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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 August 2018

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Keywords for Victorian Literature and Culture
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018 

Charles Darwin famously does not use the word “evolution” in the first edition of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859). Only with the sixth edition of 1872 does Origin mention the word. Reflecting on evolution's altered status as a legitimate scientific principle, Darwin writes that “things are wholly changed, and almost every naturalist admits the great principle of evolution.”Footnote 1 As a younger man, he had seen both naturalist and non-naturalist friends be skeptical, dismissive, or wary of earlier evolutionary hypotheses; by 1872, among naturalists at least, natural selection might be contentious, but evolution itself was not.

The use of the word “evolution” as a term for what was also known as the transmutation of species was of comparatively recent vintage. First appearing in French in 1831, the usage migrated into English the following year in Charles Lyell's influential Principles of Geology. Lyell uses the word “evolution” to describe the ideas of the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who was, by then, well known as a proponent of the view that species transmute as a result of adaptation and the inheritance of acquired characteristics;Footnote 2 for Lyell, Lamarckian “evolution” evoked a procedural uniformity and temporal gradualism that he prized in his own analysis of geological processes. Lamarck, though, was not the sole progenitor of such views. Notable among Lamarck's predecessors in the transmutation hypothesis was Darwin's grandfather Erasmus Darwin, a figure who was simultaneously, as Devin Griffiths insists, a “crank” and “the most important British advocate of evolution” in the pre-Origin years.Footnote 3 Though there is no evidence that Lamarck encountered it, Erasmus Darwin's 1794 Zoonomia anticipated many of Lamarck's claims, especially with respect to how the use and disuse of organs might factor in species change.

Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck, and Lyell all provided the backdrop for Darwin's private musings on speciation in the so-called transmutation notebooks of the late 1830s. When he began writing these notebooks in 1837, Darwin had read Zoonomia at home as a teenager, Lamarck's Systême des Animaux sans Vertèbres as a hapless medical student in Edinburgh, and Lyell's Principles (as well as Lamarck's Philosophie Zoölogique) aboard the HMS Beagle on its now famous 1831–36 voyage. Darwin would later also grapple with the contentious reception of Robert Chambers's wildly popular 1844 Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Darwin found Vestiges to be facile and unscientific, but the many and sometimes hostile reviews of it also inflected his thinking about whether to announce his views on the species question. Only the fear of being scooped on the theory of natural selection spurred Darwin to overcome his trepidation. Darwin completed Origin hastily after Alfred Russel Wallace sent Darwin his paper “On the Tendency of Varieties to depart indefinitely from the Original Type” in 1858. In this paper, Wallace articulates his own (independent) conclusion that species evolve through a tendency to variation “by minute steps, in various directions,” with varieties that exhibit “slightly increased powers of preserving existence” persisting in the face of a Malthusian struggle for life.Footnote 4

Many contemporary readers are used to thinking about Darwinian natural selection as coterminous with evolution, even though, as the historian of science Peter Bowler points out, “much evolutionary thought has been non-Darwinian in character.”Footnote 5 Some of evolution's best-known popularizers were as indebted to Lamarck as to Darwin. Herbert Spencer—the coiner of the influential phrase “the survival of the fittest”Footnote 6—is representative of many nineteenth-century appropriations of evolution: though Spencer was happy to adopt natural selection into his notorious advocacy of a brutal laissez-faire economic philosophy, he retains key Lamarckian principles around adaptation and inheritance.Footnote 7 Similarly, with very different political commitments, the anarchist and Russian émigré Peter (Pyotr) Kropotkin likewise defends elements of Lamarckian theory, though he draws most heavily on Darwin in his description of evolutionary cooperation and “mutual aid.”

This is not, though, to suggest that Darwinian natural and sexual selection does not shape the sociobiological imaginary of the nineteenth century. This influence becomes especially pronounced after the 1871 publication of The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Gillian Beer's now classic account of the uses of evolution as a narrative paradigm stresses that Darwin's later writing on sexual selection turned to “the individual or communal will” as a “shaping influence.”Footnote 8 This emphasis on sexual selection as a basis for social policy seemed to license the eugenic theories put forward by his cousin Francis Galton—theories that Darwin himself found compelling.Footnote 9 From the late nineteenth century onwards, Darwin's work becomes frequently invoked in a white supremacism under which, as Sylvia Wynter writes, “all the people of Black Africa” appear as “an undeserving race because dysselected-by-Evolution within the logic of the Darwinian paradigm.”Footnote 10

But though scholars debate how and when Darwin's thought becomes drawn into eugenic thinking and scientific racism, the association between them is neither wholly determined, nor entirely incidental.Footnote 11 Both Nihad Farooq and Cannon Schmitt write about Darwin's time aboard the Beagle with respect to, in Farooq's words, his “alternatingly relativistic and imperial manner of looking at the natural world.”Footnote 12 Without discounting, for instance, Darwin's blithe comments about genocide in the Descent of Man, or the appropriation of the theory of natural selection for eugenic racism, recent scholarship also seeks to emphasize the uses that anticapitalist, feminist, and anticolonial thinkers have been able to draw from evolutionary thought. Marwa Elshakry argues that, after a first wave of more individualist glosses, Arab intellectuals developed theories of evolutionary socialism at the turn of the twentieth century that included a “growing international critique of Western capitalist and imperial expansion outside of Europe.”Footnote 13 For a number of nineteenth- and early-twentieth century readers, that is, this ability to deploy evolution as an argument against European rule could take a number of forms, some of which also entailed emphasizing, like Kropotkin did, evolutionary mutualism as a model for anticapitalist anarchism or socialism.


1. Darwin, Charles, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, 6th ed. (London: John Murray, 1872), 424CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2. On the history of the use of the word “evolution,” see especially Beer, Gillian, Darwin's Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 11CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Richards, Robert J., “Evolution,” in Keywords in Evolutionary Biology, ed. Keller, Evelyn Fox and Lloyd, Elisabeth A. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 100Google Scholar.

3. Griffiths, Devin, The Age of Analogy: Science and Literature between the Darwins (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), 51Google Scholar.

4. Wallace, Alfred Russel, “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely Form the Original Type,” Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 3–4 (1859): 62Google Scholar, 58.

5. Bowler, Peter J., The Non-Darwinian Revolution: Reinterpreting a Historical Myth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 19Google Scholar.

6. Spencer, Herbert, The Principles of Biology, Vol. 1 (London: Williams and Norgate, 1864), 444Google Scholar.

7. Naomi Beck suggests that Spencer often failed to distinguish salient differences between Darwinian and Lamarckian accounts of evolutionary processes. Beck, Naomi, “The Origin and Political Thought: From Liberalism to Marxism,” in The Cambridge Companion to the “Origin of Species,” ed. Ruse, Michael and Richards, Robert J. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 299Google Scholar.

8. Beer, Darwin's Plots, 172.

9. Darwin writes to Galton in response to Galton's “Hereditary Improvement” that “though I see so much difficulty, the object seems a grand one; & you have pointed out the sole feasible, yet I fear utopian, plan of procedure in improving the human race” (Darwin, January 4, 1873). George Levine notes that Galton's work “impressed” Darwin (Levine, George, Darwin the Writer [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011], viCrossRefGoogle Scholar). In an earlier book, Levine also seeks to emphasize that Darwin responds to Galton by noting that “men did not differ much in intellect” (Levine, George, Darwin and the Novelists [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988], 182Google Scholar).

10. Wynter, Sylvia, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument,” CR: The New Centennial Review 3, no. 3 (2003): 257337CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 319.

11. Diane Paul notes that “few professional historians believe either that Darwin's theory leads directly to these doctrines or that they are entirely unrelated” (Paul, Diane B., “Darwin, Social Darwinism and Eugenics,” in The Cambridge Companion to Darwin [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009], 214Google Scholar).

12. Farooq, Nihad, Undisciplined: Science, Ethnography, and Personhood in the Americas, 1830–1940 (New York: New York University Press, 2016), 44Google Scholar. Cannon Schmitt highlights that “Victorian science and empire are inextricable” at the same time as the theories that evolutionary scientists developed also could “disallow … the solidity necessary for easily held conviction as to their difference, superiority or right to rule” (Schmitt, Cannon, Darwin and the Memory of the Human: Evolution, Savages, and South America [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009], 11Google Scholar).

13. Elshakry, Marwa, Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860–1950 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 225CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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