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date: 30 April 2017

Aesthetics and Form in Charles Darwin’s Writings

Summary and Keywords

Aesthetic modes and categories of perception and judgement were crucial to the development of Charles Darwin’s “theory of descent with modification through natural selection.” Indeed, Darwin understood the aesthetic as fundamentally constitutive of the natural historian’s method. In the closing retrospect of the journal of his circumnavigation as ship’s naturalist on HMS Beagle (1836), Darwin assesses his experience in aesthetic terms—of pleasure and pain, wonder and horror, the picturesque and sublime—rather than in terms of acquired scientific knowledge. Darwin’s account of the voyage makes aesthetic discrimination the main technique of natural-historical observation: it affords cognition of the natural world as a complex interplay of formal differences constituting a dynamic totality, a living system. A key aesthetic category, the sublime, articulates the awful discrepancy between human and natural scales of history, event, and meaning.

Darwin makes a strategic appeal to the aesthetic to justify his new vision of nature to the Victorian public, overriding its scandalous ethical and political implications, in On the Origin of Species (1859): “There is grandeur in this view of life . . . from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” As well as the exposition of an argument, the Origin is a treatise on method. Darwin trains his readers to appreciate the evaluative scrutiny of formal difference that characterizes the operation of natural selection itself. The opening chapter, on artificial selection, proposes the domestic animal breeder as a “connoisseur,” expert in assessing minute morphological variations without concern for an ultimate end—that is, the improvement of the race. The figure is an analogue for natural selection, the motive principle of which is the fine but decisive discrimination (for life or death) of individual differences.

The “powers of discrimination and taste” determine human evolution—constituting its medium, the semi-autonomous domain of culture—according to Darwin’s next synthetic statement of his theory. The Descent of Man (1871) proposes the supplementary agency of sexual selection as the main motor of human cultural development. Its productive principle is, once again, the evaluation of fine formal differences (“there is in the mind of man a strong love for slight changes in all things”), trained, however, upon pleasurable appearance rather than function or use. Sexual selection generates “the differences in external appearance between the races of man,” as well as between the sexes, explicitly on grounds of aesthetic preference: Darwin conflates skin color, body hair, and other physiological features with artificial ornaments in a rhapsodic vision of the infinite variety of human standards of beauty. Sexual selection claims a field of formal superfluity or redundancy, neutral with respect to the pressures of natural selection, in which the aesthetic comes into play, originated by the erotic drive but not functionally bound by it. Darwin decisively relocates aesthetic judgement—and the play of form—upon a principle of etiologically generated, infinite formal differentiation: emancipating it from the strongly normative teleological account that Victorian culture took over from German Idealism.

Keywords: Charles Darwin, evolution, natural selection, sexual selection, nature, form, aesthetics, natural history

Darwinian Aesthetics

Toward the close of Recollections of My Mind and Character, a memoir written for his family in the last years of his life, Charles Darwin muses on the “curious & lamentable loss of the higher aesthetic tastes” that has afflicted him “during the last 20 or 30 years”:

Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge & Shelley, gave me great pleasure, and even as a school-boy I took intense delight in Shakspeare [sic] especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly Pictures gave me considerable, & music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare & found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost any taste for pictures or music . . .1

He still derives pleasure, however, from reading novels (“works of the imagination, though not of a very high order”), providing they “do not end unhappily,” and especially when they contain “a pretty woman” (p. 422). The performance of gentlemanly philistinism—part of the repertoire of his famous personal modesty—is at once ironic and elegiac, as Darwin mourns a lost part of himself. “My mind seems to have become a kind of general machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts” (p. 422), he goes on, wryly aligning himself with the protagonist of his last published book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Earthworms (1881). The lowly earthworm, enriching the soil with its excretions, creates the conditions for agriculture and hence the progress of human civilization—much as Darwin’s patient data-grinding has fertilized the terrain of scientific knowledge.2

Darwin’s deep-rooted appreciation of English literature is evident elsewhere, in the rhetorical strategies he adopted from it in his own writings. Recent commentary, in the wake of Gillian Beer’s classic study Darwin’s Plots, now takes as axiomatic the creative intercourse between Darwin’s scientific works and imaginative literature, from Milton’s Paradise Lost to the novels of Walter Scott, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy. As well as interpreting Darwinian themes and preoccupations in works of poetry and fiction, critics trace literary techniques of metaphor, analogy, invention, and plot-construction in the major works he wrote for a general Victorian public, On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man.3

What was the place of the aesthetic in Darwin’s writings? From the very beginning of his career—in the journal of his circumnavigation as ship’s naturalist on HMS Beagle—Darwin recognizes the close alignment between aesthetic and scientific modes of observation, to the extent that the aesthetic sense, governing the discernment of form in nature, is the medium that affords scientific knowledge. In On the Origin of Species, Darwin’s theory emerges as a theory of form, dependent on a connoisseurial discrimination and evaluation of formal affinities and differences that is at once analogous to the operation of natural selection and the means by which we interpret it. An aesthetic appeal to beauty and wonder, subsuming painful ethical considerations, becomes the primary rhetorical strategy with which Darwin makes his theory attractive to Victorian readers. Lastly, in The Descent of Man Darwin turns the aesthetic into a topic and produces a theory of it as a theory of culture and, thus, of human evolution itself. Darwin decisively relocates aesthetic judgement and the play of form onto a principle of etiologically generated, infinite formal differentiation: emancipating the aesthetic from the strongly normative teleological account that Victorian cultural critics adopted from German Idealism.

The Voyage of the Beagle: At the Limits of Knowledge

“The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life & has determined my whole career,” Darwin affirmed in the Recollections (p. 387). Recommended by his Cambridge mentor Professor John Stevens Henslow as a promising naturalist and (crucially) a suitable gentleman companion for the captain, Robert FitzRoy, the twenty-two-year-old Charles Darwin joined the second long-range surveying expedition of Royal Navy brig HMS Beagle in October 1831. Darwin’s presence was largely ornamental to the Beagle’s mission, which was to provide accurate navigation charts of the South American coasts and an up-to-date chronometric survey of the globe. He had no official appointment; his equipment and expenses were paid for by his father. Darwin’s journal of his five years’ circumnavigation, first published (1839) as part of a multi-volume official record of the voyage, was immediately popular. Reissued as a stand-alone book, it became a Victorian bestseller, and established its author’s reputation well before the appearance of On the Origin of Species two decades later.

On the last lap of the voyage, a few days from England, Darwin wrote up “a short retrospect of the advantages and disadvantages, the pains and pleasures, of our five years’ wandering.”4 Darwin evaluates his experience in aesthetic terms, rather than in terms of the acquisition of scientific knowledge; scientific knowledge is at the service of aesthetic appreciation, instead of the other way round:

There is a growing pleasure in comparing the character of the scenery in different countries, which to a certain degree is distinct from merely admiring its beauty. It depends chiefly on an acquaintance with the individual parts of each view: I am strongly induced to believe that, as in music, the person who understands every note will, if he also possesses a proper taste, more thoroughly enjoy the whole, so he who examines each part of a fine view, may also thoroughly comprehend the full and combined effect. Hence, a traveller should be a botanist, for in all views plants form the chief embellishment. Group masses of naked rock even in the wildest forms, and they may for a time afford a sublime spectacle, but they will soon grow monotonous. Paint them with bright and varied colours, as in Northern Chile, they will become fantastic; clothe them with vegetation, they must form a decent, if not a beautiful picture.

(pp. 502–503)

The aesthetic register signals Darwin’s detachment from the official aims of the voyage and hence his private status, which afforded him the freedom to set off on land expeditions of his own and collect his own specimens, while FitzRoy extended the courtesy of shipping those specimens back home. Gentlemanly liberty would sustain his future scientific career: inherited wealth, releasing him from a salaried profession, gave Darwin the time and intellectual independence he needed to develop his revolutionary grand theory.

At the same time, Darwin’s invocation of the aesthetic as a discipline of observation and judgement is philosophically serious, and it too forecasts the great career to come. He contrasts “the picturesque beauty of many parts of Europe” with the wild zones of the earth:

Among the scenes which are deeply impressed on my mind, none exceed in sublimity the primeval forests undefaced by the hand of man; whether those of Brazil, where the powers of Life are predominant, or those of Tierra del Fuego, where Death and Decay prevail.

(p. 604)

Darwin develops Edmund Burke’s distinction between the sublime and the beautiful to identify, instead, two modes of the sublime: what we might call a beautiful sublime, associated with “the powers of Life,” and its antithesis, associated with “Death and Decay.” These aesthetic modes correspond with the visions of the earth revealed in the two major works that informed Darwin’s scientific thought on the expedition: Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent in the Years 1799–1804, which first inspired Darwin with a youthful desire to visit tropical countries, and Charles Lyell’s newly published Principles of Geology (1830–1833), the successive volumes of which Darwin read during the voyage.

The “rare union of poetry with science” in Humboldt’s descriptions of the South American rainforest prepared Darwin for scientific discovery as an aesthetic experience.5 Shaping Darwin’s ideas in advance, Humboldt’s writings intensified his response to tropical scenery. “The mind is a chaos of delight, out of which a world of future & more quiet pleasure will arise,” he writes in the pre-publication Beagle Diary: “I am at present fit only to read Humboldt; he like another Sun illumines everything I behold.”6 Even in the blaze of his first excitement, Darwin recognizes a mediated, temporally extensive, typically Romantic structure of aesthetic experience. The “chaos of delight” that attends the act of observation, trained by prior reading, supplies a store of impressions for later, calmer recollection. This structure of aesthetic experience will also constitute the structure of scientific discovery, in which recollection in tranquility enables the analysis and ordering of the data of observation into a coherent system.7 Thus (famously), Darwin’s observations of the mysterious affinities of populations of birds and reptiles across different islands in the Galápagos would not begin to make taxonomic and morphological sense until his specimens were being sorted back in London, many months after the event.8

Humboldt prepares Darwin for entry into the tropical forest as an ecstatic sensory overload:

The delight one experiences in such times bewilders the mind,—if the eye attempts to follow the flight of a gaudy butter-fly, it is arrested by some strange tree or fruit; if watching an insect one forgets it in the stranger flower it is crawling over,—if turning to admire the splendour of the scenery, the individual character of the foreground fixes the attention. The mind is a chaos of delight . . .9

In a new epiphany of the world, the imagination opens onto the plenitude of life as a dynamic totality of organic relations: “Well may we affirm that every part of the world is habitable!” Darwin enthuses in the Journal of Researches: “Whether lakes of brine, or those subterranean ones hidden beneath volcanic mountains—warm mineral springs; the wide expanse and depths of the ocean; the upper regions of the atmosphere; and even the surface of perpetual snow;—all support organic beings” (p. 77). Darwin apprehends the earth as a complex homeostasis of living systems—“a Cosmos, or harmoniously ordered whole,” as Humboldt would later put it, after he had read Darwin’s Journal of Researches: “Nature considered ‘rationally,’ that is to say, submitted to the process of thought, is a unity in diversity of phenomena; a harmony blending together all created things, however dissimilar in form and attributes; one great whole (κόσμος‎) animated by the breath of life.”10 Crucially for Darwin, the diversity of living forms will be the ineluctable condition for apprehending nature as “one great whole.”

The other mode of the sublime evoked by Darwin is absolute, uncompromised by beauty. The sublime of “Death and Decay” attends a privation rather than repletion of the senses. Its temporal structure is one of uncanny recurrence—haunting—rather than instantaneous rapture. But its hold is no less compelling:

In calling up images of the past, I find the plains of Patagonia frequently cross before my eyes: yet these plains are pronounced by all most wretched and useless. They are characterized only by negative possessions; without habitations, without water, without trees, without mountains, they support merely a few dwarf plants. Why then, and the case is not peculiar to myself, have these arid wastes taken so firm possession of the memory? (p. 605)

Darwin articulates a recognizably Romantic structure of the sublime. Its full effect is felt at a temporal distance from the event, in memory and reflection. Instead of being overwhelmed by a joyous excess of sensory stimuli, the observer finds his imagination haunted by a ghostly insistence of what he calls “negative possessions.” Darwin strives to articulate a strange aesthetic enjoyment arising from this vacancy. “I can scarcely analyze these feelings,” he concludes, “but it must be partly owing to the free scope given to the imagination” (p. 605). As he writes elsewhere, “The limit of man’s knowledge in any subject possesses a high interest, which is perhaps increased by its close neighborhood to the realms of imagination” (p. 345). “Interest” occupies the boundary where settled knowledge opens onto imaginative freedom.

Darwin puts that freedom to work. The “free scope” opened for the imagination becomes the enhanced cognitive range required to apprehend the vastly enlarged dimensions, the “deep time,” of Lyell’s new earth history. “The plains of Patagonia bear the stamp of having thus lasted for ages, and there appears no limit to their duration through future time,” Darwin writes in the “retrospect” (p. 605), glossing an earlier journal entry:

All was stillness and desolation. One reflected how many ages the plain had thus lasted, and how many more it was doomed thus to continue. Yet in passing over these scenes, without one bright object near, an ill-defined but strong sense of pleasure is vividly excited.

(p. 198)

In the second edition of the Journal of Researches (1845), Darwin inserts lines from Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”:

  • None can reply—all seems eternal now.
  • The wilderness has a mysterious tongue
  • Which teaches awful doubt.11

The citation from one of the sublime masterpieces of English poetry reinforces the pedagogical emphasis of the second edition, in which Darwin attempts to harness “awful doubt” as a cognitive aid to Lyellian geohistory. There lingers, nevertheless, a temporal as well as a rhetorical gap between the pedagogical theme and the tentative, veiled, troubling quality of the “pleasure” that Darwin acknowledges.

The Voyage of the Beagle: The Limits of Wonder

Summarizing his earlier analysis of Patagonian tertiary formations in the 1845 edition of the Journal of Researches, Darwin comments:

When we consider that all these pebbles, countless as the grains of sand in the desert, have been derived from the slow falling of masses of rock on the old coast-lines and banks of rivers; and that these fragments have been dashed into smaller pieces, and that each of them has since been slowly rolled, rounded, and far transported, the mind is stupified in thinking over the long, absolutely necessary, lapse of years.12

Darwin rationalizes and domesticates the sublime by calibrating it to the gradualist scale of everyday life: removing, in so doing, its catastrophic threat. The minute-by-minute, microscopic accretion of phenomena piles up across the overwhelming magnitudes of geological time, raising mountain ranges, shearing continents.

These intuitions open onto a disjunction between the timescales of geological history and of everyday human life, which is so enormous as to make them seem incommensurable. On a terrestrial scale, Darwin commits his thinking to a Lyellian geohistory of gradual, incremental transformations over vast extents of time. According to Lyell, “the elevating and depressing power of earthquakes, which visits, in succession, every zone, and fills the earth with monuments of ruin and disorder, is, nevertheless, a conservative principle in the highest degree, and, above all others, essential to the stability of the system.”13 The difference between human history and earth history is so tremendous as almost to set them in separate dimensions—“ruin and disorder,” a revolutionary (and tragic) phenomenology of experience, versus “the stability of the system,” a serene (comic) homeostasis. The sublime scale of geological time miniaturizes and neutralizes the catastrophic convulsions of human time.

Darwin’s journal records an exceptional convergence of the scales of geological and human history in the great Chilean earthquake of February 1835. The earthquake affords him an opportunity to observe the metamorphosis of the earth’s crust, a process that normally unfolds over millennia, concentrated into mere minutes—into a historical event:

I have not attempted to give any detailed description of the appearance of Concepcion, for I feel it is quite impossible to convey the mingled feelings with which one beholds such a spectacle. Several of the officers visited it before me, but their strongest language failed to communicate a just idea of the desolation. It is a bitter and humiliating thing to see works, which have cost men so much time and labour, overthrown in one minute; yet compassion for the inhabitants is almost instantly forgotten, from the interest excited in finding that state of things produced in a moment of time, which one is accustomed to attribute to a succession of ages. In my opinion, we have scarcely beheld since leaving England, any other sight so deeply interesting.

(pp. 376–377)

The observer’s distress and bafflement arise from the collision between states of feeling attached to the different scales of geological and human history. To the geologist, the spectacle of “that state of things produced in a moment of time, which one is accustomed to attribute to a succession of ages,” must be “deeply interesting”—a key word, here and elsewhere in Darwin’s writings, for the low-intensity but persistent affect that sustains the working-out of scientific knowledge.14 Scientific interest clashes with the immediate pathos of the scene’s human content: the bitter and humiliating sight of civilization overthrown, compassion for the inhabitants. Again, Darwin adapts the schema of the Romantic sublime, but now the spectacle transmits pathetic and ethical disturbances that are harder to resolve: at least, not without renouncing human feeling altogether.

The collision of scales of natural and human history, disrupting the conjunction of aesthetic discernment with scientific knowledge-production, recurs intermittently throughout the Beagle journal. As well as natural phenomena, from the geographical distribution and geological succession of plant and animal species to the formation of coral reefs, Darwin observes different human societies across the globe, which late-Enlightenment philosophical anthropologists construed as different developmental states or stages of a universal history: decadent remnants of the Portuguese and Spanish empires in Brazil and Argentina (the past), brash new British colonies in Australia and New Zealand (the future), “savage” hunter-gatherer clans in Tierra del Fuego (the deep ancestral past, prehistory). Darwin confronts a problem that will loom large in his scientific career: How to reconcile the diverse formations and vicissitudes of human life with a general logic of natural history. Its notable crux, which becomes moral as well as scientific in the case of human history, is the destruction of populations, glimpsed in the Chilean earthquake. Darwin finds the evidence of species extinction, crucial data in the Lyellian theory of the earth, scattered across the sedimentary deposits of South America. In the second edition of the Journal and, later, in The Origin of Species, he argues that extinction occurs gradually, with members of a population dwindling by units over many generations, rather than perishing in a single crash. Extinction, in other words, is not so much an event, a historical phenomenon, as it is a process, a natural phenomenon.

Yet the politically organized elimination of human populations was one of the phenomena Darwin witnessed on the voyage. He rode on the fringes of General de Rosas’ campaign to exterminate the Pampas Indians in 1833, and he visited Van Diemen’s Land in 1836, three years after the removal of the island’s aborigines. Darwin’s encounter with “man in his lowest and most savage state” at Tierra del Fuego, which would haunt him for the rest of his life, is overcast with the unacknowledged prospect of the Fuegian peoples’ extinction. The Haush and Yamana occupy a negative relation to knowledge that is that of a categorical confusion or collapse rather than a potent, pregnant emptiness:

One’s mind hurries back over past centuries, and then asks, could our progenitors have been such as these? Men, whose very signs and expressions are less intelligible to us than those of the domesticated animals; men, who do not possess the instinct of those animals, nor yet appear to boast of human reason, or at least of arts consequent on that reason. I do not believe it is possible to describe or paint the difference between savage and civilized man.

(pp. 605–606)

Darwin finds the recognition of a common humanity, which knowledge and reason affirm, balked by the immediate intuition of a radical, insurmountable difference. His astonishment sets into a revulsion that fails to modulate into wonder or rational satisfaction. “Viewing such men, one can hardly make oneself believe they are fellow-creatures, and inhabitants of the same world” (p. 235): the great map of mankind has no place for the unregenerate savage, stranded outside the developmental timeline of universal history.15

On the Origin of Species: Justifying Nature

In July 1837, while preparing his Beagle journal for publication, Darwin opened the first of a series of notebooks on the transmutation of species. Over the next two decades he collected “all sorts of facts which could possibly have any bearing” on the question,16 drawing on his own observations, experiments, and interviews, reports from correspondents across the globe, and scientific papers and treatises, and began assembling them into “one long argument.” The hostility with which the scientific establishment greeted Robert Chambers’s popular synthesis Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in 1844 underlined the controversial if not disreputable status of evolutionism as well as its vulnerability to accusations of being built on conjecture rather than experimental proof. Darwin put off the decision to publish his work until 1858, when Alfred Russel Wallace (traveling in the Malay archipelago) mailed him an essay “on the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type,” containing “exactly the same theory as mine” (Recollections, p. 411). Darwin wrote up a short paper on natural selection, which he presented jointly with Wallace’s to the Linnean Society in London in July, and spent the next thirteen months distilling his research into a one-volume “Abstract,” intended for the educated general public as well as for scientific experts. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life appeared in November 1859 and was met with great acclaim as well as the anticipated controversy.

In the Origin of Species, Darwin justifies his new vision of nature by appealing to aesthetic criteria: “that perfection of structure and coadaptation which most justly excites our admiration,” as he puts it in his introduction (p. 13). The strategy appears plainly in the closing paragraph:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed17 into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

(pp. 426–427)

Darwin’s prose elevates the reader’s gaze from the muddy, bloody arena of “the war of nature” to a cosmic vision of the “endless” generation of “forms most beautiful and most wonderful”: endless, in that the process lacks a final cause, a design or purpose, but also (therefore) infinite, inexhaustibly copious, sublime.

The “grandeur in this view of life” outshines its troubling ethical and political implications, which enter the argument in the third chapter of Origin of Species, “Struggle for Existence.” Darwin enhances the shock by invoking a traditional prosopopoeia—the “face of nature” that, reassuringly, returns our human gaze—and then destroying it. First: “We behold the face of nature, bright with gladness . . . we do not see, or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects or seeds; or we forget how largely these songsters, or their eggs, or nestlings, are destroyed by birds and beasts of prey” (p. 65). The smiling pastoral countenance masks a state of war. Then, more radically:

The face of Nature may be compared to a yielding surface, with ten thousand sharp wedges packed close together and driven inwards by incessant blows, sometimes one wedge being struck, and then another with greater force. (p. 69)18

The violence of the scenario—anthropomorphic image splintered by abstract dynamic force—anticipates the Futurist or Suprematist assault on figurative art in the century to come. (Darwin omitted this passage from the second and subsequent editions of the Origin.)19

The last paragraph of the chapter—here, as in later chapters, a critical rhetorical hinge—seeks to soothe our unease: “When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply” (p. 79). But such a consolation exacerbates, if anything, the moral discomfort of liberal readers, and Darwin does not recur to it. Instead, he appeals to our sense of wonder, which he lavishly evokes at the end of the crucial fourth chapter, “Natural Selection.” The chapter is notable for its threefold representation, in different modes or formats, of Darwin’s central claim that “divergence of character, combined with the principles of natural selection and of extinction,” is the engine of the production of species (p. 110). The prose exposition of the claim, doggedly arguing the case over several pages, follows its presentation in the only illustration to appear in the Origin of Species—a diagram of genetic lines branching (some disappearing) across thousands of generations.

Aesthetics and Form in Charles Darwin’s WritingsClick to view larger

Fig. 1: Diagram showing the divergence of species. Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (London: John Murray, 1859), facing p. 117.

Finally, in the chapter’s closing paragraph, Darwin recapitulates both argument and diagram, realizing the metaphor that governs the latter’s visual scheme, in the poetic (or mythopoetic) figure of “the great Tree of Life”:

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. . . . 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.

(pp. 123–124)

“Life” absorbs extinction, those “dead and broken branches,” into its boundless organic plenitude, along with transient, epiphenomenal events of violence and suffering. Thereafter, Darwin is less apologetic. In the conclusion to chapter six, he relishes what are, in human terms, the atrocious byproducts of this natural process, on the formalist grounds that, as local instances of “one general law,” they are imaginatively satisfying: “to my imagination it is far more satisfactory to look at such instincts as the young cuckoo ejecting its foster-brothers, -- ants making slaves, -- the larvae of ichneumonidae feeding within the live bodies of caterpillars, -- not as specially endowed or created instincts, but as small consequences of one general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die” (pp. 219–220).

On the Origin of Species: The Connoisseur’s Eye

As well as the exposition of an argument, the Origin is a treatise on method. Darwin trains his readers to appreciate the evaluative scrutiny of minute formal variants that characterizes the operation of natural selection itself as well as the diligent observation of the scientist. The opening chapter, on artificial selection, identifies the domestic animal breeder as a “connoisseur,” expert in the discrimination of “extremely small differences” (p. 44):

In Saxony the importance of the principle of selection in regard to merino sheep is so fully recognised, that men follow it as a trade: the sheep are placed on a table and are studied, like a picture by a connoisseur; this is done three times at intervals of months, and the sheep are each time marked and classed, so that the very best may ultimately be selected for breeding.

(pp. 37–38)

Darwin brings this connoisseurial skill vividly home to the reader by citing his own experience as a pigeon-fancier, which he relates with an infectious delight in the baroque morphological extravagances of the different breeds. The most outlandish of them, he emphasizes, has its origins in small degrees of divergence from the parent: “it is in human nature to value any novelty, however slight, in one's own possession” (p. 44). Distinct types emerge though “the slow and gradual accumulation of numerous, slight, yet profitable, variations” over time (p. 191). The fancier selects a particular trait in and for itself, according to local, comparative criteria, without concern for an ultimate end—such as the improvement of the race. “When many men, without intending to alter the breed, have a nearly common standard of perfection, and all try to get and breed from the best animals, much improvement and modification surely but slowly follows from this unconscious process of selection” (p. 98–99). Darwin proposes a radically etiological revision of the Kantian principle of aesthetic autonomy, formulated in the Critique of the Power of Judgment, as “purposiveness without purpose.” Local, concrete, contingent acts of judgement, parsing slight degrees of difference, produce the virtual form of the species—and not the other way around.

Nature works this way too, but cancels the field of limited autonomy and intention that domestication affords. Darwin’s prose activates “natural selection” as though it is a demiurgic force, an omniscient super-connoisseur:

It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life. We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the long lapse of ages, and then so imperfect is our view into long past geological ages, that we only see that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were. . . .

(pp. 82–83)

Slow though the process of selection may be, if feeble man can do much by his powers of artificial selection, I can see no limit to the amount of change, to the beauty and infinite complexity of the coadaptations between all organic beings, one with another and with their physical conditions of life, which may be effected in the long course of time by nature’s power of selection.

(p. 104)

Darwin apologizes for having to use the metaphor “natural selection,” with its ascription of intent to a dispersed, materially determined, etiologically driven process or concatenation of processes. The metaphor works heuristically by situating a fictitious perspective, nature’s point of view, in ourselves as we read.20 We become attuned to the fine discernment of individual differences, “bound together by a web of complex relations” in a dynamic system (p. 74), and the act of judgement that winnows them out for perpetuation—or not.

That small differences produce great effects by gradual accumulation over time is a key formal principle of Darwin’s theory, and it was one of the points seized upon by his critics. “We are always slow,” Darwin acknowledges, “in admitting any great change of which we do not see the intermediate stages” (pp. 419–420). His argument could scarcely provide empirical evidence for the connective links of cause and effect forged in the work of natural selection over epochs of geological time. In the middle chapters of the Origin, Darwin turns some of the objections to his theory into arguments for it, by a deft rhetorical ju-jitsu. The “imperfection of the geological record” explains the lack of fossil remains of intermediate forms: gaps and absences do the work of evidence. Darwin’s opponents were quick to level against him the charge that had been leveled against evolutionist arguments since (at least) the mid-1780s, when Immanuel Kant debated Johann Herder over the place of mankind in terrestrial history: that such arguments, deficient in verifiable evidence, amounted to a fabric of conjecture, and were in effect works of fiction. Darwin toned down some of his more fantastic flourishes in later editions of Origin, such as the fast-forward metamorphosis of a swimming bear, catching insects in the water with its wide-open mouth, into a “creature . . . as monstrous as a whale” (p. 169).

All the same, the Origin of Species relies heavily on techniques of analogical conjecture, which Kant had classified as “regulative” (i.e., heuristic) rather than “constitutive” (i.e., empirically verifiable) principles in scientific argument. Explicit enough about his reliance on these techniques, disciplined by rigorous induction and scrupulous respect for data, Darwin does not hesitate to sound a visionary note:

For myself, I venture confidently to look back thousands on thousands of generations, and I see an animal striped like a zebra, but perhaps otherwise very differently constructed, the common parent of our domestic horse, whether or not it be descended from one or more wild stocks, of the ass, the hemionus, quagga, and zebra.

(p. 153)

The naturalist as prophet, gazing into the abyss of time. Darwin opened the Origin by recalling the voyage of the Beagle—claiming the authority of first-hand observation of natural phenomena across the globe:

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.

(p. 11)

In the work’s peroration he recalls that experience again, but obliquely, via a complex, loaded analogy:

When we no longer look at an organic being as a savage looks at a ship, as at something wholly beyond his comprehension; when we regard every production of nature as one which has had a history; when we contemplate every complex structure and instinct as the summing up of many contrivances, each useful to the possessor, nearly in the same way as when we look at any great mechanical invention as the summing up of the labour, the experience, the reason, and even the blunders of numerous workmen; when we thus view each organic being, how far more interesting, I speak from experience, will the study of natural history become! (p. 423)

Members of the scientific community who resist Darwin’s theory, the analogy implies, are no better than the primitive inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego—and no less doomed to fall before a grand technology they are unable to comprehend. Meanwhile, the ultimate claim Darwin makes for his work is that it will make the study of natural history “more interesting.”

The Descent of Man: Culture and Selection

Following the strategy of reticence pioneered by Lyell in Principles of Geology, Darwin excluded the troublesome topic of human natural history from On the Origin of Species, although in the book’s conclusion he predicts that, among the new fields of research opened up by his work, “light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history” (p. 425). The diversity of human populations across the globe was one of his chief objects of interest on the voyage of the Beagle, and “man’s place in nature” remained a key preoccupation as he compiled his species notes.21 Provoked by the fascinating blank in Darwin’s argument, fellow naturalists as well as lay readers were not slow to debate its application to humankind, with T.H. Huxley and Ernst Haeckel among the former who boldly followed Darwin’s cue. In The Descent of Man, and Selection According to Sex (1871), Darwin published his own treatment. The book has a twofold mission: to dismantle the barricades of human uniqueness by showing that there is no human faculty that is not also found among other animals; and to construct a positive account of human evolution, comprising not only the species’ emergence from a pre-human ancestral form but the historical development of “differences between the so-called races of man.”22

Darwin systematically takes over, and absorbs into his theory, the disciplinary branches of the 19th-century human sciences: anthropology, sociology, moral philosophy, theology—and aesthetics. Animals are capable of remembering, reasoning, grasping general ideas, and communicating in proto-languages; they have a moral sense, rooted in the “social instinct,” comprising loyalty, compassion, and shame; they appreciate beauty, and possess the aesthetic “faculties of imagination, curiosity and wonder” that form the basis of the religious sense. Darwin points his argument with mischievous flourishes: “He who rejects with scorn the belief that the shape of his own canines, and their occasional great development in other men, are due to our early forefathers having been provided with these formidable weapons, will probably reveal, by sneering, the line of his descent” (p. 60); an anecdote of monkeys moved by irresistible curiosity to overcome their instinctive fear of snakes parodies the temptation fable in Genesis (p. 92); a dog growling at a parasol moved by the wind, reasoning that “movement without any apparent cause indicated the presence of some strange living agent,” typifies the origin of belief in the supernatural, while “the feeling of religious devotion” differs only in degree from “the deep love of a dog for his master” (p. 118).

In The Descent of Man, the aesthetic “powers of discrimination and taste” (p. 248) largely determine human evolution. Their medium is the semi-autonomous domain of culture, which corresponds to the state of domestication among animals: “Domesticated animals vary more than those in a state of nature; and this is apparently due to the diversified and changing nature of the conditions to which they have been subjected,” not least mitigation of the struggle for life that drives natural selection. “In this respect,” Darwin adds, “the different races of man resemble domesticated animals” (p. 46).23 Darwin proposes sexual selection, an ancillary agency of which he had given a preliminary sketch in On the Origin of Species, as (now) the main motor of human development. “An extremely complex affair, depending, as it does, on the ardour in love, the courage, and the rivalry of the males, as well as on the powers of perception, the taste, and will of the female” (p. 277), sexual selection supplements the work of natural selection among wild creatures, but assumes a predominant role in domestication, where the feminine powers of perception and taste are decisive. Its productive principle is, once again, the discrimination of fine formal variation, trained, however, on attractive appearance rather than function or use. In the case of humans, in contrast to domestic animals, the agents of selection are also its subjects.

Sexual selection claims the field of formal superfluity or redundancy constituted by the organic drive to variation, “a source of surplus differences intrinsic to [Darwin’s] system,” buffered by domestication from the hard forces of natural selection, where its operating principle, in Nancy Armstrong’s phrase, is “aesthetic selection.”24 Where natural selection imposes “a limit to the amount of advantageous modification in relation to certain special purposes,” the physical features formed for sexual selection—the secondary sexual characters—are bound by no such limit:

This circumstance may partly account for the frequent and extraordinary amount of variability presented by secondary sexual characters. Nevertheless, natural selection will determine that such characters shall not be acquired by the victorious males, if they would be highly injurious, either by expending too much of their vital powers, or by exposing them to any great danger. The development, however, of certain structures—of the horns, for instance, in certain stags—has been carried to a wonderful extreme; and in some cases to an extreme which, as far as the general conditions of life are concerned, must be slightly injurious to the male.

(p. 262)

Sexual selection licenses such flamboyant adornments as the plumes of the bird of paradise and the peacock’s train: their power to charm the female, or rather, her reciprocal power of discrimination and preference, outweighs any handicap that may attend them in the rough and tumble of day-to-day subsistence.

Sexual selection enjoys maximum autonomy, and in consequence a near-limitless potential for formal variation, in human societies:

The great variability of all the external differences between the races of man, likewise indicates that they cannot be of much importance; for if important, they would long ago have been either fixed and preserved, or eliminated.

In this respect man resembles those forms, called by naturalists protean or polymorphic, which have remained extremely variable, owing, as it seems, to such variations being of an indifferent nature, and to their having thus escaped the action of natural selection.

(p. 229)

Man’s status as self-domesticating animal allows, in a recursive logic, for the categorical emergence of the aesthetic as a conscious motive principle—and ultimately as a science, a discipline, with its local rules and canons. Sexual selection generates “the differences in external appearance between the races of man” as well as between the sexes, explicitly on grounds of aesthetic preference. Once again, “there is in the mind of man a strong love for slight changes in all things” (p. 113), which over time, by the long accumulation of slight changes, generates extremes of formal divergence. Darwin conflates skin color, body hair, and other physiological features with artificial decoration in a rhapsodic vision of the infinite variety of human standards of beauty. The evident enjoyment with which he catalogues the diversity of personal adornment among “savages”—recalling his pigeon-fancying excursus in the Origin of Species—eclipses, at least for the duration, the more conventional (blatantly ideological) references to lower and higher, more and less advanced, et cetera, races elsewhere in the Descent:

In one part of Africa the eyelids are coloured black; in another the nails are coloured yellow or purple. In many places the hair is dyed of various tints. In different countries the teeth are stained black, red, blue, &c., and in the Malay Archipelago it is thought shameful to have white teeth ‘like those of a dog.’ . . . In Africa some of the natives tattoo themselves, but it is a much more common practice to raise protuberances by rubbing salt into incisions made in various parts of the body; and these are considered by the inhabitants of Kordofan and Darfur ‘to be great personal attractions.’ In the Arab countries no beauty can be perfect until the cheeks ‘or temples have been gashed.’

(p. 641)

Tattooing and other practices of “mutilation” blur the boundary between body and ornament. “As the face with us is chiefly admired for its beauty, so with savages it is the chief seat of mutilation . . . The wife of the chief of Latooka told Sir S. Baker that Lady Baker ‘would be much improved if she would extract her four front teeth from the lower jaw, and wear the long pointed polished crystal in her under lip’” (p. 643). Darwin recounts, with urbane amusement, anecdotes of other races who find European features disgusting: “the Chinese of the interior think Europeans hideous, with their white skins and prominent noses” (p. 645); “the negroes rallied Mungo Park on the whiteness of his skin and the prominence of his nose, both of which they considered as ‘unsightly and unnatural conformations’ . . . On the eastern coast, the negro boys when they saw Burton, cried out ‘Look at the white man; does he not look like a white ape?’” (p. 646). So much for the criterion, which Darwin invokes elsewhere, of the resemblance of “primitive” races to simian ancestors.

The cumulative effect of these examples is to estrange European canons of beauty and to relativize aesthetic judgement. “It is certainly not true that there is in the mind of man any universal standard of beauty with respect to the human body,” Darwin affirms, and summarizes his theory’s key formal principle:

The men of each race prefer what they are accustomed to; they cannot endure any great change; but they like variety, and admire each characteristic carried to a moderate extreme. . . . If all our women were to become as beautiful as the Venus de Medici, we should for a time be charmed; but we should soon wish for variety; and as soon as we had obtained variety, we should wish to see certain characters in our women a little exaggerated beyond the then existing common standard.

(p. 652)

We shape our own populations over time in much the same way that fanciers and agriculturalists shape domestic breeds by artificial selection. As in that case, the aesthetic tropism to variety, in which the local preference for minor differences in degree eventually generates major differences in kind, refracts (in the diluting medium of culture) the greater logic of natural selection.

Much as “man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin” (p. 689), the art forms of a high civilization bear the stamp of their primitive origins as rites of courtship. Darwin traces music, song, and poetry back to the vocalizations of “singing gibbons” and (conjecturally) “the half-human progenitors of man” (p. 636). Hence, “the sensations and ideas thus excited in us by music, or expressed by the cadences of oratory, appear from their vagueness, yet depth, like mental reversions to the emotions and thoughts of a long-past age” (p. 638). This primitivist account stands in opposition to the idealist aesthetic tradition, for which music, especially, enacted a sublimation of art’s material and referential bonds. Ludwig Feuerbach posited music as the pure “language of feeling,” in which feeling communicates with and refers to itself alone, rendering the psychic relation to the absolute that Feuerbach called “consciousness of species,” the humanist substitute for religion.25 It is important to note, however, that in advanced societies, according to Darwin’s logic, aesthetic formation and aesthetic pleasure are no longer functionally determined by their erotic etiology. Separated from the rigors of natural selection, they acquire a degree of autonomy analogous to the “play drive” (Spieltrieb) of Friedrich Schiller’s influential treatise On the Aesthetic Education of Man: also freed, however, from the teleological imperative with which Schiller sought to harness the play-drive. The joyous sensuous excess and glorious redundancy of formal variation, captured in Darwin’s catalogues of domestic pigeon breeds and “savage” norms of beauty, express a perpetual, diffusive drive away from origins, the only rule of which, providing relative autonomy be maintained from the pressures of natural selection or its socio-ideological equivalents, is local, present pleasure: “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”26

Review of the Literature

Gillian Beer and George Levine have led the way in literary readings of Darwin’s works and their impact on 19th-century fiction; David Amigoni, Gowan Dawson, Cannon Schmitt, and Jonathan Smith represent more recent studies of Darwin’s work in relation to specific Victorian cultural themes. For the recent controversy over “literary Darwinism,” an explanatory application of evolutionary science to literature, see the works listed by Brian Boyd and Joseph Carroll; Jonathan Kramnick, “Against Literary Darwinism;”27 and the ensuing Winter 2012 special issue of Critical Inquiry, “Debating Literary Darwinism.”

Philosophical reflections on Darwin’s work can be found in the listed titles by Daniel Dennett, Elizabeth Grosz, and Adam Phillips. For scientific contexts—besides the Cambridge Companion to Darwin, edited by Hodge and Radick—the following are valuable: John Burrow, Evolution and Society: A Study in Victorian Social Theory; Michael Ruse, The Darwinian Revolution: Science Red in Tooth and Claw; Dev Ospovat, The Development of Darwin’s Theory: Natural History, Natural Theology, and Natural Selection; Robert J. Richards, Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior; Stephen Jay Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory; and Robert J. Richards and Michael Ruse (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to the Origin of Species. The most detailed and authoritative biography to date is Janet Browne’s two-volume study, Charles Darwin: Voyaging and Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin, is valuable for its insights.28

Readily available modern editions of the original edition (1859) of On the Origin of Species include Joseph Carroll’s (2003) and William Bynum’s (2009). Gillian Beer’s Oxford World Classics Origin of Species (2008) prints the second edition of 1860. Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s Penguin Classics edition of The Descent of Man prints the second edition (1879) of that work. There is no readily available complete modern critical edition of either the 1839 or 1845 editions of the Journal of Researches, although paperback reprints of 1845 and 1860 are readily available; the Modern Library Classics Voyage of the Beagle (2001), with an introduction by Steve Jones, is recommendable. The Penguin Classics Voyage of the Beagle, edited by Janet Browne and Michael Neve (1989), prints an abridgement of 1839. Finally, James A. Secord’s edition of Darwin’s Evolutionary Writings (2008) includes extensive selections from the Journal of Researches, Origin of Species, and Descent of Man, as well as newly edited texts of Darwin’s autobiographical writings; the volume has an excellent introduction and explanatory notes.

Primary Sources

Darwin, Charles, Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries visited by H.M.S. Beagle. London: Henry Colburn, 1839.Find this resource:

Darwin, Charles. Journal and Remarks, 1832–1836. Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty’s Ships Adventure and Beagle, between the years 1826 and 1836. Vol. 3. London: Colburn, 1839.Find this resource:

Darwin, Charles. Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited during the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle Round the World. London: Murray, 1845.Find this resource:

Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London: John Murray, 1859.Find this resource:

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. London: John Murray, 1871.Find this resource:

Darwin, Charles. Correspondence. 16 vols. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt, et al. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985–.Find this resource:

Darwin, Charles. Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary. Edited by Richard D. Keynes. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988.Find this resource:

Darwin, Charles. The Beagle Letters. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Darwin, Charles. Charles Darwin’s Notebooks 1836–1844. Edited by Paul H. Barrett, Peter J. Gautrey, Sandra Herbert, David Kohn, and Sydney Smith. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Darwin, Charles. Origins: Charles Darwin’s Selected Letters, 1822–1859. Edited by Frederick Burckhardt. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Darwin, Charles. Evolution: Charles Darwin’s Selected Letters, 1860–1870. Edited by Frederick Burckhardt, Samantha Evans, and Alison Pearn. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Darwin, Charles. “Recollections of the Development of My Mind and Character.” In Evolutionary Writings. Edited by James A. Secord, 355–425. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Freeman, Richard B. The Works of Charles Darwin: An Annotated Bibliographical Handlist. 2d ed. Folkstone, U.K.: Dawson, 1977.Find this resource:

Two major online archives make available Darwin’s complete works, in multiple editions, foreign translations, and manuscripts, with related documents (including other major 19th-century works of evolutionary science); and the complete Darwin correspondence:

Van Wyhe, John, ed. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. n.p., 2002–.

Browne, Janet, and James Secord, eds. Darwin Correspondence Project. University of Cambridge, 2012.Find this resource:

Further Reading

Amigoni, David. Colonies, Cults and Evolution: Literature, Science and Culture in Nineteenth-Century Writing. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Beer, Gillian. Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction. 3d ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Boyd, Brian. On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Carroll, Joseph. Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature. London: Routledge, 2004.Find this resource:

Dawson, Gowan. Darwin, Literature, and Victorian Respectability. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.Find this resource:

Desmond, Adrian, and James Moore. Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery, and the Quest for Human Origins. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Griffiths, Devin. The Age of Analogy: Science and Literature Between the Darwins. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Grosz, Elizabeth. The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution, and the Untimely. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Hodge, Jonathan, and Gregory Radick, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Darwin. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Levine, George. Darwin and the Novelists: Patterns of Science in Victorian Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.Find this resource:

Levine, George. Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-Enchantment of the World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Levine, George. Darwin the Writer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Phillips, Adam. Darwin’s Worms. London: Faber, 1999.Find this resource:

Richter, Virginia. Literature After Darwin: Human Beasts in Western Fiction, 1859–1939. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.Find this resource:

Schmitt, Cannon. Darwin and the Memory of the Human: Evolution, Savages, and South America. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Smith, Jonathan. Charles Darwin and Victorian Visual Culture. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Young, Robert M. Nature’s Metaphor: Darwin’s Place in Victorian Culture. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985.Find this resource:


(1.) Charles Darwin, Recollections of the Development of My Mind and Character, in Evolutionary Writings, ed. James A. Secord (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 421. Future references to this edition, unless otherwise indicated, are cited in the text.

(2.) On these implications see Adam Phillips, Darwin’s Worms (London: Faber, 1999).

(3.) Landmark studies include Beer, Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (3d ed., Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009);George Levine, Darwin and the Novelists: Patterns of Science in Victorian Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); and, most recently, Devin Griffiths, The Age of Analogy: Science and Literature Between the Darwins (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016). In recent years, The Expression of the Emotions in Animals and Man has attracted significant critical attention: see Sarah Winter, “Darwin’s Saussure: Biosemiotics and Race in Expression,” Representations 107.1 (2009): 128–61.

(4.) Charles Darwin, Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries visited by H.M.S. Beagle (London: Henry Colburn, 1839), 602. Future references to this edition, unless otherwise indicated, are cited in the text.

(5.) Charles Darwin, Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary, ed. Richard D. Keynes (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 42.

(6.) Darwin, Beagle Diary, 42.

(7.) On the recursive relation between wonder and knowledge in Darwin—such that scientific explanation further enhances, rather than dispels, the aesthetic appreciation of natural phenomena—see George Levine, Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-Enchantment of the World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).

(8.) See Frank J. Sulloway, “Darwin and His Finches: The Evolution of a Legend,” Journal of the History of Biology 15.1 (1982): 1–53.

(9.) Darwin, Beagle Diary, 42.

(10.) Alexander von Humboldt, Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe, vol. 1, trans. E.C. Otte (New York: Harpers, 1858), 23–24. See James Krasner, “A Chaos of Delight: Perception and Illusion in Darwin’s Scientific Writing,” Representations 31 (1990): 118–41; and Nigel Leask, “Darwin’s ‘Second Sun’: Alexander von Humboldt and the Genesis of The Voyage of the Beagle,” in Literature, Science, Psychoanalysis, 1830–1970: Essays in Honour of Gillian Beer, eds. Helen Small and Trudi Tate (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 13–36.

(11.) Charles Darwin, Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited during the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle Round the World, 2d ed. (London: John Murray, 1845), 168.

(12.) Charles Darwin, Journal of Researches, 2d ed., 171.

(13.) Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology, ed. James A. Secord (London: Penguin, 1997), 178–79.

(14.) See Sianne Ngai, “Merely Interesting,” Critical Inquiry 34.4 (2008): 777–817.

(15.) See my fuller discussion in Ian Duncan, “On Charles Darwin and the Voyage of the Beagle,” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History, ed. Dino Franco Felluga (2012); Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, June 23, 2016; Gillian Beer, Open Fields: Science in Cultural Encounter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 64–70; and Cannon Schmitt, Darwin and the Memory of the Human: Evolution, Savages, and South America (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 34–56.

(16.) Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, ed. William Bynum (London: Penguin, 2009), 11. Further references to this edition will be cited in the text.

(17.) In the second (1860) and subsequent editions, Darwin inserted the phrase “by the Creator” here.

(18.) Darwin first sketches this metaphor, recording his realization that Malthus’s population theory has provided him with a key to the mechanism for species transformation, in a notebook in 1838: Darwin’s Notebooks on the Transmutation of Species, Part VI, eds. Sir G. de Beer, M. J. Rowlands, and B. M. Skramovsky (London: British Museum, 1967), 163.

(19.) See Beer’s discussion in Darwin’s Plots, 65–66.

(20.) On figurative and literal uses of natural selection see, especially, Robert M. Young, Nature’s Metaphor: Darwin’s Place in Victorian Culture (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

(21.) Adrian Desmond and James Moore argue that Darwin’s interest was driven by his passionate moral opposition to slavery: Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery, and the Quest for Human Origins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

(22.) Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, eds. James Moore and Adrian Desmond (London: Penguin, 2004), 18. Future references to this edition are cited in the text.

(23.) Darwin originally meant to include his argument about humans in The Variation of Plants and Animals under Domestication (London: John Murray, 1868), before it expanded far beyond that book’s dimensions.

(24.) The present discussion is indebted to Armstrong’s powerful account of Darwin’s shift of emphasis in The Descent of Man from natural selection to sexual selection, or “aesthetic selection,” in which the rivalry between “winners and losers” is replaced by “the subtler difference between actual and potential manifestations” of variable form: “On Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man, 24 February 1871.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History, ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net.

(25.) Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, trans. Marian Evans (London: Chapman, 1841), 7.

(26.) I thank my research assistants, Katherine Ding and Wendy Xin, for their invaluable help with this article.

(27.) Jonathan Kramnick, “Against Literary Darwinism,” Critical Inquiry 37 (2011): 321–347.

(28.) John Burrow, Evolution and Society: A Study in Victorian Social Theory (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1966);Michael Ruse, The Darwinian Revolution: Science Red in Tooth and Claw (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979);Dev Ospovat, The Development of Darwin’s Theory: Natural History, Natural Theology, and Natural Selection (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1981);Robert J. Richards, Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987);Stephen Jay Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002); Robert J. Richards and Michael Ruse, eds., The Cambridge Companion to the Origin of Species (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009);Janet Browne, Darwin: Voyaging and Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, 2 vols. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996, 2003); and Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin (New York: Penguin, 1991).