Browse Search Feedback Other Links Home Home
The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

Darwin's Precursors and Influences

3. Struggle for existence

by John Wilkins
Copyright © 1996-2003
[Last Update: 21 February 2003]



It is well-known that Darwin gained his initial mechanism for evolution from a reading in October 1838 of Malthus' Essay on the Principle of Population (6th edition, 18261). In this essay, Malthus argued that the poor ought not to be given relief as this would only increase their numbers. The crucial point for Darwin was that unchecked growth would outstrip food, and that a population would therefore be checked by starvation. In the context of natural species, Darwin saw that this would mean that not all those born could survive, with implications for evolution. However, in his Autobiography (1959) he noted that he was well-prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence from years of observation in the wild, and indeed the struggle for existence was a common and popular theme of the time, as evidenced in the often-quoted phrase from Tennyson's 1850 poem "In Memoriam AHH": "nature red in tooth and claw", from which also comes the stanza

`So careful of the type?' But no
From scarpéd cliff and quarried stone
She [Nature] cries, `A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.'2

The struggle for existence was a common metaphor, and Darwin was no less heir to it than his contemporaries, or indeed we are today. It is first found in Heraclitus of Ephesus (c500BCE): "Struggle is the father of everything"; and is well expressed in a biological context in Aristotle's History of Animals 608b-609b:

There is enmity between such animals as dwell in the same localities or subsist on the same food. If the means of subsistence run short, creatures of like kind will fight together.

[Interestingly, there has also been parallel tradition in evolutionary thought that uses a different metaphor - the commonwealth of organisms cooperating for the total good - from the writings of Kropotkin to Margulis' endosymbiosis theory of mitochondria3.]

Struggle for existence was the starting point of Darwin's train of thought. The opening sentence of the Essay of 1844 that was presented to the Linnaean Society on 1 July 1858 together with Wallace's paper was

De Candolle, in an eloquent passage, has declared that all nature is at war, one organism with another, or with external nature.4

Linnaeus, Kant, Herder and Cuvier had all written of the struggle for existence, but their view of it was benign: it prevented organisms dying of old age in great pain, for example5. However, in Buffon, de Candolle and Lyell, the struggle was more savage. As Mayr says, "it was in the writings of Lyell that Darwin first encountered the concept of struggle for existence, not in Malthus"6.

However, there was a real difference between Darwin's view and the capitalist laissez faire competition of the early 19th century. For a start, Darwin was not predisposed to see brutal competitiveness in every aspect of life. Moreover, he made no inferences about it being desirable, and in situations where he might have been expected to do so, he instead showed himself to be a relative liberal, defending the sensitivities and (limited) rights of negro slaves. In his later writings (e.g., his Descent of Man, 1872), no doubt under the influence of Spencer, he made some more "conventional" statements about selection being desirable to keep inferior traits from spreading, but even in this he was half-hearted.

Darwin owed most to de Candolle and Lyell, and also to Malthus, in the application of the struggle for existence to populations of organisms, but it was not an original thesis, nor did Darwin ever claim it was.


1 See Mayr 1982, pp 491-493

2 See Gould 1996, essay 6 for an entertaining essay on this influential Victorian poem, and Ruse 1979, pp 150-152.

3 See Sapp 1994

4 Darwin 1977, Vol 2 p 4

5 Mayr 1982, p 483

6 Mayr 1982, p 483


Home Browse Search Feedback Other Links The FAQ Must-Read Files Index Evolution Creationism Age of the Earth Flood Geology Catastrophism Debates

Home Page | Browse | Search | Feedback | Links
The FAQ | Must-Read Files | Index | Creationism | Evolution | Age of the Earth | Flood Geology | Catastrophism | Debates