Darwinism, Philosophy and Society

I’m teaching, for the first time, this subject in the final semester for this year (we have a three semester structure in defiance of all etymology), and as you might expect I’m pretty au fait with it all, except for one: Darwinism and literature. Now, we’re using the Appleman volume Darwin (3rd edition)as the text, and it has some sections, but I thought I’d ask my readers for suggestions of material for the students and a guide to me. Because I am an aesthetic black hole: I suck it in, but no information gets back out.

Please don’t suggest the recent “literary Darwinism” movement. I have problems with that, not least it’s reliance on evolutionary psychological speculation.

17 thoughts on “Darwinism, Philosophy and Society

  1. There is a journal, Twentieth-Century Literature, that just devoted a special issue to Darwin and Literary Studies (vol. 55 #4 Winter 2009). Alas, the journal does not seem to have a useful web presence.

    And then there’s The Orphic Voice: poetry and natural history, by Elizabeth Sewell (1971). Alas, it’s out of print.

    You could cruise on over the Acephalous and ask Scott, he just finished a dissertation on the subject:



  2. I recently heard an interview on NPR with some great^n granddaughter of Darwin’s, who was writing poetry inspired by his writings…or something.

    Maybe I can find it.


  3. Gillian Beer’s “Darwin’s Plots” is a standard work on Darwin’s influence on Victorian literature. Also see George Levine’s “Darwin Among The Novelists”. Some of Ian McEwan’s stories have Darwinian shadows (but he tends to be a little influenced by EP). I used to have a big old file of xeroxes on this theme, but seem to have misplaced it.


  4. Huxleys half truths in man like apes. Narrative has a long history of playing with this theme.

    Ideas of common decent prior to Darwin are shaped by narrative traditions.

    What Darwin does is utterly diffrent.

    Ive always mean to take a bit more of an interest in the botanic garden at some point.

    It seems almost in one sense like a eulogy to the creatures that inspired such thoughts in a pre-modern world.

    Huxley ends the essay by suggesting truth is not evidence.

    Darwinism and literature have played with similar themes in very diffrent ways.

    Probably does not fit but thought I would chuck it in.


  5. I also think it’s a worthwhile idea to look at Gillian Beers’s Darwin’s Plots (the full book) ; I’d imagine you won’t have time to have your students read Eliot’s Middlemarch, but you might find it useful.

    T. H. Huxley has several essays that might be worth looking at — “On a Liberal Education”, “Science and Culture”, and so forth.

    The fundamental question is the one that inevitably comes up with this sort of topic: do you want your unit primarily to be on Darwinism in literature, theories about the relations between Darwinism and literature, or the potential of Darwinism for literature?


    1. Middlemarch is excerpted in the Appleman volume, and I had found Beers’ book, but I was looking for a smaller source 🙂


  6. “Darwin’s long poem “The Botanic Garden” (1789) is one of the most extraordinary – some would say bizarre – works in English literature. Arching between two eras, it was a final exuberant flowering of Enlightenment experiment and optimism but also a glittering treasure trove of images and ideas for the coming Romantic generation, plundered by Shelley, Coleridge, Wordsworth. Four thousand lines of rhyming couplets humming above thickets of footnotes, with engravings by Blake, Fuseli and others, it consisted of two parts, “The Economy of Vegetation”, and “The Loves of the Plants”.

    That is, of course, Erasmus Darwin. Too tenuous a connection for your purposes?


  7. Evolutionary thinking encroaching into history as science. Specifically, the “ultimate cause” gauntlet thrown by Jared Diamond in “Guns, Germs and Steel” (1997), and Daniel Lord Smail’s “On Deep History and the Brain” and his call for focus on studying the “deep history” of humanity and the implications of that new emphasis.


  8. Oxford World’s Classics has an anthology called ‘Literature and Science in the 19th Century’ – about 600 pages of excerpts from scientific writings, including Huxley and Darwin, and literature from Poe, Hardy, Twain, etc.


  9. If you’re interested in older books of far-away fields, and difficult ones to get, there’s

    Die Musik im Lichte der Darwinschen Theorie

    by Oswald Koller. Appeared in the Series Jahrbuch der Musikbibliothek Peters, as vol. 7. (piub. data: Leipzig: Peters, 1900.)

    As you may gather, it’s in German. (-; Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of it. How far Koller’s definition of Darwinism goes I’m not sure, but judging from similar publications, I guess it’s pretty much in line with post-Darwin Darwinism, i.e., Wallace-influenced.


  10. Don’t know how you’re realistically going to get away from the literary Darwinists, as they are the ones doing it, and they rely on evolutionary psychology — though not without some disagreements with it (one can consider Carroll in particular on this). I don’t know what the problem is with evolutionary psychology, though, as we do need a Darwinian understanding of psychology — something sadly rejected by too many psychological theories. Not that there aren’t areas of criticism, to be sure — but it seems to be more on the right track than almost any other psychological theory out there. The rest is mostly made up nonsense.

    In other words, I wouldn’t dismiss Carroll so quickly — especially if you haven’t actually read him.


  11. John,

    I don’t know if this is the kind of thing you’re looking for, but Piers Hale, the historian of science at U of Oklahoma, in collaboration with my colleague John Beatty, have been working on the theologian (and friend of Huxley’s) Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies (which is a children’s story that explores Kingsley’s views about evolution and its implications for religion, etc.).

    They’re working on a book ms., I think, but in the mean time (besides looking at the fascinating Water Babies), you might look at

    “Water Babies: an evolutionary fairly tale,” published by John and Piers in Endeavour, volume 32, no. 4, 2008, p. 141-146.


  12. Less in the literature vain, but very philosophical is Kim Sterelny’s The Evolution of Agency and Other Essays. Perhaps one of these essays might serve.


  13. A novel I recommended before, _The Origin of Species_, by Nino Ricci has been published in the United States. Maybe you will be able to get a copy or copies; you and your students would enjoy it.



  14. Thanks guys. Mostly I’m looking for a review of how Darwinism affected literature, at any time. I will contact Piers – he’s stuck in the middle of teaching right now. I know him.


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