Victorian Literature Darwinism
Alexis Harley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0137


In 1859 Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Evolutionary theory, or the theory of “transmutation” as it was more commonly referred to in the 19th century, was already a live topic in Victorian (and broader Western) intellectual culture, as Darwin explains in the “Historical Sketch of the Recent Progress of Opinion on the Origin of Species,” published with the third edition of the Origin in 1861. For this and other reasons, Darwin’s work became conflated with theories of development, change, and competition more generally, and the mantle of “Darwinism” was co-opted by (and in some cases imposed upon) social theorists, psychologists, as well as other biologists who were in many instances doing work quite different from Darwin’s. Darwin’s most broadly acknowledged contributions to the evolutionary conversation are the theories of natural selection and common descent. His theory of natural selection is an account of the process by which particular traits become more or less common within a population. As Darwin himself puts it: “any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected.” The individual that has a better chance of surviving, writes Darwin, “will tend to propagate its new and modified form.” The theory of common descent argues for the shared ancestry of different individuals, varieties, subspecies, species, and genera. Darwin offered many more ideas to biological theory. He coined the concept of sexual selection, developed a now superannuated account of heredity (dubbed “pangenesis”) that describes how parents’ characteristics are transmitted to offspring, and he published discoveries on subjects as diverse as the formation of coral reefs, the movement of plants, and the action of earthworms. To what extent these different endeavors can be characterized as “Darwinism” is no simple question. In many cases, Darwinism signals both more and less than Charles Darwin actually claimed. For instance, although Darwin did not offer a convincing account of how variation was induced, Darwinism is widely supposed to explicate how biological difference and innovation come about. This explanation was in fact provided by genetic theory, which was attached to Darwinism in the 1930s, to form what is known as the “modern evolutionary synthesis.” While Darwinism has obviously long been of interest to scholars in the sciences, it has also attracted the attention of social scientists, historians of ideas, literary and other textual critics, philosophers, and cultural commentators. The disciplinary breadth represented in this article is a testament to the cultural importance and intellectual reach of Darwinism.

General Overviews

“Darwinism” is a shorthand term for a complex variety of ideas, but virtually all users of Darwinism agree that the term includes the idea of speciation through natural selection. The general overviews of Darwinism listed here take different forms. Some introduce Darwinism in its 20th-century sense (see Dawkins 1986 and Dennett 1996), and, indeed, in both these cases, in partisan ways: Dennett arguing that evolution by natural selection is able to explain virtually everything, even beyond the biological realm, and Dawkins mobilizing Darwinism in an argument against Creationism. While Dawkins and Dennett introduce a 20th-century Darwinism, others offer an overview of the ideas Darwin entertained during his lifetime, even those ideas (such as the heritability of acquired modifications) that were erased in 20th-century accounts of Darwinism (see Ghiselin 2003). Others negotiate between these differences (including Howard 2001 and Bowler 1988). Dawkins 1986 engages in a polemical defense of Darwinism for a popular audience, as does Ruse 2006, only in a more sophisticated way. The two collections of essays, Hodge and Radick 2003 and Ruse 2013, amass a huge breadth of scholarship on Darwin, Darwinism, and other aspects of evolutionary thought and help to chart the ramifications of Darwinism through the disciplines.

  • Bowler, Peter J. The Non-Darwinian Revolution: Reinterpreting a Historical Myth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

    Bowler critiques the way Darwinism is used to denote evolutionary ideas other than Darwin’s. Bowler shows how non-Darwinian evolutionary ideas propagated by pseudo-Darwinians became confused with Darwin’s evolutionary ideas. This work thus helps the reader arrive at a more informed judgment of the gap between Darwinism, as it is often used, and Darwin’s actual ideas.

  • Dawkins, Richard. The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986.

    A detailed examination of the evidence for Darwinism, or evolution by natural selection. The title alludes to 18th-century theologian William Paley’s argument that the “watch” that is the natural world indicated the existence of a “watchmaker” or God. Dawkins’s inversion of this argument links Darwinism to atheism.

  • Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. London: Penguin, 1996.

    An introduction to Darwinism (including developments in Darwinian thinking post-Darwin), and an accessible introduction to some of the philosophical implications of Darwinism and the ideas of post-Darwinians, including the idea of the meme, questions about whether ethics can be naturalized, and whether there is “meaning” under a Darwinian worldview.

  • Ghiselin, Michael T. The Triumph of the Darwinian Method. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2003.

    Originally published in 1969, this work reads through Darwin’s oeuvre, offering chapters on not only the obvious content to Darwinism (natural selection, variation) but also on Darwin’s barnacle work, his geology, etc., and thus it narrates the scientific methodology that unifies Darwin’s lifelong work.

  • Hodge, Jonathan, and Gregory Radick, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Darwin. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521771978

    A collection of essays, roughly half by philosophers and half by historians, that introduces Darwin’s thought and considers its implications for fields as various as ethics, the history of ideas, and contemporary evolutionary philosophy. The editors stress the inseparability of Darwin’s ideas from the context of Victorian culture. Available in the Cambridge Companions Online series for subscription or purchase.

  • Howard, Jonathan. Darwin: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780192854544.001.0001

    More an introduction to Darwinism than Darwin, Howard’s book offers a concise introduction to the major concepts of Darwinism and explores the relationship between these and both Darwin’s life and Enlightenment scientific culture.

  • Ruse, Michael. Darwinism and Its Discontents. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    Ruse is a philosopher of science, known for his weighing into the creation/evolution controversy. In this work, he again defends Darwinism against its antagonists, both 19th-century and contemporary, while introducing key controversies in evolutionary biology.

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

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139026895

    A collection of essays by over sixty scholars examining the background to Darwin’s and other evolutionary thought, and the impact of Darwin’s thought on a range of areas including religion, medicine, literature, culture.

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