Darwin and literature


Nothing could have been worse for the development of my mind’ Darwin writes in his Autobiography  'than Dr Butler's school, as it was strictly classical, nothing else being taught, except a little ancient geography and history. ... Especial attention was paid to verse-making, and this I could never do well.’

He was, despite this, fond of reading ‘I used to sit for hours reading the historical plays of Shakespeare, generally in an old window in the thick walls of the school. I read also other poetry, such as Thomson's 'Seasons,' and the recently published poems of Byron and Scott. I mention this because later in life I wholly lost, to my great regret, all pleasure from poetry of any kind, including Shakespeare. In connection with pleasure from poetry, I may add that in 1822 a vivid delight in scenery was first awakened in my mind, during a riding tour on the borders of Wales, and this has lasted longer than any other aesthetic pleasure. Early in my school days a boy had a copy of the 'Wonders of the World,' which I often read, and disputed with other boys about the veracity of some of the statements; and I believe that this book first gave me a wish to travel in remote countries, which was ultimately fulfilled by the voyage of the “Beagle".

He wrote of the time after his return from Beagle and before he was married; ‘I took much delight in Wordsworth's and Coleridge's poetry; and can boast that I read the 'Excursion' twice through. Formerly Milton's 'Paradise Lost' had been my chief favourite, and in my excursions during the voyage of the "Beagle", when I could take only a single volume, I always chose Milton.’

His wife Emma often read novels to him in the evening, he was particularly fond of Jane Austen’s work. His brother Erasmus who lived in London was part of the circle around the novelist George Eliot, and Charles had been with Erasmus to one of her evenings. 

Charles Darwin was also famous enough to feature in novels, he writes:  ‘I do not doubt that Sir E. Lytton Bulwer had me in his mind when he introduced in one of his novels a Professor Long, who had written two huge volumes on limpets.’ Darwin made his name in scientific circles with his two volume study of barnacles.

He complained in his ‘Autobiography' that he had lost all taste for literature as he grew older, but there is no doubt that his extensive reading must have had a considerable influence on the development of his imagination and on his writing style.

When Darwin tried to explain the mechanisms of evolution he had to find new words and phrases and this proved difficult. His first choice for the process by which species changed was natural selection. Several people, including Wallace, objected to this as he thought this might suggest that nature was like a god with the power of choosing.  The term 'survival of the fittest', Wallace suggested, gave a better idea of how evolution worked. Darwin rather reluctantly agreed use survival of the fittest in later editions of his work. This term however suggested to many people that nature was engaged in a cut throat struggle where the biggest and strongest killed off the smaller and less fit. What Darwin was trying to convey was much more subtle: the fitness of any species depended on the environment, a change in the weather of the presence or absence of other species could be more favourable to the insignificant as well as to the biggest and most powerful.  This happened in the past when the mighty dinosaurs died off as the result of asteroid strike and climate upheavals and small mammals became the fittest in the new environment. Natural selection is a continuous and dynamic process which is difficult to understand fully. It has been said that anyone who boasts that they understand evolution has failed to understand how complex it is. For a very simple introduction to the way natural selection works to change species click on the link below.

§  Natural selection

For anyone who’d like to know more on Darwin as a writer I recommend the book Darwin the Writer by the literary critic George Levine.

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