Evolution v. Creation Metaphor Watch: Is Darwin’s “Struggle for Existence” Economic Malthusianism Writ Large?

Given that most people do not have advanced degrees in mathematics or the sciences, debates and discussions surrounding evolution and creationism appear in the public square in the form of competing metaphors, similes, and extended analogies.

In other words, we use metaphors, similes, and extended analogies to simplify and grasp issues that might be otherwise inaccessible to us.

Hence we can keep a look-out for the ways in which our use of language, especially metaphorical language, frames and structures discussions of evolution and creationism.

Today’s metaphor comes from Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), in which, in his Introduction, he compares Natural Selection to Malthusian economics:

[The Struggle for Existence] is the doctrine of [Thomas] Malthus, applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms. As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.

Malthus, it should be recalled, early in the 19th century, made an economic argument against the idea that the general lot of humanity could ever really substantially improve. His argument went thus:

  • Wherever humans prosper, they start to rapidly multiply; 
  • but the resource base, on which their prosperity depends, tends to be finite, and does not multiply;
  • therefore, human prosperity is inherently unstable and fleeting, for it will tend to undermine its resource base through overpopulation.

Darwin took Malthus’s rather bleak economic syllogism, and directed it, not just to humans, but analogically “to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms”—and added this question: Which organisms, exactly, are still alive after a round of competition for limited resources has played itself out?

Darwin’s answer: Why, the best adapted—or fittest—of course!

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Evolution v. Creation Metaphor Watch: Is Darwin’s “Struggle for Existence” Economic Malthusianism Writ Large?

  1. Pingback: Evolution v. Creation Metaphor Watch: Is the “Face of Nature” Abundant and “Bright with Gladness”—or a Does It Bare the Look of Scarcity? « Prometheus Unbound

  2. Pingback: Evolution v. Creation Metaphor Watch: Design without a Designer—and Laws without a Lawgiver? « Prometheus Unbound

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