“A Great Complication of Circumstances” – Darwin and the Economy of Nature

Journal of the History of Biology 43 (3):493-528 (2010)
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In 1749, Linnaeus presided over the dissertation "Oeconomia Naturae," which argued that each creature plays an important and particular role in nature 's economy. This phrase should be familiar to readers of Darwin, for he claims in the Origin that "all organic beings are striving, it may be said, to seize on each place in the economy of nature." Many scholars have discussed the influence of political economy on Darwin's ideas. In this paper, I take a different tack, showing that Darwin's idea of an economy of nature stemmed from the views of earlier naturalists like Linnaeus and Lyell. I argue, in the first section of the paper, that Linnaeus' idea of oeconomia naturae is derived from the idea of the animal economy, and that his idea of politia naturae is an extension of the idea of a politia civitatis. In the second part, I explore the use of the concept of stations in the work of De Candolle and Lyell – the precursor to Darwin's concept of places. I show in the third part of the paper that the idea of places in an economy of nature is employed by Darwin at many key points in his thinking: his discussion of the Galapagos birds, his reading of Malthus, etc. Finally, in the last section, I demonstrate that the idea of a place in nature 's economy is essential to Darwin's account of divergence. To tell his famous story of divergence and adaptation, Darwin needed the economy of nature.



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Trevor Pearce
University of North Carolina, Charlotte