Darwin and Malthus | Étienne Gilson | From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, Species, and Evolution | Ignatius Insight
Editor's Note: The extensive end notes (four pages in length) for this excerpt have not been included here.
It is not difficult to discover the connections which at an early date tied together the thought of Darwin and that of Malthus. Darwin himself told the public of it, but for a long time yet the sense and the bearing of Darwin's discovery of Malthus will be puzzled over.
The more one comes to know Darwin, the more one is persuaded that, from the day when he conceived the idea of transformation of species, he felt charged with the scientific mission of revealing to men a truth which was in his eyes indubitable; but this scientific truth was at the same time the reverse of a religious certitude which he himself had lost. The antireligious always has a bit of the religious in it. Strictly speaking, a scientific negation of the religious makes no sense, because the two orders are strangers to each other and because there is no sense of the word "truth" common to the two orders on which they might be able to meet. This abstract distinction is, however, contradicted by the psychology of the believer. There is in Darwin the scientist a propagandist charged by his own conscience with delivering men from a harmful error. Not having ever doubted the literal truth of the account of Genesis, he was frightened, finding himself in the presence of his new idea. A world came apart, in his mind, under the pressure of its spirit. Many of those who today judge that his uneasiness was without objective basis would then without doubt have shared his fear. They are like those who in the twentieth century are astonished that it was possible in the seventeenth century to judge the theses of Richard Simon as dangerous to the faith. At least Darwin had the courage to accept his own idea with all its consequences. In a letter to his friend Joseph Hooker, dated January 11, 1844, that is to say, about fifteen years before the publication of On the Origin of Species, Darwin said: "At last gleams of light have come, and I am almost convinced (quite contrary to the opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable."
If species are not fixed, what is the cause of their variation? Darwin was much less able to neglect the question which had been posed before him by Lamarck, whose doctrine he knew well enough to feel authorized to reject as absurd. His own discovery of 1844 was not in his eyes that of the variability of species, for that uncovered to him simultaneously the cause of their variations. To depart from Lamarck had been to depart from a bit more audacious and technically perfected Buffon. Darwin himself truly believed in the transformation of species only when he was able to catch sight of the cause of their transformations, natural selection, which Lamarck had not imagined. The theory was virtually complete in his mind when he had discerned the essential parameters of the problem: the struggle for existence, the spontaneous variations in the heart of the species [au sein des espèces] with the tendency to divergence which they entail, the hereditary transmission of variations favorable to the perpetuation of the species, and finally the analogy between the results of natural selection and those of domestication.