The Skeptical Liberal: Malthus v. H.G. Wells

The Skeptical Liberal

How can we live together in peace, prosperity, and harmony, while retaining our liberties as autonomous individuals who can, and must, create our own values? -- J.M. Buchanan


Malthus v. H.G. Wells

H.G. Wells is reputed to have said “Adapt or die, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.” Wells, of course, is echoing Darwin, who got that idea, he claimed, from Robert Malthus. Natural selection, Darwin said, “is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdom; for in this case there can be no artificial increase of food, and no prudential restraint from marriage.”

But in Malthus' world, humans can "artificially" increase aggregate output by technical progress, and we do exercise the prudential restraint (the costs of having children inform our child-bearing decisions). In other words, humans are different than the rest of the animal kingdom: we have the capacity for foresight which we employ in trade and economic/political organization. The human imperative, according to Malthus, is "trade/organize or die."

The difference between adaptation and trade/organization is crucial to how one thinks about our human options. Adaptation requires a change to human nature; trade/organization employs our fixed nature (human reason informed by foresight) to change the constraints we face. Does it surprise you to find out that Wells had a strong connection to the eugenics movement? [Read more here] Who do you think the aliens are in War of the Worlds? In a similar vein, modern day neo-Malthusians, like Paul and Anne Ehrlich, call for some kind of "conscious cultural evolution," in which humans adapt themselves to what they belive to be the ecological catastrophe awaiting us. Neo-Malthusians actually share more with Wells than they do with Malthus.

For Malthus, nature's imperative could be interrupted if the human propensity to trade was set in an institutional framework that facilitated the use of our foresight and reason. Stable property right regimes and non-interferring governments would enable moderate economic progress. Turns out, Malthus was not such a dismal scientist after all! If you want more, you'll have to read the paper I'm finishing.

I haven't blogged for the past week primarily because I was waiting for a picture to be scanned that I planned to use in a blog. I'm still waiting, so you'll get the picture after I return to Bozeman next week. It'll be worth the wait! Meanwhile, I've been busy with my paper on Malthus. Should be finished tonight, just in time for me to depart tomorrow for Michigan. I'll present the paper at PERC on Thursday, June 16, and then start to ask others for comments.

Bozeman has had rain during at least 4 of the past 7 days, so my bike riding has been limited, although I did get in two 12-mile rides. Early morning rides are great: little traffic on roads, the sun rising over Bozeman Pass, and the mountains! The wet days have produced a lot of new snow in the upper elevations (which are not all that much higher than Bozeman -- they're predicting snow above 6000 feet today, and we're sitting at 4800 feet!).

Best event of the past week: the PERC 25th anniversary celebration., held at the Museum of the Rockies. Our special guest speaker was Chuck Leavell, a nationally-known advocate of family forests. But Chuck is even better known as the keyboardist for the Rolling Stones! He has also played with the Allman Brothers and Eric Clapton -- yes, THAT Chuck Leavell, if you've heard the Unplugged CD. Chuck talked about the conservation of forests for an hour, and then played. Wonderful! You can read more about him, and listen to some of his music. The Rolling Stones begin to prepare for a new world tour this month, so he is off to Toronto in July.

I'm heading back to Michigan tomorrow to celebrate a couple of family birthdays, and co-direct a small conference for graduate students on Free Trade and Globalization. We will drive back to Bozeman after the conference.


At 9:02 AM, Anonymous DC Samuel said...

Mr. Emmett,

Your opinions on HG Wells couldn't be more wrong and, I trust, are nothing that a little information can't repair.

For his views on race, read §4 of Chapter 10, "Race in Utopia" in his A MODERN UTOPIA of 1905, in which he makes clear that his views relate to the quality of the individual rather than to their racial attributes. You refer to the 'eugenics movement' to which he has a 'strong connection' and I wonder which 'eugenics movement' you are referring to? Wells was a committed social reformer and, so, any remarks he may have made about social control must be seen in that context.

As for your rhetorical question "Who do you think the aliens are in War of the Worlds?", are you implying that Wells was depicting them as 'other races'? If so you couldn't be further from the truth: Wells meant the Martians to stand for the white imperial powers such as the British who sought to colonise and subjugate the world and, as such, it is an anti-colonial and anti-racist parable; something clearly lost on you since you can't have read the book and only seen the film version - ironically - in which the meaning is inverted for a modern American audience, to suggest the nasty thought of foreigners as aliens: the exact opposite to Wells's original import, which is, unfortunately the end of the stick you have wrongly grasped.

DC Samuel

At 5:16 PM, Blogger Ross B. Emmett said...

DC Samuels makes several accusations here, most of which are false:

a) I have read the book, and have not even seen the movie (I wanted to, but never did).
b) H.G. Wells was associated with the eugenics movement; see for the details.
c) Wells' book reflects the natural hierarchy arguments that are common to Victorian thinkers, especially progressive social reformers.
d) In fact, Samuels points to Wells' eugenicism himself by identifying Wells as a social reformer. In Wells' day, almost everyone who was a progressive reformer was associated with eugenics.
e) Sorry, DC, I stand by what I said to start!

Ross Emmett

At 5:01 AM, Anonymous DC Samuel said...

Dear Ross Emmett,

You cite Reason Online as an authority on Wells, but having read their piece the first time round (thanks to your link) they appear to know even less about Wells than you do. He was a complex intellectual figure, full of contradictions, and I would not want to defend him against some claims, but you insinuate certain other charges without making them explicit.

Please don't take this as a personal attack, but you have failed to understand what my objection was.

Wells was, indeed, interested in eugenics, but thought that any existent 'eugenics movement' such as that proposed by Francis Galton was utterly ridiculous.

You are correct that Wells believed in hierarchies. Everyone believes in some hierarchy, the question is on what basis does it exist? Wealth, lineage, race, appearance, political donations, ability or intelligence... Wells believed it should be based on the latter two and never on any of the former.

As for The War of the Worlds, you still don't answer your own question: "Who do you think the aliens are?" Who do you think the aliens are? And how does your answer support your suggestion that Wells was a racist?

Yours repetitively,

DC Samuel


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