On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Or the Preser vation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, by Charles Darwin, was published in London by John Murray on November 24, 1859. Darwin was then fifty years of age. The edition of 1250 copies was sold out on the day of publication.
Perhaps no book in the whole history of civilization has made so immediate and enduring an impact upon the world of thought and action as The Origin of Species-with the excep tion, pOSSibly, of the Bible. Darwin’s book sought to explain “the mystery of mysteries”: the origin-if not of life itself-of species and the diversity of life upon this planet. Similar attempts had been made innumerable times before Darwin, and some writers had even briefly offered the same explanation as he, but Dar win was the first to provide the evidence in support of the argument-and that is what he called his book 1 -that this diversity has largely come about, as he says in the final paragraph of his book, as a result of “a Ratio of increase [in all fonns of life] so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Characters and the Extinction of less-improved fonns. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of higher animals, directly follows.” 2 Darwin concludes his epochal book with the immedi ately following words: “There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few fonns or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless fonns most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
This is beautifully expressed. But note what Dar win conceives to be the “grandeur” in this view of life: “The Struggle for Life,” “Natural Selection,” “Extinction,” “the war of nature,” “famine and death.” It is from these conditions that, according to Darwin, “the most exalted object which we are capable of con ceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.”
This is the view of the nature of evolution that has prevailed from the date of the publication of Darwin’s great work to the present day. It is a view that has penetrated and influenced the character of almost every branch of thought and action, and it is a view that has won the support of a great number of the most prominent thinkers of the last ninety years. It is a view that has helped to detennine not only the training and conduct of individuals, but also the train ing and conduct of whole nations. It is a view that has helped to shape relations between persons and be tween nations in a manner that has led to the most disastrous consequences for whole societies and whole peoples, for millions of unfortunate human beings.
According to this view, life is a struggle for existence in which only the fit survive, the fittest being those who have whatever it takes to survive. Hence, it is argued, those who are successful in exploiting their opportunities, even when those “opportunities” are men or human causes, are thereby biolOgically justi fied. Industrialists may exploit and oppress their workers, governments their people; and nations are justified in expropriating the lands of “inferior peo ples,” for in the struggle for existence natural selec tion, according to this view, delivers the only just verdict as to who shall come out on top. The “superior” are thus “justified” in suppressing or extenninating (“eliminating” was the more genteel word) the “in ferior,” and if the poor starve and die it is but nature’s decree. War is a good thing, and we shall always have it with us-it is nature’s “pruning hook”; as the pruning of trees is calculated to induce a healthy growth, so war acts upon nations to keep them from going to seed, to keep them healthy and strong.
This is the view of the nature of life and of human relations which we have inherited from the nineteenth century, and because it is a view so closely associated with Darwin’s work and name, and because it is so demonstrably false, it may be called the Darwinian fallacy. What is solid in Darwin’s work will endure. Nothing that anyone may say or wish to say can de tract from the greatness of what is sound in Darwin’s achievement. There are, however, certain aspects of Darwin’s thought and work that are unsound and some that are only partly true. It is these aspects of Darwin’s achievement, which have had such disastrous consequences for mankind, with which I am concerned in the pages which follow.
Ashley Montagu, 1952