Darwin On the Origin of Species (1859); The Descent of Man (1871)

Charles Darwin

Darwin's theory of evolution asks that we look beneath the surface of nature. It's features are ceaseless change and activity, complex and orderly sequences of causes, and struggle and pain.

Key points from our selections.

             Life is a struggle for existence between individuals of the same species and those of         different species 

            Plants and animals evolved from earlier forms by gradual, slow transformation.  "Man is the codescendant with other mammals of a common progenitor" (1570).

            Natural selection is the mechanism for this transformation

Since stages of development within evolutionary progression are not acts of creation by a Creator, then nature is indifferent and human beings are not special, made in a Creator's image. Divine intervention does not alter nature's indifference and violence. But Darwin does not disavow a Creator who "breathes" life into the original life form or forms.

Darwin's theory applies to human society and culture. Capitalism is also a system driven by "the survival of the fittest" and "natural selection." The policy of laissez-faire is an example. Social Darwinism is another example of Darwin's theory applied to human society.

Reflected in the novel, Darwin's theory can be viewed as a response to a self-contradictory impulse within society to disavow natural and primitive impulses or desires. By placing these impulses in the past, they are disassociated from the present. Humans evolved from a primitive state to a civilized state. As this happens, humans abandon their violent, aggressive passions for socially sanctioned behavior. The move is from nature to culture.

In terms of gender relationships, competition between men for a woman highlights primitive impulses and sexual instincts that are eventually tamed by the woman and domestic responsibility. Women can be blamed for inciting this primitive competition among men or failing to transform it into a culturally acceptable relationship.

Does Darwin's theory resolve the contradiction between violence and self-restraint? When/How did humans abandon their primitive natures and become civilized beings?

(See Nancy Armstrong, How Novels Think: The Limits of British Individualism 1719-1900)