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within their group. As he concluded: “At all times throughout the world tribes have supplanted other tribes; and as morality is one element in their success, the standard of morality and the number of well-endowed men will thus everywhere tend to rise and increase” (Darwin, 1871, Vol. 1, p. 166). Although moral impulses would initially be confined to tribal members, cultural evolution and progressive learning, Darwin believed, would gradually instruct our ancestors that we were all part of the same human family; so that now, at least among members of advanced civilizations, moral instincts would be activated by any and all human beings. The Biblical story told of a fall from grace. By contrast, Darwin’s conception proposed a gradual advance from a lower to a higher state; and compared with the ancient narrative he contended that his theory was “truer and more cheerful” (Darwin, 1871, Vol. 1, p. 184).

But to this progressivist and cheerful British view, there appeared one salient objection: the Irish. Richard Rathbone Greg, a Scotts political theorist who was an advocate of the new Darwinian theory, pointed out in an article published 3 years before The Descent, that natural selection had been thrown out of gear. He mounted an argument that Darwin took extremely seriously. Greg, the dour Scotsman, wrote:

The careless, squalid, unaspiring Irishman multiples like rabbits: the frugal, foreseeing, self-respecting, ambitious Scott, stern in his morality, spiritual in his faith, sagacious and disciplined in his intelligence, passes his best years in struggle and in celibacy, marries late, and leave few behind him. Given a land originally peopled by a thousand Saxons and a thousand Celts—and in a dozen generations five-sixths of the population would be Celts, but five-sixths of the property, of the power, of the intellect, would belong to the one-sixth of Saxons that remained. In the eternal “struggle for existence,” it would be the inferior and less favoured race that had prevailed—and prevailed by virtue not of its good qualities but of its faults.

Greg (1868)


Darwin immediately understood the force of Greg’s argument. The British had identifiable, superior fitness traits, but the propagational race—that is, the race that counts for Darwin—was going to the less fit. It looked like natural selection had been disengaged. This would not be the trajectory that nature apparently designed for man.

In The Descent, Darwin analyzed the situation carefully; and based on a raft of statistics, he ascertained that a good many Irish men wound up in jail; that and drunkenness, he felt, would put a check on generation. And, moreover, infant mortality was very high among the Irish. That meant, in Darwin’s estimation, the Irish actually were not increasing at a rate in excess of the British rate. But, as he concluded, progress was not an



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