Darwin’s Writers

1. Darwin and Literature

This year we are celebrating a double anniversary for Charles Robert Darwin (1809–1882), the founding father of evolutionary biology: the bicentenary of his birth and a hundred and fifty years since the publication of his most important work, On the Origin of Species (1859). Like other great scientists, Darwin was a unifier of the hitherto unrelated phenomena. For example, Newton united the earth and the heavens by demonstrating that the same physics applied to both. That was surely a tremendous achievement, but compare that to Darwin’s unification of the realm of matter with the realm of spirit (or, as we would say today, culture)! For millennia, people considered themselves to be the special creations of God, and the ones particularly favored by Him. Most humanists of today reject that ancient myth. They grant to Darwin that our species has evolved from more primitive life forms over billions of years. However, even these enlightened minds balk at the further idea that what makes us truly human – our minds and morals – could be the result of a blind evolutionary process. Yet this is precisely the claim pressed by the current offshoots of Darwinism: evolutionary psychology, Darwinian anthropology, and other such research programs. In his books The Descent of Man (1871) and The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), Darwin himself provided early accounts of the evolutionary origins of morality and emotions, and the current research builds upon this foundational work.

Now, emotions are the stuff that imaginative writing is made of. What was Darwin’s relation to literature? In a memoir written toward the end of his life, Darwin confessed to a gradual dissatisfaction with poetry and drama, which he had enjoyed so much as a young man:

I have said that in one respect my mind has changed during the last 20 or 30 years. Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays […] But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me (Darwin 2002, p. 84).

Darwin felt pretty much the same about painting and music; strangely enough, as he grew older and ever more absorbed in his scientific work, he eventually lost the capacity for experiencing pure aesthetic delight: “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive” (ibid., p. 85). However, he was less disinclined towards novels, although he’s probably not quite serious in the following, rather self-mocking passage:

[…] novels which are works of the imagination, though not of a very high order, have been for years a wonderful relief and pleasure to me, and I often bless all novelists. A surprising number have been read aloud to me, and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily – against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if it be a pretty woman all the better (ibid., p. 84).

Gillian Beer, the author of the groundbreaking study of stylistic interrelationships between Darwin and some nineteenth-century novelists, Darwin’s Plots (1983), notes that given his taste in novels, the works of George Eliot such as Middlemarch, published just a year after The Descent of Man, and Daniel Deronda, which appeared in the same year as Darwin penned his memoir (1876), would not meet with his approval. Should we take him at his word, we’d have to think that Darwin preferred a potboiler, as long as it involved pretty women and a happy ending, to a book by Eliot, and that he’d also question its status as a work of a “high imaginative order.” But we should probably not read too much into the above-quoted passage. Apparently, Darwin’s taste in novels is as inconsequential as Wittgenstein’s taste in movies – both took literature and film, respectively, as means of recreation and nothing more.

Rather than the influence of literature on Darwin, I shall examine, in the rest of this study, the impact of Darwin’s theories on imaginative writers. How have they perceived the onset of the new scientific paradigm? Their views, expressed by artistic means, are important no matter how distorted their picture of Darwinism might have often been. Fiction writers are traditionally viewed, and view themselves, as guardians of the humanistic culture; the works of fiction thus express the self‑conceptions of this culture and its perceptions of science. The humanists have by and large correctly understood that Darwinism involves a radical change in our understanding of humanity, morality and freedom. Many, especially the late Victorians, also feared what they regarded as odious social implications of Darwin’s theories. We know today that the so-called “social Darwinism” has roots in the work of such figures as the philosopher Herbert Spencer, rather than Darwin himself, whose own political views were rather ambivalent. At the same time, the 19th century was the age of progress, and of the belief in progress, and most important authors did not so much protest against the idea of evolution itself – including the evolution of humankind – as against the Darwinian version of this idea, which lacks any notion of purpose and goal. That is why some late Victorian and Edwardian authors felt a need to express, by literary means, a certain kind of teleology. During the 20th century, the belief in progress died out, but the fear of biological determinism – now understood as genetic determinism – has not dissipated. In what follows, I shall review the vicissitudes of the Darwinian ideas in the works of several fiction writers. Given the limited space, I shall concentrate on some important British writers – Darwin’s compatriots – from the late Victorians Samuel Butler, G. B. Shaw and H. G. Wells to our contemporaries A. S. Byatt and Ian McEwan._1

2. Of Eyes and Machines

Let us start with a late Victorian classic, the novel Erewhon (1872) by Samuel Butler (1845–1902). The book was in its time a widely read parody of the utopian genre, which in English literature dates at least as far back as Thomas More’s Utopia (1516). (“U-topos” means “the place which is nowhere” in Greek, while “Erewhon” is “nowhere” spelt backwards.) Butler’s is aiming particularly at the nineteenth-century social reformers who claimed that crime is due to a disease, rather than a bad character. In the book, the narrator visits a faraway land in which the sick are incarcerated as criminals, while the criminals themselves are hospitalized as if they were sick. Another special feature of this world is the fact that machines are completely absent from it. The narrator finds out why when he discovers an ancient manuscript, which he succeeds in translating. Long excerpts from this “manuscript,” entitled “The Book of the Machines,” make up the chapters 23 až 25 of Erewhon, and can be read as a more or less independent essay. No wonder, since they were published as such already in 1863, and Butler only later incorporated them in his novel. I wish to concentrate on this material, since it expresses a sharp critique of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

The narrator learns from “The Book of the Machines” that the Erewhonians banned the machines long time ago because they feared that machines would eventually evolve, surpass the humans in their abilities and enslave them. The author of the manuscript is aware that such an idea sounds incredible at first, since the machines lack consciousness – the one property due to which people rule machines and not vice versa. Machines are mere mechanisms devoid of consciousness and there is no way they could ever acquir one; that is why they will always remain in the subordinate position. However, the author of the manuscript warns us that the certainty about the impossibility of the mechanical consciousness is but a consequence of an insufficient historical perspective:

The writer commences: – ‘There was a time, when the earth was to all appearance utterly destitute both of animal and vegetable life, and when according to the opinion of our best philosophers it was simply a hot round ball with a crust gradually cooling. Now if a human being had existed while the earth was in this state and had been allowed to see it as though it were some other world with which he had no concern, and if at the same time he was entirely ignorant of physical science, would he not have pronounced it impossible that creatures possessed of anything like consciousness should be evolved from the seeming cinder which he was beholding? Would he not have denied that it contained any potentiality for consciousness? Yet in the course of time consciousness came. Is it not possible then that there may be even yet new channels dug out for consciousness, though we can detect no signs of them at present? (Butler 1970 [1872], p. 198).

Butler – in the voice of the fictional author of the “Book of the Machines” – suggests that whoever doubts the possibility of machine consciousness is in the position of the hypothetical witness to the early days of our planet when it was lifeless. The same observer would find the suggestion that a life – and a conscious life – could develop from such a crude state fantastical, too. Both of these skeptics suffer from a kind of myopia: the skeptic about the possibility of conscious life at the dawn of history sees only hot matter around; the contemporary skeptic about machine consciousness sees only the primitive machines that we have now. But the skeptic should reconsider: “The more highly organised machines are creatures not so much of yesterday, as of the last five minutes, so to speak, in comparison with past time. Assume for the sake of argument that conscious beings have existed for some twenty million years: see what strides machines have made in the last thousand! May not the world last twenty million years longer? If so, what will they not in the end become?” (ibid., p. 199). Butler suggests, in effect, that the evolution of mechanical consciousness could be much faster than that of organic consciousness, given how much progress have machines made over just a few centuries. In the rest of the “Book of the Machines,” Butler supports his case by suggesting similarities between machines and living things. Consider a humble potato, which in a dark basement sends its shoots towards a light, using every bit of soil on its way as nourishment:

‘If it be urged that the action of the potato is chemical and mechanical only, and that it is due to the chemical and mechanical effects of light and heat, the answer would seem to lie in an inquiry whether every sensation is not chemical and mechanical in its operation? whether those things which we deem most purely spiritual are anything but disturbances of equilibrium in an infinite series of levers, beginning with those that are too small for microscopic detection, and going up to the human arm and the appliances which it makes use of? Whether there be not a molecular action of thought, whence a dynamical theory of the passions shall be deducible? Whether strictly speaking we should not ask what kind of levers a man is made of rather than what is his temperament? (ibid., p. 201).

Plants, animals, even humans with their precious consciousness are sort of machines, then. We are complexes of intricate machinery. Butler suggests that our bodily organs are no less machines than those ordinarily so called; in other words, our bodily organs are perhaps more intimately connected with our selves, but their nature is no less mechanical. He compares a human eye to a telescope (“the big seeing-engine”) and a microscope (“the little see-engine”):

What is a man’s eye but a machine for the little creature that sits behind in his brain to look through? A dead eye is nearly as good as a living one for some time after the man is dead. It is not the eye that cannot see, but the restless one that cannot see through it. Is it man’s eyes, or is it the big seeing- engine which has revealed to us the existence of worlds beyond worlds into infinity? What has made man familiar with the scenery of the moon, the spots on the sun, or the geography of the planets? He is at the mercy of the seeing-engine for these things, and is powerless unless he tack it on to his own identity, and make it part and parcel of himself. Or, again, is it the eye, or the little see-engine, which has shown us the existence of infinitely minute organisms which swarm unsuspected around us? (ibid., p. 205).

The idea of driving similarities between mechanisms and living things was certainly not Butler’s invention. Before the onset of evolutionary thinking, it was a favorite ploy of natural theologians, who wished to prove the existence of a Deity from the character of the observable world. The most influential of these writers, the Anglican pastor William Paley (1743–1805), compared the eye with the telescope, and made this comparison the centerpiece of his celebrated teleological argument. This argument is laid out in his book Natural Theology (1802).

As far as the examination of the instrument goes, there is precisely the same proof that the eye was made for vision, as there is that the telescope was made for assisting it. They are made upon the same principles; both being adjusted to the laws by which the transmission and refraction of rays of light are regulated. […] Accordingly we find, that the eye of a fish, in that part of it called the crystalline lense, is much rounder than the eye of terrestrial animals. What plainer manifestation of design can there be than this difference? (Paley 2006 [1802], p. 16).

For Paley, the functionality of an eye, its adaptation to its task – i.e., vision – was a proof enough that it was designed. Since we find the world full of such highly functional things as an eye, we can infer from it the existence of a Deity who designed all of them with as much right as we can infer from the existence of a telescope the existence of a human engineer:

What could a mathematical instrument-maker have done more, to shew his knowledge of this principle, his application of that knowledge, his suiting of his means to this end; I will not say to display the compass or excellency of his skill and art, for in these all comparison is indecorous, but to testify counsel, choice, consideration, purpose? (ibid.).

When Darwin was an undergraduate in Cambridge, Paley’s works had been compulsory reading, and they made a lasting impression on him. He took away from Paley the notion that the existence of intricate functionality must be starting point of a naturalistic explanation. When he took to writing down the Origin of Species some thirty years, he was still thinking of Paley’s old chestnut. In an important sixth chapter, “Difficulties on Theory,” conceded that the existence of the functionality of an eye posed an intuitively insurmountable challenge to a naturalistic explanation. He wrote: “To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree” (Darwin [1859], p. 140). By this time, however, he already discovered a mechanism capable of accounting for a complex functionality without the supposition of an intelligent designer:

Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be very useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real (ibid.).

Darwin’s idea of evolution of an eye, suggested in this paragraph, follows the general pattern of his theory of evolution by natural selection. The theory rests of three premises: First, individual organisms in a population differ as to their traits, some of these being more useful for survival than others. Second, these traits are heritable by the offspring of the current organisms. Third, those organisms with more useful traits will have a better chance to leave offspring, while others die off. From these premises it follows that a generation of organisms with a comparatively much more functional trait will appear. In other words, a more useful trait will prevail in the future, eventually causing a speciation. The bulk of the Origin of Species is devoted to providing empirical evidence for the truth of Darwin’s premises._2

I hope that my summary of “The Book of the Machines” makes clear that its fictional writer works from a theory of evolution. But is this theory Darwinian? And what was Butler’s purpose in suggesting this theory?

Let’s start with the second question first. There are three ways of interpreting Butler’s thoughts on machine consciousness._3 One is to read it as a brilliant anticipation of what in our day and age is called “artificial intelligence” and “artificial life.” There are indeed moments of what seems like a striking prescience on Butler’s part in this respect, such as his suggestion that the future development of the machines will go in the direction of miniaturization – which is exactly what we’ve seen, in our own time, best exemplified in computers. Butler suggests that the current machines – his prime example being a steam engine – are like the dinosaurs to the machines of the future, meaning that the future development will be in the direction of steady miniaturization: “A day may come when clocks, which certainly at the present time are not diminishing in bulk, will be superseded owing to the universal use of watches, in which case they will become as extinct as ichthyosauri, while the watch, whose tendency has for some years been to decrease is size rather than the contrary, will remain the only existing type of an extinct race” (Butler 1970 [1872], p. 202–203). However exciting, though, this interpretation is anachronistic – reading into Butler later developments he had no way of anticipating.

A second interpretation would read “The Book of the Machines” as an attack on the theory of evolution, somewhat along these lines: The idea of the evolution of consciousness in machines is an obvious absurdity; so, by analogy, is the idea of the evolution of human consciousness. If it’s inconceivable that a bunch of metallic bits could acquire consciousness, then the idea that a lump of organic matter could achieve it is no less bizarre. By extension, we should wonder how a lump of matter could ever become organic – how it could come alive through some blind, purely causal evolutionary process. According to this interpretation, Butler didn’t himself believe in evolution, and he used his story about the evolution of machine consciousness to expose the folly of any theory of evolution, Darwinian or otherwise. However, in “Preface to Second Edition” to Erewhon, Butler expressly denies that he had this in mind:

I regret that reviewers have in some cases been inclined to treat the chapters on Machines as an attempt to reduce Mr Darwin’s theory to an absurdity. Nothing could be further from my intention, and few things would be more distasteful than any attempt to laugh at Mr Darwin (ibid., p. 29–30).

If Butler didn’t mean to reject the very idea of evolution, perhaps he intended to improve upon Darwin. Indeed, in his Evolution, Old and New (1879), Butler is explicit in adopting a version of the theory of the French zoologist Jean Baptiste de Lamarck (1744–1829). Lamarckism competed with Darwinism throughout the 1800s. The key difference between the two theories can be explained in terms of a notorious example. How did the giraffe get his long neck? On Darwin’s version, we should imagine an ancestral population of proto-giraffes with shortish necks inhabiting an environment where the primary food source consists of leaves on tall trees. Some of the proto-giraffes happened to have their necks ever so slightly longer than others. This characteristic was thus useful in the proto-giraffes’ environment, as the longer-necked individuals were able to reach many more leaves on higher branches, and thus to exploit more of the scarce resources. Consequently, these luckier individuals left more offspring than the short-necked individuals, who eventually went extinct. The useful characteristic – a longer neck – was passed onto the next generation, and on and on, until it has reached the extant proportions. Lamarck’s story is different. In his Philosophie Zoologique (1809) he says:_4

It is interesting to observe the result of habit in the peculiar shape and size of the giraffe (Camelo-pardalis): this animal, the largest of the mammals, is known to live in the interior of Africa in places where the soil is nearly always arid and barren, so that it is obliged to browse on the leaves of trees and to make constant efforts to reach them. From this habit long maintained in all its race, it has resulted that the animal’s fore-legs have become longer than its hind legs, and that is neck is lengthened to such a degree that the giraffe, without standing up on its hind legs, attains a height of six metres (nearly 20 feet).

Like Darwin after him, Lamarck also believed that environment exercised pressure on organisms that had to adjust to it, if they were to prosper. However, Lamarck supposed that an individual organism could modify his organs through a willed effort. Thus a proto-giraffe could prolong his neck already during his lifetime by stretching it. Lamarck thought that any organs that would get used most could be improved and enlarged by a willed effort. (By contrast, the organs that fell into disuse would gradually dwindle or disappear altogether.) The new trait that the individual acquired would get inherited by his offspring. On Lamarck’s theory, then, no individual needs to go extinct, as long as he tries hard enough to modify himself. All living things strive to improve themselves, and so evolution is this constant upward movement towards “perfection.”

It was precisely the purposeful striving that Butler admired in Lamarckism. He was appalled by nihilism that he saw as a consequence of Darwin’s random selection. He hints at a Lamarckian interpretation of the evolution of machines in chapter 25 of Erewhon. Remember that, for Butler, machines are extensions of us. We improve ourselves during our lifetime by using tools or machines, and then these improvements get passed onto the next generation. Butler describes a man digging with a spade: “Having thus modified himself, not as other animals are modified, by circumstances over which they have had not even the appearance of control, but having, as it were, take forethought and added a cubit to his stature, civilization began to dawn upon the race […] ‘Thus civilisation and mechanical progress advanced hand in hand, each developing and being developed by the other, the earliest accidental use of the stick having set the ball rolling, and the prospect of advantage keeping it in motion” (ibid., p. 223). In another work, Unconscious Memory (1880), Butler supposes that a mental state connects all evolved forms:_5

An organised being, therefore, stands before us a product of the unconscious memory of organised matter, which, ever increasing and ever dividing itself, ever assimilating new matter and returning it in changed shape to the inorganic world, ever receiving some new thing into its memory, and transmitting its acquisitions by way of reproduction, grows continually richer and richer the longer it lives.

Unfortunately for Butler, Lamarckism is simply false. First off, it’s ruled out on logical grounds as an ultimate explanation of evolutionary change, because it assumes a pre-existing consciousness as the cause of modification. Unless Butler supposed that the “cinder” that he claimed was the only thing around at the dawn of ages was already consciously trying to modify itself, he owed us an account of how consciousness came about. In addition to this logical point, there simply doesn’t exist any inheritance of acquired characteristics in nature. Mendelian and molecular genetics sealed the fate of Lamarckism. The third point to mention is that Butler confused cultural change and biological evolution. Culture can be said to develop purposefully because it is eventually caused by the intentions of conscious agents – human beings. By contrast, there is no sense of direction in the natural world._6

3. “Neo-Darwinism,” Immorality, and Immortality

The notion that Darwin’s evolution robbed life of a purpose and direction was widespread among the fin-de-siècle humanists. A relatively late expression of this sentiment can be found in one of the works of the Irish playright and satirist George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), the 1920 play Back to Methuselah: A Metabiological Pentateuch. Shaw prefaced the play with a 60-odd-page diatribe against the evils of modern civilization. In 1920, Shaw was already an older man looking back on the era since the publication of the Origin of Species – which almost coincided with the year of his birth – as a steady decline into decadence, the lowest point of which was the World War 1. For this catastrophe we should blame, in Shaw’s opinion, the “Neo-Darwinians,” by which term he seemed to mean those who believed that natural selection was the only evolutionary force and that, moreover, it had quite specific political implications: the rich and the strong should be left free to trample down the poor and the weak: “Neo-Darwinism in politics had produced a European catastrophe of a magnitude so appalling, and a scope so unpredictable, that as I write these lines in 1920, it is still far from certain whether our civilization will survive it” (ibid., p. 9). The one evolutionist that Shaw does respect is Butler, although he mistakenly exaggerates the extent of the hostility of the author of Erewhon against Darwin:

Only Samuel Butler, on whom Darwin had acted homeopathically, reacted against him furiously; ran up the Lamarckian flag to the top-gallant peak; declared with penetrating accuracy that Darwin had 'banished mind from the universe'; and even attacked Darwin's personal character, unable to bear the fact that the author of so abhorrent a doctrine was an amiable and upright man. Nobody would listen to him (Shaw 1939 [1921], p. 36).

Not surprisingly, Shaw liked Butler because he was a Lamarckian – or, rather, a “Neo-Lamarckian.” For Shaw, the basic principle of Lamarckian evolution is that “living organisms changed because they wanted to” (ibid., p. 16; emphasis added). It is apparent that Shaw admires Lamarckism because he recognizes in it a voluntary, spiritual element. He even says that the Lamarckian evolution as a “philosophy and physiology of the will is a mystical process” (ibid., p. 34). The proto-giraffe got a longer neck because he wanted to, or because a prehistoric stockbreeder selected him for this trait. Shaw points out: “Both these explanations, you will observe, involve consciousness, will, design, purpose, either on the part of the animal itself or on the part of a superior intelligence controlling its destiny” (ibid.). By contrast, Darwin’s natural selection works “without the intervention of any stockbreeder, human or divine, and without will, purpose, design, or even consciousness beyond the blind will to satisfy hunger” (ibid.). After this comparison of Lamarckism and Darwinism comes another outpouring of the Shavian scorn:

As such, it [i.e. Darwinism] seems simple, because you do not at first realize all that it involves. But when its whole significance dawns on you, your heart sinks into a heap of sand within you. There is a hideous fatalism about it, a ghastly and damnable reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honor and aspiration, to such casually picturesque changes as an avalanche may make in a mountain landscape, or a railway accident in a human figure. To call this Natural Selection is a blasphemy, possible to many for whom Nature is nothing but a casual aggregation of inert and dead matter, but eternally impossible to the spirits and souls of the righteous. If it be no blasphemy, but a truth of science, then the stars of heaven, the showers and dew, the winter and summer, the fire and heat, the mountains and hills, may no longer be called to exalt the Lord with us by praise; their work is to modify all things by blindly starving and murdering everything that is not lucky enough to survive in the universal struggle for hogwash (ibid., p. 31).

Actually, this is nothing compared to the abuse Shaw hurled against the “Neo‑Darwinians.” In the following passage, he quotes himself from an earlier text from 1906:

“I really do not wish to be abusive; but when I think of these poor little dullards, with their precarious hold of just that corner of evolution that a blackbeetle can understand – with their retinue of twopenny-halfpenny Torquemadas wallowing in the infamies of the vivisector's laboratory, and solemnly offering us as epoch-making discoveries their demonstrations that dogs get weaker and die if you give them no food; that intense pain makes mice sweat; and that if you cut off a dog's leg the three-legged dog will have a four-legged puppy, I ask myself what spell has fallen on intelligent and humane men that they allow themselves to be imposed on by this rabble of dolts, blackguards, impostors, quacks, liars, and, worst of all, credulous conscientious fools. Better a thousand times Moses and Spurgeon [a then famous preacher] back again. After all, you cannot understand Moses without imagination nor Spurgeon without metaphysics; but you can be a thorough-going Neo-Darwinian without imagination, metaphysics, poetry, conscience, or decency. For ‘Natural Selection’ has no moral significance: it deals with that part of evolution which has no purpose, no intelligence, and might more appropriately be called accidental selection, or better still, Unnatural Selection, since nothing is more unnatural than an accident. If it could be proved that the whole universe had been produced by such Selection, only fools and rascals could bear to live” (ibid., p. 42).

Reading this, one wonders what Shaw sounded like when he did want to be abusive! At any rate, he didn’t pour the same scorn on Darwin himself, since he believed that Darwin did not consider natural selection to be the sole cause of evolution: “[Darwin] revealed it as a method of evolution, not as the method of evolution. He did not pretend that it excluded other methods, or that it was the chief method” (ibid., p. 37).

Two comments: first, on the “Neo-Darwinians;” second, on Darwin’s alleged methodological pluralism. As to the former, it’s understandable that Shaw, as a good Fabian socialist,_7 disliked the nineteenth-century defenders of unbridled competition who believed that natural selection mandated that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Yet, for one thing, Shaw himself mentions that Darwinism appealed to people across the political spectrum. There were Darwinian socialists as wells as Darwinian libertarians. Some socialists (not Marxists!) interpreted the struggle for existence as the class struggle between workers and capitalists; others drew on Darwin’s idea in the Descent that the evolution of sympathy, reason and evolution will supplant the fierce struggle for existence. However, Shaw doesn’t realize that all these political writers could be called with more justice “Neo-Lamarckian” than “Neo-Darwinian.” The main source was the philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), the actual author of the term “survival of the fittest.” While Darwin argued that competition led merely to a prevalence of certain traits throughout a population, Spencer claimed that competition made individuals work harder and improve their faculties. These industrious individuals would pass their traits onto the next generation in a Lamarckian manner. Harmony, altruism and cooperation will ultimately win out after many generations – the idea attractive to the socialists – but the unfit will perish in the process, and the state should do nothing to prevent it – something favored by the supporters of laissez-faire. It is true that Darwin also worried, in the Descent, about the fact that “the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man” (Darwin 2004 [1871], p. 159). Yet Darwin immediately follows this harsh statement with the reminder that sympathy was itself naturally selected for its beneficial effects. While future benefits of checking our sympathetic response are very uncertain, such a revision of our ways would surely cause a lot of present suffering; hence, we should not change our current practice of assisting “the weak and helpless,” even at the cost of “the weak surviving and propagating their kind” (ibid.)._8

Now, when it comes to the claim that Darwin wasn’t as dogmatic as the “Neo‑Darwinians,” since he was a pluralist about the causes of evolution, Shaw wasn’t actually wrong. Although initially Darwin had considered natural selection as a primary cause of evolution, in the later editions of the Origin he significantly soft-pedaled his position. In the sixth, and final edition, of the Origin published in 1872, he remarked:_9

As my conclusions have lately been much misinterpreted, and it has been stated that I attribute the modification of species exclusively to natural selection, I may be permitted to remark that in the first edition of this work, and subsequently, I placed in a most conspicuous positron namely at the close of the Introduction – the following words: “I am convinced that natural selection has been the main, but not the exclusive means of modification.” This has been of no avail. Great is the power of steady misinterpretation.

Darwin here presents himself as having been a pluralist about the mechanisms of evolution all along, but it wasn’t until the criticisms of his theory to the effect that there wasn’t enough time for random selection to have wrought all the observed variety that he changed his mind. By the fifth edition of the Origin, he started adding the inheritance of characteristics acquired through the Lamarckian mechanism. This sped up evolution, so that it might take just a couple dozen million years. Alas, the criticisms of the Origin that prompted Darwin’s retreat during the 1860s were based on false estimates of the age of the Earth and the solar system. Lord Kelvin and his disciples calculated the age of the Sun and the Earth at merely a few hundred million years, and later even reduced that estimate to several tens of millions of years._10 Darwin was wrong to adjust his theory to these false estimates. But he was right to try to adjust it to what he perceived as empirical facts. Shaw, however, based his judgment about Darwinism not on its empirical adequacy, but simply on his own political and philosophical preconceptions.

The play Back to Methuselah that follows Shaw’s introductory essay is a sort of fictionalization of the Lamarckian evolution applied to the history – past, present, and future – of humankind. It starts in the Garden of Eden. At the dawn of history, Adam is immortal but tired of the prospect of having to endure himself forever. He and Eve witness an accidental death of a fawn. Adam is inspired to limit his own life span so that he can have a rest: “I will live a thousand years; and then I will endure no more: I will die and take my rest. And I will love Eve all that time and no other woman.” Part II takes places at the present time – i.e., in England in the wake of World War 1. Over the course of history, the length of human life shrank to several decades. Convinced that civilization can be saved only by longevity – by going back to the biblical Methuselah – a group of politicians debate how humans could extend their lifespan up to three centuries. Burge, a politician, is incredulous of how it could be accomplished. Conrad, a biologist, gives a Lamarckian answer: by a conscious effort.

BURGE. Do you mean to say that you have nothing more practical to offer than the mere wish to live longer? Why, if people could live by merely wishing to, we should all be living for ever already! Everybody would like to live for ever. Why don't they?

CONRAD. Pshaw! Everybody would like to have a million of money. Why haven’t they? Because the men who would like to be millionaires wont save sixpence even with the chance of starvation staring them in the face. The men who want to live for ever wont cut off a glass of beer or a pipe of tobacco, though they believe the teetotallers and non-smokers live longer. That sort of liking is not willing. See what they do when they know they must.

The remaining parts of the play take us progressively into ever more distant future. The long-lived people, who have not been in contact with each other previously, begin coming forward in the 22nd century – the time when the Westerners finally achieved peace and harmony by inviting the Chinese to rule them! A couple of thousands of years into the future, the long-lived people predominate in Britain and they treat the short-lived ones as naive children whose ideas and ambitions became increasingly incomprehensible. In the final part of the play, we are taken to the year of 31,920, in which humankind is transformed beyond recognition. People are now born from large eggs at the adolescent stage. They have only four years of irresponsible youth spent in play and sex before they lose all interest in such trifles; as they age into hairless, sexless Ancients, they become disinterested in particularities and fully absorbed in abstract thought.

In the following dialogue, a four-year-old Maiden loses interest in a two-year-old Youth, her former lover, as she begins maturing:

THE YOUTH. Something horrible is happening to you. You are losing all heart, all feeling. [He sits on the altar beside her and buries his face in his hands.] I am bitterly unhappy.

THE MAIDEN. Unhappy! Really, you must have a very empty head if there is nothing in it but a dance with one girl who is no better than any of the other girls.

THE YOUTH. You did not always think so. You used to be vexed if I as much as looked at another girl.

THE MAIDEN. What does it matter what I did when I was a baby? Nothing existed for me then except what I tasted and touched and saw; and I wanted all that for myself, just as I wanted the moon to play with. Now the world is opening out for me. More than the world: the universe. Even little things are turning out to be great things, and becoming intensely interesting. Have you ever thought about the properties of numbers?

THE YOUTH [sitting up, markedly disenchanted] Numbers!!! I cannot imagine anything drier or more repulsive.

THE MAIDEN. They are fascinating, just fascinating. I want to get away from our eternal dancing and music, and just sit down by myself and think about numbers.

THE YOUTH [rising indignantly] Oh, this is too much. I have suspected you for some time past. We have all suspected you. All the girls say that you have deceived us as to your age: that you are getting flat-chested: that you are bored with us; that you talk to the ancients when you get the chance. Tell me the truth: how old are you?

THE MAIDEN. Just twice your age, my poor boy.

THE YOUTH. Twice my age! Do you mean to say you are four?

THE MAIDEN. Very nearly four.

But even in the enlightened state of disinterestedness, the Ancients are not freed from the possibility of an accidental death. Still, evolution aims at the final stage at which the limits of the body will be shed and what will remain will be disembodied immortality.

THE SHE-ANCIENT. But still I am the slave of this slave, my body. How am I to be delivered from it?

THE HE-ANCIENT. That, children, is the trouble of the ancients. For whilst we are tied to this tyrannous body we are subject to its death, and our destiny is not achieved.

THE NEWLY BORN. What is your destiny?

THE HE-ANCIENT. To be immortal.

THE SHE-ANCIENT. The day will come when there will be no people, only thought.

THE HE-ANCIENT. And that will be life eternal.

It’s hard to believe that Shaw the supreme ironist, in painting this picture of the last days of humankind as we know it, considers his vision desirable. Let’s set aside his bizzare biology, with its fantastical notion of immortality achieved by an exercise of pure will. What is more relevant is the question whether his uber-Lamarckism provided Shaw with a moral vision preferable to the maligned Darwinism. Remember that Shaw rejected Darwinism because it allegedly caused such inhumane things as exploitation, selfishness and war. However, his Lamarckian fantasy ends with the humans of the future firmly set on the course to lose their humanity altogether – not only selfishness, but everything else recognizably human.

4. Aestheticism, Class struggle, and Degeneration

Although Shaw sounded authoritative on evolution, he was an amateur at best. One cannot choose a scientific theory based on one’s preconceptions about what one should like to be the case. Shaw’s younger contemporary, Herbert George Wells (1866–1946), studied biology with Darwin’s eminent disciple T. H. Huxley (no doubt one of the “Neo-Darwinians,” in Shaw’s opinion)._11 Although Wells’s biology is dated by today’s standards, he made a serious effort to apply his knowledge in a series of “scientific romances” that he published within the last few years of the 19th century. I shall mostly concentrate on the first of these, The Time Machine (1895). The hero of the novel, the Time Traveler, is a lone inventor who sets on a voyage into the future even more distant than that we saw in Shaw’s play – the time machine doesn’t stop until it reaches the year 802,701! The world that unfurls before the Time Traveler first appears to be a veritable Garden of Eden, inhabited by carefree little people called the Eloi. These gentle creatures waste their days away in childish, mildly erotic plays, as they are completely freed from the necessity of labor. The whole wide world looks like a beautiful park. The Eloi live a completely safe existence; they fear only darkness – something that the Time Traveler sees as an inexplicable quirk at first. At night, the happy Eloi sleep in crumbling, yet magnificent palaces, whose dining halls are always full of delicious fruits, and pretty garments are always laid out for them, ready for taking. The Time Traveler sees this as the dusk of civilization, as the Eloi are obviously unproductive, but this decadence is at least peaceful and graceful.

‘It seemed to me that I had happened upon humanity upon the wane. The ruddy sunset set me thinking of the sunset of mankind. Fort the first time I began to realize an odd consequence of the social effort in which we are at present engaged. And yet, come to think, it is a logical consequence enough. Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness. The work of ameliorating the conditions of life – the true civilizing process that makes life more and more secure – had gone steadily on to a climax. One triumph of a united humanity over Nature had followed another. Things that are now mere dreams had become projects deliberately put in hand and carried forward. And the harvest was what I saw! (Wells 2005 [1895], p. 31).

The Time Traveler thinks he sees the nineteenth-century dreams come true: both the conquest of nature and the solution of what the 19th century called “the social problem.” As for the former, the world has become safe and clean due to the systematic application of artificial selection:

We improve our favourite plants and animas – and how few they are – gradually by selective breeding; now a new and better peach, now a seedless grape, now a sweeter and larger flower, now a more convenient breed of cattle. We improve them gradually, because our ideals are vague and tentative, and our knowledge is very limited […] Some day all this will be better organized, and still better […] The whole world will be intelligent, educated and cooperating; things will move faster and faster towards the subjugation of Nature (ibid., p. 31).

The air was free from gnats, the earth from weeds or fungi; everywhere were fruits and sweet and delightful flowers; brilliant butterflies flew hither and thither. The ideal of preventive medicine was attained. Diseases had been stamped out (ibid., p. 31–32).

As for the solution of social problems, capitalism with its class struggle, exploitation and overpopulation that worried Wells the socialist, was apparently over:

There were no signs of struggle, neither social nor economical struggle. The shop, the advertisement, traffic, all that commerce which constitutes the body of our world, was gone. It was natural on that golden evening that I should jump at the idea of a social paradise. The difficulty of increasing population had been met, I guessed, and population had ceased to increase (ibid., p. 32).

Wells (the Time Traveler) offers an evolutionary explanation – how strictly Darwinian we shall discuss later – of the dissipation of strength and intelligence among the Eloi as an adaptation to the new conditions of abundance.

‘But with this change in condition comes inevitably adaptations to the change. What, unless biological science is a mass of errors, is the cause of human intelligence and vigour? Hardship and freedom: conditions under which the active, strong, and subtle survive and the weaker go to the wall; conditions that put a premium upon the loyal alliance of capable men, upon self-restraint, patience, and decision (ibid.).

‘Under the new conditions of perfect comfort and security, that restless energy, that with us is strength, would become weakness. Even in our own time certain tendencies and desires, once necessary to survival, are a constant source of failure. Physical courage and the love of battle, for instance, are no great help – may even be hindrances – to a civilized man. And in a state of physical balance and security, power, intellectual as well as physical, would be out of place (ibid., p. 32–33).

However, the Time Traveler soon begins to see that things aren’t as their first seemed. There are other intelligent creatures, the Morlocks, who toil in underground factories and come out at night to replenish the Eloi’s plates and supply them with new clothes and everything else needed for their carefree existence. So at this point, the Time Traveler comes to believe that the Eloi are the degenerate aristocrats, while the Morlocks are their devoted slaves.

‘The great triumph of Humanity I had dreamed of took a different shape in my mind. It had been no such triumph of moral education and general cooperation as I had imagined. Instead, I saw a real aristocracy, armed with a perfected science and working to a logical conclusion the industrial system of today. Its triumph had not been simply a triumph over Nature, but a triumph over Nature and the fellow man. […] But […] the balanced civilization that was at last attained must have long since passed its zenith, and was now far fallen into decay. The too-perfect security of the Upperworlders had led them to a slow movement of degeneration, to a general dwindling in size, strength and intelligence. That I could see enough already. What had happened to the Underworlders I did not yet suspect; but, from what I had seen of the Morlocks – that, by the bye, was the name by which these creatures were called – I could imagine that the modification of the human type was even far more profound than among the “Eloi”, the beautiful race that I already knew (ibid., p. 49).

Alas, these nocturnal creatures, the Morlocks, are not the Eloi’s slaves. The Morlocks come out at night also for a different purpose – to hunt down the Eloi for food! So now it turns out that the Eloi, instead of being the happy possessors of their beautiful world, are in fact a hapless “fatted cattle” kept up by the hideous inhabitants of the underground, the “ant-like” Morlocks. But this is not the end of the matter. The most shocking truth is that not only the pretty, yet naive Eloi are our late descendants, but so are the hideous, cannibalistic Morlocks!

The Upperworld people might once have been the favoured aristocracy, and the Morlocks their mechanical servants; but that had long since passed away. The two species that had resulted from the evolution of man were sliding down towards, or had already arrived at, an altogether new relationship. The Eloi, like the Carlovingian kinds, had decayed to a mere beautiful futility. They still possessed the earth on sufferance: since the Morlocks, subterranean for innumerable generations, had come at least to find the daylit surface intolerable (ibid., p. 57–58).

One has to have a notion of the extent of the class struggle between the industrialists and the labor in the 19th century in order to appreciate the frustration that a socialist like G. H. Wells felt over an ever-widening gap between the two social classes. His picture of two separate biological species of the distant future, of whom one preys on the other, is an extrapolation of the class divide that Wells witnessed in the late Victorian England. It is a warning against an avoidance of the problem. Furthermore, the Time Traveler’s cruel disillusionment from his initial impression of the Eloi’s world as a perfect communism is a jab at the utopian dreams of such writers as William Morris, whose social utopia News from Nowhere (1890) was highly popular; in particular, the essay The Soul of Man under Socialism (1891) by Oscar Wilde, the high priest of aestheticism, surely bears the stamp of Morris’s influence. In the latter’s book, the narrator finds himself in the London of the early 21st century, which resembles a great park; there are no large industries or government authority; people work only out of inner need; they are all good-looking; there is no disease; and everything is free of charge. Wilde offered a pretty much the same vision, adding that “Socialism itself will be of value simply because it will lead to Individualism” (Wilde 2006 [1891], p. 128). This wasn’t just one of Wilde’s charming paradoxes, but a sincere conviction that the removal of private property, industrial drudgery, and oppressive government would lead to a state of affairs when people would be less dependent on each other. Indeed, the world of the Eloi as portrayed by Wells is individualistic to the extreme: when one of the female Eloi nearly drowns in a river, none of the others come to her rescue. (She is saved by the Time Traveler and becomes his companion for the rest of his stay in the future world.)

Wells, then, in one stroke rejects both supreme ideologies of his time: laissez-faire capitalism (ruthless competition leads to an ever-growing social gap) and communism (abundance leads to decadence and individualism turns into indifference). However, it is Wells’s understanding of evolution that primarily interests me here. To begin with, unlike Butler and Shaw, Wells is as much a man of science as he is a social critic, so he doesn’t feel that social criticism demands blaming any particular science – the theory of evolution – for the failings of a social system. Still, it might seem that science makes Wells supremely pessimistic about the prospects of our species. In another classic story, The War of the Worlds (1898), he moves from a Darwinian struggle for existence within our own species to a vision of humankind nearly driven out of its ecological niche by a more advanced race from Mars. And Wells shocked the confident British colonizers that they should not regard themselves as the pinnacle of all creation: “It may be […] that the destruction of the Martians is only a reprieve. To them, and not to us, perhaps, is the future ordained” (Wells 2005 [1898], p. 179). Whoever would come out victorious from any future confrontation between humans and aliens, however, would not enjoy his triumph for long. Especially from the penultimate, eleventh chapter of The Time Machine, in which the Time Traveler goes as far into the future as to almost witness the cold death of our planet, it seems that Wells paints the picture of a universal degeneration._12 If so, Wells could not have derived this picture from Darwin’s Origin of Species. As a matter of fact, he found inspiration in the book by the zoologist E. Ray Lankester, Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism (1880). Lankester claimed that Darwin’s theory wrongly assumed that all species were developing in the direction of increasing complexity as they were ever better adapted to their environment. As a matter of fact, however, some species – e.g., certain kinds of crustaceans – are degenerate descendents of more complex forms, on whom natural selection worked so to speak in reverse. Lankester defined degeneration “as a gradual change of the structure in which the organism becomes adapted to less varied and less complex conditions of life.”_13 He did not hesitate to apply this notion to our own species: “Possibly we are all drifting, tending to the condition of intellectual Barnacles or Ascidians.”_14 Wells endorsed Lankester’s theory already in his article Zoological Retrogression (1891), in which he decried the popular association of evolution with progress._15 Clearly, the indolent Eloi were Wells’s fictionalization of Lankester’s theory. On the other hand, The Time Machine was as much a fictionalization of the degenerationist theory as a critical response to it. Remember that the Time Traveler’s initial hypothesis that the Eloi were alone in their perfectly controlled environment had to be discarded after he had discovered the Morlocks, social insects (“ant-like”) rather than individuals:

Mother Necessity, who had been staved off for a few thousand years, came back again, and she began below. The Underworld being in contact with machinery, which, however perfect, still needs some little thought outside habit, had probably retained perforce rather more initiative, if less of every other human character, then the upper (Wells 2005 [1895], p. 79).

The story of the evolution of the humankind into two degenerate species can also be read as a polemic with Spencer’s “social Darwinist” doctrine that I dealt with in the previous section. Recall that according to that theory – which vexed Shaw as well as Wells – the government should refrain from helping the working class. Wells showed by novelistic means what would happen, should that policy be consistently followed. But this means that Wells, without any need to supplement Darwinism with teleology, assumed the possibility of active intervention in our own fates.

5. Sexual Selection, Altruism and Genetic Determinism

I pick two contemporary novels in which Darwinism plays a prominent part. A. S. Byatt is justly celebrated for her skill in recreating the Victorian world. Morpho Eugenia, one of two novelettes that make up the volume entitled Angels and Insects (1993), is as much about love and betrayal as it is about sexual selection and altruism. William Adamson, a young naturalist fresh from an arduous journey to the Amazonian jungle, is invited to recover in the house of his benefactor, a wealthy country parson Mr. Edgar Alabaster, who buys from Adamson rare specimens of butterflies that he brought from his travels. Alabaster is the man of the past, still impressed with Paley-type teleological argument proving the existence of Deity from the intricacy and beauty of life forms, such as butterflies. Adamson is an agnostic, fully taken by the materialistic vision of Darwin’s theory. The two men engage in frequent debates about the two philosophies:

‘It is hard,’ he said to William, ‘not to agree with the Duke of Argyll that the extraordinary beauty of these creatures is in itself the evidence of the work of a Creator, a Creator who also made our human sensibility to beauty, to design, to delicate variation and brilliant colour.’

‘From our spontaneous response to them,’ said William carefully, ‘I feel instinctively drawn to agree with you. But from the scientific viewpoint I feel I must ask what purspose of Nature’s might be fulfilled by all this brilliance and loveliness. Mr Darwin, I know, inclines to think that the fact that it is very preponderantly male butterflies and birds that are so brilliantly coloured – whilst females are often drab and unobtrusive – suggests that perhaps there is some advantage to the male, in flaunting his scarlets and golds, which might make the female select him as a mate. Mr Wallace argues that the drabness of the female is protective coloration – she may hang under a leaf to lay her eggs, or sit in the shades on her nest and melt unseen into the shadows. I have myself noticed that the brightly coloured male butterflies wheel about in huge flocks in the sunlight whilst the females seem timid, and lurk under bushes and in damp places.’ (Byatt 1993, p. 19).

As a matter of fact, the preceding is a summary of three, not just two viewpoints. William Adamson sketches the dispute between Darwin and his co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russell Wallace (1823–1913). Both wondered about the point of bright colors and unwieldy appendages (most notably, the peacock’s tail) that occur in many species. These features pose an obvious challenge to Darwinism: they appear to be nothing but a handicap for their owners. So why were these features selected? Do they have any survival value? Darwin, in The Descent of Man, came up with an ingenious solution in the form of sexual selection, a supplement to natural selection. According to Darwin, females choose the brightest colored and most decorated males, by which the former exert a selective pressure on the latter to evolve these particular features. Wallace thought that the idea of sexual selection was actually a heresy on Darwin’s part, so he volunteered a strictly Darwinian explanation of color in terms of protection against predators and recognition of other members of the same species. The problem was that Wallace’s explanation worked well for drab colors and inconspicuous features, but failed for bright colors and ostentations features. Darwin’s solution had a reverse problem: he could explain the ostentatious but not the plain. The debate didn’t progress much until almost the 1960s. Since then, though, sexual selection has made a spectacular comeback to become one of the hottest fields of research.

Another research topic that is attracting a lot of attention is altruism. There are several species in nature, such as bees and ants, many of whose individual members apparently sacrifice their lives without any benefit to themselves for the welfare of others. This also poses a serious challenge for Darwinism, since according to the Darwinian orthodoxy, the unit of selection is an individual organism, so we should not expect that highly altruistic species should evolve to begin with. Darwin himself actually saw the problem with the social species, such as ants, in something else. He wondered how sterile worker ants differ so much from their parents. This was certainly a great difficulty prior to the availability of an adequate theory of heredity. But nowadays the main puzzle is altruism. Contemporary Darwinians believe the solution lies in the idea of kin selection. A brother or sister may be as valuable as a son or daughter, so in a certain species there might evolve sterile individuals that care for their mother’s offspring rather than having their own._16

Sexual selection and altruism both turn up in many forms and disguises in Byatt’s novel, none of which are explicitly spelt out. The basic plot appears to be simple enough: William Adamson falls in love with one of Alabaster’s daughters, the beautiful Eugenia, after whom he names a rare species of butterfly. (The roles in sexual selection are reversed in humans: men select women for their good looks, rather than vice versa.) However, instead of marital bliss that he expected, Adamson feels more and more trapped in the vast Alabaster household and finds solace in studying termite societies, of whom we learn a great deal in the novel. The largely immobile Mrs Alabaster, who is the real head of the household, resembles the queen of an ant colony, and the many silent servants and poor relations are like so many sterile workers who sacrifice their reproductive changes for the good of a colony. As the novel progresses, we are not sure whether it is Darwin or rather Wallace who is right about the purpose of good looks, since it’s not obvious whether Eugenia is beautiful in order to attract prospective male breeders or to mask her true nature. Eventually, Adamson reveals the dirty secret of the family, which is the incestuous relationship between Eugenia and one of her brothers – and he turns to the ostensibly drab Matty Crompton, who has been waiting in the wings for her chance.

Ian McEwan’s novel Enduring Love (1997) is also about altruism; more exactly, about our capacity to do good for others despite the fact that the genes determining our behavior are – as Richard Dawkins argued – selfish.17 The story begins with a terrible accident that brings together several previously unrelated characters, the chief of whom are Joe Rose, a successful middle-aged science writer, his girlfriend Clarissa, a junior professor of literature, and Jed Parry, a mentally disturbed young man. They get involved in a desperate attempt to save a boy trapped in a hot-air balloon swept away by a strong wind. Joe has been lately writing on evolutionary psychology, and McEwan ingeniously weaves references to this topic into his narrative. When Joe recollects the succession of events leading up to the tragic accident, he describes his trip to Heathrow airport to pick up Clarissa returning from her sabbatical as follows:

Forty minutes later I was scanning the screens for arrival information. The Boston flight had only just landed and I guessed I had a half-hour wait. If one ever wanted proof of Darwin’s contention that the many expressions of emotion in humans are universal, genetically inscribed, then a few minutes by the arrivals gate in Heathrow’s Terminal Four should suffice. I saw the same joy, the same uncontrollable smile, in the faces of a Nigerian earth mama, a thin-lipped Scottish granny and a pale, correct Japanese businessman as they wheeled their trolleys in and recognised a figure in the expectant crowd. Observing human variety can give pleasure, but so too can human sameness (McEwan 2004, p. 4).

On their way from the airport, Joe and Clarissa stop in the English countryside for a picnic, when they notice the balloon and the cries for help. Joe and other men who happen to be nearby rush over to the balloon and cling on the ropes for a while in order to drag it down. However, the balloon starts to rise and all men let go, one after another, except for one, a doctor in his early forties, John Logan, who is carried high into the air. Tragically, the rope slides from his hands and he falls to his death (while the balloon soon descends on its own with the boy unharmed).

The main plot of the novel turns on the escalating conflict between Joe Rose and Jed Parry, who suffers from a delusion – most likely prompted by the stressful balloon accident – that he is loved and pursued by Joe. In reality, Jed pursues Joe to the point of endangering his and Clarissa’s lives. However, throughout the novel, Joe is also tormented by feelings of guilt about letting go of the rope. If the effort to save the child were well coordinated – i.e., if none of the other men pulling on the rope acted selfishly by letting go, instead of persevering – it would be quite possible to drag the balloon down and Logan would live. In a crucial passage, Joe reflects on the predicament of our species; apparently, although we are able to act for the sake of others – how else would civilization be possible, after all? – our capacity for altruism has limits. Most importantly, we are not prepared to act altruistically when our own lives are at stake. In other words, we are far from being like worker bees or ants. Not only do we, unlike them, pursue our own private good, but when there is a conflict between a private good and and the good of others, we more often than not choose the former. Joe ruminates:

I didn’t know, nor have I ever discovered, who let go first. I’m not prepared to accept that it was me. But everyone claims not to have been first. What is certain is that if we had not broken ranks, our collective weight would have brought the balloon down to earth a quarter of the way down the slope a few seconds later as the gust subsided. But as I’ve said, there was no team, there was no plan, no agreement to be broken. No failure. So can we accept that it was right, every man for himself? Were we all happy afterwards that this was a reasonable course? We never had that comfort, for there was a deeper covenant, ancient and automatic, written in our nature. Co-operation – the basis of our earliest hunting successes, the force behind our evolving capacity for language, the glue of our social cohesion. Our misery in the aftermath was proof that we knew we had failed ourselves. But letting go was in our nature too. Selfishness is also written in our hearts. This is our mammalian conflict – what to give to the others, and what to keep for yourself. Treading that line, keeping the others in check and being kept in check by them, is what we call morality. Hanging a few feet above the Chilterns escarpment, our crew enacted morality’s ancient, irresolvable dilemma: us, or me (ibid., p. 14–15).

Logan’s self-sacrifice thus remains mysterious from the evolutionary point of view (after all, the boy wasn’t even Logan’s kin). Later, however, when Joe visits Logan’s widow in an attempt to find a closure, he thinks he hit on the solution to the mystery. Jean believes that her late husband was unfaithful to her. By holding fast on to the fateful rope far too long, he was showing off in front of a girl who must have been hiding in his car, since she left a scarf on the passenger seat. In biological terms, Logan was trying to demonstrate his reproductive prowess to a prospective sexual partner. The fact that he miscalculated doesn’t change anything about the bottom-line selfishness of his true motives.

Yet this is not the end of the story. Joe eventually finds out that the scarf belonged to a young woman who had a secret love affair with her middle-aged professor. Logan just happened to give them a ride. They had witnessed the tragic accident from his car, but afterwards they ran away and didn’t come forward for fear of suffering the consequences of their relationship becoming publicly known. Eventually Joe arranges for the couple to meet with Jean Logan to explain and apologize. Understandably enough, Logan’s widow is no happier than before; she used to question the morals of the man she loved, but she can’t ask his forgiveness anymore.

‘Oh God,’ Jean sighed.
‘He was a terribly brave man,’ the Professor offered her, just as I had once.
‘It’s the kind of courage the rest of us can only dream about. But can you ever forgive us for being so selfish, so careless?’
‘Of course I can,’ she said angrily. There were tears in her eyes. ‘But who’s going to forgive me? The only person who can is dead.’
(McEwan 1997, p. 230)

6. Conclusion

We saw that contemporary novelists such as McEwan reject biological – more exactly, genetic – determinism. Yet unlike the late nineteenth-century writers such as Butler or Shaw, McEwan didn’t try to make room from freedom by interrupting the causal chain leading from genes to our conscious decisions by postulating some kind of teleology. His story of a man who fell to his death in order to save a total stranger is meant to show us, I think, that we humans are capable of transcending our animalistic natures without any clunky metaphysics. Love endures despite the pulls of our beastly impulses. (I think Byatt essentially concurs with McEwan; though the message of her novel is much more opaque than that of McEwan, she seems to be suggesting that despite multiple resemblances between us and lower animals, we can choose to leave that heritage behind.)

Compared to the writers from the turn of the 20th century, McEwan’s science is indeed impeccable. This is all for good, since nobody can reasonably object to the fundamentals of the Darwinian project. It is obvious that our psychological traits – our emotions, inclinations and morals – must have something to do with our evolutionary past, and so with the genes that have been replicating themselves using our bodies as vehicles for hundreds of thousands of years. McEwan’s conclusion about our ability to act against our genes is also consistent with the opinion of one of the most outspoken contemporary Darwinists, Richard Dawkins. In his notorious book, The Selfish Gene (first published in 1976), Dawkins summed up his view about genetic determinism as follows: “We, alone on Earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators” (Dawkins 2006, p. 201).

I am not claiming that what we are seeing today in the work of McEwan and Dawkins is already an emerging reconciliation between science and the humanities – a sort of closing of the gap between the two cultures that C. P. Snow described as drifting apart exactly fifty years ago (Snow 1959). I am sure there is still a lot of resistance on the part of the humanists as well as mainstream social scientists to the “biologicizing” of the humanistic culture. There is also a lot of head-over-heels reductionism on the part of some scientists. What I wish to point out in conclusion is that the nature of the reconciliation that seems to be taking place between McEwan and Dawkins is a bit ironic. Neither of them speaks of any spiritual interferences in the causal chain of natural events, yet both seem to re-admit the old metaphysics, which they have officially cast out, by postulating an act of will that overcomes the pull of the genes. Is that a real advance over G. B. Shaw’s fantasy of what can be achieved by sheer effort?

I believe that in order to make room for freedom, autonomy and culture, we don’t need to get stuck with unconditioned acts of free will. The solution involves two things. First, we must realize the full extent of our sociability and its roots in the behavior of other animal species. I am not speaking of bees and ants, but the species much closer to us, such as chimpanzees and gorillas. (It’s probably no accident that “social Darwinism” has none of the resonance in contemporary fiction that it once did in the turn-of-the-century texts. As the knowledge of the biological roots of morality sinks in, we can expect the notion that Darwinism implies ruthless egoism to disappear altogether.) However, by realizing that our morality comes natural to us, we don’t diminish the scope of our freedom. So, secondly, we must get clear on the causal role of genes in behavior. Biological determinism, feared by the humanists ever since Darwin, is a bogeyman. For example, many disorders are genetically conditioned, yet we can prevent some but not others. Therefore, the mere fact that something is genetically caused doesn’t settle the issue of whether or not it is preventable. Our actions, altruistic or otherwise, also have causal antecedents. But acting freely doesn’t require an interruption of the causal chain between genes and decisions, as both McEwan and Dawkins seem to be supposing. According to many philosophers, acting freely is acting on our desires. These desires surely have come from somewhere; therefore, an evolutionary story is bound to be correct about them. When both humanists and scientists accommodate these insights, we shall have finally achieved the unitary Darwinian culture that doesn’t alienate the humanists.

The work on this study was supported by the research grant no. 401/08/0904 of the Czech Research Grant Agency.


For the choice of the writers, I drew on Ledger and Luckhurst 2000, Ruse 2006 and Beer 2009.

To this we can add that Darwin had an erroneous idea of inheritance – a theory of pangenesis and blending inheritance. The theory assumed that there existed “gemmules” generated by bodily organs. These gemmules traveled the blood stream and were passed onto the next generation through the germinal cells. Interestingly enough, the basics of a correct theory were already worked out in the 1860s by a Moravian monk, Gregor Mendel, but his work went unnoticed until it was rediscovered by the early twentieth century geneticists. As for the passage, in which Darwin hypothesizes about the evolution of an eye, he actually makes the problem seem more difficult that it is. He requires that we see both the primitive and the complex forms of an eye, and all the intermediates in between. In fact, all we need to assume is that all the organisms equipped with a visual organ of whatever complexity share a common ancestor. Pace Darwin, we need not to know how to construe a plausible evolutionary pathway from the simplest form to the most complex. All we need to be able to do is to construe a pathway from the common ancestor to each existing form, for which it doesn’t matter than many intermediate forms are unavailable.

Cf. Ruse 2006, p. 261.

Quoted from an excerpt in Otis 2002, p. 244.

An excerpt quoted from Otis 2002, p. 298.

Cf. Ruse 2006, p. 262.

For Shaw’s socialism, see his The Economic Basis of Socialism (1889), reprinted in Ledger and Lockhurst 2000, p. 180–185.

For the history of the vicissitudes of Darwinism as a social doctrine – which in the 1940s acquired the label “social Darwinism” – see the excellent overviews in Beck 2009, p. 295–313 and Paul 2003, p. 214–239.

Quoted from Sarkar 2007, p. 27–28.

Lord Kelvin miscalculated the age of the Sun based on his assumption that the source of its energy was gravitational (rather than nuclear, as discovered later). “It seems, therefore, on the whole most probable that the sun has not illuminated the earth for 100,000,000 years, and almost certain that he has not done so for 500,000,000 years.” William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, On the Age of the Sun’s Heat (1862). Quoted from an excerpt in Otis 2002, p. 63.

Wells’s first book was a Textbook of Biology (1893).

We have seen that Darwin himself was influenced by the false estimates of the life span of the Sun. The relative nearness of the end of life by freezing was a popular 19th century obsession; see Note 12 above.

Quoted from an excerpt in Ledger and Luckhurst 2000, p. 3.

Ibid., p. 5.

See the excerpt in Ledger and Luckhurst 2000, p. 5–12. The theory of reverse evolution, or degeneration, is actually empirically false, as it depends on the idea much popular around 1900 that the individual organism’s development repeats the evolution of the species – i.e., that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.”

For a rigorous historical study of the Darwin Wallace debate on sexual selection and altruism, see Cronin 1992. I suspect that Byatt might have read this book.

See Dawkins 2006.


Beck, Naomi: The Origin and Political Thought: From Liberalism to Marxism. In: Michael Ruse – Robert J. Richards (eds): The Cambridge Companion to the “Origin of Species.” Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2009, p. 295–313.

Beer, Gillian: Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction. Routledge, London 1983.

Beer, Gillian: Lineal Descendants: The Origin’s Literary Progeny. In: Michael Ruse – Robert J. Richards (eds): The Cambridge Companion to the “Origin of Species”. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2009, p. 275–294.

Butler, Samuel: Erewhon [1872]. Ed. with and introd. by Peter Mudford. Penguin, London 1970.

Byatt, A. S.: Angels and Insects. Vintage, New York 1993.

Cronin, Helena: The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1991.

Darwin, Charles: On the Origin of Species [1859]. Ed. with an Introd. and Notes by Gillian Beer. Oxford University Press, Oxford 1996.

Darwin, Charles: The Descent of Man [1871], and Selection in Relation to Sex. Introd. by James Moore and Adrian Desmond. Penguin, London 2004.

Darwin, Charles: The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals [1872]. Ed. by Joe Cain and Sharon Messenger, with an Introd. by Joe Cain. London, Penguin 2009.

Darwin, Charles: Autobiographies. Ed. by Michael Neve and Sharon Messenger, with an introd. by Michael Neve. London, Penguin 2002.

Dawkins, Richard: The Selfish Gene. 30th Anniversary Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2006.

Hodge, Jonathan – Radick, Gregory (eds.): The Cambridge Companion to Darwin. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2003.

Ledger, Sally – Luckhurst, Roger: The Fin de Siècle: A Reader in Cultural History c. 1880–1900. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2000.

Malthus, Thomas R: An Essay on the Principle of Population [1803]. Ed. with an Introd. by Donald Winch. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1992.

McEwan, Ian: Enduring Love. Vintage, London 1997.

Morris, William: News from Nowhere and Other Writings [1890]. Penguin, London 1993.

Otis, Laura (ed.): Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2002.

Paley, William: Natural Theology, or Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, collected from the Appearances of Nature [1802]. Ed. with an Introd. and Notes by Matthew D. Eddy and David Knight. Penguin, London 2006.

Paul, Diane B.: Darwin, Social Darwinism and Eugenics. In: Jonathan Hodge – Gregory Radick (eds.): The Cambridge Companion to Darwin. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2003, p. 214–239.

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

Ruse, Michael – Robert J. Richards (eds): The Cambridge Companion to the “Origin of Species.” Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2009.

Sarkar, Sahotra: Doubting Darwin? Creationist Designs on Evolution. Blackwell, Oxford 2007.

Shaw, George Bernard: Back to Methuselah: A Metabiological Pentateuch [1921]. Penguin, London 1939.

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Wells, H. G.: The Time Machine [1895]. Ed. by Patrick Parrinder, with an Introd. by Marina Warner, and Notes by Steven McLean. Penguin, London 2005.

Wells, H. G.: The War of the Worlds [1898]. Ed. by Patrick Parrinder, with an Introd. by Brian Aldiss, and Notes by Andy Sawyer. Penguin, London 2005.

Wilde, Oscar: The Soul of Man under Socialism [1891]. In: The Soul of Man under Socialism and Selected Critical Prose. Ed. with an Introd. and explanatory Notes by Linda Dowling. Penguin, London 2001, p. 127–160.

Darwinismus v české literatuře – podnět k diskusi (Darwin’s Czech Writers)

Studie Tomáše Hříbka se vrací k významu evolučních teorií (Darwin, Spencer) pro literaturu z hlediska obecně antropologického a filozofického a k diskusi o darwinistických implikacích pro pojetí morálních kategorií a pojmů vědomí volí příklady anglické beletrie. Poskytuje mnohé podněty i literární vědě, zejména co se interakce diskurzivních a imaginativních textů a názoru na ni týče, jakkoli je obtížné se s jejími některými záměrně provokativními pasážemi ztotožnit („emotions are the stuff that imaginative writing is made of“). Z hlediska literárněhistorického je v této souvislosti namístě pod čarou poznamenat, že evoluční teorie, ať už v původní Darwinově či v modifikované (Spencerově, Haeckelově) podobě, měla značný ohlas i v literatuře české: souvisí s ní kritické pojetí umělé inteligence a přírodovědných modelů v díle Karla Čapka a jiných meziválečných spisovatelů, ale především nejprve tvůrčí recepce a kritická interpretace naturalismu Émila Zoly a bratří Goncourtů v poslední čtvrtině 19. století. Souhrnného hodnocení se tomuto literárnímu proudu v české literatuře dostalo již roku 1911. Dominik Stříbrný v rozsáhlém článku poukázal na způsoby, jakými M. A. Šimáček promítl Darwinovy závěry ve své prozaické tvorbě, a při té příležitosti připomněl rovněž rozsáhlou soudobou syntézu na téma evolučních teorií a mj. Darwinova, resp. Haeckelova vlivu, tj. Die Geschichte der biologischen Theorien seit dem Ende des siebzehnten Jahrhunderts I, II (Engelmann, Lipsko 1905, 1909; český překlad Academia, Praha 2006) od Emanuela Rádla. Do uměleckého zobrazení společenských dějů se největší měrou promítalo přesvědčení, že člověk je determinován svým původem, „ustrojen prostředím živým, lidským i hmotným, krajinným“, dědičností, pojímanou jako zákonitost nepřipouštějící výjimek, a znamenající tedy svého druhu fatum (srov. Dominik Stříbrný: Český epik darwinismu. Poznámky k Sebraným spisům M. A. Šimáčka. Časopis pro moderní filologii 1, 1911, s. 21, 119, 218, 309, 402). O poznání složitější problém představují způsoby, jakými se s evoluční teorií jako aktuálním výrazem přírodovědeckého světonázoru vyrovnávali umělci a spisovatelé modernistické generace přelomu století. Příznačný ambivalentní ozvuk jejich diskuse o povaze lidské „přirozenosti“ a jejího civilizačního „vývoje“ lze spatřovat v devoluční skepsi tzv. dekadentní literatury (jakož i v kritice kulturního úpadku – Max Nordau aj.), ale například i v prolínání evoluční a cyklické časové struktury v díle Otokara Březiny a symbolistů vůbec, nemluvě o ironii a grotesce v díle některých pražských německy píšících spisovatelů, především Gustava Meyrinka a Franze Kafky. V neposlední řadě je třeba v souvislosti s darwinismem a jeho literární recepcí zmínit podstatný impuls literárnímu dějepisu v pracích Ferdinanda Brunetièra, který aplikoval vývojové schéma biologických druhů na dějiny literárních druhů a žánrů (L’évolution des genres dans l’histoire de la littérature, 1890). Jeho práce vyvolávaly značnou kritickou pozornost i mezi českými literárními historiky první třetiny 20. století (především Arne Novák).