Don’t blame Malthus!
Darwin and Wallace both credited an English clergyman for inspiring their evolutionary theories. What are the facts?
Published: 10 October 2011(GMT+10)
Thomas Robert Malthus
National Portrait Gallery, London
In the 19th century, two men independently of each other conceived the supposition now known as the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. They were Charles Darwin (1809–1882) and Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913).1 Both these men were inspired by An Essay on the Principle of Population, written by English clergyman and economist Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834), first published in 1798.2
Population vs food supply
Malthus was challenging the so-called Enlightenment philosophy3 that man was essentially good, that he had proceeded upward from the savage, and would continue towards perfection as a law of nature. Malthus said that population numbers tend to go up much more rapidly than food supplies, resulting in misery, not perfection, for mankind.
He wrote: “[T]he power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.” “Taking the population of the world at any number, a thousand millions, for instance, the human species would increase in the ratio of 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, etc. and subsistence as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, etc. In two centuries and a quarter, the population would be to the means of subsistence as 512 to 10: in three centuries as 4096 to 13 ….”4
He went on to say that the system was kept in check by things which retarded population increase. These he labelled ‘misery’, i.e. pestilence, plague, war, and famine; and ‘vice’, e.g. infanticide and murder. In later editions of his Essay he added moral restraints such as postponement of marriage, and sexual abstinence prior to and outside of marriage. In addition, Malthus opposed financial relief for the poor because it encouraged larger families rather than smaller, and so resulted in more workers for fewer jobs in the labour market.
Effect on Darwin and Wallace
In his Autobiography Charles Darwin recorded the following tribute to Malthus: “In October 1838 … I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The results of this would be the formation of new species. Here then I had at last got a theory by which to work … .”5
He was not considering survival of the fittest, but was writing to debunk utopian views of perfection in society inspired by the French Revolution, at least, before the Reign of Terror.
Alfred Russel Wallace, too, tells us in his autobiography: “One day something brought to my recollection Malthus’s ‘Principles of Population,’ which I had read about twelve years before. … Why do some die and some live? And the answer was clearly, that on the whole the best fitted live. From the effects of disease the most healthy escaped; from enemies the strongest, the swiftest, or the most cunning; from famine, the best hunters or those with the best digestion; and so on. Then it suddenly flashed upon me that this self-acting process would necessarily improve the race, because in every generation the inferior would inevitably be killed off and the superior would remain—that is, the fittest would survive. … The more I thought over it the more I became convinced that I had at length found the long-sought-for law of nature that solved the problem of the origin of species.”6
So what should we think of Darwin’s and Wallace’s crediting of Malthus for the idea that all things evolved by selection from a common ancestor? Consider these points:
Malthus certainly was entitled to his view of the economic situation as he saw it in 1798 ff. However, life was changing. The industrial revolution of the 19th century required a huge new work force. In Malthus’s day, in Britain, much farming was done by individuals on small land plots that were subdivided as families increased. He could not have foreseen the huge increase in food production that would be provided by the application of machinery to the farming of vast areas of countryside as has occurred in the USA and elsewhere. Nor the modern breakthroughs in crop varietal selection and breeding to produce greater yields.
Malthus was not a scientist but an economist. He was not considering survival of the fittest, but was writing to debunk utopian views of perfection in society inspired by the French Revolution, at least, before the Reign of Terror.
Malthus saw his principle of population in the context of God’s providence. Thus it was not the duty of humans to struggle against each other for survival, but to resist evil. He concluded his Essay: “Evil exists in the world not to create despair but activity. We are not patiently to submit to it, but to exert ourselves to avoid it. It is not only the interest but the duty of every individual to use his utmost efforts to remove evil from himself and from as large a circle as he can influence, and the more he exercises himself in this duty, the more wisely he directs his efforts, and the more successful these efforts are, the more he will probably improve and exalt his own mind and the more completely does he appear to fulfil the will of his Creator.”7
Throughout his Essay, Malthus constantly referred to God as the Creator, the Supreme Being or Providence. He even invoked the Gospel in his final chapter: “But the doctrine of life and Mortality which was brought to light by the Gospel, the doctrine that the end of righteousness is everlasting life, but that the wages of sin are death, is in every respect just and merciful, and worthy of the great Creator.”8
It was not their theory of evolution that led Darwin and Wallace to disbelief in God, but rather their non-belief in God that led to their theory of evolution.
In contrast, Darwin had given up Christianity by the age of 40 (1849), and Wallace said he was an agnostic by the age of 21 (1844). In this connection it is interesting to note that it was not their theory of evolution that led Darwin and Wallace to disbelief in God, but rather their non-belief in God that led to their theory of evolution.
Selection, yes; evolution, no
Natural selection, or “survival of the fittest”, is a reality in this fallen world. But it is not capable of supplying the new genetic information to turn microbes into magnolias and microbiologists.9 Even where new species have been observed to arise from selection adapting a population to its environment, these are information-losing (downhill) events.10
The idea of natural selection was proposed well before Darwin and Wallace by Edward Blyth, but Blyth was an ardent creationist. He saw the process of natural selection11 as a conserving mechanism for eliminating unfit individuals from the created order to preserve the species, i.e. an anti-evolutionary mechanism that kept the species stable, rather than a means of forming new species.
Weeks writes, “If one assumes that the normal type of the species is adapted to its environment, then any departure from that type will be less fit and will be selected against. Thus with Blyth, natural selection is a homeostatic mechanism to prevent change.”12 Evolutionist Francis Hitching goes so far as to say that Darwin “showed real insight by listening to Blyth and realizing that everything he was saying could be used to support an opposite conclusion.”13
Undoubtedly Malthus’s Essay triggered a line of thinking in the minds of both Darwin and Wallace that led both men independently to conjure up the concept of evolution by means of natural selection, in opposition to the Genesis account of creation. However, Malthus cannot be blamed for this, and many of his assumptions have in any case not stood the test of time.
- See Grigg, R., Alfred Russel Wallace, “Co-inventor” of Darwinism Creation 27(4):33–35, Sept. 2005. Return to text.
- Malthus, T., An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and other Writers, London, 1798, reprinted by Electronic Scholarly Publishing Project, 1998, www.esp.org/books/malthus/population/malthus.pdf. Six editions were published from 1798 to 1826, as Malthus added new material to answer criticisms and expand his thesis. Return to text.
- Propounded by the French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), and in the utopian views of English utilitarian/anarchist political philosopher William Godwin (1756–1836) and the French rationalist Marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794). Return to text.
- Ref. 2, pp. 4 and 8. Return to text.
- Darwin, C., Autobiography (Edited by Sir Francis Darwin), Henry Schuman, New York, 1950, p. 54. Return to text.
- Wallace, A., My Life, Adamant Media Corporation edition, 2000, pp. 190–91. Return to text.
- Ref. 2, pp. 124–25. Return to text.
- Ref. 2, p. 123. Return to text.
- Mutations do not provide this uphill direction either, even when beneficial. See creation.com/beetle. Return to text.
- See Catchpoole, D., and Wieland, C., Speedy species surprise Creation 23(2):13–15, March 2001. Return to text.
- Edward Blyth wrote on adaptation, design, struggle for existence, the limits of variation, etc., discussing what we now call the process of natural selection (www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_selection); without actually using the term natural selection, creation.com/brainchild. Return to text.
- Weeks, N., Darwin and the search for an evolutionary mechanism Journal of Creation, 12(3):305–311, 1998. Return to text.
- Hitching, F., The Neck of the Giraffe: Where Darwin Went Wrong, Ticknor and Fields, New York, 1982, p. 231 Return to text.