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Darwin Correspondence Project

From G. A. Gaskell   13 November 1878

S. Wilson Hope Esqre.1 | Petworth | Sussex

Nov. 13th. 1878

Charles Darwin Esqre.


You have so often invited correspondence on the subjects treated of in your most valuable books, that I trust you will pardon me this liberty I take as a perfect stranger to you, in offering to your consideration some thoughts mainly originated by your writings.

For many years I have been accustomed to think sadly of the present condition and probable future of the human race. The works of Malthus, J. S. Mill, your own, and some others have so clearly pointed out the evils under which man strives, and how slow and cruel in their action are various forces that tend to better his condition, that it is with a great feeling of relief I have quite recently been brought to believe that there are forces at work, of which I had previously little conception, which will in a comparatively short time, and in a wholly admirable manner, bring about the state of things which is so earnestly to be desired.2

You say—“It is impossible not to regret bitterly, but whether wisely is another question, the rate at which man tends to increase; &c”, and further, that man “has no right to expect an immunity from the evils consequent on the struggle for existence”.3 In regard to this last, with all respect, I am glad to be able to say I in great part differ from you; I think from the advance of civilization,—which is so much a conquest over nature—, and the growth of altruism, we have reason to hope for this immunity; and as I now think we can have it without deterioration of the race, and decline of virtue I am free to think it wise to regret the continuance of the pressure of population on comfort and subsistence.

It is my duty to be concise in what I have to say, in order to take up as little of your time as possible, in case my ideas should be worthless; but I hope in the very short statement of the main results at which I have arrived, I still shall be able to make myself understood. I believe I can point out, as now in action, two important laws of Race to add to the one already so fully displayed by yourself. They are both naturally destructive of the action of the first law, which is “Natural Selection”; and the last law, which is now in the first stages of evolution, annuls as it grows the action of the two preceding ones. They each have existence for the same reason,—that they tend to greater adaptability of race to conditions, or greater strength against the forces which environ.

I proceed to summarise these laws as follows—

The three great Laws of Race Preservation, in their natural order of sequence in evolution.

First— The Organological Law, Natural Selection or the Survival of the Fittest.4

Second— The Sociological Law, Sympathetic Selection or Indiscriminate Survival.

Third— The Moral Law, Social Selection or the Birth of the Fittest.

These three laws arise naturally and gradually out of the conditions that precede each.

The first is the Physical Law which governs all organisms in which no form of sympathy is yet developed; it tends to greater strength in the Unit, or more adaptability of the Individual to its conditions.

The second is the Psychological Law—which necessarily arises with the growth of Sympathy, and is the natural opponent of the first, which it gradually supercedes. It tends to greater strength and adaptability in the Aggregate, but to less strength and health in the Unit.

The third is the Judicial Law evolved as a Rule of Conscience for Well-being. It gradually annuls the preceding laws, while combining their beneficent results,—on the basis of tending to greater strength and health both in the Aggregate and in the Unit. It is the final outcome of Human Evolution in the order of forces governing race propagation. It is necessarily evolved in the mind by the interaction of Reason and Sympathy; and its development proceeds on the fact of artificial birth-control, unopposed to the force of Sexual Passion, which otherwise would, with the weaker individuals, most probably be too powerful to permit its action.

Of the first of these laws I need say nothing, except that I have been so bold as to name it “Organological”.

Of the second, I may say I have formulated it from a consideration of much in your writings, especially of Chaps. 3, 4 & 5 in “The Descent of Man”;— of portions in the writings of Mr. H. Spencer, Mr. Wallace, Mr. F. Galton, Mr. W. R. Greg, and others.5 Natural Selection was defeated, and yet the species continued to flourish; so it seemed evident to me a new law had been evolved, and this I set myself to discover. The word sympathy I have used in a wide sense, and as the quality meant has, as you point out, been most probably developed through natural selection, it exists in varying degrees of strength.6

Of the reality of the third law there will be most dispute. That its evolution is proceeding, I cannot myself see reason to doubt; and that it is destined to act a most beneficent part in the future of mankind, I firmly believe.

As instance of its evolution I may mention the growing opinion that it is wrong for consumptive people, and persons inclined to insanity and epilepsy, to marry. The opinion, becoming more and more prevalent, that it is wrong to have more children than can be brought up well. The opinion, that celibacy is an evil, and that asceticism is absurd; that the sexual passion is at the spring of much that is noble in life, and is nothing to be ashamed of but requires only to be regulated. The inference that in no case is it wrong to apply knowledge to guard against natural evils, so long as no injury devolves on others by so doing. The conclusion that the procreation of a child is, perhaps, the most important social action that two private persons can engage in, and therefore there is no action that should more seriously be entered upon, or that is more affected by morality. The opinion that viciousness is hereditary and that it would be best for society if confirmed criminals were put “compendiously under water”.7 And finally, I may refer to the present painful conflict between reason and sympathy relative to the preservation of the weak and incompetent while they propagate their stock to the injury of posterity.

I think the extending force of the practice of the arts preventive of conception is in proportion to the capability in these arts of increasing adaptation to conditions within and without the human organism. If it is a fact that they do increase this adaptability, it appears to me certain that their practice will increase to the extent of society.

The prejudice against them founds itself on the belief that they are in themselves immoral, or of immoral tendency, because social instinct is against them. But social instinct has, as you justly point out, been developed in favour of the general good of the species;8 it follows, then, that if the general good conflicts eventually with an instinct, instinct will in time have to adjust itself to the new conditions.

A physiological fact having relation to man and society is one among other factors in the determination of morals; the concealment of it cannot be defended, and if the knowledge of it is of use, it is hopeless to expect any attempt at concealment to be effectual.

If it is true that these arts do not increase adaptability to conditions, I see not how their manifest spread can be accounted for. I think their action is rapidly becoming a sociological fact of the gravest importance, which cannot be left out of consideration in any speculation on social tendencies. I need but refer to France, and its extraordinary statistics of births in relation to marriages.9

I gather that you fear much reduced social pressure would result in indolence.10 I submit that indolence is more a physical weakness than an acquired habit, and cannot, I think, be increased under “Birth of the Fittest”. To those who love children will be left the task of bringing them up. This love is hereditary and will increase by survival, and become a presiding force. It may not be utopian to expect that some day a medical certificate may be required, to define the rectitude of adding a new member to society. The weak in body or mind may be cared for and protected so long as they conform to the social mandate, not to continue their race. They may, to use Professor Mantegazza’s words, love but must not have offspring.11

In conclusion, I submit, “The Birth of the Fittest” offers a much milder solution of the population difficulty than the “Survival of the Fittest” and the Destruction of the Weak.

I feel I take a liberty in speaking of any subject of which you must know so much better than myself. If I have been so fortunate as to make a true generalization, you will see it as such without many words from me.

My present intention is to further develope these ideas so long as I think them true.12

I am, Sir, with much esteem | Yours truly | G. A. Gaskell

CD annotations13

9.3 It … Unit. 9.4] scored pencil; ‘(a | I have showed something to this effect’ pencil
13.1 As … marry. 13.2] scored pencil; cross in margin pencil; ‘F. Galton’ pencil
14.1 I … organism. 14.3] cross in margin pencil
15.1 The … them. 15.2] cross in margin pencil
18.5 It … society. 18.7] scored pencil; cross in margin pencil


CD wrote about the role of natural selection in human development in Descent, emphasising that, as with all other animals, increases in population led to a struggle for existence, and that the preservation of favourable variations took place at the expense of the suffering and death of the less well adapted. Thomas Robert Malthus discussed the causes and damaging effects of population growth in An essay on the principle of population (Malthus 1798), and John Stuart Mill addressed the obstacles to progress in a number of works, particularly On liberty (Mill 1859).
Descent 2d ed., p. 142. The phrasing of this passage in Descent 1: 180 was ‘It is impossible not bitterly to regret’.
Herbert Spencer coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’ as an alternative to CD’s ‘natural selection’ (Spencer 1864–7, 1: 444–5).
The third, fourth, and fifth chapters of Descent included discussions of the development of the moral sense, social instincts, and social virtues, the rate of increase of human populations, and the role of natural selection in civilised societies. For a discussion of the views of Spencer, Alfred Russel Wallace, Francis Galton, and William Rathbone Greg on the role of natural selection in human development, see Hale 2014. Greg’s writings included a paper on the ‘failure of “natural selection” in the case of man’ ([W. R. Greg] 1868). See also Bashford and Levine eds. 2010.
See especially Descent 1: 82.
John Tyndall had used this expression in his presidential address to the Birmingham and Midland Institute on 1 October 1877; the address had been published, with additions, in the Fortnightly Review for 1 November 1877 ([Tyndall] 1877). In support of his argument that free will must be subject to the laws of nature, Tyndall quoted a conversation with a prison governor who believed a small number of prisoners were so incorrigible that even an island prison was insufficient and that drowning them would be more beneficial to society (ibid., pp. 609–11).
For CD’s conclusions on the social instincts, see Descent 1: 97–8.
The falling population and the decline in marital birth rate in France in the second half of the nineteenth century was of sufficient concern that the French government considered a range of fiscal incentives to encourage larger families (Teitelbaum 2006, p. 75).
CD had expressed concerns in Descent 2: 403–4 about the consequences for future advancement if humans were no longer subject to a struggle for existence, concluding that although the natural rate of increase in population led to many evils, it should ‘not be greatly diminished by any means’. He added a passage to Descent 2d ed., p. 143, referring to the possible detrimental effects in civilised societies of increased indolence as a result of easier conditions of life.
The heroine of Paolo Mantegazza’s romantic novel Un giorno a Madera: una pagina dell’igiene dell’amore (A day in Madeira: a page in the hygiene of love; Mantegazza 1868) was a consumptive woman who swore to her father on his deathbed that she would never have children.
Gaskell published his ideas in a monograph entitled A new theory of heredity in 1931; no previous published statement of them has been found, but an earlier article had been turned down by both Eugenics Review and Nature (see Gaskell 1931, p. 10).
CD’s annotations are for his reply to Gaskell of 15 November 1878.


Descent 2d ed.: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2d edition. London: John Murray. 1874.

Descent: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1871.

Gaskell, George Arthur. 1931. A new theory of heredity. London: C. W. Daniel Company.

Hale, Piers J. 2014. Political descent: Malthus, mutualism, and the politics of evolution in Victorian England. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Malthus, Thomas Robert. 1798. An essay on the principle of population, as it affects the future improvement of society. With remarks on the speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and other writers. London: J. Johnson.

Mill, John Stuart. 1859. On liberty. London: J. W. Parker and Son.

Spencer, Herbert. 1864–7. The principles of biology. 2 vols. London: Williams & Norgate.

Teitelbaum, Michael S. 2006. History of population policies up to 1940. In Demography: analysis and synthesis: a treatise in population, edited by Graziella Caselli et al. Amsterdam: Academic Press.

Tyndall, John. 1877b. Science and man. Fortnightly Review 22: 593–617.


Discusses three "laws of race preservation" which are evolving: (1) natural selection; (2) the sociological law of sympathetic selection, or indiscriminate survival; (3) moral law – social selection or the "Birth of the Fittest".

Letter details

Letter no.
George Arthur Gaskell
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 165: 12
Physical description
ALS 10pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 11744,” accessed on 28 September 2023,