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Charles Darwin: A Synopsis of Works and Study

By Dwaipayan Banerjee, Undergraduate Student

Darwin's Major works and their relations to Philosophy, Theology and Literature.

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Let me make it explicitly clear for the start that this paper makes no claim to original presentation of interpretation; the purpose of the seminar will be to acquaint readers for an English Literature paper with some of the scientific, theological and philosophical arguments of the victorian times. In this relation, I may as well mention that the scope of this paper does not extend to include physiological and biological debates. This paper will deal with the implications, social, theological and philosophical, of the theory of evolution, but not with the scientific technicalities of the same theory. Also, all the views presented in this paper are regrettably euro-centric. The reasons for this are 1) It is contextually apt for a study of Darwin and Victorian Society 2) Limitations of time did not allow me to further explore anthropological ideas in other parts of the world. For purposes of convenience I have divided the paper into two parts:-


To present a illustrative picture of the scientific opinion of the times, I will use texts which mould the minds of hundreds, prescribed university reading. This is William Paley's Natural Theology, (1802) representing prevailing points of view and attitudes. In this he contends that the fact that there is 'intelligent' adaptation in creatures points to a predetermined 'design' and Creation by God. However, this theory falls flat in the existence of suffering. For example, if teeth were so perfectly designed, why did they ache? His only answer was that pain is never fatal, and when death occurs, it is desirable (following from Malthus' view that death is essential for ecological balance) with which he smugly smiled to himself and believed he had protected his religion from the infidels.
In 1844 Vestiges of Creation (by Robert Chambers) appeared... "the proposition determined on after much consideration is that the several series of animated beings... are under the providence of god, first, of an impulse which has been imparted to the forms of life... second, of another impulse... tending to modify organic structures in accordance with external circumstances. This work, although problematic (because of the contradiction between the first and second impulses), had very wide circulation
This was the ideological centre, in other words, the mainstream and acceptabl view of thought which did not contradict religious doctrines and conventional positions on anthropology.
Other concepts in vogue during the times was Malthus generalized the principle that 'population, when unchecked increases in a geometrical ratio while subsistence increases only in arithmetic ratio'. This was to prove invaluable to Darwin's work, as I will show in the course of this paper. A more extreme corollary of the same view was H.N. Brailsford pointed out that it followed all efforts to preserve life were wrong, charity an economic sin, altruism unscientific and medicine immoral.
Having described the ideological 'centre' so to speak, let me touch upon the marginal viewpoints which were to prove invaluable to Darwin's work. The subject of mutability of species, essential to Darwinian ideas, had been taken up by french philosophers Montesquieu, Maupertuis and Diderot. Diderot suggested there was a prototype from which all living beings descended. Erasmus Darwin (in 1794) believed in the mutability of species because of the changes undergone by animals during embryonic development. He believed modifications brought were about by the satisfaction of wants due to 'lust, hunger and danger'. Recognised the importance of adaptation of organisms to the environment, of artificial selection and sexual selection in bringing about change, anticipating the pillars of Darwinian theory. However, he was at a loss when it came to explaining how adaptations were produced.
Another natural historian Jean Baptiste de Lamarck (in 1809) recognised the unlimited amount of time required to account for the history of the earth and theorised the phenomenon of 'transformism' or evolution of species. He concluded evolution was conditioned by the direct effects of the environment and 'inner feeling'. He too, however, was unable to however provide evidence or a unitary theory. Cuvier in 1812 theorised on the extinction of species due to natural disasters and increasing complexity of new life. In 1813, Dr. W. C. Wells recognised the existence of natural selection. In 1826, Prof. Grant declares his belief that species are descended from other species and that they become improved in the course of their modification. These theories rejected by contemporaries including geologist Charles Lyell due to lack of evidence. These marginal viewpoints anticipated a great deal of Darwinian theory. Science reached the public through conservatives easy-to-understand Lyell and Whewell, who assumed safe positions. E. Darwin, Lamarck were hardly read. Its effect was really to educate the minds of the informed few. My reasons for dwelling on this was to prove that evolution was not the recolutionary discovery of one man, but instead the slow, combined of several natural historians.
Another important phenonmenon in 19th century science was the nebular hypothesis in astronomy. Although proved wrong, it functioned to set back the origin of the earth by several million years, and disposed men's minds to think of the universe as generated rather than created miraculously. Newer thought showing deeper recesses of space demonstrated that mankind possibly had no value, was just an accidental satellite on a half-burnt star, and far from central to a stupendous scheme of things.


Darwin returned from Beagle tour in 1837, finished work on book in 1859. His argument is divided into chapters:

chapter 1-2 : Deals with Variation under Domestication and Variation under Nature
Evidence suggests that domestication does not end variability; Stated that two factors produce modification, nature of the organism and nature of the conditions; man's power of selection is also instrumental in this. Nature gives variations; man adds them up in certain directions useful to him - a form of selection, which may be called unconscious, and which results from everyone trying to possess and breed from the best individual animals. A similiar accumulative actions of Selection, though with less interference from man, is the predominant process in nature.
Chapter 3: Deals with the struggle for existence amongst all organic beings around the world following from high geometrical ratio of increase (malthus) leading to natural selection and extinction of species. Herbert Spencer had earlier described this process as Survival of the Fittest. In other words, a struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase - hence as more individuals are produced than can possibly survive, there must in every case be a struggle for existence - slow breeding man has doubled in 25 years, and at this rate, in less than a thousand years, there would be no standing room left... in 740 years, slow breeding elephants would produce 19 million. Lighten any check, mitigate the destruction ever so little, and the number of the species will almost instantaneously increase to any amount.
Chapter 4: The theory of Natural Selection is further propounde. He states since variations occur, individuals characterised by this will have the best chance of survival and he believes character traits are inherited, these will tend to produce offspring similarly characterised. This principle of preservation, or the survival of the fittest, I have called Natural Selection - the corollaries of this are extinction and divergence of character.
Chapters 5-10: Deal with problems with this theory:
i. Why, if species have descended from other species by fine gradations, do we not everywhere see innumerable transitional forms? Why is not all nature in confusion instead of species being well defined? - The explanation for this is that it is unfair to expect great mutation with our very eyes because mutation takes place very slowly, and very selectively, i.e. at certain places at certain times with certain species.
iii. Species crossing causes sterilisation whereas varieties crossing fertility remains. - He explains this by stating that this is incidental to differences in reproductive system.
chapter 15: Conclusion
In concluding, Darwin admits that it is hard to believe that the complexity of life on earth is not a result of a higher intelligence - this difficulty must be mastered in the realisation of gradations of perfection existing through time, and natural selection choosing preferable deviations of structure and instinct results in improvement. He also accounts for the lack of geological evidence for evolution a result of the imperfection of the geological record, the number of specimens in museums is absolutely as nothing compared with the countless generations of countless species which have certainly existed.
He also recapitulates his theories on sexual selection, that there will be a struggle between the males; success will depend on the males having special weapons, or means of defense, or charms; and a slight advantage will lead to victory.
Also, he argues under god-made perfection by outlining several cases of mistakes in nature... the bee's own death while stinging, waste of pollen by fir-trees, the instinctive hatred of the queen bee for her own fertile daughters etc.
He also correctly predicts grand new field of enquiry opening up after his work, when people will realise that organisms are not miraculous creations but productions of natural selection and evolution.


Darwin was initially reluctant to publish this work keeping in mind set prejudices against his work. However, he did so in 1871, applying the conclusion of his former work upon man -

CHAPTER 1: The Evidence of the Descent of Man from Some Lower Form
Draws analogies between skeletal structures of mammals, that the brain resembles that of the orangutan. Also, argued that since man is liable to receive from the lower animals and to communicate to them certain diseases, there exists a similarity of composition. Many kinds of monkeys have a strong taste for tea coffee and alcohol, and smoke with obvious pleasure. The natives of Africa catch the wild baboons by exposing vessels with strong beer, by which they are made drunk. The following morning, they are cross and dismal and held their aching heads with both hands and wore a most pitiable expression. The process of reproduction is the same in all mammals Also, close relation between man's embryonic structure and other animals, say that of a dog proves a certain common descent. It is only arrogance makes us declare we are descended from demi-gods
Like other species, Man too evolves guided by the process of natural selection. Malthus' idea again of reproduction beyond means of subsistence leading to natural selection, aided by inheritance and sexual selection - 'A community which includes a large number of well-endowed individuals increases in number, and is victorious over other less favoured ones. Here Darwin deflates the argument that man is 'weak' (can't climb trees, weak teeth) and hence not naturally selected by saying that this would brute strength would hinder social interaction and development of mental faculties, which is really a superior kind of strength.
Object of this chapter: To show that there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties. Maternal love in all nations mimic maternal love exhibited by all animals. To substantiate this, Darwin proposes several examples: One such being that Dogs even show a sense of humour; if a bit of stick or other such object is thrown to one, it will often carry it away, wait for his master, and when the master approaches, take it and run a distance and wait again, evidently enjoying the practical joke. Animals have been known to exhibit curiosity, imitation, attention, ennui (in dogs) and reason. Darwin thus concludes that man and the higher animals, especially the primates, have some few instincts in common.
Darwin's primary conclusion is thatman is descended from some less highly organised form - embryonical, structural and several other forms of evidence substantiates this. In concluding, Darwin goes on to suggest that good emotions, 'love' and moral qualities are also a result of natural selection, since they are beneficial to the community. He also goes on to say that the belief in god has been said to be the differing factor which separates man from animals; he says its fallacious to assume that this belief is innate, it is only a construct of a 'long-continued culture'.
An essential concept, nearly always misunderstood, of Darwinian evolution is that Evolution is not progress. Populations simply adapt to their current surroundings. They do not necessarily become better in any absolute sense over time. A trait or strategy that is successful at one time may be unsuccessful at another. That said, let me go on to the implications of Darwinian theory.

The crux of Darwin's Theory

Evolution as such. This is the theory that the world is not constant or recently created nor perpetually cycling, but rather is steadily changing, and that organisms are transformed in time.
Common descent. This is the theory that every group of organisms descended from a common ancestor, and that all groups of organisms, including animals, plants, and microorganisms, ultimately go back to a single origin of life on earth.
Multiplication of species. This theory explains the origin of the enormous organic diversity. It postulates that species multiply, either by splitting into daughter species or by "budding", that is, by the establishment of geographically isloated founder populations that evolve into new species.
Gradualism. According to this theory, evolutionary change takes place through the gradual change of populations and not by the sudden (saltational) production of new individuals that represent a new type.
Natural selection. According to this theory, evolutionary change comes about throught the abundant production of genetic variation in every generation. The relatively few individuals who survive, owing to a particularly well-adapted combination of inheritable characters, give rise to the next generation.


At the outset, it is important to understand that several ideas have been wrongly attributed to him - for one, reading Darwin's theories of the survival of the fittest and natural selection as naturally capitalist ideas is problematic, since he repeatedly asserts co-operation and harmony is essential to his theory. On the other hand, it is also stated that Darwin failed to perceive the element of co-operation because he was a product of a laissez-faire society. All this based on fallacious assumptions that Origin rests on moral assumption and value statements. By interpreting Darwin's 'competition' and 'cooperation' we are wrongly ascribing moral values to ecological vocabulary. In understanding Darwin, let us first understand that History, like any other science, is a linguistic construct, within which internal inconsistencies and instabilities are discoverable. So clear lines of distinction have to be drawn between Darwinism as it has been interpreted, and the initial implications of his two texts. At the same time, it would be wrong to create boundaries between Darwin's science and the science of philosophy. The two of course are deeply inter-related, but simplistic interpretation of this relation (like that of Darwin espousing either Capitalism or Marxism) should well be avoided. Darwin's contribution to philosophy was in, as John Dewey puts it, "laying hands upon the sacred ark of absolute permanency, the Origin of Species introduced a node of thinking that in the end was bound to transform the logic of knowledge, and hence the treatment of morals, politics and religion." I will further elucidate this idea.
The Baron Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, while descrying the efforts of Darwin congratulated himself in a public speech that he was not descended from a monkey. The reply from Huxley came, "If I had to choose I would prefer to be a descendant from a humble monkey rather than of a man who employs his knowledge and eloquence in misrepresenting those who are wearing out their lives in search for truth".
Darwin was criticised all round for declaring 'god is dead', and violating everything held sacred, including Genesis. From all parts of the Christian world, Darwin was labelled a heretic who was eroding faith in God. However in 1863, there was a blow to this theological camp. Lyell, who was a devout Christian and an eminent geologist declared his adherence to the idea of successive creations and published his work on the antiquity of man. Same time came Huxley's Man's Place in Nature supporting evolutionary views. However, criticism continued, though with slightly less heart. Even the Pope denounced Darwin, calling his work a tissue of fables. Even as late as 1977, a group of people calling themselves Creation Research Society ask, "If it really took five billion years for God to make all these things, why did He tell us it took six days?"
Advances of science were unearthing laws of nature; at first, this did not contradict the existence of god. Theologsts internalised this into their system stating that all this proved was that god was not wilful but governed with specific rules. "In Nature, the laws are there, they are immanenent in the natural world, and it is the will of god that in our enlightened progress we should discover them." Darwin's work did not fit into this conception at all. Not only was an apparently accidental world revealed, but even if one insisted upon discovering an order in the apparent chaos of the biological world, the incredible intricacy of ecological relations was such that Darwin himself felt that a full comprehension was beyond him or any human being. So the belief that law of nature was essentially simple, designed by God so that we understand them was contradicted.

However, the true nature of controversy arising from Darwin is easily confused. The popular feature leaves the impression that the issue was science vs. religion. The issue lay primarily within science itself, since Darwin discounted the theological outcry as something which bore upon the 'feelings of his female relatives'.
The force which operates throughout a series of changes and holds them to a single course; which subordinates aimless flux to a perfect manifestation; which keeps physically distant individuals in uniform structure was first analysed and formalised by Aristotle's, scholastics translated his term as species. This concept of species, a fixed form and final cause, was a central principle of all forms of knowledge. Preceded by Galileo and Descartes, Darwin questioned this classic philosophy of nature and of knowledge. Darwin destabilised this stability in structure, and showed life was in a process of transistion, with no fixed purpose or end. As John Dewey states, "the influence of Darwin upon philosophy resides in his having conquered the phenomena of life for the principle of transition, and thereby freed the new logic for application to mind and morals and life."
The corollary of the ideas of species carried with it the idea that a rational force was working out its manifestation; extended to nature, it was seen as a spiritual causal force. Hence science was undermined, and assumed to always be in mutual agreement with religion. The Darwinian principle of natural selection went against the grain of this philosophy. Hostile critics charged Darwin with making chance the causative influence of the universe. He holds that since variations are in useless as well as useful directions, the design argument is unjustifiable.
1) Change is no longer a sign of defect and unreality, but fundamental in all that exists.
2) Thought is no longer concerned with the general and the wholesale, but with the specific and the particular, with the concrete problem.
3) Shift from a concern with the purposes of the Creator to ends and outcomes of natural processes.
Man's relation to nature was fundamentally altered. He was no longer a fallen angel, but a great ape trying to make good with natural circumstances.
Apart from Darwin's factual evidence, now we have nuclear age determinations which confirm and amplify the observed sequences of geology. A substantial body of evidence has also accumulated in support of the chemical probability of steps leading toward the origin of life by chemical evolution from non-living antecedents. Free oxygen began to accumulate in the atmosphere 2 billion years ago, as shown by the oldest records of oxidised sediments deposited.


Discussion of Intelligence may seem a digression, but I have included this for an important reason. After reading Darwin, it is imperative to understand the implications of his theories. Debates surrounding the quantifying of intelligence, whether it is primarily inherited or environment related, is a direct result of Darwin's theory of evolution. Also, from an post-colonial viewpoint, and with reference to Fascist interpretations of evolutionary theories, it is vital to understand the concept and fallacy of intelligence as a racial attribute.

What is the distinguishing factor of intelligence?
Chimps studied exhibited creative vocabulary, an understanding of grammar and even a linguistic sense of humour. They invented ways of description, describing a water-melon as 'drink fruit' and an irritating trainer as 'you green shit'. Basic english corresponds to about 1000 words, these chimps are already adept at 10% of that sum. After a few generations of evolution, Carl Sagan does not think it unlikely that there might appear the memoirs of a chimpanzee with a 'as told to' byline. This brings up several important questions; how smart does a chimp have to be before he is given rights or before killing it constitutes murder?
Inherited Intelligence vs. Environmentally Simulated Intelligence
In 1869, Galton published Hereditary Genus, which applied evolutionary thinking to questions of evolution. Turn of the century, scientists began to show interest in quantifying intelligence, and began to relate intelligence to genetics. In 1908 the Binet-Simon scale was developed which was later popularised as the IQ-test. However, knowing IQ is one thing and analysing its social relations is another. It does not prove that IQ is caused by social class any more than it proves the reverse, that social class is caused by I.Q. Now debate began whether intelligence was inherited or environment-related. The inheritance theorists demonstrate similarily between parents and their offspring; the theorists favouring the environment-causation suggest that the parents pass on the same environment, and hence account for the similarity.They (Richard Herrnstein being a prime example) demonstrate the similarity of IQ between twins, a whopping 85% to the affirmative. This arguement is extended to elaborate the existence of racial I.Q.'s. They argue that we have been living with an inherited stratification of society for some time. Herrnstein purports to show that American society is drifting towards a stable hereditary meritocracy, with social stratification by inborn differences and a corresponding distribution of 'rewards'.
Racist Implications
However, as Noam Chomsky shows, this is based on a assumption that reward is dependent on IQ. This would not function under a socialist dictum. Chomsky also exposes the obvious racist implications of the hereditary argument, whatever Herrnstein's personal opinions may be. Chomsky urges these self-proclaimedly 'neutral' anthropologists to take responsibility for their actions. They are no different from a psychologist in Hitler's Germany who though he could show that Jews had genetically determined tendency towards conspiracy. Scientific enquiry should be encouraged, but not at the cost of human value. What, Chomsky asks, is the intellectual intent of relating I.Q. with race? Herrnstein mentions a possibile relation between I.Q. and height. Since there is no discriminiation on the basis of height, this is of no importance. It follows that if ours was a nonracist society, the relation between I.Q. and race would also fail to evoke interest.


As Lionel Stevenson said, "in its simplest terms, the result of the evolutionary theory was the supplanting of the idea of permanence by the idea of relativity". There were certain established notions and facts, such as evil as a result of the biblical original sin, reward and punishment of human deeds, and denial in earth being rewarded by luxury in heaven. With the evolution theory deflating the definite act of creation, and coupling men with beasts, these established notions were disturbved.

Tennyson, an amateur scientist himself, percieved a change in the status quo as early on as the 1830's. He began to adapt the idea of god to keep apace with the new developments in science. In Memoriam, written between 1833 and 1850, he defined god as a loving being who directs evolution towards beneficient ends (Lionel Stevenson). Browning too aligned himself with this theory, finding in human imperfection, a promise of development still to come. Written before Darwin's work, it anticipates the storm which would inevitably rise as scientific theories in the early 19th centuries reached their logical conclusions.

Strong Son of God, immortal Love,
Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove;

Tennyson resorts to faith to counter heretical theories emerging before Darwin's landmark work. His answer to the challenge to the theological status quo is faith and belief in something beyond their powers.

Thine are these orbs of light and shade;
Thou madest Life in man and brute;
Thou madest Death; and lo, thy Foot
Is on the skull which thou hast made.
Thou wilt not leave us in the dust:
Thou madest man, he knows not why,

The idea of divine creation is reiterated.

We are fools and slight;
We mock thee when we do not fear:
But help thy foolish ones to bear;
Help thy vain worlds to bear thy light.

A plea to show the path to people who erred.
However, in the same poem we find the poet questioning religious attitudes that most Victorians had taken for granted:
'Oh yet we trust …
That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroy'd,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;…
Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last - far off - at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.
So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.'
And then there are evolutionary notions:
'Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;…
'So careful of the type?' but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, 'A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go… '

As evident in the last selection and in poetry in general, the ruthlessness in nature as exposed by Darwin's theory displaced earlier notions of beneficience and pure beauty in nature. Tennyson concluded that the world was yet in the 'red dawn' which would eventually develop into a 'golden noon'. Both Tennyson and Browning were convinced that progress was primarily a matter of soul, in which earthly life was but an episode. They did not percieve contradiction between evolution and the existence of god, but merely worked these new ideas into their preconcieved fabric of opinion. However, other poets were less accepting. For one, Mathew Arnold in Dover Beach and Stanzas in Memory of the Author of Obermann, spoke of the loss of faith, looking back on earlier times when Christianity was unquestioned as a golden age. In the very year of the Origin of Species, Edward Fitzgerald published his vresion of the Rubaiyat. It voiced the pessimistic hedonism that so many people drew from evolution. Since an after-life was uncertain, life seemed to offer nothing better than self-indulgence. Few years later, Swinburne combined this ennui with an assault upon orthodox morality and anthropocentric god. In the Hymn of Man:

Therefore the God that ye made you is grievous, and gives not aid,
Because it is but for your sake that the God of your making is made,
Thou and I and he are not gods made man for a span,
But God, if a God there be, is the substance of men, which is man.
Our lives are as pulses or pores of his manifold body and breath;
As waves of his sea on the shores where birth is the beacon of death.

His concept of God is a sum total of mankind. The evolutionary source of this idea is obvious. Man is moving closer to perfection, a manifestation of a creative life-force. Man is blinding himself by creating external gods and dogma. Swinburne proclaims that this false god is dead, and
"Glory to man is the highest! for Man is the master of things."
Inspired by the same fact, Arnold and Swinburne reacted in diametrically opposite manners. In discarding orthodox faith Arnold saw futility and uncertainty. Swinburne saw progress, emancipation and escape from fear of supernatural vengeance. Tennyson and Browning clung to belief in God and immortatily.
By the nineties, the Period of evolutionary excitement in English poetry was at an end. Tennyson's late poems expressed a pantheistic creed in which the fact of evolution was accepted, and that progress was directed by god. Browning had died in his belief that the onward struggle was the greatest thing in this life and would countinue in the next.


Sir Gavin de Beer: "Biology Before the Beagle" from Charles Darwin: A Scientific Biography

Noam Chomsky: "The Fallacy of Richard Herrnstein's I.Q." from Cognition 1 (1973)

Preston Cloud: "Scientific Creationism" from The Humanist (Jan 1977)

John Dewey: The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy

Richard Herrnstein: I.Q. in the Meritocracy published in the Atlantic Monthly

Julian Huxley: "Evolutionary Ethics" from Touchstone for Ethics

John C. Loehlin, Gardner Lindzey and J.N. Spuhler: Race Differences in Intelligence

Milton Millhauser: Just Before Darwin

Morse Peckham: "Darwinism and Darwinisticism" from Victorian Studies III (1959)

John Herman Randall: "The Changing Impact of Darwin on Philosophy" from The Journal of the History of Ideas

Carl Sagan: The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence

Sir Charles Lyell: Principles of Geology (1830-1833)

Andrew Dickson White: The Final Effort of Theology (1896)

Charles Darwin: An Historical Sketch of the Progress of Opinion on the Origin of Species

Charles Darwin: The Origin of Species

Charles Darwin: The Descent of Man




Go back to the Darwin page for related resources on this topic.


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