Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

Note on the Passages of Malthus's 'Principles of
Population' Which Suggested the Idea of Natural
Selection to Darwin and Myself (S676: 1909)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: Written in 1908 for the book The Darwin-Wallace Celebration Held on Thursday, 1st July 1908, published in 1909. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with:

[[p. 111]] By Alfred R. Wallace.

     In order to refresh my memory I have again looked through Malthus's work, and I feel sure that what influenced me was not any special passage or passages, but the cumulative effect of chapters iii. to xii. of the first volume (and more especially chapters iii. to viii.) occupying about 150 pages. In these chapters are comprised very detailed accounts from all available sources, of the various causes which keep down the population of savage and barbarous nations, in America, Africa, and Asia, notwithstanding that they all possess a power of increase sufficient to produce a dense population for any of the continents in a few centuries.

     In order to give an idea, though a very imperfect one, of the nature of the facts adduced by him, I have selected the following passages as being fairly illustrative of the whole. The references are to the sixth edition, London: 1826, vol. i.


Of the Checks to Population among the American Indians.

Pages 35-37, line 2.

     We may next turn our view to the vast continent of America, the greatest part of which was found to be inhabited by small independent tribes of savages, subsisting, nearly like the natives of New Holland, on the productions of unassisted nature. The soil was covered by an almost universal forest, and presented few of those fruits and esculent vegetables which grow in such profusion in the islands of the South Sea. The produce of a most rude and imperfect agriculture, known to some of the tribe of hunters, was so trifling as to be considered only as a feeble aid to the subsistence acquired by the chase. The [[p. 112]] inhabitants of this new world therefore might be considered as living principally by hunting and fishing1; and the narrow limits to this mode of subsistence are obvious. The supplies derived from fishing could reach only those who were within a certain distance of the lakes, the rivers, or the sea-shore; and the ignorance and indolence of the improvident savage would frequently prevent him from extending the benefits of these supplies much beyond the time when they were actually obtained. The great extent of territory required for the support of the hunter has been repeatedly stated and acknowledged2. The number of wild animals within his reach, combined with the facility with which they may be either killed or insnared, must necessarily limit the number of his society. The tribes of hunters, like beasts of prey, whom they resemble in their mode of subsistence, will consequently be thinly scattered over the surface of the earth. Like beasts of prey, they must either drive away or fly from every rival, and be engaged in perpetual contests with each other3.

     Under such circumstances, that America should be very thinly peopled in proportion to its extent of territory, is merely an exemplification of the obvious truth, that population cannot increase without the food to support it. But the interesting part of the inquiry, that part, to which I would wish particularly to draw the attention of the reader, is, the mode by which the population is kept down to the level of this scanty supply. It cannot escape observation, that an insufficient supply of food to any people does not shew itself merely in the shape of famine, but in other more permanent forms of distress, and in generating certain customs, which operate sometimes with greater force in the prevention of a rising population than in its subsequent destruction.

Page 39, lines 5-21.

     In every part of the world, one of the most general characteristics of the savage is to despise and degrade the female sex4. Among most of the tribes in America their [[p. 113]] condition is so peculiarly grievous, that servitude is a name too mild to describe their wretched state. A wife is no better than a beast of burden. While the man passes his days in idleness or amusement, the woman is condemned to incessant toil. Tasks are imposed upon her without mercy, and services are received without complacence or gratitude5. There are some districts in America where this state of degradation has been so severely felt, that mothers have destroyed their female infants, to deliver them at once from a life in which they were doomed to such a miserable life of slavery6.


On the Checks to Population in the different Parts of Africa.

Pages 158-164.

     The description, which Bruce gives of some parts of the country which he passed through on his return home, presents a picture more dreadful even than the state of Abyssinia, and shows how little population depends on the birth of children, in comparison of the production of food and those circumstances of natural and political situation which influence this produce.

     "At half past six," Bruce says, "we arrived at Garigana, a village whose inhabitants had all perished with hunger the year before; their wretched bones being all unburied and scattered upon the surface of the ground where the village formerly stood. We encamped among the bones of the dead; no space could be found free from them."7

     Of another town or village in his route he observes:--

     "The strength of Teawa was 25 horse. The rest of the inhabitants might be 1200 naked miserable and despicable Arabs, like the rest of those which live in villages . . . Such was the state of Teawa. Its consequence was only to remain till the Daveina Arabs should resolve to attack it, when its corn-fields being burnt and destroyed in a night [[p. 114]] by a multitude of horsemen, the bones of its inhabitants scattered upon the earth would be all its remains, like those of the miserable village of Garigana."8

     "There is no water between Teawa and Beyla. Once Indedidema and a number of villages were supplied with water from wells, and had large crops of Indian corn sown about their possessions. The curse of that country, the Daveina Arabs, have destroyed Indedidema and all the villages about it; filled up their wells, burnt their crops, and exposed all the inhabitants to die by famine."9

     Soon after leaving Sennaar, he says: "We began to see the effects of rain having failed. There was little corn sown, and that so late as to be scarcely above ground. It seems the rain begins later as they pass northward. Many people were here employed in gathering grass-seeds to make a very bad kind of bread. These people appear perfect skeletons, and no wonder, as they live upon such fare. Nothing increases the danger of travelling and prejudice against strangers more, than the scarcity of provisions in the country through which you are to pass."10

     "Came to Eltic, a straggling village about half a mile from the Nile, in the North of a large bare plain; all pasture, except the banks of the river which are covered with wood. We now no longer saw any corn sown. The people here were at the same miserable employment as those we had seen before, that of gathering grass-seeds."11

     Under such circumstances of climate and political situation, though a greater degree of foresight, industry and security, might considerably better their condition and increase their population, the birth of a greater number of children without these concomitants would only aggravate their misery, and leave their population where it was.

     The same may be said of the once flourishing and populous country of Egypt. Its present depressed state has not been caused by the weakening of the principle of increase, but by the weakening of the principle of industry and foresight, from the insecurity of property consequent on a most tyrannical and oppressive government. The principle of increase in Egypt at present does all that it is possible for it to do. It keeps the population fully up to the [[p. 115]] level of the means of subsistence; and, were its power ten times greater than it really is, it could do no more.

     The remains of ancient works, the vast lakes, canals, and large conduits for water destined to keep the Nile under control, serving as reservoirs to supply a dry year, and as drains and outlets to prevent the superabundance of water in wet years, sufficiently indicate to us that the former inhabitants of Egypt by art and industry contrived to fertilize a much greater quantity of land from the overflowings of their river, than is done at present; and to prevent, in some measure, the distresses which are now so frequently experienced from a redundant or insufficient inundation12.

     It is said of the governor Petronius, that, effecting by art what was denied by nature, he caused abundance to prevail in Egypt under disadvantages of such a deficient inundation, as had always before been accompanied by dearth13. A flood too great is as fatal to the husbandman as one that is deficient; and the ancients had, in consequence, drains and outlets to spread the superfluous waters over the thirsty sands of Lybia, and render even the desert habitable. These works are now all out of repair, and by ill management often produce mischief instead of good. The causes of this neglect, and consequently of the diminished means of subsistence, are obviously to be traced to the extreme ignorance and brutality of the government, and the wretched state of the people. The Mamelukes, in whom the principal power resides, think only of enriching themselves, and employ for this purpose what appears to them to be the simplest method, that of seizing wealth wherever it may be found, of wresting it by violence from the possessor, and of continually imposing new and arbitrary contributions14. Their ignorance and brutality, and the constant state of alarm in which they live, prevent them from having any views of enriching the country, the better to prepare it for their plunder. No public works therefore are to be expected from the government, and no individual proprietor dares to undertake any improvement which might imply the possession of capital, as it would probably be the immediate signal of his destruction. Under such circumstances we cannot be surprised that the ancient works [[p. 116]] are neglected, that the soil is ill cultivated, and that the means of subsistence, and consequently the population, are greatly reduced. But such is the natural fertility of the Delta from the inundations of the Nile, that even without any capital employed upon the land, without a right of succession, and consequently almost without a right of property, it still maintains a considerable population in proportion to its extent, sufficient, if property were secure, and industry well directed, gradually to improve and extend the cultivation of the country and restore it to its former state of prosperity. It may be safely pronounced of Egypt that it is not the want of population that has checked its industry, but the want of industry that has checked its population.

     The immediate causes which keep down the population to the level of the present contracted means of subsistence, are but too obvious. The peasants are allowed for their maintenance only sufficient to keep them alive15. A miserable sort of bread made of doura without leaven or flavour, cold water, and raw onions make up the whole of their diet. Meat and fat, of which they are passionately fond, never appear but on great occasions, and among those who are more at their ease. The habitations are huts made of earth, where a stranger would be suffocated with the heat and smoke; and where the diseases generated by want of cleanliness, by moisture, and by bad nourishment, often visit them and commit great ravages. To these physical evils are added a constant state of alarm, the fear of the plunder of the Arabs, and the visits of the Mamelukes, the spirit of revenge transmitted in families, and all the evils of a continual civil war16.

     In the year 1783 the plague was very fatal, and in 1784 and 1785 a dreadful famine reigned in Egypt, owing to a deficiency in the inundation of the Nile. Volney draws a frightful picture of the misery that was suffered on this occasion. The streets of Cairo, which at first were full of beggars, were soon cleared of all these objects, who either perished or fled. A vast number of unfortunate wretches, [[p. 117]] in order to escape death, spread themselves over all the neighbouring countries, and the towns of Syria were inundated with Egyptians. The streets and public places were crowded by famished and dying skeletons. All the most revolting modes of satisfying the cravings of hunger were resorted to; the most disgusting food was devoured with eagerness; and Volney mentions the having seen under the walls of ancient Alexandria two miserable wretches seated on the carcase of a camel, and disputing with the dogs its putrid flesh. The depopulation of the two years was estimated at one-sixth of all the inhabitants17.

     It was the perusal of such statements as these, extending over every part of the world, and very varied in their details, that produced such a deep and permanent impression on my mind, though the individual facts were forgotten. When, ten or twelve years later, while thinking (as I had thought for years) over the possible causes of the change of species, the action of these "positive checks" to increase, as Malthus termed them, suddenly occurred to me. I then saw that war, plunder and massacres among men were represented by the attacks of carnivora on herbivora, and of the stronger upon the weaker among animals. Famine, droughts, floods and winter's storms, would have an even greater effect on animals than on men; while as the former possessed powers of increase from twice to a thousand-fold greater than the latter, the ever-present annual destruction must also be many times greater.

     Then there flashed upon me, as it had done twenty years before upon Darwin, the certainty, that those which, year by year, survived this terrible destruction must be, on the whole, those which had some little superiority enabling them to escape each special form of death to which the great majority succumbed--that, in the well-known formula, the fittest would survive. Then I at once saw, that the ever present variability of all living things would furnish the material from which, by the mere weeding out of those [[p. 118]] less adapted to the actual conditions, the fittest alone would continue the race. But this would only tend to the persistence of those best adapted to the actual conditions; and on the old idea of the permanence and practical unchangeability of the inorganic world, except for a few local and unimportant catastrophes, there would be no necessary change of species.

     But along with Malthus I had read, and been even more deeply impressed by, Sir Charles Lyell's immortal 'Principles of Geology,' which had taught me that the inorganic world--the whole surface of the earth, its seas and lands, its mountains and valleys, its rivers and lakes, and every detail of its climatic conditions, were and always had been in a continual state of slow modification. Hence it became obvious that the forms of life must have become continually adjusted to these changed conditions in order to survive. The succession of fossil remains throughout the whole geological series of rocks is the record of this change; and it became easy to see that the extreme slowness of these changes was such as to allow ample opportunity for the continuous automatic adjustment of the organic to the inorganic world, as well as of each organism to every other organism in the same area, by the simple processes of "variation and survival of the fittest." Thus was the fundamental idea of the "origin of species" logically formulated from the consideration of a series of well-ascertained facts.

[Received 28th August, 1908.]

Notes Appearing in the Original Work

1. Robertson's History of America, vol. ii. b. iv. p. 127 et seq., octavo edit. 1780. [[on p. 112]]

2. Franklin's Miscell. p. 2. [[on p. 112]]

3. Robertson, b. iv. p. 129. [[on p. 112]]

4. Robertson, b. iv. p. 103. Lettres Edif. passim. Charlevoix, Hist. Nouv. Fr. tom. iii. p. 287. Voy. de Pérouse. c. ix. p. 492, 4to. London. [[on p. 112]]

5. Robertson, b. iv. p. 105. Lettres Edif. tom. vi. p. 329. Major Roger's North America, p. 211. Creuxii Hist. Canad. p. 57. [[on p. 113]]

6. Robertson, b. iv. p. 106. Raynal, Hist. des Indies, tom. iv. c. vii. p. 110, 8vo., 10 vol., 1795. [[on p. 113]]

7. Bruce, vol. iv. p. 349. [[on p. 113]]

8. Bruce, vol. iv. p. 353. [[on p. 114]]

9. Id. p. 411. [[on p. 114]]

10. Id. p. 511. [[on p. 114]]

11. Id. p. 511. [[on p. 114]]

12. Bruce, vol. iii. c. xvii. p. 710. [[on p. 115]]

13. Voyage de Volney, tom. i. c. iii. p. 33, 8vo. [[on p. 115]]

14. Voyage de Volney, tom. i. c. xii. p. 170. [[on p. 115]]

15. Voyage de Volney, tom. i. c. xii. p. 172. [[on p. 116]]

16. Volney, tom. i. c. xii. p. 173. This sketch of the state of the peasantry in Egypt given by Volney seems to be nearly confirmed by all other writers on this subject; and particularly in a valuable paper entitled Considérations générales sur l'Agriculture de l'Egypte, par L. Reynier (Mémoires sur L'Egypte, tom. iv. p. 1). [[on p. 116]]

17. Voy. de Volney, tom. i. c. xii. s. ii. [[on p. 117]]

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