Greg Radick, 2015. “Dismal Destinies.” Essay review of Piers J. Hale’s Political Descent: Malthus, Mutualism, and the Politics of Evolution in Victorian Britain. Times Literary Supplement 3 July: 3-4.

(Published version:

Piers J. Hale, Political Descent: Malthus, Mutualism, and the Politics of Evolution in Victorian England 442 pp. University of Chicago Press. £31.50 ($45.00).

H. G. Wells makes an appearance only towards the end of Political Descent. But no one in the book more fully justifies the pun in Piers Hale’s title, or his claims that the Victorian debate on Darwinism and politics should be understood through two of its subsidiary questions. One was whether or not to believe in a ‘struggle for existence’, born of the chronic overpopulation that the Revd Thomas Robert Malthus described in his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). It was Charles Darwin who brought Malthus’ principle squarely into debates over evolution. On Darwin’s theory of natural selection, nature is in perpetual Malthusian crisis, with survival a matter of the smallest inborn differences which, by chance, make some individuals that little bit better adapted to their environments. Because Malthus had offered his Essay as a conservative rebuke to the utopian thinkers of his day, Malthusian doctrine had been controversial from the first. The politics of Malthusianism became, through Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), part of the politics of evolution.

The other question concerns the kind of inheritance known as ‘Lamarckian’, after the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck, though it was neither original nor very important to him. Under Lamarckian inheritance, improvements made or impairments suffered owing to a changing environment during an individual’s lifetime are passed on to their offspring. Darwin accepted Lamarckian inheritance, seeing it as sometimes bringing about changes in conjunction with natural selection, and sometimes as acting independently of it. But the period after Darwin’s death in 1882 saw a new polarization. To be Lamarckian was increasingly to uphold not merely the reality of the inheritance of acquired characters but the rapidity of Lamarckian as against Darwinian evolution, and also to stress the uplifting nature of a process driven by the activity of the organism. To be Darwinian increasingly included expressing serious doubts about Lamarckian inheritance, together with the insistence that some are born to win and some to lose, with progress coming but slowly, and degeneration an ever-present threat.

Over the course of the 1890s, the young Wells – then just making his name as a jobbing science journalist and fiction writer in London – became a committed Malthusian and anti-Lamarckian. It was his immersion in socialist London from the late 1880s onward, however, that made those choices seem decisive. Hale conveys vividly a sense of a place where one could, of an evening, go and hear left-of-centre celebrities including Peter Kropotkin, Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor, and George Bernard Shaw; keep up with Justice and other socialist newspapers (whose pages, Hale reports, featured Darwin more often than Marx) and journals including The Practical Socialist from the ‘gas and water socialism’ Fabian Society; or set up and break with new socialist clubs, leagues and federations. Most influential on the London scene was William Morris, whose house was the site of socialist meetings that Wells attended and whose utopian novel News from Nowhere (1890) Wells read. A lightly Lamarckian and heavily anti-Malthusian fantasy, it told of a future where the undignified industrial settings of the present give way to a rural paradise. In this new setting, humanity’s instinctive socialism comes to the fore, strengthening with each generation. Through skilful and harmonious labour, people produce more than enough food, and with such efficiency that they have plenty of spare time for artistic pursuits. ‘An epoch of rest’, in Morris’ phrase, lies ahead of us, if only we change our ways.

Although attracted to Morris’ vision initially, Wells became disenchanted, and at exactly the moment when socialist London found itself under new pressure from Darwinian quarters. In 1888, Thomas Henry Huxley, ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, published a lecture entitled ‘The Struggle for Existence in Human Society’, depicting nature as pitilessly gladiatorial, and humans as challenged to find and follow the path of morality even as human society remained – on pain of degeneration – subject to struggle’s stern discipline. The Left’s reply to Huxley from the left came from Kropotkin, in a series of articles and, ultimately, a book arguing that cooperative ‘mutual aid’ is overwhelmingly the means of natural as well as social progress. An exiled Russian prince, anarchist and naturalist, Kropotkin was a Darwinian in a Russian tradition that regarded the Malthusian element in Darwin’s theory as unfortunate and eliminable. (‘The wretched pastor Malthus and the great naturalist Darwin! What an original and unexpected combination of names!’ wrote a Russian critic in 1870.) Morris and Kropotkin were regular dining companions, with the latter serving as informal tutor on biological matters. Wells, by contrast, had been taught by Huxley. In 1895, Wells sent a copy of his new book, The Time Machine, to Huxley, indicating that its ‘central idea’ was ‘degeneration following security’. And indeed, far from discovering that, liberated from the struggle for existence, humans of the future proceed to a higher plane of harmonious living with nature and each other, Wells’ Time Traveller learns that the species has degenerated into two equally grotesque races, the effete Eloi and the monstrous, Eloi-munching Morlocks. Bad News from Nowhere, as the Wells editor John Lawton once put it.

When is that encounter with dismal evolutionary destiny supposed to take place? Between The Time Machine’s publication in serial instalments in 1894 and its taking book form, Wells revised the year upwards dramatically, from 12,203 to 802,701. It is a small point, but Hale suggests, plausibly enough, that the change signals a growing conviction on Wells’ part that, without Lamarckian inheritance to speed things along, evolution goes far more slowly than it otherwise would. Scepticism about Lamarckian inheritance, and the sense of a need to choose between Darwin and Lamarck, sharpened in the late 1880s and early 1890s in response to the German biologist August Weismann and his allies. Weismann’s work generally, on degeneration and aging as well as against the inheritance of acquired characters, provoked wide debate in Britain, with reverberations in various forms across socialist and biological London. Kropotkin never tired of insisting that Darwin himself had been a Lamarckian. For Wells, however, the message socialists really needed to heed was Malthus’. ‘Probably no more shattering book than the Essay on Population has ever been, or ever will be, written’, Wells declared in 1901. Continued biological and ethical progress required men who, in common ‘with those who build themselves on Malthus and Darwin’, appreciate ‘that the scheme of being in which we live is a struggle of existences to expand and develop themselves to their full completeness, and to propagate and increase themselves’.

The placing of Wells in fin-de-siècle socialist-Darwinian London illuminates both. In another sense, though, Wells presents something of a problem for Hale’s thesis. Political Descent purports to document the continuation into the second half of the nineteenth century of the radical, Lamarckian, anti-Malthusian polemics that, according to Adrian Desmond in The Politics of Evolution (1989), characterized the first half of the century. Where a Desmond reader might assume those polemics to have expired with the triumph of capitalism-friendly Darwinism, Hale shows, to the contrary, how they took on new life within Darwinism. Consider, for example, the following passage, quoted by Hale from Justice, the newspaper of the Marx-inspired Social Democratic Federation, in 1888:

Every discovery in Science, every invention of mankind, has been seized upon by the bourgeoisie to delude and exploit the proletariat. . . . In a like manner the bourgeoisie accept the teachings of Malthus and pervert those of Darwin to bolster up the tottering fabric of society today, and they steal from the armoury of the evolutionist weapons which they use in their own defence.

So the radicalism remained. But alignments were considerably more plural than Hale’s reference to ‘two rival traditions of evolutionary politics’ indicates. On his own evidence, one could be a Darwinian socialist of some sort and yet go any which way on Malthus and Lamarck. Yes, there were anti-Malthusian Lamarckians, such as Kropotkin. But, among the most prominent authors, there was at least one Malthusian Lamarckian, Shaw; one anti-Malthusian anti-Lamarckian, Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s ‘co-discoverer’ of natural selection; and one Malthusian anti-Lamarckian, Wells.

Hale might have been a little more forthcoming too about the extent to which, in contrast with Desmond’s street-corner Lamarckians, the Darwinian socialists later in the century were largely a well-off bunch, mostly talking to, and writing for, themselves. That status was borne home painfully to Henry Hyndman, the Marxist founder of Justice and the Social Democratic Federation, after the resounding defeat of its candidates in the 1885 general election. The Cambridge-educated Hyndman had embraced revolutionary socialism upon acquiring a French translation of Capital while in, of all places, Salt Lake City, on a business trip. Among his many contributions to the movement was the writing of an anti-Malthusian pamphlet, A Summary of the Principles of Socialism, with Morris, whose dignity-of-craft vision owed more than a little to John Ruskin, whom he met at Oxford. Wells, who had worked as a draper’s apprentice, was unsparing. ‘It needed’, he wrote, ‘the Olympian unworldliness of an irresponsible rich man of the share-holding type, a Ruskin or a Morris, playing at life’, to believe that all would be well if only everyone could reconnect with the primal joy of earnest toil.

Even so, the best parts of Political Descent add up to a revelatory group portrait of socialist-Darwinian London of the 1880s and 90s. But they occupy just three of the book’s seven long chapters. The other chapters, concentrating on Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Huxley and Kropotkin, will strike anyone familiar with earlier historical writing on them as mostly going over old ground, albeit with some striking omissions and unpersuasive emphases. Hale is a sympathetic guide to Kropotkin’s Darwinian exegetics, of which he produced a fair amount, all of it rooting mutual-aid Darwinism in Darwin’s own work. More troublesome is that Hale also appears to endorse Kropotkin’s reading. For Kropotkin as, it seems, for Hale, Darwin’s Descent of Man (1871), with its account of human morality as arising thanks to the greater success of more co-operative human groups over less co-operative ones, marked a shift away from the Malthusian individualism of the Origin. Yet Darwin devoted several pages in the Descent to showing that, now as in the past, Malthusian overpopulation is the human condition. Doing so was fundamental to his larger, explicitly stated purpose in the book: applying the theory of natural selection in detail to explain the origin of humans from pre-human progenitors. No Malthusian overpopulation, then no struggle for existence; no struggle, then no natural selection. As for Darwin’s private views, one would never guess from Hale’s coverage that, not long after the Descent was published, Darwin wrote in a letter of his concerns about trade unions and cooperative societies as tending to ‘exclude competition’, which seemed to him ‘a great evil for the future progress of mankind’.

Those are the sorts of opinions that later generations would label ‘social Darwinism’. Nowadays it is not so much Darwin as Spencer who gets the blame. The chapter here on Spencer offers the standard correctives, noting among other things that, although Spencer coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’, Lamarckian inheritance was far more central to his evolutionary scheme than natural selection; and that, in Spencer’s view, as human intellectual powers evolve, the sexual impulse will weaken, and Malthusian struggle diminish accordingly. Hale misses a trick, however, in not connecting Spencer with someone who matters a great deal for the later part of the book, the crusading Californian journalist Henry George. His Progress and Poverty (1879) made a huge impression, as did the man himself in Britain after a lecture tour there in 1882. For George, the poor were poor not because of Malthusian overpopulation but because the rich were hoarding land that, if only it were redistributed, could easily produce more than enough food. That the poor had a right to that land was, George took it, a variant on a theme out of Spencer’s Social Statics (1851): the ‘right to the use of the Earth’, in Spencer’s words. Spencer, who abhorred government intervention of any kind, never approved of George’s proposal of a redistributive land tax; in a later edition of Social Statics, he even, to George’s disappointment, cut the section on that right altogether. But there is nevertheless a line to trace from early Spencer through George to seemingly everyone who was anyone in socialist-Darwinian London.

A more enduring and, given Spencer’s later reputation, no less surprising legacy from him is our word ‘altruism’. A neologism of the French positivist philosopher Auguste Comte, ‘altruism’ – as half of a contrast pair with ‘egoism’ – spread through the English language from Spencer’s usage in his books on ethics of the 1870s. He expected that, as people liberated from government got on with finding their natural places in society, egoism would, over evolutionary time, give way to altruism, just as sexual heat would yield to cool cerebration. The Time Machine was a mocking tribute to the relentless high-mindedness of it all, as was Oscar Wilde’s complaint, in ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’ (1891), about ‘that sordid necessity of living for others’.


Beyond literature and language, did the entanglements of Victorian Darwinism and left politics make the slightest difference to what followed? Previous historians, notably David Stack and Chris Renwick, have stressed links with the founding of the Labour Party and the emergence of the social-scientific background to the welfare state. Hale seeks for continuities with the debate in evolutionary biology over whether group selection or the selfish gene explains altruism. But that seems the wrong place to look. For one thing, the theory of natural selection, as professional biologists have known and used it since the 1930s, has had no Lamarckian elements and – more unexpectedly from the perspective of the 1890s – no Malthusian foundation. It is a theory about variations in fitness, understood as arising whether or not there is enough food to go around. For another, the ‘problem of altruism’ as it appears from within that theory is the problem of explaining how natural selection can ever favour altruistic behaviour, which, by increasing the chances of death before reproduction, lowers the fitness of the altruist. In the Descent of Man, Darwin, though he did not write about ‘altruism’, did describe something very like this problem. But it is not what exercised Huxley, Kropotkin and the rest. More instructive continuities lie elsewhere, in an area that Hale deals with only fitfully, and in one he does not mention.

As a scientific-political programme, the deliberate breeding of better humans or, as it came to be known, ‘eugenics’ – another period neologism, introduced by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton in 1883 – never recovered from its association with the Nazi death camps. Until then, however, it had enjoyed broad appeal across the political spectrum. In Britain, members of the Malthusian left who gathered in the Fabian Society, including Shaw, Wells, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb, were among the earliest supporters. Their preferred means for bringing about a eugenic future was education. The historical lesson many have drawn is that eugenics, however well intentioned, is inevitably coercive and ultimately murderous. But that is not the only possible lesson, and maybe not the best one. In 1996, after a year spent with the Human Genome Project at the behest of the US Library of Congress, the philosopher Philip Kitcher published a remarkable book, The Lives to Come, arguing that, whether we like it or not, the genetic technologies now available make eugenics inescapable, so the choice we face is about the kind of eugenics we have. In Kitcher’s view, the Nazis showed in extremis what not to do, while the Fabians offer more positive inspiration. Better, Kitcher suggests, to teach young people how to think through the social consequences of their reproductive choices, in a society committed to realizing human potential to the full, than to collude with the present regime of ‘laissez-faire eugenics’, in which those with enough money can buy whatever genetic improvements they can afford, and the rest can fend for themselves.

It remains to be seen whether anything like Kitcher’s recommendations will ever be adopted. (His sketch of a classroom conversation in the Fabian-eugenic utopia takes place in 2069.) For realized ambitions that came out of the socialist-Darwinian moment in Britain, we need to consider a topic that Piers Hale passes over. Those who, in our day, deploy biological theory and evidence in fighting for the ethical treatment of animals look back on Animals’ Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress, published in 1892 by Henry Salt, as an opening statement of the position. A Cambridge-educated former teacher at Eton, Salt counted Morris, Kropotkin and Shaw among his progressive friends, and Spencer as the philosopher whose theory of rights made plainest why, in a Darwinian age, animals should be understood as having rights too. Salt’s excitement about what was happening to Darwinism was palpable. ‘Our learned economists and men of science’, he wrote, ‘who set themselves to play the defenders of the social status quo, have seen their own weapons of “natural selection”, “survival of the fittest”, and what not, snatched from their hands and turned against them’. Darwinism went on alas to have a great deal of human suffering to answer for, under diverse political regimes. But its role in helping make the case against the suffering of non-human animals belongs near the top of the other side of the balance sheet.

[n.b. this essay is a corrected version of the one published in the TLS in the 3 July 2015 issue]

Gregory Radick is Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Leeds, and co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Darwin. A new book, Disputed Inheritance: The Battle over Mendel and the Future of Biology, is forthcoming with the University of Chicago Press.