The publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 rapidly made an impact on Victorian society far beyond its intended scientific audience.
Between 1859 and 1870, approximately three quarters of the British scientific community came to accept the concept of evolution and, though mankind is hardly mentioned in The Origin, the implications were obvious. Inevitably, the Darwinian thesis was built upon with the publication of Huxley’s Man’s Place in Nature (1863), Lyell’s The Antiquity of Man (1863) and by Darwin himself in The Descent of Man (1871). Such a major scientific repositioning inevitably influenced a range of disciplines including theology, philosophy, sociology and political science (Pizer, 1961: 305).
Although Darwin’s cautious materialism deliberately commented little on the ideological and philosophical implications of his theory, its release from the confines of the traditionally hermetic scientific community had a destabilising effect on Victorian society. Yet, Darwin’s theory was often incompletely understood, and his use of metaphor and analogy – while making his theory accessible – contributed to distortion and amplification (Bowler, 1992: 66-67). Thus, it was in a fragmented and mutated form that Darwin’s ideas were appropriated and entered popular consciousness through a variety of media – not least the literature of Hardy, Lewes and Eliot (Gilmore, 1993: 134).
Thomas Hardy, who included evolutionary themes in his writings
Having become established and recognised as a dominant idea, political and economic theories sought support in Darwin’s theories. Accordingly, opposing emphasis on the central themes of competition or cooperation then largely reflected far older views of the motivating force of a perfect society (Richards, 2000: 184). Thus, the integration of Darwinian concepts of process in nature contributed to both the ‘pessimistic’ tradition of politics represented by Hobbes, Burke and Smith and the utopianism of Rousseau, Paine and Marx. For the hostile George Bernard Shaw, Darwin “… had the luck to please everybody who had an axe to grind” (Oldroyd, 1980: 225).
One interpretation saw evolution endorsing the savage society of Hobbes, and it viewed human behaviour as entirely the product of self-interest that eliminated responsibility and empathy for other humans. Herbert Spencer, in coining the phrase ‘the survival of the fittest’, saw in evolutionary theory a scientific justification of a radical utilitarianism with a focus on egoism. Labelled ‘fanatical individualism’ by Huxley, Spencer’s Social Darwinism assumed that it was natural for the strong to vanquish the weak and exploit the poor, so providing a justification for class, gender and racial oppression (Dennett, 1995: 461).
Of more enduring influence than discredited Social Darwinism is the utilitarian tradition of Mill’s On Liberty and his doctrine of laissez faire, which held that laws should be designed to protect property and maximise human freedom. Feeding into this, some conservatives saw evolution as explaining and legitimising the longest surviving societies, the implication being that there should be a strict policy of non-interference in any existing economic and social system perceived as successful (Dale 1989: 184).
Predictably, the metaphor of life as a ruthless struggle alienated some radicals, with Samuel Butler preferring the idea of nature as intrinsically progressive. Shaw also attempted to discredit Darwinism in his plays, promoting Lamarckian ideas of evolution and using them to press for social and institutional reform (Eagleton, 1995: 17).
On the other hand, Darwinian theory could be interpreted in a fundamentally different way. Darwin’s observations of the moral instincts and altruism of animals offered support to the socialist and anarchist view of society as being inherently cooperative and good (Ruse, 1998: 347; Richards, 2000: 154). Indeed, the ascendant form of socialism in the nineteenth century, whether revolutionary or reformist, was both scientific and materialist. Thus, Marx was attracted by Darwinism, referring to The Origin as ‘the foundation in natural history of our whole outlook’ (Benton, 1995: 70). Marxists would then champion the tenuous association of Marx and Darwin to give scientific sanction to class struggle and to ideas of irresistible human progress.
Perhaps the greatest implicit challenge raised by the evolution thesis was to the Judaeo-Christian orthodoxy of an ordered, benevolent and unchanging universe. Darwinism offered in its place a haphazard and open-ended process, while geological discoveries about the antiquity of the earth and the recovery of the remains of so many extinct species also called into question accepted biblical truths. God’s goodness – or even his very existence – was then called into question by descriptions of competition in which nature was wasteful and cruel, it being difficult to explain the casualties of evolution by arguing that all was planned for a greater good.
The evolutionary process would further produce specific difficulties for the belief in human uniqueness, with the existence and nature of the soul being one major dilemma for theologians: if men evolved from animals, then at what stage did they acquire a soul and come to be made in God’s image? Furthermore, natural selection suggested that moral behaviour, having evolved along with other features of man’s being, was nothing more than a product of survival and reproduction (Bowler, 1992: 61).
Darwin’s evolutionary theory then had a major impact on society as Victorians came to terms with such a revolutionary scientific advance. But it also had implications for Darwin’s own family, and we can read of the distress felt by the devout Emma Darwin. In a letter to her son Francis, she expressed concerns that Charles had dismissed all spiritual beliefs as no higher than hereditary aversion or likings “such as the fear of monkeys towards snakes” (Darwin, 1958: 93).
Benton, T. 1995: ‘Science, Ecology and Culture. Malthus and the Origin of Species’, in Amigoni, D. & Wallace, J. (Eds) Charles Darwin’s the Origin of Species. New Interdisciplinary Essays. Manchester & New York, Manchester University Press. 68-94.
Bowle, P.J. 1992: The Non-Darwinian Revolution. Reinterpreting a Historical Myth. Baltimore London, Hopkins.
Dale, P.A. 1989: In Pursuit of a Scientific Culture. Science, Art and Society in the Victorian Age. London, University of Wisconsin Press.
Darwin, C. 1958: The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882. With original omissions restored. Edited with appendix and notes by his granddaughter Nora Barlow. New York & London, WW Norton and Co.
Dennett, D.C. 1995: Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Evolution and the Meaning of Life. London, Penguin.
Eagleton, T. 1995: ‘The Flight to the Real’, in Ledger, S. & McCracken, S. (Eds) Cultural Politics at the Fin de Siecle. Ambridge, Cambridge University Press. 11-21.
Gilmore, R. 1993: The Victorian Period. The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature 1830-1890. London & New York, Longman.
Oldroy, D.R. 1980: Darwinian Impacts. An Introduction to the Darwinian Revolution. Milton Keynes, the Open University Press.
Pizer, D. 1961: ‘Evolutionary Ideas in Late Nineteenth Century English and American Literary Criticism’. The Journal of Aesthetic and Art Criticism. Vol. 19 No. 3. 305-310.
Richards, J.R. 2000: Human Nature after Darwin. A Philosophical Introduction. London & New York, Routledge.
Ruse, M. 1979: The Darwinian Revolution. Chicago & London, University of Chicago Press.