Darwin's Use of Language.

The Linnean Society.

In June 1858, Darwin received a letter from A. R. Wallace setting out an outline of the theory of natural selection on which Darwin had been brooding for decades. In a hurriedly arranged meeting at the Linnean Society on 1 July 18581, at which neither Darwin nor Wallace were present, two papers by Darwin were read out, followed by Wallace's letter. Darwin's first paper begins:

De Candolle, in an eloquent passage has declared that all nature is at war, one organism with another, or with external nature. Seeing the contented face of nature, this may at first be well doubted; but reflection will inevitably prove it to be true. The war, however, is not constant, but recurrent in a slight degree at short periods, and more severely at occasional more distant periods; and hence its effects are easily overlooked.
(Charles Darwin. 1st paper. Linnean Society, 1 July 1858)

What is remarkable about this is that, in the first words of the first public presentation of his ideas, Darwin makes the flat assertion that "all nature is at war". And in support of this he firstly offers the authority of De Candolle (and a few sentences later, that of Malthus), and goes on to make the further assertion that reflection will 'inevitably' prove the truth of this opening assertion. In his second paper, Darwin goes on to say that those authorities who have previously referred to a "struggle for existence" in nature have not emphasized it sufficiently:

The elder De Candolle, W. Herbert, and Lyell have written excellently on the struggle for life; but even they have not written strongly enough.
(Charles Darwin. 2nd paper. Linnean Society, 1 July 1858)

In Wallace's paper, however, Darwin's war of nature is entirely absent. Nor does Wallace seek to bolster his argument with the authority of De Candolle or Malthus. Instead, of the "struggle for existence", Wallace writes:

The life of wild animals is a struggle for existence. The full exertion of all their faculties and all their energies is required to preserve their own existence and provide for that of their infant offspring.
(A.R.Wallace. Linnean Society, 1 July 1858)

For Wallace, it seems that the "struggle for existence" was primarily the full exertion of faculties and energy - i.e. hard work. Yet for Darwin the "struggle for existence" was much more than this: it was none other than an all-encompassing war of nature.

Yet not only does Darwin introduce the idea of a war of nature, but he also employs words with violent significance throughout his two papers. One way of demonstrating the relative violence of Darwin's language is to simply count the incidence of such words, and divide them by the total number of words in each paper.

Word   Darwin 1   Darwin 2   Wallace  
war 2    
force 1    
violent 1   1
blows 1    
struggle 9 2 2
destroy 1 1 1
battle 1    
victory 1    
contest 1    
enemy 1   4
fight 1    
rival 1    
exterminate   3 1
attack     4
Total words 21 6 13
Wordcount 1704 1128 4164
Total/wordcount 0.0123 0.0053 0.0031

Of course, it is to some degree a subjective judgement whether a word has violent significance. But in general it is apparent that words like 'species' or 'reproduce' are more placid than 'destroy' or 'exterminate'.

Overall, Darwin's language emerges as being on average 3 times as violent as that of Wallace, and 4 times as violent if only his first paper is used in the assessment. Yet in his second paper, an extract from a letter to Asa Gray, Darwin's language shows that he is able to write almost as moderately as Wallace.

Furthermore, although Wallace uses 'attacks of enemies' several times, he is referring to predation. And again, while Wallace uses the word 'struggle' twice, he uses it in the phrase "struggle for existence", on one occasion enclosing it in quotes. If these are subtracted from Wallace's count, Darwin's language emerges as 10 or 20 times more violent than that of Wallace.

The Origin of Species.

Over the year following the presentation at the Linnean Society, Darwin threw himself into writing The Origin of Species2, which was published in 1859.

The opening two chapters of Origin discuss the variation of plants and animals under domestication and under nature. The language he uses is lucid and placid. Only occasionally does something rather darker intrude.

But in Chapter 3 of Origin, the tone of Darwin's writing abruptly changes as his unveils his vision of the 'Struggle for existence'. After saying that the matter will be treated "at much greater length" in a future work, he sweetens the pill he is about to administer by saying:

I should premise that I use the term Struggle for Existence in a large and metaphorical sense, including dependence of one being on another, and including (which is more important) not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny. Two canine animals in time of dearth. may truly be said to struggle with each other which shall get food and live. But a plant on the edge of a desert is said to struggle for life against the drought, though more properly it shold be said to be dependent on the moisture. A plant which annually produces a thousand seeds, of which on an average only one comes to maturity, may be more truly said to struggle with the plants of the same and other kinds which already clothe the ground. The missletoe is dependent on the apple and a few other trees, but can only in a far-fetched sense be said to struggle with these trees, for if too many of these parasites grow on the same tree, it will languish and die.
(Ch. 3 emphasis added)

It is rather hard to see how two canine animals may 'truly' be said to struggle with each other in time of dearth - unless they are penned together in a small compound containing a single bone. We have only Darwin's assertion that some struggle ensues.

After having produced barely a handful of rather questionable examples of the struggle for existence (some so questionable, indeed, that even Darwin himself questions them), Darwin gets to the point he really wants to make:

A struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase. Every being, which during its natural lifetime produces several eggs or seeds, must suffer destruction during some period of its life, and during some season or occasional year, otherwise, on the principle of geometrical increase, its numbers would quickly become so inordinately great that no country could support the product. Hence, as more individuals are produced than can possibly survive, there must in every case be a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life. It is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms; for in this case there can be no artificial increase of food, and no prudential restraint from marriage.
(Ch.3 p.63)

This struggle, 'one with another', marks the re-eruption of Darwin's war of nature, previously seen in the Linnean papers. And this is not just a war between predators and their prey, but between individuals of the same species. And no sooner has Darwin got his troops on the beach, than he rapidly starts deploying words that widen the struggle. Words like 'destroy', 'kill', 'attack', 'fight', 'murder', and many others, rapidly roll off his pen like tanks off landing craft.

So sudden is the appearance of these words, and their incidence so frequent, that it becomes possible to count and plot graphically their numbers on each page of Origin. Once again, the selection of words must necessarily be somewhat subjective. Yet the exercise is instructive, because it shows how Darwin uses language - i.e. words - to paint an increasingly violent picture of the natural world.

Rather than launch his war with the opening sentence (as in the Linnean papers), Darwin waits two whole chapters, genially discussing pigeons and sheep, and only occasionally slipping in words like 'kill' and 'exterminate', before launching his war of nature with a verbal barrage in Chapter 3, behind the smokescreen of metaphor and the vague promise of future clarification.

Words used:
exterminate destroy blows destruction struggle slaughter kill attack enemy hurt injury battle force victory triumph starve conquer beat fight shield sword spear weapon armed defence contest murder war overmaster
The incidence (by visual scanning) per page of words with violent or military meaning used in the first four chapters, 130 pages, of Darwin's Origin (Ist edition facsimile). The words used are listed at left.
    This is necessarily a subjective assessment. Words such as 'starve', 'beat', and 'blow' are added when used in the sense of 'starve out', 'defeat', or 'strike'. Apart from ordinary words, those not added include 'dominant', 'compete', 'carnivore', 'prey', 'savage', 'wild'.
    The maximum incidence is 14 words on page 88 in chapter 4.
Violent or military word count per page

This use of language is a literary device rather than a rational argument. It provides the mood music, like the shrieking violins in Hitchcock's Psycho, to accompany the depiction of murder.

Yet, far more than just conflict and violence, Darwin wishes to lend the struggle fully military dimensions:

Seedlings, also, are destroyed in vast numbers by various enemies;
(p.67 emphasis added)

the more vigorous plants kill the less vigorous.
(p.68 emphasis added)

Battle within battle must ever be recurring with varying success; and yet in the long-run the forces are so nicely balanced, that the face of nature remains uniform for long periods of time, though assuredly the merest trifle would often give the victory to one organic being over another.
(p.73 emphases added)

What a struggle between the several kinds of trees must here have gone on during long centuries, each annually scattering its seeds by the thousand; what war between insect and insect between insects, snails, and other animals with birds and beasts of prey all striving to increase, and all feeding on each other or on the trees or their seeds and seedlings, or on the other plants which first clothed the ground and thus checked the growth of the trees!
(p.75 emphases added)

The war is, perhaps, severest between the males of polygamous animals, and these seem oftenest provided with special weapons. The males of carnivorous animals are already well armed; though to them and to others, special means of defence may be given through means of sexual selection, as the mane to the lion, the shoulder-pad to the boar, and the hooked jaw to the male salmon; for the shield may be as important for victory, as the sword or spear.
(Chapter 4 p.88 emphases added)

And all this before the 'advancing legions' of chapter 6, and the 'slave-making instinct' of chapter 7.

Was Darwin's Struggle for Existence ever really 'metaphorical'? In his Linnean presentation, there is no mention of any metaphor. And at the close of Origin, Darwin writes:

Thus from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life...
(Chapter 14. p.490)

Here Darwin sets the war of nature as an equal beside famine and death. All pretence of metaphor has vanished. The metaphorical Struggle for Existence has been overtaken by an all-too-real War of Nature. For Darwin, the war of nature was something perfectly real, and not in the least metaphorical.

In his Linnean papers, Darwin opens with his thunderous vision of a war of nature. In Origin, however, he is far more cautious. It would appear that, in the interval between the two publications, some persons have asked difficult questions about the nature of this 'war'. And so, rather than launch the war immediately, Darwin waits and then introduces the "struggle for existence" as a metaphor, and as a matter with which he will deal at greater length in a future work. After that, the metaphorical sense of the struggle for existence is allowed to dwindle away, as Darwin elaborates, in passage after eloquent passage, his vision of a titanic war of nature. The 'metaphor' and the promise of future clarification are simply a sop to placate his critics.

Confessing a Murder.

I am almost convinced (quite contrary to the opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable.
(Letter from Darwin to Hooker. 1844 3 )

In outline, the theory of evolution by natural selection is that, in times of famine or other difficulty, the fittest creatures survive and reproduce, while the less fit die and become extinct. But for Darwin, the process of natural selection was conflated with a process of extermination and murder. And unveiling that process, even to a close friend, was "like confessing a murder." Publishing such an idea held out still greater terrors, and this was likely the reason why Darwin delayed publication for some 20 years - until Wallace's 1858 letter finally forced him into the open.

The suggestion I wish to make is that the principal idea that Darwin wished to convey was not the theory of natural selection, but was instead the war of nature - his dramatic vision of all nature locked in titanic war.

The first reason for supposing this is that Darwin introduces his war of nature in the opening words of his first paper at the Linnean Society. More than anything, Darwin wishes to impress upon his readers his vision of the murderous ferocity of nature. If, in the subsequent Origin of Species, Darwin introduces his war of nature far more gradually, and with several provisos, it is not because he has moderated his views, but that he knows that he is writing for a general public whose sensibilities might be offended if he were to expose them too suddenly to a vision of nature so much at odds with a conventional vision of a placid and benign natural world.

The second reason for supposing that Darwin was not primarily advancing a theory of evolution by natural selection is that Thomas Malthus, in his First Essay on Population, had already sketched out the outlines of that theory. Both Darwin and Wallace acknowledged their debt to Malthus. If Darwin's work was to be something more than a mere scholarly elaboration of Malthus' sketch, it had to have something extra. And the extra spin that Darwin placed on Malthus' outline theory of natural selection was the War of Nature.

It was this dramatic and colourful war of nature - with 'nicely balanced forces', 'advancing legions', 'battles', 'spears', 'shields', 'victory' and so on - , which secured Darwin's grip on popular imagination. Here was a vision that everyone could immediately understand, even if they knew next to nothing about biology. And it was this vision that was either readily accepted or vehemently rejected.

By neither arguing in detail the logic of such a war, nor providing indisputable examples of it, but merely by asserting it with suitably violent language, and drawing on his own authority as an established naturalist, Darwin succeeded in conveying his dark vision of the war of nature into popular imagination, where it has endured ever since - even if no modern evolutionary theorist now uses the idea.

And if, a century later, movies would still show Stegosaurs slugging it out with Tyrannosaurs, and Jurassic Park's raptors attack on sight, it is a testament to the continuing potency of Darwin's dramatic vision. Darwinism is a belief not merely in evolution and natural selection, but above all in a war of nature, every creature against every other. And if this new creed was always called Darwinism, it was because it was Darwin - and nobody else - who most powerfully conjured up the vision of all nature at war.

What was so compelling about this nightmare fiction? Perhaps the answer is that, before Darwin, the natural world was seen as God's creation, and by definition the best of all possible worlds. But once the idea of divine creation was rejected, what had once seemed the best of all possible worlds was converted, at one stride, into its antithesis - the worst of all possible worlds. In Darwin's vision, what had looked like heaven, with birds singing in flowery pastures girded by rustling trees, was replaced by a hell in which the plants and animals were engaged in a perpetual wars of mutual extermination. The old chocolate-box vision of a genial and happy natural world was a mere fairy tale: the truth was quite the opposite - it was wholesale murder. Once the face of nature was ripped off, the underlying bloody reality of teeth and muscle lay revealed.

If so, the continuing conflict between Creationism and Evolution is not really about whether plants and animals were created or have evolved, but is primarily the moral confrontation of two fundamental visions of the natural order - of Heaven (the divine creation) and Hell (Darwin's war of nature). If the two sides are forever skirmishing over the evidence, or lack of it, for evolution, in the fossil record, missing links, etc. it is because neither side wishes or is able to confront the central moral issue.

For since Darwin went on to argue that human life had itself evolved rather than been separately created, his theory became a political philosophy, and it followed that the war of nature extended into human affairs, and that human life was inextricably enmeshed in a competitive and even exterminatory struggle for existence.

The result was that Darwin's compelling fiction became - at least in part - the inspiration for not just one, but two political struggle-philosophies. On the one hand it gave Marx (and Marxism) a naturalistic underpinning for the "class struggle" between workers and bosses. And on the other hand it provided the foundations for both the militarism and the genocidal racism of Nazism (Hitler's Mein Kampf - My Struggle). It was a prospect that Darwin himself foresaw:

The more civilised so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turks hollow in the struggle for existence. Looking at the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilised races throughout the world.
(Darwin. Letter to W. Graham. 3 July 1881)

But in lesser ways, the war of all against all brought 'cut-throat competition', and 'devil-take-the-hindmost' callousness, and the erosion of compassion and cooperation in human life.

The followers of Darwin always saw (and still see) themselves above all as realists. Not for them the snivelling sentimentality of religious faith, but instead the no-nonsense acceptance of the grim reality of struggle and war - in whose inverted world all values were themselves inverted, so that determination and courage and ruthlessness became virtues, and pity and compassion and charity became vices. While hand-wringing idealists protested, hard-headed Darwinist realists simply got on with the natural and necessary business of exterminating their enemies. And in so doing, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, they acted to ensure that this world would indeed become the worst of all possible worlds.

Yet there is nothing that is essentially realistic about Darwin's vision of a war of nature. Darwin never provided any evidence for it. Instead he merely asserted it and, by deceptive use of language, expanded it. And anyway the process of natural selection does not actually require a war of nature. As it was first sketched by Malthus, and later expanded by Wallace, the theory merely said that as populations rose, and food resources dwindled, so life got harder for the creatures, and some survived and some perished. Darwin's war of nature was a gratuitous piece of horror theatre which, appended to the theory of natural selection, not only served to obscure and obfuscate the process of evolution, but also to introduce an enduring nightmare into Western culture.


1. At the time of writing, the first edition of the Origin of Species, referenced by this essay, is available online at Talk.Origins Archives.

2. The Linnean society minutes are available here and The University of Maryland.

3. Darwin. Adrian Desmond and James Moore. 1991. Chapter 21

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: 4 Jan 2003