British and Irish Literature Writing and Evolutionary Theory
Seán Hewitt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 March 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0158


The development of evolutionary theory over the course of the 19th century was not confined to the theory of evolution by natural selection posited by Charles Darwin (b. 1809–d. 1882) and Alfred Russell Wallace (b. 1823–d. 1913). Encompassing the burgeoning science of geology, natural history, and biology and eventually being adapted into sociology, psychology, political theory, economics, and cultural anthropology, the theory of evolution quickly became both pervasive and divisive. Prior to Darwin’s intervention with the Origin of Species (1859), various theories of evolution were circulating, being accommodated within the field of natural theology or constituting a challenge to theories of intelligent design. Over the period, the interplay between literature and evolutionary theory was complex and pronounced: advances in science provoked new formal and thematic concerns for writers, and scientists used poetry and literary techniques to disseminate their arguments to wide readerships. During the period, the rise of natural historical study as a popular pursuit, and the Victorian emphasis on nature study as a moral, even religious, pursuit, meant that evolutionary ideas were adapted for various purposes and contested in both popular and specialist texts. Pre-Darwinian literature circulated evolutionary ideas mainly within the framework of natural theology (proving and discussing God’s existence through the study of Creation), but visions of harmony and beneficent design were challenged through the theory of natural selection, meaning that post-Darwinian literature more fully encompasses anthropological anxiety and the falling off of faith. Religious texts, and theological concerns, are thus central to the interplay between literature and science in the period. Toward the end of the century, the adaptation of Darwinism and evolutionary theory into various disciplines saw a proliferation of social Darwinism, branching off into eugenics, the impact of which would be felt most fully in the 20th century. This article focuses on writing and evolutionary theory in its immediate British and 19th-century contexts.

General Historical Overviews

A number of general historical overviews give accounts of the development and dissemination of evolutionary theory over the course of the 19th century. Ruse 2013 is a wide-ranging and expansive collection of essays covering most aspects of the subject. Smith 2009 explores the impact of evolutionary theory on Victorian studies, and Voigts-Virchow, et al. 2016 explores its proliferation across various media. Secord 2014 gives excellent in-depth readings of the major scientific texts of the period. Costa 2014 charts the development of the theory of evolution by natural selection.

  • Costa, James. Wallace, Darwin, and the Origin of Species. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674416468

    Considering Alfred Russel Wallace’s development of the theory of evolution through natural section, which occurred in parallel with Darwin’s work, Costa analyzes his “Species Notebook” and the 1858 joint lecture between Darwin and Wallace to expand on the wider development of scientific culture and evolutionary theory through to this joint discovery. Focuses primarily on Wallace, though often in relation to his more famous counterpart.

  • Ruse, Michael, ed. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Darwin and Evolutionary Thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    An expansive collection of essays (totaling nearly six hundred pages), exploring the relationships between Darwin and evolutionary theory and religion, gender, and literature. Traces Darwin’s reception in Europe and America and details the influence of evolutionary theory on the development of various scientific fields.

  • Secord, James A. Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    Reads seven key scientific works of the Victorian period (including evolutionary works such as Lyell’s Principles of Geology) and subjects them to intense close reading. In doing so, Secord considers the imaginative, projective, and philosophical meanings of these works for a variety of readers, from the literary elite to genteel ladies and working men. Excellent for considerations of popular readerly responses to scientific change.

  • Smith, Jonathan, ed. Darwin and the Evolution of Victorian Studies. Special Issue: Victorian Studies 51.2 (Winter 2009).

    A special issue of one of the key journals in the field, edited by one of the key scholars. Includes articles by George Levine, Tina Young Choi, and Gillian Beer, focusing on Darwin, ideas of extinction, and natural history more generally. A solid, concise introduction to recent developments in the subject.

  • Voigts-Virchow, Eckart, Barbara Schaff, and Monika Pietrzak-Franger, eds. Reflecting on Darwin. London: Routledge, 2016.

    Explores how the development of naturalism, determinism and Darwinism are reflected in different cultural media over the 19th and early 20th centuries. Notable for its final section, which reflects on Darwin’s influence on contemporary media, neo-Victorian literature and film, and contemporary literary theory.

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