Better Worlds, Brighter Futures

Ecology, Humanity, Idealism |

Evolution & the Social Sciences

This is the third and final part in our short series on evolution. Please also see “The Real Origin of Species: Lynn Margulis’s ‘Symbiotic Planet’” and “Evolution & the Natural Sciences.

Of course the speed of light is the same under socialism and capitalism, and the apple that was said to have fallen on the Master of the Mint in 1664 would have struck his Labour Party successor three-hundred years later with equal force. But whether the cause of tuberculosis is said to be a bacillus or the capitalist exploitation of workers, whether the death rate from cancer is best reduced by studying oncogenes or by seizing control of factories–these questions can be decided objectively only within the framework of certain sociopolitical assumptions. [Our argument] is not about the effect of science on society or the effect of society on science. Rather, it is meant to show how science and other aspects of social life interpenetrate and to show why scientists, whether they realize it or not, always choose sides.

Levins & Lewontin, The Dialectical Biologist (1985), p. 4-5.

As discussed previously (see “Evolution & the Natural Sciences“), Malthusian tenets adopted by Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) into the natural sciences brought certain assumptions regarding the “nature” of nature. These would result in a skewed, overly competitive vision of the natural world that persists to this day.

Turning now to the social sciences, this essay aims to show how, in dialectical fashion this skewed, overly competitive vision of nature would also become the basis for a skewed vision of society and human “nature.”

Thomas Malthus and Social Darwinism

The reliance of Darwin and Wallace on political economist Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) is still controversial. While Malthus’s work has no doubt contributed to a skewed vision of the natural world, it arguably features even more prominently in the human social realm. Therefore, a detailed discussion is presented on the impact of evolutionary theory on the social sciences.

Malthus’s work, An Essay of the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society (1798), is an extension into the economic realm of a philosophical view of nature going back at least to Thomas Hobbes (1588-1671). In his book Leviathan (1651), Hobbes theorized a “war of every man against every man” as the state of nature. Historian George Woodcock (1912-1995) argues that,

[t]he seventeenth century authoritarian philosopher Thomas Hobbes… had based his justification of the State and of monarchical authority on the theory that primitive man is naturally given to fratricidal struggle… and that the social virtues can be implanted only by the force of a superior authority.

George Woodcock, “Introduction,” Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1989), p. xxii.

In the 18th century, prior to Malthus, the response to the Hobbesian argument carried over into the economic realm. This gave rise to some of the first expositions of philosophical anarchism, notably in William Godwin’s (1756-1836) Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Modern Morals and Manners (1793).

In response to Godwin, Malthus’s Principle of Population would take the Hobbesian argument from the natural sciences into the realm of political economy (Godwin would very belatedly reply to Malthus with On Population in 1820).

The Malthusian argument laid out in Principle of Population is summarized well by Woodcock:

…Malthus contended… that there was a natural tendency for population to increase in a higher ratio to any possible increase in the supply of food. This process would result in disaster if there were not “positive checks” to growing population: natural phenomena like disease and famine, and social phenomena like war and the general struggle among individuals and classes by which the weaker goes to the wall. To preserve that well-being which now existed, Malthus argued, such processes must be left unchanged. He denounced Godwin’s doctrine of universal benevolence as a concept that would upset the natural limitation of population and defeat itself by producing a society in which population, outstripping the food supply, would bring disaster and famine to all, instead of to the minorities who are cut off in their prime by the normal process of unrestricted competition. The final result of any attempt at change would therefore be a return, through terrible trials, to the old situation. Things, in fact, were as they were bound to be, and all talk of widespread improvement in the human condition was chimerical.

George Woodcock, “Introduction,” Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1989), p. xxiii.

It is easy to see in Malthus the seeds of “social Darwinism,” or the attempted application of evolutionary concepts such as natural selection to human society. Such arguments attempt to justify characteristics like cutthroat, economic competition, rugged (egoistic) individualism, and even capitalism itself as “natural” and possibly inevitable outcomes of the human condition, based on the perceived condition of nature. Woodcock notes that Malthusianism was a “consoling doctrine for early nineteenth century factory owners whose child employees were stunted in the mephitic atmosphere of the cotton mills” and “gained classic status in the Victorian system of laissez-faire economics.”

Malthus and Socialism

Ten years after Malthus’s death, and 15 years prior to publication of On the Origin of Speciess (1859). Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) were opposing attempts to find naturalistic justifications for capitalism. Engels, in Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy (1844), characterizes Malthusianism as “the crudest, most barbarous theory that ever existed, a system of despair which struck down all those beautiful phrases about love of neighbor and world citizenship.” Thus began, four years prior to publication of the landmark Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), a tradition of opposition to Malthusianism (and later social Darwinism) within Marxism that extends to present.

Today these debates continue, particularly in scientific fields attempting to ascertain the root cause of ecological crisis. Proponents of “neo-Malthusianism” maintain that overpopulation is a significant, if not primary cause. Social ecologists and other natural and social scientists contend that this argument is distracting: economic systems built on cutthroat competition, rugged individualism, and a growth imperative will inevitably come upon material, ecological limitations. In short it is capitalism–the very system that many defenders of Malthus hold up as “natural”–that is the root cause of ecological crisis.

Social ecologist and political theorist Murray Bookchin (1921-2006) notes that the:

arithmetic mentality that disregards the social context of demographics is incredibly short-sighted. If we live in a “grow-or-die” capitalistic society in which accumulation is literally a law of economic survival and competition is the motor of “progress,” anything we have to say about population causing the ecological crisis is basically meaningless. Under such a society, the biosphere will eventually be destroyed whether five billion or fifty million people live on the planet.

Murray Bookchin, Which Way for the Ecology Movement? (1994), p. 34.

Similarly, scholar and ecosocialist Joel Kovel (1936-2018), in his seminal The Enemy of Nature (2008), addresses the neo-Malthusian argument:

I expect some criticism for not giving sufficient weight to the population question in what follows. At no point, for example, does over-population appear among the chief candidates for the mantle of prime or efficient cause of the ecological crisis. This is not because I discount the problem of population, which is most grave, but because I do see it as having a secondary dynamic–not secondary in importance, but in the sense of being determined by other features of the system. I remain a deeply committed adversary to the recurrent neo-Malthusianism which holds that if only the lower classes would stop their wanton breeding, all will be well; and I hold that human beings have ample power to regulate population so long as they, and specifically women, have power over the terms of their social existence.

Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature, 2nd ed. (2008), p. 9.

This short discussion attempts to illustrate that the Western perception of nature (and concomitantly “human nature”) has developed through a dialectical interplay of social and natural scientific observations: Malthus’s work of political economy would influence and reinforce Darwin’s hard-scientific theory of evolution through natural selection. In turn, Darwin’s work gave legitimacy to Malthusian and “social Darwinist” theories in the social sciences.

Conclusion: A Dialectic of Evolutionary Theory

Inspired by a Hobbesian view of the natural world as a “battle of everyone against everyone” and continuing through Malthus, the Darwinian theory of evolution led to (or reinforced) a social Darwinian theory applied to human society. This theory emphasizes Herbert Spencer’s “survival of the fittest,” a high degree of individualism, and an overemphasis of competition by individuals (rather than competition between individuals/groups and the environment, or cooperation among individuals/groups) as the principle factor of evolution.

The emergence of social Darwinism created or reinforced a competitive bias in our perception of nature that reverberated into both the social and physical sciences. In the social sciences, this perception has led to the justification of certain social and economic systems and relations as “natural” (capitalism, individualism, hierarchical relations such as boss/worker, etc.). At the same time, it has warped the perception of nature within the physical sciences as overly competitive, at the expense of other, just as prevalent selection factors.

In this way, a dialectical relationship, with its simultaneous emphases of negation, opposition, and relation, comes into view. From this, it can be seen that a warped view of “human nature” and society shapes, and is shaped by, a warped view of the natural world. Correcting this lens involves, as a start, properly emphasizing cooperation and mutualism within nature, recognizing serial endosymbiotic theory as an actual explanation of the “origin of species” (and the special variation of Lamarckism that this implies), along with de-emphasizing theories of gradualism (for more discussion, see “Evolution & the Natural Sciences“). While most of these have gained acceptance within the scientific community, the predominant focus continues to be on competition.

From this preliminary investigation a vision of nature emerges from the social and natural sciences that is often inaccurate and drenched with social biases. While biases may never be eliminated entirely, they can be minimized to a great extent. Further, it is clear that the prevailing views of nature and society are mutually influencing–each shapes, and is shaped by, the other.

Given the scientific fact of ongoing ecological crisis, it is imperative that a clearer vision of the natural world, and humanity’s place within it, be obtained. Emphasizing the largely overlooked facts outlined here is a good start toward this end.

Charles Imboden is a social ecologist with expertise in non-profits, solar energy, and liberatory technology. He specializes in arid lands and is based in the American Southwest. Contact him here.


Bookchin, M. (1994). Which Way for the Ecological Movement? Essays by Murray Bookchin. AK Press. Edinburgh, Scotland.

Kovel, J. (2008). The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? 2nd Edition. Zed Books: London, England.

Levins, R. and Richard Lewontin. (1985). The Dialectical Biologist. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.

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