Charles Darwin’s Journal of Researches (1839), written during the five-year global voyage of the HMS Beagle, and his larger studies, primarily On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871), belong to an era in which travel writing, autobiography, literary allusions, scientific observation, and natural philosophy could still be combined in the same work. In this light, Darwin’s fusing of discursive genres as a means of observing and classifying places him firmly in the Baconian empiricist tradition, a tradition codified by the great 18th-century skeptics. Darwin’s ingenious use of the hypothetical-deductive method, with its presuppositions and mediated introspection, received energy from the essay form, which had since Bacon been pressed into the service of natural philosophy. Montaigne’s depiction of the essay as a kind of blueprint of cognition—or as Theodor W.Adorno’s later description of the form as the mimetic representation of “man thinking”—helps to explain why much of Darwin’s work seems essayistic even when it fails to conform fully to the conventions of the genre. As a record of cognition, the essay is conducive to science’s deductive analysis, even as the essay’s open form and resistance to closure dovetail nicely with the Enlightenment ideal (embodied in both Diderot and William Smellie’s encyclopedia projects) that each empirical study become a stepping stone to further reflection, observation, and finally greater knowledge. In this tradition, then, taken together, Darwin’s monographs and essays represent a single persuasive argument for the mutability of plant and animal species throughout history, a unity of thought that represents a major turning point in the history and philosophy of natural science. Thus, through deductive reasoning and associative analysis, Darwin looked beyond specific historical events and particular species in an attempt to formulate a larger world picture of organic history.
Darwin was the heir to Enlightenment naturalism, and his works register the continued evolution of a new form of personal and historical narration, a narration generated after the Western intellectual tradition broke free in the early modern period from the fetters of the Platonic/Aristotelian theories of knowledge. In essence, the essay is the form this new narration takes when the intellectual tradition makes a major shift in perception from a theory of ontic logos, a belief that the external world announces its own truths to the revolutionary understanding of knowledge as a representational construct that becomes dominant with Descartes and Locke. That is, ideas (ontic) for Plato (in an immaterial realm) or forms for Aristotle (in the material realm) are not just objects waiting to be perceived and valuated, but rather are self-manifesting sources of light (logos). In contrast, the Cartesian/ Lockean theory of knowledge places the valuation of the object solely with the subject. Thus, before we can begin to understand the reason for the compelling form Darwin’s great treatises take, much less understand natural philosophy’s (or science’s) collusion with the essay form, we need to understand how profoundly the New Science, with its empirical basis, influenced Western intellectual tradition.
The essay had colluded with science since Bacon (following Galileo’s precedent) made the account of scientific knowledge representational. According to this modern model, to understand reality is to have a correct representation of ideas and fundamental principles.
In the well-known phrase from a letter to Gibieuf (19 January 1642), Descartes writes that he is “certain that I can have no knowledge of what is outside me except by means of the ideas I have within me.” Implicit here is the demise of a Platonic self-revealing reality, or realm of ideas; now reality is constructed, not received. Knowledge is not only personalized in the sense that it is the product of self-examination, but it is also personalized by the language of the subject, recorded, as it is, in the first person. But for Descartes and his 18th- and 19th-century scientific heirs, representations have to be ordered through a chain of deductively connected perceptions. Descartes perhaps theorizes this causal order most effectively in the Discours de la méthode (1637;
Discourse on Method), where he tells us to break down our perceptions into parts and then to connect those disparate parts, “assuming an order, even if a fictitious one, among those which do not follow a natural sequence relative to one another.” Darwin articulated precisely this methodological model in his journals of the late 1830s. Facts, he argued, are meaningless unless ordered by a coherent theory; a theory is useless unless it unites several significant facts; and a new theory is pointless if it does not advance the work of its predecessors. Thus, the essay as the discursive vehicle for the process of cognition is as tenable for the theoretical work of Darwin as it was for Descartes.
The Cartesian model with its narrative component helps to explain why Darwin’s scientific journals join empirical observation with classical and contemporary literary tropes and historical allusions, and mix critical analysis with personal anecdotes and autobiographical references. But Darwin’s more literary style also owed something to the intervening rise of the essay in popular culture. On the discursive level, his conversational style of writing reflects the didactic essay tradition of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Such textual heteroglossia and stylistic hybridization between the social and science essay aside, however, Darwin’s intellectual activity was, in and of itself, never a purely endogenous process. His Beagle journals, later synthesized into Journal of Researches and expanded and developed into the Voyage of the Beagle, refer to numerous conversations, scientific books, and articles, all adding to Darwin’s explanatory theory of evolution and species dissemination. On the theoretical level, his work depended upon the larger scientific community, an innovation of the “new science,” which later reached it apogee with the philosophical and scientific communities of Aufklärer in Germany, the Philosophes in France, and the Enlightenment thinkers in Britain and America. After all, Diderot, La Mettrie, Kant, Goethe, and Hegel, among others, were all moving toward an evolutionary world conception.
Darwin’s study, then, drew upon the work of predecessors and contemporaries alike, a fact which helps to explain Alfred Russel Wallace’s independent formulation of the theory of evolution in 1858. For example, in his journal for 7 September 1838, Darwin credits his scientific debt: “Seeing what Von Buch [Humboldt], G. St. Hilaire, and [Jean- Baptiste] Lamarck have written I pretend to no originality of ideas.” Yet less than three weeks after this entry, Darwin’s synthesis and extension of these earlier ideas led him to a recognition of the evolutionary significance of natural selection. This realization compelled him to revise his first monad theory, which had proposed that all species created from the monad die to make room for the progeny of new monads. The new theory accounted for the explanatory mechanism undergirding his later theory of evolution: a species lives on only if it gives rise to new species—that is, if it produces variations.
Among Darwin’s and Wallace’s other important predecessors in biology, Darwin also named Georges Buffon, his own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, and later Gregor Mendel for his developments in genetics. In geology his thought built upon the work of Charles Lyell, James Hutton, and John Playfair. On the other end of the epistemological and temporal spectrum, there is no evidence that Darwin had read the presocratic natural philosopher Empedocles, who had introduced the ideas of species variation and adaptation, survival and extinction, a strong prelude to Darwin’s and Wallace’s explanatory mechanism for natural selection, or that Darwin was familiar with Lucretius, whose narrative poem On the Nature of Things accorded to humans a socio-cultural evolution that began in a cave. Nonetheless, given Darwin’s repeated emphasis on his scientific debt, it is easy to underestimate the originality of his work and its impact on Western thought. Ultimately, what Newton had accomplished for the physical cosmos, Darwin accomplished for organic nature. While Newtonian theory set new parameters for the spatial dimensions of the universe, Darwinian theory established new parameters for the temporal dimension of nature, both the scale of its existence and the conceptual immensity of its qualitative organic transformations.
Because of Darwin’s work with fossils and his association with the geological work of Charles Lyell, he not only added empirical evidence to organic evolution’s (and thus speciation’s) encroachment upon the Aristotelian and Thomist belief in the immutability of all animal types, but his work as a whole also reflected the 18th- and 19th-century change in imagination and in the sense of man’s place in nature. Such a conceptual revolution in the sweeping geological framework of space, time, and transformation had a dramatic impact upon science and human subjectivity, all of which was imagined and explored through the discursive and elastic dimensions of the essay. To fully appreciate why On the Origin of Species proved explosively controversial, earning it the label “the book that shook the world,” we need to consider the intellectual foundations of the world in which Darwin was born and his part in the overthrow of more than 2.000 years of philosophical stasis.
By recovering Aristotelian natural philosophy for theological ends (in much the same way Augustine had appropriated the Platonic paradigm of the material and immaterial realm for Christian metaphysics), Thomas Aquinas extended the Aristotelian hold over natural philosophy for another millennium. Despite his study of reproductive methods as well as the growth and development of organisms, Aristotle (and later Thomas Aquinas) grounded his view of life in the concept of the immutability of biological types, arguing that each organic kind has its own eternally fixed natural place in this hierarchical order of the living world depending on its degree of complexity and intelligence. Imbricated in religious dogma and a model of static metaphysics, natural philosophy sought, with few exceptions even during the Enlightenment, to support only literal interpretations of biblical narrative and causality. Even in the early modern period when science began to break free from the logic of Aristotelian syllogism, the Christian concept of the “Great Chain of Being,” adapted from Aristotle’s terrestrial continuum, dominated, legislating organic evolution as heretical even to science. Moreover, the rise of Deism in the 18th century had cooperated with the concept of Platonic/Aristotelian stasis to derail material and mechanistic science from inquiry that might have otherwise developed into earlier theories of organic evolution.
In primarily Protestant countries in the two centuries preceding Darwin, the design of nature—or on a grander scale, the universe—supported the existence of the supreme Deity. Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man (1733–34) is the quintessential exemplar of just this: that in God’s universe “All are but parts of one stupendous whole,/Whose body Nature is, and God the soul.” But Deism means that Pope’s harmonious natural order is not ontic like the Aristotelian/Thomist universal order. Rather it is interconnected in a kind of ecological economy that will presage Adam Smith’s political and social theories: although each being has its own internal purpose, by serving itself, it serves the entire order. This is precisely why organic evolution was eventually to have such dramatic consequences for religious belief. The intellectual structures of Christianity had become inextricably tied to the design of nature. Thus by demonstrating that there could be a design without a Designer—not to mention a design with a dynamic, mutable, and organic pattern—Darwin undermined a theological superstructure that had grounded religious faith in a theory of moral sentiment derived (through the Earl of Shaftesbury and Francis Hutcheson) from a hybrid of Lockean rationalism and the humanism of the Cambridge Platonists.
Darwin’s essayistic journals reflect the age’s dawning of a real sense of geological time. Not since Copernicus’ cosmological revolution had such new expanses been opened to the mind and imagination of philosophers. Certainly not since the demise of the geocentric universe in the 16th century did JudeoChristian mysticism receive such a blow from scientific materialism. Significantly, in both historic instances the rent in the ecclesiastic fabric allowed for further secular inquiry. Temporal order played an important part in encouraging literal interpretations of biblical narrative since the Reformation, a trend marked by the gradual displacement of the archetype and allegory for the particular in 17th- and 18th-century narratives. Thus, it is not by chance that the essay and modern novel are products of modernity: the novel for its specificity of time, place, and character; the essay because nothing could be more particular than an infusion of the first person. Not only did the eons required for Darwin’s mechanisms of natural selection and adaptation punch a hole in biblical time, but his study proved that these were eons altogether unnarrated, requiring a new kind of imaginative framework for what Walter Benjamin has called “homogenous, empty time.”
Darwin’s work also turned the scientific lens inward upon the unexplored dimensions of the human mind. His early theories about “primitive” man led to his chapter on “Instinct” in Origin, and a more sophisticated development of that thesis in Descent of Man, opening the way for the 20th century’s abiding preoccuption with man’s psychological motivations and social unconsciousness. Both Marx and Freud brought Darwin’s study to its logical conclusion in the increasing perception of the human as a product of unconscious political, economic, and instinctual impulses of a naturalistic order.
Charles Robert Darwin. Born 12. February 1809 in Shrewsbury, Shropshire. Studied at Dr. Butler’s boarding school, 1818–25; medical studies at Edinburgh University, 1825– 27; theology at Christ’s College, Cambridge, 1828–31, B.A., 1831. Investigated biological, zoological, and geological phenomena throughout his life. Sailed to South America as a naturalist on board HMS Beagle, 1831–36; in ill health after return, and for the rest of his life could work only a few hours a day. Lived in London, 1837–42, and in Down, Kent, from 1842. Married Emma Wedgwood, 1839: six sons and four daughters (two children died young). Elected to the Royal Society, 1839. Awards: Royal Society Medal, 1853; Copley Medal, 1864; Royal College of Physicians Daly Medal, 1879; honorary degrees from four universities. Died in Down, Kent, 19 April 1882.
Essays and Related Prose
Letters on Geology, 1835
Journal and Remarks, 1832–1836 (on his voyage on the Beagle), 1839; as Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by HMS Beagle, 1839; edited by Gavin de Beer, 1959; as Diary of the Voyage of the Beagle, edited by Nora Barlow, 1933, Millicent E. Selsam, 1959, Leonard Engel, 1962, Richard Darwin Keynes, 1988, and Janet Browne and Michael Neve, 1989
On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, 1859; edited by J. W.Burrow, 1968
The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, 2 vols., 1871; several subsequent revised editions
The Foundations of the Origin of Species: Two Essays Written in 1842 and 1844, edited by Francis Darwin, 1909
The Darwin Reader, edited by Marston Bates and Philip S. Humphrey, 1957
Evolution and Natural Selection, edited by Bert James Loewenberg, 1959
Darwin for Today: The Essence of His Works, edited by Stanley Edgar Hyman, 1963
The Essential Darwin, edited by Mark Ridley, 1987; as The Darwin Reader, 1987
The Portable Darwin, edited by Duncan M.Porter and Peter W. Graham, 1993
Other writings: many scientific works (on coral reefs, mold, earthworms, barnacles, plants, and other subjects), journals, an autobiography, and correspondence (collected in The Correspondence, 9 vols., 1985–94 [incomplete]).
Collected works editions: Works, 15 vols., 1910; Works (Appleton Edition), 18 vols., reprinted 1972; The Works, edited by Paul H. Barrett and R.B.Freeman, 29 vols., 1986– 89; The Darwin CDRom, 1992.
Freeman, Richard B., The Works of Charles Darwin: An Annotated Bibliographical Handlist, London: Dawson, 1965; revised edition, 1977
Culler, A.Dwight, “The Darwinian Revolution and Literary Form,” in The Art of Victorian Prose, edited by George Levine and William Madden, New York: Oxford University Press, 1968
Descartes, René, Philosophical Letters, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981
Descartes, René, Discourse on Method, Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994 (original French edition, 1637)
Friedrich, Hugo, Montaigne, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991 (original German edition, 1949)
Gibson, Walker, “Behind the Veil: A Distinction Between Poetic and Scientific Language in Tennyson, Lyell, and Darwin,” Victorian Studies 2 (1958–59):60–68
Levine, George, “Darwin Among the Critics,” Victorian Studies 30 (Winter 1987):253– 60
Morton, Peter, The Vital Science: Biology and the Literary Imagination, London and Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1984
Young, Robert, Darwin’s Metaphor: Nature’s Place in Victorian Culture, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985
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