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J^ Darwinism in Victorian Letters Hans-Peter Breuer *r I In Peter Morton's The Vital Science: Biology and the Literary Imagination, 1860-1900,1 we have a well-documented and readable account of the effect of Darwin's theory of evolution on the late Victorian intellectual milieu and on a number of significant writers, both major and minor. The account deserves the full attention not only of students of the Victorian period, but also (and especially) of those interested in the history of scientific ideas who regularly expatiate, as teachers or writers, to a nonspecialist public on matters connected with biology and its social and philosophical implications. Morton, though this is not his main goal, establishes the as yet not fully appreciated facts that much of the most troublesome criticism of Darwin came not from the parsonage mentality of obscurantists such as the much pilloried Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, but from scientists, from Darwin's supporters even, such as T. H. Huxley and George Romanes; that by the 1890s Darwin's theory was held in low esteem among the scientific community in England and elsewhere; and that some of Darwinism's most ardent disciples and propagandizes were crusading reformers and men of letters. Indeed, the opposition to Darwinism in the first decades after the appearance of On the Origin of Species was "a much more profound and firmly reasoned reaction . . . than may be apparent at first sight" (p. 21). Morton does not, like other studies treating Darwinism from a literary perspective (such as Leo Henkin's and Lionel Stevenson's, which are briefly reviewed), deal chiefly with general trends and changing habits of thought; his analyses proceed from a fairly detailed knowledge of Darwin's theories and the chief axioms characteristic of Victorian biology. He restricts himself to writers who "consciously and deliberately" confronted the specifics of biology, or the creatively useful aspects of various "plausible theories" (p. 11), and omits such writers as George Meredith, Rudyard Kipling, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Occasionally , he praises and condemns, and clearly has his favorites among the Literature and Medicine 6 (1987) 128-138 © 1987 by The Johns Hopkins University Press Hans-Peter Breuer 129 writers he has chosen, but, on the whole, he manages to present a balanced chronicle of the various responses of writers intent on coming to terms with the challenges dirown out by Darwin's dieory of evolution. And a fascinating chronicle it is. Interpretations of Darwin's dieory were conflicting and contradictory; it became the justification both of Nietzschean social morality and the brutal inequities of Victorian industrial society, as well as of benevolent socialism and egalitarianism. The central principle of natural selection, while seeming to undermine fatally the sense of rational order underpinning die inherited tradition of eighteenth-century natural theology, was used to defend an assortment of doctrines from Comtean positivism to pantheistic mysticism. Not surprisingly , given the pervasive single-minded idealism so characteristic of Victorian social attitudes, Darwin's dieory gave rise to profound despair and moral confusion; it was also found to be a cause for optimism and cheerful millenial visions. For the Lamarckian Herbert Spencer, evolutionary progress was inevitably ever onward and upward, as it was for the more proper Darwinian, die freediinking novelist Winwood Reade, one of the first (so it appears) socio-biologists. He thought he could detect the dynamics of natural selection in all human events and embraced it enthusiastically as die great fundamental law of life: "'The law of Murder is the law of Growth'" (p. 65). Nonetheless, he insisted, evolution was ethical for all that and in no way justified a criminally irresponsible way of life: the penalty for disobeying the stern decree of the struggle for survival and of constant self-discipline was degeneracy, biological back-sliding to parasitism or the human equivalent of eyeless fish and limbless crustaceans . For Henry Drummond, a Scottish puritan, natural selection was "'the means employed in Nature to bring about perfect health, perfect wholeness, perfect adaptation, and in the long run the Ascent of all living things'" (p. 69); in fact, natural selection was the bracing means for establishing the ordered security of the Victorian middle-class home. The more perspicacious...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6571
Print ISSN
0278-9671
Pages
pp. 128-138
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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