December 27, 2009

WHEN THE IRON FOUNDATION MELTS AWAY:

Darwin’s World of Pain and Wonder (Algis Valiunas, Fall 2009/Winter 2010, New Atlantis)

Darwin’s nature in Origin is mostly grimmer than Paley’s. “The universal struggle for life” pits creatures against each other and all life against the non-living elements. “Two canine animals in a time of dearth, may truly be said to struggle with each other which shall get food and live. But a plant on the edge of a desert is said to struggle for life against the drought, though more properly it should be said to be dependent on the moisture.” Reading An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798, revised 1803) by the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus helped Darwin find purchase for his argument. Malthus laid down an economic iron law: human population grows geometrically while food supplies and other resources increase only arithmetically; thus “prudential restraint,” which compels the poor to work even for low wages and discourages them from breeding, is the sole bulwark against social disaster. As the philosopher Michael Ruse puts it in his fascinating Darwin and Design, Darwin “turned Malthus’s reasoning on its head” in applying it to non-human life. Here is Darwin:

Hence, as more individuals are produced than can possibly survive, there must in every case be a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life. It is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms; for in this case there can be no artificial increase of food, and no prudential restraint from marriage.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 27, 2009 11:51 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus
« TAX WHAT YOU DON'T WANT, NOT WHAT YOU DO: | Main | THE INDIANS ARE BETTER PREPARED FOR THAT DUTY: »