Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 43, Issue 3, pp 493–528 | Cite as

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

  • Trevor PearceEmail author


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.


Charles Darwin Carl Linnaeus Augustin Pyrame de Candolle Charles Lyell John Hunter economy of nature polity of nature animal economy place niche divergence Galapagos Islands Mimus thenca 


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The research for this article was supported by a SSHRC Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship and a Pre-Doctoral Fellowship from the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. I am indebted to Robert Richards, Elise Berman, Paul Farber, and three anonymous referees for reading and commenting on draft versions of the paper. Helpful feedback was also provided by audiences at the 2006 Midwest Junto for the History of Science, CSHPS 2006, and the ‘Global Environment’ workshop at the University of Chicago.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Conceptual and Historical Studies of ScienceUniversity of ChicagoChicagoUSA

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