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  • Images of Evolution in Victorian Culture
  • Constance Clark (bio)

In an 1874 poem beneath a cartoon of an upright misshapen chimpanzee scrutinized by a monocled gent (fig.1), Punch joked that Charles Darwin was in “deep mourning” (“In Memoriam” 141)at the death of a London zoo chimpanzee. Darwin, apes, and monkeys stood for evolution in the British Victorian periodical press—not only in texts but also in the iconography of popularized evolution. Apes and monkeys represented evolution in ways that other organisms did not. Cartoons and caricatures combined images of Darwin with images of apes, so that Darwin came to seem, as Janet Browne has pointed out, the very embodiment of his theory (508–09). Darwin’s face appeared in caricature atop ape bodies and cartoon Darwins perched in evolutionary trees, a metonymy of evolution. Revolutions in the technology of publication and reproduction of images meant that evolution could [End Page 27] be visualized and parodied widely—and it was. This iconography predated Darwin: a tree of life, trees of knowledge, primates as caricatures of humans (especially some categories of humans), and iconographic representations of the Great Chain of Being—all of these images were familiar long before the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859. After 1859, they were adapted both to represent and to satirize evolution, as well as to shape possible interpretations of its significance. Once evolution became a Victorian preoccupation—and it was among the most pervasive of Victorian preoccupations (Lightman 286)—Darwin himself became a symbol of evolution.

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Fig. 1.

“In Memoriam.” Cartoon. Punch 4 April 1874: 141. Print.

There is some irony in images of Darwin personifying evolution because the views of evolution most prominent in Victorian popular culture were profoundly un-Darwinian, and such images reflected and probably helped shape popular notions of how evolution worked and what it meant. Darwin himself rejected teleology: he famously illustrated his view of evolution as a branching, non-linear process without a “goal” in the only illustration in Origin, a branching tree diagram. But Darwin’s view was less common among Victorian popularizers of evolution, among satirists and commentators, and in the visual images of evolutionary themes in popular literature, most of which depicted evolution as a linear goal-oriented process—as progress, in short. Victorians were, for many good reasons, preoccupied with progress, and the telling of the story of evolution as a narrative of improvement was one of the things that made evolution—so potentially unsettling from a strictly Darwinian view—palatable, compelling, even fascinating. [End Page 28]

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Fig. 2.

Haeckel, Ernst. “Pedigree of Man.” The Evolution of Man. 1866. New York, 1896. 189. Print.

For Victorians, progress in the natural world was only part of the story: they extrapolated from evolution generally a narrative of the evolution of society and the development of their own civilization. Evolutionary trees, such as the famous “Pedigree of Man” by the German evolutionist Ernst Haeckel (fig. 2), may have had branches, but they also clearly had direction. Haeckel’s tree represented an ascent from “lower” to “higher” organisms, and it established a convention among these heuristic metaphors. Man occupied [End Page 29] the top of the tree and, by implication, commanded the pinnacle of evolution. But it was not true that all humans occupied this honoured place together. For Victorian anthropology, the peoples called “primitive” represented the early stages of society’s evolution. The doctrine of recapitulation—the idea that, during individual development in the embryo, organisms recapitulated the evolutionary history of their species—could be expanded from embryology to society: society advanced from the primitive to the advanced (called “civilization”) through a series of stages. The stages were always the same, so contemporary societies of “primitive” type were really fossilized or relict versions of earlier stages on the way to advanced (Victorian) civilization. Victorian “Man,” not Everyman, occupied the tops of evolutionary trees. To call the “primitive” people of the world—people subject to conquest—“the childhood of the race” functioned as a ubiquitous metaphor, a metaphor with profound implications.

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pp. 27-35
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