Darwinism in English Literature

Darwinism in English Literature

What is Darwinism?

The quest for human origins goes back to research done by scientists before Charles Darwin (1809-82) at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It has been rightly noted by two historians of science thus “Evolution idea was in the air at the beginning of the 19th century. Geologists were debating the issue of evolution of the Earth. And the discussion naturally went hand in-hand with the question of biological evolution” (Spangenburg and Moser 1999:75). The intellectual and scientific climate in the early part of the nineteenth century was such that Darwin’s theory of evolution seems to follow a trajectory that was precipitated by previous developments in geology and biology.

Darwin’s experience on the voyage made him realize that the current theories of evolution were not adequate. His studies in the Galápagos Islands showed that the evolutionary process was much more complex than was previously thought. Eventually Darwin conceived the idea commonly known in the ‘survival of the fittest’ (which has attained the notoriety beyond what its original context implied): in other words, this means that those species which successfully transfer their attributes to the coming generations are the most suited to survive (‘fittest’ here is not simply a synonym for ‘best’ or ‘strongest’). Darwin formed the idea of divergence to explain the differences between varieties of the same species which eventually led to the formation of new species.

Darwin was determined to present his theory of evolution by writing it down in a book, which however, could not be completed. In 1858, when he was on the verge of completing his book on evolution, another researcher working independently in Malaysia, Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913), sent him an essay where he too arrived at the same findings is Darwin’s. This was a shock to Darwin and after consulting Wallace, the theory of evolution was published jointly-Wallace’s essay and Darwin’s summary of his own research in the Journal of the Linnean Society in 1858. On November 24, 1859, Darwin published his findings in book form which came to be known as On the Origin of Species. Even though all the 1250 copies of the first print run of On the Origin of Species sold out on the first day itself, the adoption of Darwinian ideas wasn’t as fast or as easily accepted. The churchmen were among the first to react to his theory as it had no scope for divine intervention. The criticism of the theory was intense and continued for quite some years unabated Cartoons satirizing Darwin and snubs from the intellectual fraternity appeared regularly. Only a few came forward to accept Darwin’s ideas, the most prominent of them being T.H. Huxley. Charles Lyell (1797-1875) published his book called Geological Evidence of the Antiquity of Man in 1863 where he supported Darwin’s idea of evolution. Meanwhile,

Darwin came up with another book titled The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) where he placed his ideas about man’s evolution from pre-human creatures. The reaction to his ideas continued to come from different quarters throughout the nineteenth century in spite of the fact that by the end of the century most of his views were regarded with favour by the people. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the number of people who were against Darwin did not constitute the majority. Darwin’s theories intensified the process of doubt that came to characterize the Victorian century. By positing a challenge to the theory of divine origin, Darwin laid one of the foundational blocks of modern science. His name is now used in conjunction with various theories of progress, including political and social, and a misappropriation of his ideas is not uncommon.

Darwinism in English Literature

The ideas of Darwin influenced aesthetics and creative literature also Darwin’s own work showed that the appeal of the subject of evolution was immense. Before Darwin, Charles Lyell and Robert Chambers had gained popularity through their works, Principles of Geology (1830-33) and Vestiges of Creation (1844) respectively. When Darwin’s work started circulating in Victorian circles, both scientific and otherwise, interest in the man and his theories was growing rapidly. This was heightened because Darwin courted controversy from the very beginning.

As early as 1866, Elizabeth Gaskell attempted a portrait of Darwin in her novel Wives and Daughters. The theories of evolution- biological, geological, and social-were very much in the Victorian air and generated considerable heat; this was evident especially in the conflicts that arose because of the irresolvable incompatibility between the Darwinian position and the theological one. Philip Henry Gosse, a Christian and a natural philosopher, sought to reconcile both these opposing strains by suggesting that the creation story of Genesis was fundamentally true but it was manifested through the fossil patterns which were already there. His experience as a zoologist led him to propose a reconciliation of the conflicting ideas that the displayed fossil records are misleading and that the biblical idea of Adam’s creation was not refutable.

Gosse presented his views in Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological knot (1857), which however, did not find many takers. In fact, the conflict between the divine and the biological continued with Gosse’s son Edmund taking up the cudgels on the other side, something that he records in his autobiography Father and Son (1907). Gosse’s angst at not being able to come to terms with the new scientific development was one of the most characteristic Victorian issues; many people of his generation found it difficult to shake off the idea of divine creation while at the same time being unable to reject the powerful thesis of human evolution altogether.

Although pre-dating Darwin’s formal announcement of the evolutionary theory by some years, Tennyson’s In Memoriam portrays the conflict between science and religion, between faith and doubt like no other Victorian poem. The circulation of the discourse of evolution, so much in the air in the 1830s when Tennyson started composing his poem, influences the its thesis of progress, even though it is primarily geological in orientation and not biological. In this context, Basil Willey notes:

“From his earliest manhood, Tennyson breathed the atmosphere of scientific theory and discovery, and throughout his life his meditations were governed by the conceptions of law process, development, and evolution. The characteristic and ruling idea of his century” (Willey 1973: 155).

In Section 55 of In Memoriam Tennyson presents the Darwinian position of evolution well before the formal announcement in the following terms:

“Are God and Nature then at strife,

That Nature lends such evil dreams?

So careful of the type she seems,

So careless of the single life;

That I considering everywhere

Her secret meaning in her deeds,

And finding that of fifty seeds

She often brings but one to bear.”

There are numerous passages in Tennyson’s poem which are available for such a discursive reading, but then In Memoriam is not simply about evolution. It is one of those nineteenth century poems that capture its ethos brilliantly. There is also a need to distinguish between the ways in which Darwinism came to function as a discourse in literature, especially that of the Victorian period. One approach to the entire matter could be situated in terms of investigating the correspondence between the text and the context opened up by the Darwinian ideas, but another more revealing and rewarding could be to see how discourses influenced by Darwin’s concepts come to penetrate literary works.

The views of Michel Foucault may be used here to contextualize the functionality of discursive structures. In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault writes:

“At a certain scale of micro-history, one may consider that an affirmation like ‘species evolve’ forms the same statement in Darwin and Simpson; at a finer level, and considering more limited fields of use (‘neo-Darwinism’ as opposed to the Darwinian system itself) we are presented with different statements. The constancy of the statement, the preservation of its identity through the unique events of the enunciations, and its duplication through the identity of the forms is constituted by the functioning of the field of use in which it is placed”

(Foucault 1972: 104).

The reading of ‘field of use becomes important in any context that seeks to situate a discourse as Darwinism in terms of its literary manifestation. One reading could locate determinism as being a form of correspondence between Darwin’s ideas of evolution and literary representation. Various genres employ aspects of determinist philosophy in either thematic or philosophic formulations. In the case of the Victorian novel various examples can be cited-from George Eliot’s Middlemarch to Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. It has been suggested that “George Eliot, with her massive eloquent, and finely discriminate concern with intellectual issues, saw the question of origins relation to evolutionary theory” (Beer 1989: 129). How far an ideology of determinist philosophy was at work in the novels of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy is still a contentious issue. But if Darwin’s emergence on the Victorian scene affected the views of his contemporaries then it is in the discourse of the time that his impact must be located. The concept of ‘survival of the fittest’ has been notorious for its usage, most of which does not necessarily rely on Darwin’s theories for authentication. Nevertheless, the circulation of such discursive structures in society often finds outlets through literature’s accommodative agencies, and the novels of Eliot and Hardy are only two examples of such possibility. Newer genres in the twentieth century such as science fiction or the futuristic movie (The Matrix movie series is one example) can offer interesting sites for readings that engage the discourse of Darwinism in various ways.

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