Some day after the publication of The Origin of Species, Darwin wrote to someone:

I have received in a Manchester newspaper rather a good squib, showing that I have proved might is right and therefore that Napoleon is right, and every cheating tradesman is also right.

Two definitions of 'squib' from Merriam-Webster seems to be more or less appropriate here:

a) a short humorous or satiric writing or speech

b) a short news item

Which suits the context better?

  • Do you think Darwin thinks cheating tradesmen are right? – Jim Apr 14 at 15:00
  • @Jim, No. He was a kind man. So you are suggesting that the first definition is right here? – Arham Apr 14 at 15:03
  • 2
    Surely we need to read the squib to determine whether its author's tongue was in his cheek, or believed what he wrote. – Weather Vane Apr 14 at 15:11
  • @Keepthesemind could be, but there were many close-minded opinions back in the day. – Weather Vane Apr 14 at 15:13
  • @Keepthesemind thank you, I was looking for that. Without doubt :a) – Weather Vane Apr 14 at 15:27

Darwin referred to the satirical piece referenced in https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/national-and-individual-rapacity-vindicated-by-the-law-of-nature

The following article criticizing Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species was published on page 4 of the Manchester Guardian newspaper (the forerunner of today’s Guardian) on April 20, 1860. Darwin’s book had been published the previous year. The author of the article is unknown; it is only signed with the initials “T. H. W.” The article originally appeared in columns 2 and 3; here it is reproduced in one column. Darwin read the article and mentioned it in a letter to Charles Lyell, dated May 4, 1860.

[The below has been slightly compressed from the original in the link above. A full transcript was kindly provided in https://english.stackexchange.com/a/493937/42179 by user joeytwiddle.]

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  • ahh yes of course. The content is certainly in the public domain; and I assume there are no issues with the fact it has been scanned in by a third party. – Tim Apr 14 at 17:55

For anyone struggling to read the article which was posted by keep-these-mind, I have typed up a transcription. A few places of uncertainty are marked with (?).


(From a Correspondent.)

Louis Napoleon has seized Savoy, and Jacob Fischern (?) has sold 50 yards of thread for 1'0. Every just potentate is in a furore at the former, and all immaculate chapmen are scandalised at the latter. The Times has thundered from its Sinai, and with no "bated breath" has the Guardian denounced the offenders. For our own part, however, we (pardon the editorial plural) have latterly been sitting at the feet of a teacher whose lessons on an obscure question in Natural History cast a new light upon this department of Morals so called.

Charles Darwin, a master of arts, a fellow of several distinguished societies, and the author of certain well-known works, is no mere tyro in science like the writer of the "Vestiges," but confessedly the greatest of extant naturalists. Now, in a most profound treatise on the origin of species, published a few months ago, he has proved to the satisfaction of all believers, that "animals have descended from at most only four or five progenitors, and plants from an equal or lesser number;" nay, he would "infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings (vegetable and animal) which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed." He shows clearly in regard to the earth's inhabitants, as the geologists have shown in regard to the earth itself, that, through tracts of time which may be termed infinite, all have been proceeding with inconceivable slowness along lines of development from the simplest forms into higher and more complex ones up to their present status; that, constantly struggling to share an insufficient provision of food, the improving individuals and species have either annihilated or kept down in numbers, the non-improving ones; that these beautiful and interesting changes are still going on; and that all the transformations have been effected by powers originally bestowed upon the primary germ, under the government of immutable laws. This great transmutation from lower to higher species is enabled to proceed mainly by means of what is termed "natural selection." This principle our author illustrates by a well-known practice among gardeners. They carefully note the slightest improvement in any plant under cultivation; they then take the seed of that plant and sow it apart. Thus they go on continually improving the race; and when a race is once pretty well established, they review the beds, and pull up "the rogues," as they call the plants that fall short of the standard. On the same principle our domestic animals are improved. So does Nature root out "the rogues" in her wide domain. It is to be particularly observed that "improvement" means increase of strength, which enables certain plants or animals to fight more successfully the battle of life, to displace from the too narrow ground races which had previously kept them at bay, and thus to justify their title to more plates at Nature's bare table. It is singular that Darwin does not expressly apply his reasonings to our species. We are, however, most certainly included in his phrase "all animals." Well, then, the true doctrine is that, by the law of nature, all existences sustain life by depredation and direct or indirect slaughter; and that it is the manifest purpose of this law to secure within the vegetable and animal kingdoms a continuous advance from lower to higher grades of life.

Now, we ask the Times and the Guardian, who deal so harshly with offenders against their lofty moral standard, just to consider what sort of creature man really is. He is not, as they in their vanity suppose, a fallen demi-god, but a promoted mollusk or bit of jelly with a mouth. There is strong ground for concluding that, at a later period, he must have figured as a sort of red Ant, for we find in him some of the most remarkable instincts and habits of that singular creature. Pray note them. There is a species of red ant which wages war with a black species, seizes the infant ni**ers, carries them off, and converts them into slaves who do all the work of the colony. P. Hubert gives a most interesting account of this "peculiar institution." And, as to their affections, Kirby and Spence tell us that, on one occasion of danger, when a whole community was engaged in carrying off the young, "an observer having cut an ant in two, the poor mutilated animal, with that half of the body to which the head remained attached, contrived previously to expiring to carry off ten pupae into the interior of the nest." It would seem that we derive from this species of insect our methodical industry, our social organisation, our tenderness for the young and helpless, our military qualities, and our system of slavery. No doubt it would be difficult to show that the insect line of ascent tended manward, still, we leave our conjecture on record. There is nothing of conjecture, however, in the fact of its having been supernaturally communicated to Lord Monboddo (?), some half century back, that one of our more immediate progenitors was a Baboon who had taken freely to sitting, and so worn away his tail. We certainly have shot far ahead of them all in powers of intellect, acquiring, besides, a couple of entirely new faculties, those, namely, of moral discernment and religious intuition. Man has thus risen to an imperial position, but it is one of dark as well as bright hues. He is made up of hostile elements. In one compartment of his cranium are found—justice, love, and piety; in the opposite one—injustice, hatred, and the spirit of unpiety. The result is a strange exhibition of uncertain, variable, and contradictory actions, even by the very same individual. We once knew a big fellow, a spendthrift and a drunkard, the terror of his neighbourhood for fisticuffs and blasphemy. But a sermon awoke his higher and better nature. He then became, to the end of his days, a fiery and sincere fighter against wickedness. At the same time his instinct of thrift came to life, and he made money by purchasing wool, purloined by handloom weavers. Whatever our great contemporary may think it appears to us a marvellous thing that a creature, which has grown up successively in the ditch, the lair, and the kennel should have risen so high as to hide his original meanness in an intellectual halo, to say grace over the proceeds of "picking and stealing," and sing a "Te Deurn" for the success of a sanguinary marauding adventurer.

The great doctrine stated at the end of the last paragraph but one will be at once illustrated and confirmed in regard to man, if we trace the development of the rapacious dispositions both in the individual and the community.

Everybody has observed that their infant seizes and thrusts into its mouth whatever comes in its way, kicking and screaming with all its little might if you try to undo its obstinate grasp. Just the same is it with infant societies, ever fighting to dispossess one another of lands and flocks. Those who have been thus distinguished above others have always proved the most successful of men and of nations.

It is very early that the moral phenomena begin to appear. As the scrambles and the fights go on, there arises in the child's mind the moral notion of a right to the doll it has made, the flower it has plucked, and the sweet which has been given to it, with the perception (at least after some extra pommelling) of a like right in others, followed by a feeling of uneasiness on violating such right. Precisely the same processes take place in the boyhood of communities. And, henceforth, in addition to fighting, without the means of subsistence, men are subjected to subtler moral conflicts within. They are now forsaking

"The good old rule, the simple plan,

That they shall take who have the power,

And they shall keep who can."

It would seem as if Nature had committed a blunder in making man cognisant of right and wrong, and conscious of responsibility for his actions, inasmuch as these endowments imply liberty of choice, and must entail much hesitation and frequent failure in that predatory work which is imposed upon him; snapping indeed the chain of causation, and leaving the ordained result a mere contingency. But it is not so. That result remains certain. Those moral perceptions and feelings are as necessary to our sure progress in the appointed path as is the drag to that of the stage-coach. Then, are our moral sentiments and our sense of freedom mere shams? In essence they are; but we are framed to believe them real, and, as checks, they do real work. Such is the satisfactory doctrine of Fate. Further, this sort of government in the individual is extended to society. And without these two kinds of restraint freebooting would proceed so rapidly as to leave none to be robbed, no "rogues" for the strong to batten upon.

In resuming our sketch we must be content with few instances. Those miserable "rogues," the Canaanites, were mercilessly plucked up by the valiant Jews. The latter, however, degenerated (as plants and lower brutes sometimes do), and were rooted out of their land by the all-conquering Romans. When these also lost their manhood, the fiercer and hardier Gothic tribes took their place, and founded the present strong and war-loving states of Western Europe. If ever these should degenerate into affiliated Peace Societies they will become food for the Russians. There is, perhaps, no danger of the fierce war of life ceasing among nations any more than among individuals. The venerated Malthus has shown that the natural increase of our species so immensely outstrips the increase of food that, long before the present period, there would not have been standing room for us, nor space for food to grow upon, had not war and want and famine, with their resulting diseases, kept down our numbers. The thing to be desired is that we English should not be victims but victors in the deadly struggle. The gallantry and endurance of Sayers, in this great fight for the championship of the world, cannot be regarded as very significant by that world which has been looking on with ----less (?) interest. Our offshoots have long been, and still are, "as busy as the devil in a gale" among the wretched tribes that have stopped short in the race of development, viz. the red Indians of America and the savages of New South Wales.

Kings have always tried hard to put down robbery among their subjects, and to make it a game between themselves alone. They have signally failed, however, though they have succeeded in establishing a more invidious and unscientific though provisionally useful distinction, between respectable robbers and criminal robbers.

There used to be much in the life of the latter to redeem it from the odium thus cast upon it. Down to the days of our grandfathers, the highwayman was always a rollicking, daring, often a romantic, and, towards the fall (?), a gallant fellow, who fascinated the gentlest dames while crushing (?) their flesh (?) to creep on their bones. Who among them, even nowadays, does not admire Dick Turpin? Indeed the profession was sometimes temporarily assumed by seedy gentlemen, and even heirs apparent, whose purses had been hopelessly emptied by dissipation.

"Prince Henry : Where shall we take a purse to-morrow, Jack?

Falstaff : Where thou wilt lad. I'll make one; an' I do not, call me villain, and baffle me.

Poins : My lads, my lads, to-morrow morning at four o'clock, early, at Gadshill."

There is ground for believing that the hard rule imposed by the above distinction is destined to pass away. According to the Revelation of Comte, the moral and religious feelings belong only to a low state of civilisation, and must gradually disappear before the advancing reason. Religious and moral sentiments having thus died out, nothing will be felt in the soul but the selfish passions and the intellect. But then, the latter will guide the former to their ends. There will be no more qualms; no more pity; no more indignation; the strong will pluck up the weak with the approval of all men, who will then be sufficiently enlightened to comprehend the utility of the great principle of "selection". And, verily, we are rising to this high appreciation far more rapidly than some of us thought so lately as Christmas! The great European gardener has one hand on Savoy and another on Nice; and, when these poor "rogues" cast an imploring look towards the once just and generous England, the presiding spirit of our policy coolly asks, "What interest can we have in interfering?"

Reputable Englishmen have not yet so far improved as openly to avow this principle in private affairs; but increasing numbers have entered the phase of hypocrisy; and this is an advance. While multiplying their depredations they make a larger use of the old pious phraseology. They seem to feel a greater need thereof, as a blind to others and a veil even to themselves. They find a comfort in it. But the final stage is immediately before them. Secret misgivings and regrets will gradually cease their torments; and then hypocrisy, being no longer needed, will fall into disuse. The law—moral as well as criminal—will have sa*ved (?) its office of schoolmaster, bringing us into the perfect liberty of refined selfishness—a liberty far transcending that which we lost in infancy. The Millennium of atheism will have dawned upon the world.

Meanwhile, this transition state presents to the curious observer some amusing exhibitions. For instance, when our smart trader grows rich, he deputes the direct oversight of indirect theft to his principal servants, who must see to it that their subordinates are sharp at such work. He becomes an exemplary Churchman or dissenter—an active warden or a zealous deacon. Then he feels that it is suitable to his position to sit on the magisterial bench, adjudging to the treadmill the burglars who disgrace his own practice by stumbling against the statutes. He is splendid in his hospitalities; and in published lists of donations and subscriptions his name is down for round telling sums. In this he exercises his privilege of choosing between the injunction "Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth," and the other one "Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works." It will be interesting to inspect a schedule showing how his year's gains are acquired and how disposed of.



Profits: 15,000

Consisting of: £, a., d.

  • Honest gains

  • Proceeds of cheating: may by adulterations, or short weights, or short measures, or ...

  • Lying, in various forms

  • Deductions from invoices upon false grounds

  • Repudiating valid contracts

  • Counting-house profits by excessive deductions for interest and discounts, and in sixpence knocked off besides (?)


  • Transfer of capital account: 12,499, 16, 6

  • Ordinary private expenses: 1,000

  • Extra ditta*in (?) grand hospitalities, etc. (?): 1,000

  • Advertised donations and subscriptions: 500

  • Unadvertised charities to poor relations and people dying of want: 0, 3, 3

Total: 15,000

Our literature possesses a "Natural History of Enthusiasm," by Isaac Taylor; a "Natural History of Society," by one Cooke Taylor; a "Natural History of Insanity," by our able townsman, Dr. Noble; as well as other Natural histories, too numerous to mention; but we have no natural history of Fleecing. Towards the supply of this desideratum our brief sketch may, perhaps, form a small contribution.


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