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  • The Evolutionary Epic
  • Ian Hesketh (bio)

Upon his return from Africa in 1871, the London-based explorer and anthropologist Winwood Reade decided that he would write a grand historical narrative that would illustrate how Charles Darwin’s great principle of natural selection had functioned throughout all of history. Though he referred to his project as a “universal history,” what he ended up producing [End Page 35] went well beyond what is typically meant by that term. His The Martyrdom of Man (1872) did describe the history of humanity within an overarching evolutionary framework, but it extended backwards in time to the origins of the solar system in the big bang of his day, the nebular fire mist, and forwards into the distant future to a point in time when Reade envisioned a perfected human species. What he ultimately produced was a Victorian evolutionary epic (Hesketh, “A Good Darwinian?” 44).

It is true that there was no term for this form of literary production at the time, which helps explain why Reade relied on the less satisfying “universal history.” “Evolutionary epic” was not, therefore, an actor’s category. Several historians of Victorian science, however, have argued that there was a burgeoning and distinct genre of popular science literature at the time that we can call the evolutionary epic (Lightman; Amigoni and Elwick). Reade, for instance, ended up producing a historical narrative of the evolution of all life that had many precursors, including most notably Robert Chambers’s Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, first published anonymously in 1844. James Secord’s magisterial study, Victorian Sensation (2000), of the reading and publishing of Vestiges makes the case that Chambers combined a romantic narrative with a developmental theory of life, beginning with an original seed event and ending with the evolution of the human mind, thereby making the book a literary sensation that sold incredibly well throughout the nineteenth century. Chambers’s combination of romantic narrative and scientific theory was so successful that it became the basis for the evolutionary epic genre.

As described in Bernard Lightman’s Victorian Popularizers of Science (2007), Chambers’s “monad-to-human style cosmic evolutionary narrative” became a highly successful form that was appropriated by other popular science writers such as Grant Allen, David Page, Arabella Buckley, and Edward Clodd (221). Telling a grand story about the evolution of life became a way to inform a wide range of readers about nascent theories of evolution that were being proposed in more technical literature by the likes of Herbert Spencer, Thomas Henry Huxley, and, of course, Darwin. Far from using it as a mere conduit for these theories, however, authors of the evolutionary epic shaped the narrative framework to promote their own interpretations of what the story of evolution might mean for the present and, ultimately, the future. Making evolution more conducive to religious sensibilities was one particular way in which the authors of the evolutionary epic helped legitimate evolution in the minds of many Victorian readers.

The evolutionary epic also came to be associated with a Whiggish interpretation of the present as the result of slow developmental processes originating deep in the past that had inevitably led to the rise and dominance of European civilization. The evolutionary epic gave this view the legitimacy of a scientific narrative that promised continued human intellectual, social, and political progress into the distant future. Reade, for instance, looked [End Page 36] forward to the invention of passenger air travel, the automobile, and the ready availability of laboratory-manufactured food (Reade 513). However, by the end of the nineteenth century, some versions of the evolutionary epic took a darker turn.

By the 1880s, many began to worry that humanity’s success in transcending the laws of nature might lead to its inevitable downfall. In this regard, the evolutionary epic began to address notions of decline and regression. E. Ray Lankester, for instance, suggested that the long evolutionary history of humanity shares something with the life history of barnacles and ascidians, sea creatures that become less complex as food becomes more readily available in the later stages of their development. He believed that our own intellectual development had become arrested due...


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pp. 35-39
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