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  • On the Origin of Species
  • Grace Kehler (bio)
Charles Darwin , On the Origin of Species (1859)

On the Origin of Species, published by Charles Darwin in 1859, continues to strike many literary and scientific scholars as his most radical and compelling text, not least because the human "is a determining absence in [its] argument" (Beer 53).1 That is, the human receives direct reference mostly in passing, otherwise remaining latent in the text's repeated insistence on the all-encompassing processes of the natural world, processes that produce variety from fundamental kinship: "how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life," Darwin marvels in his chapter on natural selection (144). Fully implicated in and produced by material forces, the human shares a common lineage with non-human species; more unsettling still, the human evolves in the same manner as the components of the world—rock, soil, bodies of water—that change by slow degrees as they interact with each other (Ruse 38; Dennett 82). And if this bold decentring of humanity is not sufficiently alarming, Darwin compounds his re-envisioning of the cosmological and ontological by predicting, in the final pages of Origin, that the science of the future will take as a given the human "acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation" (397). He implies that the mind evolves in time, just like the human-animal body, just like inorganic matter, and that the mind literally derives its meaning and meaning-making capacity from its physical properties. As Elizabeth Grosz acutely remarks, Darwin "has left as a question, a gift, to philosophy" and to culture this model of "the immersion of consciousness in life, and the immersion of life in time and materiality" (Time Travels 116).2

The serious study of physical matter, whether geological, biological, or sociological, engaged a wide range of thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as Darwin's own citations from Malthus and Lyell (among others) demonstrate.3 Yet Darwin left an immensely provocative, generative gift to his contemporaries and later generations in his ardent descriptions of evolution and natural selection as "ennobled" (398) and his pervasive model of a "complex web of relations" (140), frequently rendered in prose that merges form and content. The very placement of Darwin's reference to the mind, for [End Page 32] example, mirrors the belated arrival of the human on the evolutionary scene, highlighting the lively, purposeful creations of nature that both precede and surpass human endeavours. In one of his most famous passages, Darwin avers,

Natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life. We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the long lapse of ages, and then so imperfect is our view into long past geological ages, that we only see that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were.

(Origin 146)

Neither an inadvertent relapse into a creationist account, in which a divine figure oversees the development of the world ("scrutinizing," "rejecting," "preserving"), nor a mere anthropomorphizing of nature, the Darwinian representation of natural selection preassigns to matter the traits humans prize as their own distinguishing characteristics; these include energy, judgment, resourcefulness, and ingenuity. Nature may not know the future, yet it acts in a manner indicative of its good instincts about and sound knowledge of the materials at hand. The extreme plasticity and unpredictability of nature may register as "chance" for the casual human observer, but Darwin cautions that this categorization largely stems from our "imperfect" perceptions and even our "willful" misinterpretation of available evidence (141, 392). Rightly understood, natural selection—a force that incites change and promotes diversity—provides the foundation and the impetus for the vibrant, ongoing creation of the world.4

If the rigorous materialism of Darwin represents one of his gifts to...


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