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Charles Darwin:
Origins and Literary Legacies
Born 1809 – Died 1882
I. Darwin’s Origins
His maternal grandfather, Josiah
Wedgewood, revolutionized ceramics,
making safe dishes widely available.
His paternal grandfather, Erasmus
Darwin, was a poet and botanist who
had his own ideas about evolution.
Erasmus Darwin
Organic life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born and nurs'd in ocean's pearly caves;
First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
These, as successive generations bloom,
New powers acquire and larger limbs assume;
Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
And breathing realms of fin and feet and wing.
Erasmus Darwin. The Temple of Nature. 1802.
Note to The Temple of Nature: “…there is more dignity in our idea of the supreme
author of all things, when we conceive him to be the cause of causes…” (Note
Charles Lyell
Lyell a renowned geologist and author of
Principles of Geology (1830-33)
Darwin had a copy of the first volume of
Principles on board The Beagle
Lyell’s Key Principles
Expanded time scale – 100,000,000 > 6000
Biblical chronology of earth (Creation took place in 4004
BC) replaced by geological understanding of earth as
millions of years old.
John McPhee offers a useful analogy:
“if we think of all known time as a calendar year, then …
Dinosaurs appear in the middle of December and are
gone the day after Christmas. The last ice sheet melts on
December 31st at one minute before midnight, and the
Roman Empire lasts five seconds”
Processes observable in the present are
identical to those in action in the past.
Small, gradual actions cause great change
over great periods of time.
+ 50 million years =
Lyell’s Impact
Darwin, On the Origin of Species, Ch. 9:
“He who can read Sir Charles Lyell’s grand work on
the Principles of Geology, which the future
historian will recognize as having produced a
revolution in natural science, yet does not admit
how incomprehensibly vast have been the past
periods of time, may at once close this volume.”
“Lyell was overwhelmingly the most important single
influence on Darwin’s work” (Joseph Carroll).
Other Influences
from Loren Eiseley, Darwin’s Century
James Hutton (1788) – preceded Lyell in
expanding the time scale
William Smith (~1815) – strata represent
different epochs
Georges Cuvier (1798) – comparative
anatomy reveals extinction
Thomas Malthus, Essay on
Population (1798)
Joseph Carroll describes Darwin’s reading of Malthus as a
“crucial, crystallizing experience.”
Darwin himself describes the experience in his
“In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun
my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement
Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to
appreciate the struggle for existence which every where
goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of
animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these
circumstances favourable variations would tend to be
preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The
result of this would be the formation of new species.”
Voyage of the Beagle, 1831-36
The Journey of The Beagle
Work on the Beagle
The commission was to chart the coastal waters of
southern South America.
Darwin came along as ship’s naturalist.
Collected fossils and observed animals.
“As far as I can judge of myself, I worked to the
utmost during the voyage from the mere pleasure
of investigation, and from my strong desire to add
a few facts to the great mass of facts in Natural
Science” (Darwin, Autobiography)
From Voyage of the Beagle
“[Galapagos Archipelago]: The natural history of
these islands is eminently curious, and well
deserves attention. Most of the organic
productions are aboriginal creations, found
nowhere else…. Hence, both in space and time,
we seem to be brought somewhat near to that
great fact—that mystery of mysteries—the first
appearance of new beings on this earth.”
Clearly, Darwin is formulating the idea of evolution.
Literary discourse is rife with reflections on
developments in science that anticipate
Darwin’s Origin.
Most of these come from the impact of Lyell
but also others, like Robert Chambers’
Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation
Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach”
The sea is calm tonight,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Agean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
John Ruskin, a letter 1851
“[My faith] … is being beaten into mere gold
leaf, and flutters in weak rags from the
letter of its old forms…. If only the
Geologists would let me alone, I could do
very well, but those dreadful hammers! I
hear the clink of them at the end of every
cadence of the Bible verses.”
Geology Challenged Faith
Darwin is paying attention to this discourse and is aware of the
implications of his work.
He has a completed manuscript of Origin in 1844 but waits 15 years to
publish. WHY?
To better prepare his scientific argument.
For fear of the implications.
Wrote to J. Hooker in January 1844:
“At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost
convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that
species are not (it is like confessing a murder)
Alfred Tennyson, In Memoriam
An elegy for the death of Tennyson’s best
friend, but also an elegy for a way of
thinking about nature and faith.
Tennyson influenced by Lyell and Chambers,
but notably comes 9 years before Origin.
In Memoriam, 54
Oh yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final goal of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;
That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroy'd,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;
That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shrivell'd in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another's gain.
Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last—far off—at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.
So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.
In Memoriam, 55
The wish, that of the living whole
No life may fail beyond the grave,
Derives it not from what we have
The likest God within the soul?
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,
I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world's altar-stairs
That slope thro' darkness up to God,
I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.
In Memoriam, 56
'So careful of the type?' but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, `A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.
Who loved, who suffer'd countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal'd within the iron hills?
'Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more.' And he, shall he,
No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match'd with him.
Man, her last work, who seem'd so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll'd the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,
O life as futile, then, as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil.
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law—
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed—
Into this discourse, Darwin enters
with straightforward diction and
clarity of purpose (finally).
Chapter 1 begins: “When on board H.M.S. Beagle, as naturalist, I was much struck
with certain facts in the distribution of the organic beings inhabiting South
America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of
that continent. These facts, as will be seen in the latter chapters of this volume,
seemed to throw some light on the origin of species--that mystery of mysteries,
as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers. On my return home,
it occurred to me, in 1837, that something might perhaps be made out on this
question by patiently accumulating and reflecting on all sorts of facts which
could possibly have any bearing on it. After five years' work I allowed myself to
speculate on the subject, and drew up some short notes; these I enlarged in
1844 into a sketch of the conclusions, which then seemed to me probable: from
that period to the present day I have steadily pursued the same object. I hope
that I may be excused for entering on these personal details, as I give them to
show that I have not been hasty in coming to a decision.”
II. Darwin’s Language
“I am fully convinced that species are not immutable; but
that those belonging to what are called the same genera
are lineal descendants of some other and generally extinct
species, in the same manner as the acknowledged varieties
of any one species are the descendants of that species.”
(Origin, Introduction).
“At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost
convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that
species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable”
(Letter to Hooker, 1844).
NOTE: The language is the same, after 15 years and much
further thought.
Gillian Beer, Darwin’s Plots (1983)
Darwin “did not invent laws. He described
them” (46).
It is thus incumbent upon us to attend to
Darwin’s language.
I will consider: use of simile and emphasis on
Tree Simile
First Sketch of the
“tree of life” from
1837 notebook
“And out of the
ground made the
Lord God to grow
every tree that is
pleasant to the
sight, and good
for food: the tree
of life also in the
midst of the
garden and the
tree of
knowledge of
good and evil.”
Genesis 2:8-9
Simile is like Analogy
“Analogy seemed to provide evidence for a
teleological order” (Beer 76).
That is, using analogy or simile reveals
Darwin’s sense that there is an order and a
logic to the natural world.
“Tree of Life” (Ch. 4)
“The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been
represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the
truth. The green and budding twigs may represent existing species;
and those produced during each former year may represent the long
succession of extinct species. At each period of growth all the growing
twigs have tried to branch out on all sides, and to overtop and kill the
surrounding twigs and branches, in the same manner as species and
groups of species have tried to overmaster other species in the great
battle for life. The limbs divided into great branches, and these into
lesser and lesser branches, were themselves once, when the tree was
small, budding twigs; and this connexion of the former and present
buds by ramifying branches may well represent the classification of all
extinct and living species in groups subordinate to groups. Of the many
twigs which flourished when the tree was a mere bush, only two or
three, now grown into great branches, yet survive and bear all the
other branches; so with the species which lived during long-past
geological periods, very few now have living and modified
Tree of Life, cont.
From the first growth of the tree, many a limb and branch has decayed
and dropped off; and these lost branches of various sizes may
represent those whole orders, families, and genera which have now no
living representatives, and which are known to us only from having
been found in a fossil state. As we here and there see a thin straggling
branch springing from a fork low down in a tree, and which by some
chance has been favoured and is still alive on its summit, so we
occasionally see an animal like the Ornithorhynchus or Lepidosiren,
which in some small degree connects by its affinities two large
branches of life, and which has apparently been saved from fatal
competition by having inhabited a protected station. As buds give rise
by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and
overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe
it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and
broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its
ever branching and beautiful ramifications.”
Stop Being Passive!
Talk for a few minutes with the person next to
you about what you notice in Darwin’s
What surprises you?
What strategies does he use to communicate
information and ideas?
What is the effect of those strategies?
Note that this whole central passage is a simile.
Darwin acknowledges as much and then repeats
the word “represents” and the structure of
analogy, “just as the tree… so do species.”
This particular simile enables him to call upon
familiar and comfortable associations of nature
and rebirth.
He also rewrites the Biblical “tree.”
The tree simile is an occasion to celebrate “Beautiful
Language of Beauty and Wonder
From ch. 3, “The Struggle for Existence”
How have all those exquisite adaptations of one part of the
organisation to another part, and to the conditions of life,
and of one distinct organic being to another being, been
perfected? We see these beautiful co-adaptations most
plainly in the woodpecker and missletoe; and only a little
less plainly in the humblest parasite which clings to the
hairs of a quadruped or feathers of a bird; in the structure
of the beetle which dives through the water; in the plumed
seed which is wafted by the gentlest breeze; in short, we
see beautiful adaptations everywhere and in every part of
the organic world.
Language of Beauty and Wonder,
From ch. 14, “Recapitulation and Conclusion”
There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its
several powers, having been originally breathed
into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this
planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed
laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless
forms most beautiful and most wonderful have
been, and are being, evolved.
The grandeur is meant to combat with the
“melancholy long withdrawing roar” of
receding faith written of by Arnold and
Evolution itself is offered as a force “beautiful”
and “wonderful” no less so than a Romantic,
non-scientific view of nature.
George Levine, Darwin Loves You
“A literary attention to his language suggests the
possibility of an enchantment that never has to
reach beyond nature itself” (xv).
“For Darwin, the project of establishing the theory of
evolution by natural selection was not so much the
affirmation of a mindless and godless world, as
the revelation that we walk in the midst of
wonders; it was an act of loving engagement with
the natural world that allows and fosters, even
without gods and traditional forms of consolation,
enchantment” (26).
Enchantment and Altruism – One
Thomas Hardy: “Few people seem to perceive
fully as yet that the most far-reaching
consequence of the establishment of the
common origin of all species is ethical; that
it logically involved a re-adjustment of
altruistic morals by enlarging as a necessity
of rightness the application of what has
been called ‘The Golden Rule’ beyond the
area of mere mankind to that of the whole
animal kingdom” (quoted in Levine).
A second response
Arabella Buckley, The Winners in Life’s Race (1883: an introduction to
evolution for children):
“Thus we arrive at the greatest and most important lesson that the study
of nature affords us. It is interesting, most interesting, to trace the
gradual evolution of numberless different forms, and see how each has
become fitted for the life it has to live. It gives us courage to struggle
on under difficulties when we see how patiently the lower animals
meet the dangers and anxieties of their lives, and conquer or die in the
struggle for existence. But far beyond all these is the great moral
lesson taught at every step in the history of the development of the
animal world, that amidst toil and suffering, struggle and death, the
supreme law of life is the law of SELF-DEVOTION AND LOVE.”
Altruistic Principle.
III. Reactions to Darwin
Literary Responses 1
Tennyson, “Locksley Hall, Sixty Years After”
“Evolution ever climbing after some ideal
And Reversion ever dragging Evolution in the
mud.” (198-199)
Literary Responses 2
Other late nineteenth-century writers that
focus on degeneration:
Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Wells, The Time Machine
Stoker, Dracula
Literary Responses 3
Nineteenth-century realist novelists, i.e. George Eliot and
Charles Dickens.
Complex webs of interconnected characters and plots, as well
as themes of inheritance, knowledge and experimentation,
and structure (of society as of narrative.)
Beer even argues that Darwin was able to see the complexity
of the natural world because of his reading of Dickens.
SO, realism enables Darwin just as Darwin’s writing enriches
Literary Responses 4, and
May Kendall, “The Lay of the Trilobite” (1887)
A mountain's giddy height I sought,
Because I could not find
Sufficient vague and mighty thought
To fill my mighty mind;
And as I wandered ill at ease,
There chanced upon my sight
A native of Silurian seas,
An ancient Trilobite.
So calm, so peacefully he lay,
I watched him even with tears:
I thought of Monads far away
In the forgotten years.
How wonderful it seemed and right,
The providential plan,
That he should be a Trilobite,
And I should be a Man!
And then, quite natural and free
Out of his rocky bed,
That Trilobite he spoke to me
And this is what he said:
'I don't know how the thing was done,
Although I cannot doubt it;
But Huxley - he if anyone
Can tell you all about it;
'How all your faiths are ghosts and dreams,
How in the silent sea
Your ancestors were Monotremes Whatever these may be;
How you evolved your shining lights
Of wisdom and perfection
From Jelly-Fish and Trilobites
By Natural Selection.
'You've Kant to make your brains go round,
Hegel you have to clear them,
You've Mr Browning to confound,
And Mr Punch to cheer them!
The native of an alien land
You call a man and brother,
And greet with hymn-book in one hand
And pistol in the other!
‘But gentle, stupid, free from woe
I lived among my nation,
I didn't care - I didn't know
That I was a Crustacean.*
I didn't grumble, didn't steal,
I never took to rhyme:
Salt water was my frugal meal,
And carbonate of lime.'
'You've Politics to make you fight
As if you were possessed:
You've cannon and you've dynamite
To give the nations rest:
The side that makes the loudest din
Is surest to be right,
And oh, a pretty fix you're in!'
Remarked the Trilobite.
Reluctantly I turned away,
No other word he said;
An ancient Trilobite, he lay
Within his rocky bed.
I did not answer him, for that
Would have annoyed my pride:
I merely bowed, and raised my hat,
But in my heart I cried: 'I wish our brains were not so good,
I wish our skulls were thicker,
I wish that Evolution could
Have stopped a little quicker;
For oh, it was a happy plight,
Of liberty and ease,
To be a simple Trilobite
In the Silurian seas!'