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  • Political Descent: Malthus, Mutualism, and the Politics of Evolution in Victorian England by Piers J. Hale
  • B. Ricardo Brown
Political Descent: Malthus, Mutualism, and the Politics of Evolution in Victorian England, by Piers J. Hale. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2014. 465 pp. $45.00 US (cloth).

Piers Hale has written an engrossing and well-argued work on the complex milieu of Charles Darwin’s early evolutionary theory and its subsequent interpreters. In so doing, he places the current disputes on evolutionary theory, particularly those between proponents of individual versus group selection, into a proper social, historical, and intellectual context. The assumptions regarding the social relations of competition and cooperation were no less obvious in Darwin’s day than in our own. Political Descent argues that Thomas Malthus, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and especially Darwin himself, were well aware of the political, moral, and social implications of evolutionary theory. Likewise, the assumptions grounding our present debates can be seen in these ‘‘distant’’ debates if we take Hale’s invitation to suspend our usual disdainful sense that the [End Page 367] arguments have ‘‘progressed’’ since then, or that it was ever simply an argument between Darwinists and anti-Darwinists.

Hale begins with a discussion of Malthus and the politics of evolutionary theory before and after Darwin focused on the role of competition and cooperation in human evolution. The question of whether natural selection can account for the existence of altruism and social cohesion produced two ideological formations: one that embraced the social stasis invoked by Malthus, and the other a radical, progressive, anti-Malthusian politics that originates in Lamarck and Darwin’s own Lamarckism. The opposition is between those who would interpret Darwin through the lens of Malthus and those who would have Darwin without Malthus.

Hales shifts the figure of Darwin from its usual role as the organizing centre of attention to show Darwin in dialogue with Malthus, Herbert Spencer, and Alfred Russel Wallace. Hale describes how Darwin’s rejection of Lamarck — and with it the radical politics often attached to the theory of acquired characteristics — facilitated the acceptance of On the Origin of Species (London, 1859) by placing it within the mainstream of Whig politics. However, this invited Malthusian interpretations of natural selection that Darwin flatly rejected. Darwin insisted that his use of Malthus was always metaphorical. Darwin’s use of Malthus certainly influenced the reception of the Origin of Species, but Darwin’s Origin reinterprets Malthus theory in support of an ever-changing nature. This, Hale shows, contributed to the diverse politics and social theories that continue to spring from Darwin’s engagement with the species question.

Hale provides a nice account of Wallace’s often overlooked address to London’s Anthropological Society that attempted to reconcile its avowed polygenism with the monogenism espoused in Darwin and Thomas Henry Huxley’s Ethnological Society. Despite Darwin’s enthusiasm for Wallace’s paper, he held firmly to his views on the centrality of natural and sexual selection in human evolution while embracing the portion of Wallace’s paper that showed the importance of social relations in the development of moral sentiment and altruism in humans. Darwin praised Wallace’s paper, perhaps a little back-handedly, as the best he had read in the journal of the Anthropological Society.

Darwin’s natural selection faced increasing criticism in the years between the writing of the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man (London, 1871). Wallace’s spiritualism left Darwin without an important ally and he turned to the work of other liberals during the writing of the Descent. Herbert Spencer, Walter Bagehot, Adam Smith, David Hume, J.S. Mill, and Harriett Martineau all acted as influences for Darwin’s monogenic account of how natural and sexual selection could by themselves account for the moral and social evolution of humans. Hale reminds us that the Descent of Man was partly motivated by Darwin’s insistence that ‘‘evolution did not endorse the moral standards of every cheating tradesman’’ nor does ‘‘the [End Page 368] most noble part of our nature, moral conscience’’ originate in ‘‘the base principle of selfishness’’ (111).

In chapter four, Hale leaves behind these disputes to consider how...


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