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Political Descent

Malthus, Mutualism, and the Politics of Evolution in Victorian England

Historians of science have long noted the influence of the nineteenth-century political economist Thomas Robert Malthus on Charles Darwin. In a bold move, Piers J. Hale contends that this focus on Malthus and his effect on Darwin’s evolutionary thought neglects a strong anti-Malthusian tradition in English intellectual life, one that not only predated the 1859 publication of the Origin of Species but also persisted throughout the Victorian period until World War I. Political Descent reveals that two evolutionary and political traditions developed in England in the wake of the 1832 Reform Act: one Malthusian, the other decidedly anti-Malthusian and owing much to the ideas of the French naturalist Jean Baptiste Lamarck.            
These two traditions, Hale shows, developed in a context of mutual hostility, debate, and refutation. Participants disagreed not only about evolutionary processes but also on broader questions regarding the kind of creature our evolution had made us and in what kind of society we ought therefore to live. Significantly, and in spite of Darwin’s acknowledgement that natural selection was “the doctrine of Malthus, applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms,” both sides of the debate claimed to be the more correctly “Darwinian.” By exploring the full spectrum of scientific and political issues at stake, Political Descent offers a novel approach to the relationship between evolution and political thought in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

464 pages | 17 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2014

Biological Sciences: Evolutionary Biology

History: History of Ideas

History of Science


"[A] wide-ranging historical narrative. . . . Ambitious."

Frank N. Egerton, University of Wisconsin-Parkside | Journal of British Studies

"This book is packed with information about the political dimensions of Darwinian evolution in Victorian England. All the important characters make an appearance, and Hale painstakingly traces the interconnections of their thinking as well as their stark differences. The chapter on Herbert Spencer builds on the groundbreaking work of Robert Richards but adds a number of new dimensions. Darwin’s own contributions regarding the evolution of humans are carefully traced, particularly the evolution of ethics. . . . The last chapter explores the anticipation of the 20th century arising from Darwinism, especially the impact on George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells and the hopes that were dashed by WW I. Finally, a fascinating afterword about the present addresses two central current issues: the attack on evolution by fundamentalist, literalist Christians in the US and the relationship between biology and politics today. Fully indexed, with lengthy references. An excellent text and a treasure for researchers in history, history of science, and political science. Highly recommended."


"Hale’s welcome study tracks freshly for us the wide array of social and political ends and ideals to which knowledge of natural history could be put. It is an important contribution."

Alison Bashford, Jesus College, Cambridge | Annals of Science

"A revelatory group portrait of socialist-Darwinian London of the 1880s and 90s."

Gregory Radick | Times Literary Supplement

"Meticulously researched and compellingly argued. . . . Ideas can, and do, take on lives of their own and impact in ways beyond the conception of their originators. One could safely argue that Malthus, a priest schooled in the Church of England’s 39 articles of religion at the University of Cambridge, would at the very least have been troubled by Darwin’s work, just as Darwin disagreed with those who sought to subvert his theory to suit their own views of how the world should look."

Simon Underdown | Times Higher Education

"Makes significant contributions to a wide range of interconnected historiographies and will become a standard work on the intersection of biology and politics. . . . The book will also come to be considered also as a significant contribution to an emerging new historiography on Malthus: the figure who seldom appears in person in Political Descent but haunts its discussions throughout."

Chris Renwick, University of York | Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences

“In this fascinating new book on the history of evolutionary biology, Hale explores the effects of Darwinism on the intertwined political, social, and natural economies of nineteenth-century Britain. Yet it is Darwinism with a difference. Instead of Charles Darwin, it is Malthus who is the focus of attention—and the rise and fall of Malthus’s ideas of competition, survival, overproduction, and success. Some biological thinkers rejected Malthusian ideas expressly because of their link with capitalism and explored other forms of evolutionary progress in human society. Others such as Thomas Henry Huxley continued to believe in a Malthusian gladiatorial arena. Hale presents incisive accounts of theorists such as Spencer, Mill, Hume, and the Duke of Argyle, and relocates Darwin’s theories of moral and social evolution into the broader context of political change. This new light on the explosion of evolutionary thought after Darwin is extremely welcome.”

Janet Browne, Harvard University

“Hale’s survey reveals the full complexity of the political views that were derived from Darwin’s theory, with significant implications for how we view that theory today. He also demonstrates the roles played by non-Darwinian evolutionary theories, which influenced both the supporters and opponents of ‘social Darwinism.’”

Peter J. Bowler, author of Darwin Deleted

Political Descent by Hale is a provocative and fresh rereading of the Victorian debates after Darwin about cooperation and altruism among humans. I never realized that I could learn so much new or that so often I would be forced to go back and reevaluate long-held beliefs. This is scholarship at its best and even better is a really good read. Highly recommended.”

Michael Ruse, author of The Darwinian Revolution

“In his exploration of the crucial role of Malthusian thought in the evolutionary theory of liberal radicalism, Hale has provided scholars with a sort of sequel to Adrian Desmond’s Politics of Evolution. Hale shows that the debate over the validity of Malthus split liberal radicals into opposing camps. This is a novel approach to the relationship of evolution and political thought in the Victorian and Edwardian periods. It makes sense of what previously has been a confusing mass of debates involving important political thinkers and scientists who at first glance appeared to be allies. Impressive in its scope, Political Descent is a bold and exciting book.”

Bernard Lightman, editor of Victorian Science in Context

"Hale's ambitious history of the nineteenth-century politics of human evolution . . . . [offers] challenging departures from Victorian evolutionary thought that reflect in rich and complex ways on the intellectual crosscurrents of Victorian culture and society, as well as the emerging contingencies of modernism. With Hale, we can appreciate in a new comprehensive way the powerful alliance between the naturalism of evolution—T. H. Huxley’s 'Whitworth gun in the armoury of liberalism'—and the secular liberal agenda of political naturalism, an alliance that is under considerable stress in the contemporary modern Western cultures of its origins."


Table of Contents

Introduction: The Politics of Evolution

1 Every Cheating Tradesman: The Political Economy of Natural Selection
2 A Very Social Darwinist: Herbert Spencer’s Lamarckian Radicalism
3 A Liberal Descent: Charles Darwin and the Evolution of Ethics
4 Liberals and Socialists: The Politics of Evolution in Victorian England
5 Malthus or Mutualism?: Huxley, Kropotkin, and the Moral Meaning of Darwinism
6 Of Mice and Men: Malthus, Weismann, and the Future of Socialism
7 Fear of Falling: Evolutionary Degeneration and the Politics of Panmixia

Conclusion: Political Descent: Anticipations of the Twentieth Century and Beyond

Afterword: Engaging the Present

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