping Imperialism of Eng­ land, the colonial aspirations of France and the Neth­ erlands, the growing nationalistic spirit of Germany, and the burgeoning industrial enterprise of the United States, had already developed in each of these lands a view of the nature of life, of human relations, and of industry and government, which but awaited the explicit formulation of some acceptable philos­ opher.

Darwin was born in 1809. He grew to manhood in a period during which wars seemed to be the natural, concomitant of living. Darwin was born while Britain was at war against the French in Portugal and Spain (1808-1814), he was six years of age when the British defeated the French at Waterloo (1815), and ten when they took Singapore. Indeed, all through Dar­ win’s life the nations of Europe were frequently en­ gaged in war. During the period just previous to the composition of The Origin of Species Britain was en­gaged in the Crimean War (1854-1855), and the war with Persia and China (1856). In 1857 the Indian “Mutiny” broke out, leading to the frightful massacre at Cawnpore, the “Mutiny” not being suppressed till a year later. Darwin was himself the mildest, the kindest, and the gentlest of men, but he grew up in an age during which war-violent suppression and exploitation of masses of human beings both at home and abroad, by his own people, and what is more by the class to which he belonged-was the order of the day. It was an order in which life for the masses of the people of England was “nasty, brutish, and short.” It was as John and Barbara Hammond have termed it in a notable book, The Bleak Age.4 How bleak it was some of us, by far remove, will have learned from the novels of such authors as Charles Dickens and Charles Reade, some from the writings of Robert Owen ( 1771-1858) and other co-operators, and some from such social histories of the time as we may have read. The human and social degradation of the mass of the people of Darwin’s day was un­ believable. The “satanic mills” of the Industrial Revo­ lution had ground human beings into masses, a de­ graded, starving, struggling flotsam out of which a permanent supply of work could be cheaply siphoned off. Part of the story may be read in the Hammonds’ book and in Karl Polanyi’s remarkable work The Great Transformation.5
Darwin himself belonged to the rentier class, the upper middle class. In the social struggle for survival he belonged to the class which, by definition, was the fittest. The poor belonged, as Malthus had been at such pains to point out, where they found them­ selves: to the station which they occupied, to which by God and by Nature they had been called.

The discovery of the real importance of property occurred in the period of Darwin’s early life, and as we shall see, it was to play the most important role in the development of Darwin’s evolutionary ideas.

In England this discovery was announced in a work published in 1786, entitled A Dissertation on the Poor Laws, by C’A Well-Wisher to Mankind.” The “Well­ Wisher” was a Wiltshire clergyman and noted trav­ eler, the Reverend Joseph Townsend (1739-1816).6 This important work, so far as I know, has been largely overlooked by writers on the history of the concept of evolution. Townsend illustrated his basic point by recounting what happened on Robinson Crusoe’s island, Juan Fernandez, off the coast of Chile. A few goats had been landed on the island by the Spanish admiral Juan Fernandez (c. 1536-1602?). These had increased at a Biblical rate, providing a convenient store of food for the British privateers and others who were molesting Spanish trade. By landing a greyhound dog and a bitch on the island the Span­ iards hoped in a short time to eliminate their enemies by eliminating their food supply. The dogs, so the story goes, multiplied and greatly diminished the number of goats. “Had they been totally destroyed,” writes Townsend, “the dogs likewise must have per­
ished. But as many of the goats retired to the craggy rocks, where the dogs could never follow them, de­ scending only for short intervals to feed with fear and circumspection in the vallies, few of these, besides the careless and the rash, became a prey; and none but the most watchful, strong and active of the dogs could get a sufficiency of food. Thus a new kind of balance was established. The weakest of both species were among the first to pay the debt of nature; the most active and vigorous preserved their lives. It is the quantity of food which regulates the numbers of the human species.’ Here, succinctly stated, is the principle of natural selection, seventy-three years be­ fore the publication of The Origin of Species, and twenty-three years before the birth of Darwin.7 And this, essentially, is the doctrine of Malthus expressed earlier and more clearly by Townsend.

The moral of Townsend’s theorem of the dogs and goats is set forth by him in the following maxims which he wished to apply to the reform of the poor laws. But for these maxims, Polanyi believes that “neither Darwin’s theory of natural selection, nor Malthus’ population laws might have exerted any appreciable influence on modem SOCiety.” Ope cit., p. 113. Townsend writes, “Hunger will tame the fierc­ est animals, it will teach decency and Civility, obedi­ ence and subjection, to the most perverse. In general it is only hunger which can spur and goad them [the poor] on to labour; yet our laws have said they shall never hunger. The laws, it must be confessed, have likewise said, they shall be compelled to work. But then legal constraint is attended with much trou­ ble, violence and noise; creates ill will, and never can be productive of good and acceptable service; where­ as hunger is not only peaceable, silent, unremitting pressure, but, as the most natural motive to industry and labour, it calls forth the most powerful exertions; and, when satisfied by the free bounty of another, lays lasting and sure foundations for good will and gratitude. The slave must be compelled to work but the free man should be left to his own judgment, and discretion; should be protected in the full enjoyment of his own, be it much or little; and punished when he invades his neighbour’s property.” Thus, with the assistance of dogs and goats, were the laws of nature introduced into political science, and hunger made the deliberate and principal means of good govern­ment!

Ashley Montagu, 1952

Tagged: