Photo: John Scales Avery. Source: - Photo: 2020

The Laws of Nature and the Passions of Mankind

Viewpoint by John Scales Avery

The following are excerpts from ‘The Passions of Mankind’ in which John Scales Avery discusses human emotions from an evolutionary perspective. The book consists mainly of chapters and articles that he has previously published, although some new material has been added. It can be freely downloaded and circulated from the following link:

COPENHAGEN (IDN) – Today, our emotions seem to be driving us towards disaster. At first this seems to be a paradox. Our emotions have been produced by evolution, and Darwinian natural selection is supposed to produce traits that lead to survival, rather than to destruction. Examining the question more closely, we can notice that in our species, evolution is divided into two parts, genetic evolution, which proceeds very slowly, and cultural evolution, which moves with lightning-like speed, and is constantly accelerating.

On the time-scale of  genetic evolution, it only took a moment for our ancestors to move from making cave-paintings to speculating on the existence of atoms in ancient Greece. In another moment, we had unleashed the terrible power of the atom. During this time our emotions did not change. We face the global problems created by today’s science and technology, and by the exponential growth of population and industry, with our poor cave-man’s brains and our anachronistic stone-age emotions.

The Enlightenment in Europe was a period of tremendous optimism. Summarizing the ideas of human progress that were current at the time, the Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794) wrote an enormously optimistic book entitled “Esquisse d’un Tableau Historique des Progres de l’Esprit Humain”, or in English, “Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind”.

In England, William Godwin (1756-1836) wrote an equally optimistic book, “Political Justice”, in which he maintained that progress would soon produce a world with mechanized agriculture and material plenty in which humans would only need to work very few hours each day to gain their daily bread, the rest of their time being devoted to culture and mental improvement. The savage system of laws of Godwin’s time, in which stealing a handkerchief was punishable by hanging, would not be needed in the future, because in the midst of plenty, no one would be motivated to steal.

Thomas Robert Malthus (1755-1834) was introduced to these books by his father, Daniel Malthus, an intellectual English country gentleman and an enthusiastic supporter of the ideas of Condorcet and Godwin. Listening to his father, the thoughts of Thomas Robert Malthus turned to the rapid population growth which, as a clergyman, he had noticed in the records of births and deaths in his congregation. He told his father that all the benefits of progress would be eaten up by growing populations. Impressed by these arguments, Daniel Malthus urged his son to write them out and to publish them. The result was T.R. Malthus’ famous book on population, which he continued to revise an republish until the end of his life. Malthus’ refutation of Godwin’s utopia is particularly interesting.

Malthus discussed William Godwin’s egalitarian utopia, which, he said, would be extremely attractive if only it could be achieved: “The system of equality which Mr. Godwin proposes”, Malthus wrote, “is, on the first view of it, the most beautiful and engaging which has yet appeared. A melioration of society to be produced merely by reason and conviction gives more promise of permanence than than any change effected and maintained by force. The unlimited exercise of private judgement is a doctrine grand and captivating, and has a vast superiority over those systems where every individual is in a manner the slave of the public.”

“The substitution of benevolence, as a master-spring and moving principle of society, instead of self-love, appears at first sight to be a consummation devoutly to be wished. In short, it is impossible to contemplate the whole of this fair picture without emotions of delight and admiration, accompanied with an ardent longing for the period of its accomplishment.”

“But alas!” Malthus continued, “That moment can never arrive…. The great error under which Mr. Godwin labours throughout his whole work is the attributing of almost all the vices and misery that prevail in civil society to human institutions. Political regulations and the established administration of property are, with him, the fruitful sources of all evil, the hotbeds of all the crimes that degrade mankind. Were this really a true state of the case, it would not seem a completely hopeless task to remove evil completely from the world; and reason seems to be the proper and adequate instrument for effecting so great a purpose.”

“But the truth is, that though human institutions appear to be, and indeed often are, the obvious and obtrusive causes of much misery in society, they are, in reality, light and superficial in comparison with those deeper-seated causes of evil which result from the laws of nature and the passions of mankind.”

The passions of mankind drive humans to reproduce, while the laws of nature set limits to the carrying capacity of the environment. Godwin’s utopia, if established, would be very favorable to the growth of population; and very soon the shortage of food would lead to its downfall, because of the overpowering force of population growth.

Visit also and [IDN-InDepthNews – 12 January 2020]

Photo: John Scales Avery. Source:

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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