Victorian Mind: Charles Darwin

I’m taking a course entitled “Victorian Mind” this semester, which serves as an overview of nineteenth century British Intellectual History.   The brief analyses assigned for the class are short enough for a blog post, so I thought I’d share a recent one on Charles Darwin.   All quotes are from the Norton Anthology, Darwin, edited by Philip Appleman.  I’ve left in the page citations for the sake of academic honesty.  And because I know anyone who reads this will, of course, want to devour Appleman’s anthology immediately…

Charles Darwin and the Personification of Nature

In 1802, the minister William Paley articulated the most prevalent hypothesis of his time in “Natural Theology”: “The marks of design are too strong to be gotten over.  Design must have had a designer.  That designer must have been a person.  That person is God” (38).  Darwin himself found the idea of a “person” driving the progress of species a difficult notion to overcome.  Despite positing an impersonal force to explain the variation of species, Darwin consistently personifies Nature in his early writings.  Darwin writes of “the contented face of nature” (82) as well as “the hand of Nature” (108), and he concludes The Origin of Species: “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved” (174).  His use of the passive voice directly implies the presence of an actor who is intimately involved in this evolution.  By contrast, anthropomorphic language is completely absent in his later work, The Descent of Man.  Given the drastic linguistic shift in The Descent, Darwin’s ideas in The Origin of Species can be viewed as the watershed of the notion that a personal force is responsible for the existence of specific varieties of life.

Darwin was well aware of his use of anthropomorphic vocabulary in The Origin of Species, and when his imagery drew the attack of early critics, Darwin could only respond, “It is hard to avoid personifying the word Nature” (444).  Indeed, his literary debt to the Romantic poets made it nearly impossible for him to do otherwise (663) and, as James Eli Adams observes, Darwin may very well have been eager to preserve the idea of nature as maternal and nurturing rather than “red in tooth and claw” (449).  In addition, Darwin faced the difficulty of filling the vacuum created by his dismissal of a creator.  By proffering the idea of nature as a still-personal being, albeit a very different one from the Judeo-Christian concept of God, Darwin arguably made his initial articulation of evolution more palatable to a society accustomed to attributing the existence of species to a creator.

By 1871, however, Darwin could happily claim in his introduction to Descent that “at least a large number of naturalists must admit that species are the modified descendants of other species” and that “the greater number accept natural selection” (175).  Such widespread recognition of the validity of his theories allowed him to cast off his previous personifications of nature.  He freely admitted that he had previously “extend[ed] too far the action of natural selection” due to his inability to “annul the influence of [his] former belief…that each species had been purposely created” (210).  Although Darwin is primarily admitting his scientific overstatement of natural selection in this passage, his admonition also suggests a disavowal of the anthropomorphic activity he initially assigned to nature.

The influence of Darwin’s semantic shift continues to surface through the tension between his scholarly heirs’ more subtle personifications of nature and their rigid articulations of the impersonal essence of evolution.  Scientists like Lewis Thomas refer to the “general attitude of nature,” debating whether nature is hostile and vicious as Tennyson so vividly suggested or more cooperative (306).  Daniel Dennett, however, chooses to express nature’s role in terms of mathematics, which cannot be anything but detached.  In “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” Dennett posits that evolution is most akin to algorithms, which, as he points out, “don’t have to have points or purposes” (491).  In an attempt to finally silence the objections of those who cannot, or will not, accept the disinterestedness of evolution, he inquires: “Can it really be the outcome of nothing but a cascade of algorithmic processes feeding on chance?  And if so, who designed that cascade?  Nobody.  It is itself the product of a blind, algorithmic process” (493).  That single word, “Nobody,” marks a significant shift from Darwin’s face and hands of nature and serves as a decided rejection of the involvement of a personal force in the variation of life in all its forms.

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