Content Review of Carroll’s On the Origin of Species  

Hiram Caton

On The Origin of Species. Edited by Joseph Carroll. Broadview Press, 2003.

How to Worship Charles Darwin

This edition of the Origin is a rare item: a book for the classroom that actually does the job. It contains a bibliography, explanatory notes, a chronology of Darwin's life, and a register of names. The appendices contain selections from Darwin's other works and selections from Darwin's sources and contemporaries. All for $9.95!

In addition to these nuts and bolts, the editor has composed an Introduction to initiate students into the sublimity of Darwin’s World. Here’s how it begins: ‘(The Origin) is one of the two or three most significant scientific works of all time—one of those works that fundamentally and permanently alter our vision of the world.’ Interested? Here’s more: this surpassing achievement ‘requires no specialized scientific training’—great news for students mortified by maths. And more: Origin is ‘also a great literary classic’ that is ‘eloquent, imaginatively evocative, and rhetorically compelling’. Holy Darwin! How good can it get? Even English lit students might go for that.

Surprise: editor Joseph Carroll is an English lit prof. His specialty is the evolutionary analysis of literature, an innovation that he pioneered. Lit departments aren’t science-friendly territory. Often they run an anti-science line, linking it to exploitation, global warming, racism, misogyny and the like. Come to think of it, isn’t Darwinism among the worst offenders?! Survival of the fittest, let the weak perish and the rich get richer, eugenic breeding to clean out the bungled and botched, that kind of thing. To block such negative thoughts, Carroll preaches an oration of superlatives about the Great Man that exceeds anything I’ve encountered. In scientific achievement, personal character, wisdom, and influence, Lord Darwin in his shining eminence leaves all others in the shadows. Here is Carroll on Darwin’s most important contribution to culture: ‘The vision of nature Darwin offers is not that of some broad, abstract, intellective pattern, but that of living impulse, eager, frantic, animating every single organism, vast and minute, in inconceivable numbers, everywhere on earth, persisting throughout all time of organic life’. It is a vision of ‘competitive struggle’, of the ‘great battle of life’, and the ‘war of nature’. Interestingly, in this context Carroll notes that Darwin specifies an empirical finding that would ‘annihilate my theory’--a species that developed ‘an adaptation solely for the benefit of some other species’. That’s because, Darwin believed, as Victorians typically believed, that every organism looks out for Number 1. It’s called ‘individualism’.

What about that? Is there any species with adaptations that benefit only another species? Sorry to say this, but yes, there are. The pattern is called ‘inquilinism’, which lies at the extreme end of the spectrum of parasitism. See E. O. Wilson, Sociobiology, p 371. Note: Darwin says unequivocally that his theory is ‘annihilated’, yet for some reason the ardent Darwinian Wilson doesn’t draw that conclusion.

An English prof isn’t expected to know about inquilinism, but literary visions of nature are another matter. Poets and novelists homed in on the implications of godlessness of the mechanistic universe well before the Origin was published. Among those usually mentioned is Alfred Tennyson’s In Memorium (1850), whose famous lines ‘Who trusted God was love indeed / And love Creation's final law -- / Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw / With ravine, shriek'd against his creed’ convey the temper of his sombre, lengthy meditation on nature. ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’ became a byword among Victorians for the world they had come to inhabit. We might expect Carroll to seize on this fact, to stress how Darwin’s vision fitted into the new cognitive-symbolic structures created by poets. But not a word of that! Carroll disregards not only Tennyson, but all imaginative writing that formed the context of Darwin’s publications. Why this silent denigration of the importance of his own field?

Probably because even summary recognition of the literary dimension of Victorian culture would expose the historical inaccuracy of Carroll’s extravagant claims for Darwin’s originality. For example, he attributes massive innovative force to Darwin’s replacement of creationism by purely naturalistic explanation in natural history. In fact, this was no innovation at all; the physical and hard biological sciences had long since oriented on exclusively natural causes. The only ‘scientists’ still clinging to creative intervention in nature were naturalists—those amateur bird watchers and rock collectors who often enough were clergymen. Since Darwin identified himself with naturalists, it was ‘natural’ for him to challenge creationism. But this challenge had been forcefully launched in 1844 in the anonymously published best-seller Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. The author, Robert Chambers, wrote a defence of no-exception naturalism far more frontal, eloquent, and incisive than anything from Darwin’s pen (Darwin was loath to give offence, especially to his pious wife Emma).

Not only had the sciences eliminated divine causality, so had theology! In 1846 the entirely secularist The Life of Jesus Critically Examined was translated from German into English by the novelist George Eliot (aka Marian Evans). Eliot enjoyed a close friendship with Herbert Spencer; together they edited the Westminster Review. They were part of an intellectual circle that included Thomas Huxley, George Lewes, J.S. Mill, H.G. Atkinson, and Harriet Martineau. Martineau, who translated Auguste Comte’s Positive Philosophy, published in 1851 Letters on the Laws of Man's Nature and Development, which projected humanist unbelief as the end point of millennia of cultural improvement. Carroll, whose speciality is the literature of this period, particularly the writings of George Eliot, presumably knows all of this. Yet he utters not a word about it! Why not? Perhaps because these facts reverse the relation between Darwin and his public that Carroll extols: far from being the mighty innovator who transforms English thought (‘revolution’), he reiterates and magnifies the then aspiring progressive culture. That culture seized on the Origin and magnified it because the weight of Darwin’s high social status brought with it the promise of the triumph of progressivism (the real meaning of the ‘Darwinian revolution’). Indeed, one of the first reviews of Origin hailed it as ‘the Whitworth gun of liberalism’, a clear salute to the political dimension of the evolution belief. The author of the review was Thomas Huxley.

Carroll apparently doesn’t see that a Darwinian analysis of literature needs to be complemented by a literary analysis of Darwinism.

© 2008