The Origin of Species

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The ghost which haunts the classic British adventure story is that of Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species was published in the middle of the Victorian age in Britain. This was a time of rapid change throughout the country, cities and towns were experiencing rapid growth in population, industry was also expanding, factories and railways were built, creating a large number of working class jobs. There was also growth in medical and scientific areas. The nineteenth century is largely associated with the ideas of progress and economic and scientific growth, but also with the picture of stark poverty and a large gap between the lower classes and the aristocracy.

Queen Victoria met life at the head of the British monarchy and the British Empire in the midst of this tumultuous time of rapid industrialisation, in 1838. Victoria had an empire to sustain, and the advances in Britain helped with this, as it was for a time the richest country in the world. With apparent successful ruling, Victoria became the epitome of British respectability, setting a high example for her people. In 1840, Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and the two built up a very close relationship. However, the happy couple were not meant to last as long as Victoria's dedication to her country. Victoria was set for tragedy in her personal life, as Albert died in 1861, leaving her broken hearted. Completely devastated, Victoria began to withdraw from her role as the stoic leader of the most successful empire in decades. This withdrawal, this isolation from the public eye, caused criticism, and public feeling in general began to tip toward the negative end of the spectrum.

During the middle of Victoria's reign, both her apparent absence, and the massive changes with regard to economy and society contributed to the feeling of unrest within some communities, which was becoming stronger after the publication of The Origin of Species. Some works of major Victorian authors represent either feelings of unrest or interest regarding the “rapid changes” taking place in Britain. The public interest in science intensified, we may assume this is explained partly with the documentation of scientific progress being available to a large amount of the public in general, not only contempories of Darwin, for example.

Victoria was largely away from the public eye from Albert's death in 1861 until the 1870s, and during this time Darwin's work had a chance to affect Britain, and encourage the lost sense people began to feel.

Darwin's work encouraged the doubtful mood of Britain when it was first published, as it immediately challenges those who believed the human race was moulded by the hand of God, made in his form. People were conflicted with regard to their religious beliefs and what science was proposing to them.

It can be argued that Darwin's The Origin of Species influenced many nineteenth century writers to a great extent, through the Victorian era there are many authors whose work reflects issues concerning theories on evolution through their literature. This can be explained simply as many authors and intellectuals were among those struggling with, on one hand, their religious beliefs, and on the other, more logical and scientific hand they were struggling with coming to terms with what Darwin had to tell them. Darwin generated a wave of intellectual discord with his theory on Natural Selection. Religious intellectuals, including Darwin himself, had difficulty coming to terms with the possibility of these new ideas explaining how the human race came about.

The poet Alfred Lord Tennyson was famously dubbed the “poet of evolution”, although some of his views contrasted sharply with Darwin's. Tennyson regarded the change of species as spiritual process of development, and species develop with relation to reaching a certain goal or state. Darwin, in contrast was convinced that evolution depended on a species' ability to survive - hence the survival of the fittest.

As an intellectual struggling with accepting evolution with regard to his religious beliefs, Tennyson has been written about to show how Darwin's theories were accepted;

“He [Tennyson] exemplifies, within the confines of a single mind, the long Victorian warfare between science and religion.” [i](Proceedings, Amerian Philosophical Society, p.620.)

Tennyson lived in a time which was becoming more and more Darwinian. Those with strong religious beliefs found it hard to accept Darwin's theories, as they undermined the book of Genesis, which states (GET QUOTE ON HOW WORLD WAS MADE). Many, including those in the literary community, were torn between their personal beliefs as to how they came to be on the planet, and Darwin's theory of evolution.

“Darwinism means evolution by the mass slaughter of failures”[ii] (Proceedings, American Philosophical Society, p.621)

Many people could not, or simply refused to accept Darwin's ideas concerning the survival of the fittest, it was essentially too harsh a concept to consider, despite many not entirely disagreeing with his theories on evolution. It is possible that the people of Britain in general were just not ready to hear Darwin's theories - however it is easy to consider this centuries after publication. Darwin's Origin of Species was breaking a norm considering the fact that before this was published, literature had previously been influenced by the Bible and Genesis, nothing had challenged religion so boldly before. For example, John Milton's Paradise Lost was, and still is an extremely influential text, which tells of creation beginning with God creating Adam in his form, and the creating Eve, using a rib belonging to Adam. There is no mention of the human race descending and evolving from apes, humans were simply created in one unchanging form, by God.

“This said, he formed thee, Adam, thee O man..

The breath of life; in his own image he

Created thee, in the image of God

Express, and thou becam'st a living soul.” [iii](Paradise Lost, Milton, John, Book VII, p.163)

Paradise Lost by John Milton is certainly a text which was influenced by the book of Genesis, and even uses direct quotes from some parts of the bible. It is easy to see how Darwin's work caused so much controversy when it was initially published, as the majority of the British population were religious, and were used to literature which reflected or was influenced by the Bible.

To consider that Darwin “haunts the classic British adventure story” involves looking at other writers who reflect different aspects of Darwin's theory through their writing. Tennyson is one example already mentioned, however Darwin had a particular influence on adventure fiction. Arthur Conan Doyle published his adventure novel The Lost World in 1912, a time when the adventure fiction genre was well established.

The Lost World is a novel typical of its genre; it is a story of exploration into the world of the unknown, where amazing discoveries are made. We meet the character of Ed Malone, an Irish journalist who is impelled by the woman he loves, Gladys, to do something with his life which makes him worthy of her affection. Ed is told by Gladys how a man is supposed to be;

“It is the mark of the kind of man I mean that he makes his own chances. You can't hold him back.”[iv](Conan Doyle, The Lost World, p.6)

Ed Malone is encouraged to search for adventure, however he is told by his editor;

“I'm afraid the day for this sort of thing is rather past”[v] (Conan Doyle, p.9)

There is reference here to a loss of innocence, Conan Doyle is perhaps commenting on how with all the forward progress regarding science, once things are discovered there is a lack of innocence and romance, hence the title, “The Lost World”, Ed Malone's editor is the character who puts this idea into words;

“The big blank spaces on the map are all being filled in, and there's no room for romance anywhere.” (Conan Doyle, p.10)

However Ed is encouraged to visit Professor Challenger, a “famous zoologist”, with regard to his previous exploration of South America. We are given a focus for the novel with this meeting; the reader's attention is set on South America, and an obsession with evolution takes over.

With the character of Professor Challenger, we are given an example of someone interested in the development of science and evolution. After Challenger is rude and violent towards Ed, he recognises that he is genuinely interested in his work. Challenger claims to have evidence of dinosaurs living in South America, and shows Ed slides and a large bone belonging to a prehistoric creature. Challenger is a character who has been ridiculed for his work, Conan Doyle is perhaps making a link here with Darwin, and how his work was met also with ridicule during the nineteenth century.

Challenger is scorned in one part of the book where he is giving a lecture, Conan Doyle makes specific reference to Darwin in the text;

“You can only throw mud at the men who have risked their lives to open new fields to science. You persecute the prophets! Galileo, Darwin and I-“ (Conan Doyle, p45)

This reflects the mood of unrest through the country with regard to the reactions that met Darwin's Origin of the Species. Slightly earlier in the novel, another lecturer, Mr. Waldron, states that;

“Evolution was not a spent force, but one still working, and even greater achievements were in store.” (Conan Doyle, p. 41)

This is significant as Conan Doyle is acknowledging Darwin's ideas and apparently endorsing them by making Darwin's idea on evolution the same as one of his characters. Conan Doyle gives the character who says this an air of importance; he is a “hardened lecturer and strong man” - this emphasises how much an effect Darwin had through the nineteenth century for Conan Doyle to include his ideas in a novel decades later.

The novel continues and follows the usual structure of an adventure novel with a group of explorers travelling to South America, the group including Professor Challenger, Ed Malone, Lord John Roxton - an experienced hunter and explorer, and Professor Summerlee.

The aim of the group is to return to where Challenger claims to have seen prehistoric creatures, on a plateau in South America. Their expedition leads to the discovery of a vast tropical marsh, where they see the prehistoric - like creatures, and even more shockingly they discover ape-like men, apparently representing a level of the human race from which modern man developed.

The ape-men in Conan Doyle's “lost world” represent some particular anxieties which arose as a result of Darwin's theories. The fear of regression to a former, more primitive state was something people were preoccupied with. Social Darwinism lead the British people to believe that their society held the most developed form of people; to be British was to be the best, the pinnacle of humanity. Placing the ape-men in his novel, Conan Doyle reflects a hierarchy, as Brian V. Street puts;

“By putting primitive peoples in their ‘appropriate position in the developmental series', it was starting from the same premis: that primitive man was inferior, and that he could be classified according to ethnocentric criteria.”[vi] (Savage in Literature: representations of “primitive” society in English fiction, 1858-1920, Brian V. Street, p.93)

The fact that the ape men are found in an undiscovered part of the world - as far as Britain was concerned is evidence for evolution, the explorers recognise them as a form of primitive man, and they show how men used to be. One particular scene in the novel shows a Darwinian acknowledgement of kinship with the savage “other”. Professor challenger meets one of the ape men, and the description of the two characters represents the similarities between the two forms of man.

[i] Proceedings, American Philosophical Society, (vol. 103, no. 5, 1959),American Philosophical Society, p.621

[ii] Proceedings, American Philosophical Society, (vol. 103, no. 5, 1959),American Philosophical Society, p. 621

[iii] Paradise Lost, Milton, John, Penguin Classics, 2000, p. 163

[iv] The Lost World, Doyle, Conan, Arthur, Oxford University Press 1998, p.6

[v] The Lost World, Conan Doyle, p.9

[vi] The Savage in Literature: representations of “primitive” society in English fiction, 1858-1920, Brian V. Street, Routledge, 1975, p.93