Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity. More humble, and I believe true, to consider him created from animal. (Darwin in Keynes 2001: 40)
Charles Darwin was a pioneer in science but he was also a product of his time and while his discoveries led to a re-envisioning of man as an animal, he also reflected cultural changes in nineteenth century society.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century, there were already indications that animals were being seen in a different way, and we see an increase in expressions of concern and kindness in sermons, treatises and novels (Perkins, 2003: ix). This change in perception rejected Descartes widely held belief that animals could not feel pain and that any observed reaction was merely instinctive. For Jeremy Bentham in 1780: “The question is not ‘can they reason?’, nor ‘can they talk?’, but ‘can they suffer?’” (Henshaw, 1989: 23). Some even began to doubt Kant’s great gulf between humanity and animal, with Lord Monboddo in On the Origin and Progress of Language (1773-92) claiming that the orang-utan, though silent, was a member of the human family and a stage in the progression of our species (Beer, 1996: 128).
This sympathy with animals was part of a reassessment of the natural world, notably expressed in the exaltation of nature found in Romanticism. This fused ecological concerns with animal welfare – with Shelley’s Queen Mab (1812), for instance, condemning the abuse of animals. Individual evangelical and liberal concerns also led to a rejection of the doctrine that animals were things to be exploited, and coalesced into movement for reform. In 1822 the first animal welfare legislation in the world prohibited the cruel and improper treatment of cattle and in 1835 The Protection of Animals Act outlawed bull, bear and badger baiting as well as cock fighting and dog fighting – though significantly this legislation applied only to domestic and captive animals.
The early nineteenth century also saw a proliferation of welfare organisations, the foremost being The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals – made Royal by Victoria in 1840 – and religious societies including The Friends’ Anti Vivisection Society, The Catholic Study Circle for Animal Welfare and The Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals (Keynes, 2001: 112). The Christian members of these societies held that man – created on the sixth day like animals – was formed in God’s image with dominion over creation and the power to give and withhold life. Yet, God valued animals and had entered into covenantal relationship with them, so religious laws rigorously regulated the work animals could do and how they should be cared for (Griffiths, 1982: 6). Many Christians would consequently define animals as sentient beings capable of emotional and physical suffering, and they would maintain a tradition of care expressed in the writings of St Basil, St John Chrysostem, John Wesley, and Cardinal Newman.
What is notable at this time is the linking of animal welfare concerns with social issues – hunting with dogs and its association with class privilege and the urban-rural divide being one example. As hunting for sport lacked the defence of necessity, it faced attacks from at least the end of the seventeenth century, with Shelley calling it “a barbarous and bloody sport”. This literary association continued in Wordsworth, Thomson, Cowper, Beattie, Southey and Coleridge.
The situation of women, colonised people, and the working class were all closely associated with concerns over animal welfare, with Liberals such as Bentham and Mill and socialists such as Shaw, Salt and Carpenter being active in anti-cruelty campaigns (Perkins, 2003: 66).
It may then be significant that the first stirrings of conscience over the slave trade coincided with an awareness of animal welfare issues – William Wilberforce being a founder member of the RSPCA. Darwin also condemned slavery, stating that just as whites seek to justify slavery by ‘making the black man’ another species, humans justify the exploitation of animals by affirming distance of descent.
While there are examples of Darwin taking legal action against abusers, it is in his scientific work where he made the most impact on Victorian society and its view of animals. His observations led him to conclude that they were not just things to use and consume, but were close relatives that could be studied in order to truly understand our own nature:
…the social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them (Darwin, 2003: 98).
Such discoveries were seized upon by socialists and anarchists who argued that, by closing the gap between humanity and other species, Darwin had also brought together the English and other races, and the aristocracy and other classes. This, it was argued, destroyed the idea that inequality was part of nature.
As Darwinism became widely accepted in the 1870s,
caricatures of him with an ape’s body symbolised evolution
Whatever Darwin’s intention, the Origin and then his more explicit The Descent of Man (1871) discredited the idea that humans were separate or superior to the animal kingdom:
… the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind. We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and facilities, such as love, memory, attractions, curiosity, intuitions, reason etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition in the lower animals (Darwin, 2003 126).
Mankind was subsequently put back into nature, with the evolution thesis discarding the Judaeo-Christian orthodoxy of a ‘Great Chain of Being’, and of a world designed for human exploitation. Acknowledgement of process would also disprove Paley’s arguments for ‘Special Creation’ where each species was seen to be individually and specifically created, the lowest forms of life being designed to serve the highest.
As there was no significant divide between Homo sapiens and other animal species, animals could clearly feel pain in the same way as humans. This recognition challenged the standard justification for evil in the world which was based on the human experience, and caused Darwin to develop an agnostic stance:
That there is much suffering in the world no one disputes. Some have attempted to explain this with reference to man by imagining that it serves for his moral improvement. But the number of men in the world is as nothing compared to that of all other sentient beings, and they often suffer greatly without any moral improvement (Darwin, 1887: 311).
British society gradually came to accept the main ideas of evolution, though in an often incomplete or distorted form. However, some of Darwin’s conclusions raised difficult questions for a Christian nation: How could the waste and cruelty of the evolutionary process be allowed by an all-powerful and benevolent God? If man had an ape as an ancestor, does that mean that apes have souls? At what point did man acquire special status and become ‘made in God’s image’?
‘Man is but a Worm’:
Punch’s Almanac for 1882 depicts Darwin amidst evolution –
from chaos to Victorian gentleman
Certainly, the evolutionary challenge influenced and persuaded sections of the educated elite, though Darwin was not solely responsible for a change in conception regarding kinship between species. Nevertheless, he did contribute a scientific rationale to this cultural shift, and he would routinely emphasise the existence of a close relationship between mankind and animal throughout his career. Darwin then effectively convened a family reunion at which the debate continues over whether it remains acceptable to abuse or devour even our most distant relatives.
Beer, G. 1996: Open Fields. Science in Cultural Encounter. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Darwin, C. 1887: in Darwin. F. (Ed) The Life and Lectures of Charles Darwin Including an Autobiographical Chapter Vol.1. London, John Murray.
Darwin. C. 2003: The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. With a New Introduction by Richard Dawkins. London, Gibson Square Books.
Griffiths, R. 1982: The Human Use of Animals. Bramcote, Grove Books.
Keynes, R. 2001: Annie’s Box. Charles Darwin, his Daughter and Human Evolution. London, Fourth Estate.
Perkins, D. 2003: Romanticism and Animal Rights. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.