Charles Darwin @200

Charles Darwin @200

Contemporary satirical drawing of Darwin

It is my fashion to view people’s careers in terms of their controversies and their influences outside of their own fields.

Darwin’s claim to fame in this context is that he said we are of common descent with “apes.”

Charles Robert Darwin (February 12, 1809April 19, 1882) was an eminent English naturalist who achieved lasting fame with his 1859 book On the Origin of Species which established evolution by common descent as the dominant scientific explanation of diversification in nature.

Influence on Naturalism

Writers who belong to the 19th century literary school of Naturalism were influenced by the evolution theory of Charles Darwin. They believed that one’s heredity and social environment decide one’s character. Naturalism attempts to determine “scientifically” the underlying forces (i.e. the environment or heredity) influencing these subjects’ actions. In fact, Zola wrote a long essay in which he mentioned Darwin in relation to contemporary literature. The essay was called The Experimental Novel and described the process of writing a novel as an experiment, in which the writer introduces “characters”, and the outcome is determined by heredity and mileu.

He wrote:

Sans me risquer à formuler des lois, j’estime que la question d’hérédité a une grande influence dans les manifestations intellectuelles et passionnelles de l’homme. Je donne aussi une importance considérable au milieu. Il faudrait sur la méthode aborder les théories de Darwin; mais ceci n’est qu’une étude générale expérimentale appliquée au roman, et je me perdrais, si je voulais entrer dans les détails.

If I remember correctly, Naturalism in literature shares its etymological roots with the Natural Sciences, of which Darwin was a practitioner.

Also, one-time-Naturalist-turned-decadent Huysmans‘s in Against the Grain has his alter ego Des Esseintes praise the “evolution of language so rightly insisted on by Darwin“. But that book appalled Zola, who felt it had dealt a “terrible blow” to Naturalism.

Influence on Bergson

Henri Bergson was highly influenced by biology, particularly Charles Darwin‘s On the Origin of Species, which was released the year of Bergson’s birth. This leads Bergson to discuss the ‘Body’ and ‘Self’ in detail, arguably prompting the fundamental ontological and epistemological questions to be raised later in the twentieth-century French philosophy.

Related subjects

To say that Darwin has been influential is an understatement. His name has been linked to other controversial issues such as degeneration, social hygiene, color terminology for race, and social Darwinism, as well as the notion of the survival of the fittest.

See  reaction to Darwin’s theory

7 thoughts on “Charles Darwin @200

  1. scott

    Interesting as always, dealing with controversies, is that not the Dialectic under another name? Thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis?

    BBC Radio 3 Nightwaves, had a a program devoted to Marx, Freud and Darwin this evening. The secular trinity in my view, available to listen again online for 7 days.

    Many thanks.

  2. lichanos


    “Secular trinity,” indeed! Marx styled himself a scientist, and was certainly a brilliant critic, but oh! that communism thing! And Freud has certainly taken a lot of well deserved bashing for substituting mythmaking for science. Smart guy, but a bit of high priest himself.

    No, Darwin stands high above those two. For vulgar materialists of the early 20th century, they may indeed have been a trinity, for a debased pseudo-scientific religion of “progress,” but for a true secular hero, I’ll just take Darwin alone.

  3. lichanos

    I feel I must add that Darwin was always chagrined and puzzled by the linking of his name with controversial theories, such as the ones you mention. Unlike many fellow abolitionists of his day, he was deeply opposed to racism as well, and felt it had no basis in science. He was a life-long political liberal of sorts. Never had much truck with Herbert Spencer and his ilk…

  4. pancime

    Darwin was part of the J.S. Mill’s Jamaica Committee, established in 1865. The Committee was set up in response to Governor Eyre’s suppression of an uprising in Jamaica. Eyre’s action resulted in the deaths of over 600 Jamaicans, the flogging of a further 600 and the burning of over 1000 homes. Mill objected to the use of arbitrary power by a governor. Mill’s Jamaica Committee called for Eyre’s trial for murder, with Committee members including John Bright, Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer. A committee for the defence of Eyre was established by Thomas Carlyle, and included Charles Dickens, Alfred Lord Tennyson, John Ruskin, and Charles Kingsley.

    J. Joseph Miller (in ‘Chairing the Jamaica Committee: J. S. Mill and the Limits of Colonial Authority’, in Schultz and Varouxakis (eds) Utilitarianism and Empire) observes:

    ‘The economists and scientists of the Jamaica Committee were denounced even in their own time as unsentimental, concerned only with hard facts and dismissive of sentiment, lampooned by Dickens as the Scrooges and the Gradgrinds of the world. The Eyre Defence Committee, on the other hand, included most of the prominent poets and writers of the day, social reformers who extolled sentiment above reason. Yet the poets and writers sided with Eyre’s use of brute strength against the oppressed. Strongly influenced by Carlyle’s advocacy of hero worship and his fear of chaos and disorder, men like Dickens and Ruskin saw Eyre as a heroic savior of order and empire. Prominent members of the Eyre Defence Committee ridiculed Eyre’s opponents for pursuing justice at the expense of empire abroad while tacitly consenting to much of the human misery being caused by laissez faire at home.’

    I don’t know that much about it, but I am guessing that at core the position of Carlyle, Dickens and Ruskin et al was racist.

  5. lichanos

    Wow, great comment, Pancime. I’m not surprised about Carlyle a bit, nor Ruskin, but Dickens is a disappointment to me. Well, those artist types, you can’t always trust them to think straight. D’Annunzio is a fine example of an “artist” who was a political brute. (Not that not being an artist is any guarantee of humanity!)

    For another unexpected and related historical twist, check out this post on the origin of the term, “The Dismal Science.” (You probably know it already.) A jab against the dry, statistical minds of Malthusian Economics by a great-souled poet? Think again!

  6. pancime

    Yes, if it weren’t for the Dickens inclusion it’d be a bit ho-hum.
    I didn’t know of the origins of ‘dismal science’. Great info to store away!! Thank you.

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