This is not an article by a scientist about science. Neither the author of this piece nor the central character, the renowned writer Daphne du Maurier, have or had the scientific knowledge for that. Instead, it is an appreciation of Daphne du Maurier’s perception of Darwinianism and how it influenced her beliefs and the way she wrote. An examination of the latter, the influence of her beliefs on her novels, short stories, biographies and other work can be found in The Mysterious Humanism Of Daphne du Maurier (to which there is a link at the end of this article).
If a few of Daphne’s views in the quotations which follow are not entirely as scientists today might express them, this should reasonably be explained both by her layman’s knowledge of the subject and the time at which she wrote. She first published This I Believe, on which much of this article is based, over a quarter of a century ago.
A Unique Writer
Daphne was not, as is so often claimed, a writer of romantic fiction. She would exclaim in exasperation that she had only ever written one romantic novel, namely Frenchman’s Creek. Even her most widely known and filmed Rebecca she called ‘a study in jealousy’ and we might call it a psychological thriller today, especially if we think of the book rather than the films inspired by it. So what sort of writer was she?
Described by Professor Nina Auerbach as “a complex, powerful, unique writer, so unorthodox that no critical tradition, from formalism to feminism, can digest her” (Daphne du Maurier: Haunted Heiress), she was famous for her novels and short stories including Rebecca, Frenchman’s Creek, Jamaica Inn, The Birds, Don’t Look Now, Julius, The House On The Strand, and many more; in addition to well-regarded biographies of, for example, the Bacon brothers, Branwell Bronte, and her own distinguished family.
She also wrote about her deepest feelings and beliefs. In her essay This I Believe (to which the page references refer) – and elsewhere, such as letters to her friend Oriel Mallet – Daphne explained what she thought of the ‘big questions’ concerning god and religion, human development, the improbability of life after death, the supernatural, and the basis of morality. What I Believe reveals a worldview not dissimilar to modern secular Humanism. This can be identified in much of her writing, as shown in The Mysterious Humanism of Daphne du Maurier.
After having explained that she is not convinced by ‘the image of a super-Brain’ commanding ’Let there be light’ and creating the world with all its species, Daphne‘s understanding of evolution is contained in the passages which follow. Whatever may have brought about life, it ‘has had second and third thoughts when working out problems‘.
‘What cannot adapt is scrapped. The first insects, the first reptiles, were too large, too cumbersome. They became redundant. Giant bats with wings and claws that pawed the sky were mistakes and – to use a modern term – were scrubbed, along with the lumbering mammals glimpsed by our first ancestors. Plants, fishes, birds, apes are tried, found wanting, vanish. Races die out. Civilisations crumble. Not because an Almighty Ruler deals out punishment to offending sinners, but because certain particles of matter have failed to adapt to the changing circumstances of a particular period.’ (p.111)
So here we have her take on survival of the fittest by natural selection, followed by how she sees this developing into modern human morality, with man’s ‘awareness of others, the feeling for his young shared by all birds and beasts, enabling him to keep his unit strong’.
‘The bird that trails its wing to avert danger to its chick and deceives the pursuer, the lioness that guards the cub, the woman who snatches her child from the road on the approach of a car, these things are done from an age long impulse to preserve the species, to adapt, to meet the future; and the chemical change that fires the impulse, the charge of adrenalin into the bloodstream that directs the action, these are all part of our inheritance, transmuted from those first particles that gave us life. I do not see what all this has to do with God unless God is another name for Life – not omnipotent, not unchanging, but forever growing, forever discarding old worlds and creating new ones.’ (p.111)
Daphne was fascinated by our past and its effects on our present and future. This applies not only to our recent and ancestral past as in the next quotation, but also in the most distant past of the universe (or universes).
‘In our beginning is our end. The colour of our eyes, our skin, the shape of our hands, the depth of our emotions, the bump of humour or lack of it, the small talents we may put to good account, even the ill-health that suddenly in later life descends without apparent reason – these are the things that make us what we are. There is no cell in our bodies that has not been transmitted to us by our ancestors, and the very blood group to which we belong may predispose us to the disease that finally kills. We are all of us chemical particles, inherited from not only our parents but from a million ancestors; and because we beget in turn, passing on to our descendants at best a doubtful, sometimes a disturbing legacy.’ (p.109 -110)
‘If the particles that we now are came originally from an explosion in or near the sun, and the sun itself from yet another explosion in a kindred universe, then there is no limit either to the past or to the future, life of some sort is continuous, it has no beginning and no end. Our world may burn, disintegrate: there will be others. New explosions will form from new particles which will unite. Life will go on. Creation is at work, has always been at work.’ (p.110)
What her conception of the cosmos seems to encompass here is an endless cycle of Big Bangs and Big Crunches in a multitude of universes, more akin to the cosmology of Buddhism clearly described recently in the Dalai Lama’s The Universe in a Single Atom, than in Abraham Jewish, Christian, Islamic theology.
The Future of the Human Species
Interested in the possibilities opening up in science such as the ‘exciting, even exhilarating new science of genetics’, Daphne was attracted to the idea that not only would science develop our understanding of the world, it might also contribute to our development both physically and mentally as human beings. Today scientists are questioning whether or not evolution has come to an end for human beings. One view is that we have now stopped evolving physically, with our technological and medical advances cutting us off from the force of natural selection and survival of the fittest. Another is that we have become an animal which now evolves mentally and socially rather than physically. Yet another is that we are in the early stages of taking control of our own evolution, deciding for ourselves how we are going to develop as a species.
No doubt influenced by experiences in her own family of what they called ‘dreaming true’, she pondered the possibility of ESP, telepathy, precognition, or as she preferred to call it ‘a sixth sense’, perhaps part of the as yet undiscovered capacity of the brain which we are now delving into, like the ‘blind sight’ ability of some blind people’s brains to detect and respond to things which they cannot see. She said believed there to be a faculty, an inner untapped power ‘not yet pinpointed by science’ which ‘to date’ scientists were either not yet prepared to acknowledge or at least recognise the importance of‘’. It was important to her. She hoped for its eventual transformation of the human condition, while admitting to dangers in such things as ’so-called spiritualism and quack hypnosis’.
Daphne du Maurier had an optimistic view of the possible future of humanity. She claimed to believe all things possible but only when they can be scientifically proved. Are we about to take control of our own evolution to improve our species in the way the advocates of Transhumanism suggest? Transhumanism is a product of the 1980s when Daphne was first writing her essay about her beliefs. It supports the use of science and technology to improve the human species itself, transforming us in ways which change our condition with regard to suffering, disability, disease, aging; and our physical and mental capacities. Cyborgs, androids, bionic post-humans might no longer be confined to science fiction.
Should we see Transhumanism as a great advance or a great threat? It would at least have provided inspiration for Daphne du Maurier who, well known as a writer of historical fact and fiction, might have added futuristic speculation to her wide-ranging work.
A major biography of Dame Daphne du Maurier, 1907 to 1989, is Margaret Forster’s Daphne du Maurier, Arrow 1994.
A comprehensive examination of her work is The Daphne du Maurier Companion edited by Helen Taylor, Virago 2007.
From around the time of Daphne du Maurier’s anniversary in 2007, a large part of her fictional and non-fictional work has been republished by Virago Press: www.virago.co.uk
The article The Mysterious Humanism of Daphne du Maurier, which was featured on the du Maurier website during 2007, can be found at:
An annual 10 day Daphne du Maurier Festival is held at Fowey in Cornwall during May: www.dumaurier.org/festival.html
Dalai Lama The Universe In A Single Atom: How Science And Spirituality Can Serve Our World, Abacus 2006.
Information on Transhumanism can be found on Wikipedia and from www.transhumanism.org
Better Than Well: The Humanity+ (the World Transhumanist Association) is an international non-profit membership organization which advocates the ethical use of technology to expand human capacities. We support the development of, and access to, new technologies that enable everyone to enjoy better minds, better bodies and better lives. In other words, we want people to be better than well.