[(essay date 2000) In the following essay, Foster traces the evolution of Marx’s historical materialism through the ideas of Charles Darwin, Hegel, and the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus.]
In 1837 a young Charles Darwin, recently back from his five-year voyage of discovery in the HMS Beagle, opened the first of a series of notebooks on the “transmutation of species,” beginning a systematic study into that elusive subject. It was when he was reading Thomas Malthus’s Essay on Population a little more than a year later in the fall of 1838 that Darwin had his great revelation that species transmutation occurred by means of natural selection brought on by the struggle for existence. Inspired by Malthus’s description of the exponential growth of populations when unchecked, and hence the need for natural checks on population growth in order to maintain an equilibrium between population and the means of subsistence, Darwin observed in his notebook that checks on the growth of population among species operated as “a force like a hundred thousand wedges” thrusting “every kind of adapted structure into the gaps in the oeconomy of Nature”—a form of expression he was later to repeat more than two decades later in his great work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.1 As Darwin recalled this great moment many years later in his Autobiography:
In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work; but I was so anxious to avoid prejudice, that I determined not for some time to write even the briefest sketch of it. In June 1842 I first allowed myself the satisfaction of writing a very brief abstract of my theory in 35 pages; and this was enlarged during the summer of 1844 into one of 230 pages, which I had fairly copied out and still possess.2
Since Darwin did not actually present his discovery until 1858, first in a joint presentation with Alfred Russell Wallace, and then in the following year through the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, one of the great puzzles in the annals of science has been the reason for this long delay. Why did he wait two whole decades before making his ideas public, only doing so when a younger rival, Wallace, threatened to scoop him?3
Of course it has long been supposed that a major factor in Darwin’s delay in going public with his ideas had to do with the blasphemy against established views that his...