he theory of evolution by natural selection, devised by Charles Darwin, caused considerable intellectual ferment in mid- and late Victorian England. After having read Charles Lyell’s The Principles of Geology (1830-1833) and The Poetical Works of John Milton during his voyage on the Beagle, Darwin concluded that the physical world had been and still was subject to continuous change through the action of natural forces, and man is the product of these forces. No book has so profoundly affected the modern view of man than Darwin’s The Origin of the Species (1859), although some groundwork of evolutionary theory was earlier done by a number of scientists, including Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, and Robert Chambers, the author of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). The publication of Darwin’s book, which cast strong doubts on the traditional belief in the origins of life, also prompted a sharp reorientation of philosophical and moral attitudes.

Until 1859, all evolutionary theories were teleological — that is, they indicated some development of the chain of being towards perfection. In the “Great Chain of Being” human beings appeared in the superior position. Furthermore, man, consisting of body, mind and soul, as described in Genesis, was totally unrelated to other species. Darwin questioned this orthodox view. He saw no final purpose of evolution. His doctrine of “survival of the fittest” (a term later coined by Darwin’s contemporary, Herbert Spencer) treats the world as an incessant struggle for survival. It is a sinister world where everybody “fights” against everybody, but “survival of the fittest” does not literally mean fighting better, or making more money, or dominating others thanks to one’s higher intelligence. Instead, it refers solely to reproductive fitness. In other words, whichever group or individual reproduces more successfully is most fit.

Darwin, who observed a continuing struggle for existence in the natural world, showed that the determining factors of life are chance and necessity in the “survival of the fittest.” Darwin’s theory of evolution thereby undermined the value of traditional religion and morality, which had been accepted for centuries as the guiding principle of mankind, because it implied that man was no more than a “talking monkey”, and no God was necessary to create him. It revolutionalised man’s conception of himself. Darwin thus started a new anthropocentrism that deprived man of his unique position in the world. In the light of Darwin’s theory, man appears left alone in the universe without any divine power which should — or could — protect him. When Darwin’s followers realised that man is no more or no less that a “naked ape”, they concluded that such close similarities between man and the rest of the animal world destroyed any purpose of human existence other than that which all animals have. Darwin’s theory claimed that since the individual is merely a servant to his species, the overall purpose of existence is the necessity of reproduction. Sexuality therefore becomes the most important motivation for human behaviour: Each individual is only a black box that carries and transmits the biological features of his species to progeny.

Darwin’s Origin of Species denied a divine hand in creation. In consequence, those who read it inferred that no absolute good or absolute evil exists. Moral norms, which had seemed universal, proved to be relative and dependent on the societies which had created them at definite time in history. Moral norms were thus man-made constructs and not universal truths. On this view, man began to feel more lonely and isolated in an infinite and indifferent universe. Man was irrevocably thrown off the supreme pedestal on which he had been placed by former philosophical and religious systems. But as a matter of fact, according to Darwin, man does not need supernatural protection because he is endowed with a faculty to which previous philosophical systems hardly alluded. Darwin believed that in the deterministic world man is free to be what he wants to be. Homo sapiens is the only species which developed various forms of culture and genuine ethical systems. Paradoxically, the development of human society was an attempt to escape from the natural selection. Human beings create social systems in order to protect themselves from the uncontrollable forces of nature.

Evolutionary theory provoked in Victorian letters a wave of pessimism and scepticism about the human condition. Darwin made it necessary to re-evaluate the most essential concepts which humanity had created for the last 2000 years: man, nature, consciousness, God, soul, and so on. Mankind had been proud of these concepts because they put man in a superior position in relation to the world of nature, but Darwin shattered them by one theory. Darwin’s theory of evolution appealed not only to eminent scientists, such as the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, the anthropologist and eugenicist Francis Galton, but also to novelists and poets. As a result, many Victorian writers dramatically modified their opinions about man’s origins and the physical aspect of man’s existence.

Darwin’s works provoked a continuing moral and existential debate which also found expression in English literature, although it must be admitted that the two poems associated with evolutionary theory, Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam and Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”, were written before 1859 — Tennyson's two decades earlier! A number of Victorian novelists absorbed some tenets of Darwinian theory and provided varied, often contradictory interpretations. They introduced to their fictions lay scientists who contested traditional religious beliefs about the natural world. In her last, unfinished novel, Daughters and Wives (1866) Elizabeth Gaskell modelled one of her characters, Roger Hamley, on Charles Darwin, incidentally, a cousin of Gaskell on her mother’s side. Gaskell’s naturalist hero represents a new moral authority based on scientific research which is relevant to the modern world.

George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, who had a particular interest in science, were close readers of Darwin’s works. Eliot’s Middlemarch is regarded by some as an exemplification of the ideas of social Darwinism. For many late Victorians, including Thomas Hardy, the traditional teleological interpretation of the world lost its sense. They realised that religion and science, which were mutually supportive in the eighteenth century, in the nineteenth century fell into open conflict. Inspired by Darwin’s biologism, Thomas Hardy showed that man is the only animal for whom existence is a problem that he has to solve by his own choice and from which he cannot escape. Hardy adapted Darwin’s ideas to his later fiction showing characters to be at the mercy of their environment, heredity and adaptability rather than more in control of fate. His two novels, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, depict a ruthless Darwinian world in which protagonists fail to survive because they cannot adapt to the changing social environment.

An intellectual ferment caused by evolutionary theory in mid- and late Victorian England led to an ongoing controversy over religion and science. Although some liberal theologians, including the Rev. Charles Kingsley, were not hostile to the theory of evolution, clergymen accused scientists of impudence, whereas scientists revealed ignorance of the clergy.This intellectual ferment made the mid- and late Victorian periods a time of a great reappraisal in both the natural and social sciences. As a result, traditional natural philosophy professed by amateurs became transformed into modern science developed by professional scientists who base their competence and authority on rigid theoretical and practical research.

Further Reading

Beer, Gillian. Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot, and Nineteenth- Century Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Carroll, Joseph. Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Henkin, Leo Justin. Darwinism in the English Novel, 1860-1910: The Impact of Evolution on Victorian Fiction. New York: Russell & Russell, 1963.

Himmelfarb, Gertrude. Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959.

Levine, George. Darwin and the Novelists: Patterns of Science in Victorian Fiction. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1988.

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Last modified 11 May 2010