Charles Darwin’s Looking Glass

The Theory of Evolution and the Life of its Author in Contemporary British Fiction and Non-Fiction

by Dominika Oramus (Author)
©2015 Monographs 150 Pages


The book offers a comparative analysis of diverse Darwinism-inspired discourses such as post-modern novels, science fiction, popular science and nature films. Analysing the uses of the evolutionary discourse in recent literature and films, the study demonstrates how natural science influences the contemporary humanities and how literary conventions are used to make scientific and popular-science texts intelligible and attractive. Charles Darwin’s Looking Glass shows how and why today’s culture gazes upon the myth of Darwin, his theory, and his life in order to find its own reflection.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgments
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction: Charles Darwin’s Looking Glass
  • The Voyages of Charles Darwin in Recent Fiction and Non-Fiction
  • History and Simulation in Thorvald Steen’s Don Carlos and Giovanni and Roger McDonald’s Mr. Darwin’s Shooter
  • Depictions of Emma Darwin in Recent British Non-Fiction
  • Recent Fiction about Charles Darwin: Peter Nichols, Harry Thompson, and John Darnton
  • References to the Theory of Evolution in the Novels of John Fowles, A.S. Byatt, and Hilary Mantel
  • Echoes of the Mid-19th-Century Spiritual Crisis in Selected Contemporary Texts Referencing Charles Darwin
  • Darwin’s Problem with Human Ancestry as Reflected in Recent Fiction
  • Darwinism and the Humanities
  • The Motif of Human Evolution in Selected Fiction and Non-Fiction
  • Annie Dillard and Kurt Vonnegut on the Galapagos Archipelago as the Archetypal Darwinian Setting
  • References

Introduction: Charles Darwin’s Looking Glass

This book undertakes to introduce a new and important context of Darwinism-inspired popular science, a context which has been rather neglected by literary studies to date. I believe that my tackling of this issue allows literary scholars to gain new perspective in describing contemporary civilization, which turns out to be the product of post-Darwinian ideology, as in popular understanding Darwinism is now the single most important theory explaining the workings of the universe and humanity’s place in it. It is ‘the Theory’, with a capital T, the epitome of science. Thus Darwin is now the mass-culture icon of the ingenious scientist and the founder of modernity in science, an honor which until quite recently had belonged to Albert Einstein. Consequently, Darwin’s life has become a mythic story repeated in his biographies (in the form of both books and films), although the biographical novels and fictive novels on him use historical and biographical detail with varying degrees of fidelity. And indeed, just as with other myths, Darwin’s life has features of a canonical story whose every variant must contain certain well-known anecdote-like moments (among them the Alfred Wallace controversy; the journey of the HMS Beagle; the Galapagos discoveries; and doubts on whether to publish a heretical theory).

Darwin’s life is everybody’s property: writers and filmmakers freely translate it into stories which form a part of contemporary mythology in the meaning defined by Roland Barthes in his seminal Mythologies. One of the essays in my book, “The Voyages of Charles Darwin in Recent Fiction and Non-Fiction”, attempts to describe the process of ‘mythologizing’ Darwin as seen in three books written in the last forty years and devoted to the young Darwin’s voyage around the world. From Alan Moorehead’s Darwin and the Beagle (1969) to Irving Stone’s The Origin (1980) and Roger McDonald’s Mr. Darwin’s Shooter (1999), these works describing the voyage of the Beagle differ as far as their genre goes, but each of the writers adds more and more fictive details to the established facts, thus blending fiction and non-fiction. Analysis of these three books allows me to demonstrate the myth-making mechanism writers employ when they fantasize about Darwin’s life. The naturalist’s biography is reduced to a number of ‘nodes’, well-known moments, events or facts, such as his poor health, his quarrels with Robert FitzRoy, and his interest in finches. Such ‘nodes’ define Darwin as we know him, a figure of the 20th century’s collective imagination. Each writer chooses from these nodes and narrates his own semi-imagined story, thereby producing diverse myth-like accounts of ostensibly one and the same ‘Darwin’, ← 9 | 10 → precisely in the way heroes and demi-gods in ancient mythologies feature differently in manifold myths. The name Darwin today denotes both a historical personage and a fictive character, and his biographies and biographical novels are ‘faction’ – combining fact and fiction.

This observation is further developed in two more essays: the first of which is concerned with Darwin’s stay in the colonies – and the second with the contemporary biographies of his wife, Emma Darwin. The essay “History and Simulation in Thorvald Steen’s Don Carlos and Giovanni and Roger McDonald’s Mr. Darwin’s Shooter” is concerned with presenting colonial history in these two novels. Referring to Jean Baudrillard’s notion of history as simulation, as described in his famous Simulacra and Simulations, the essay discusses the books by Steen and McDonald in the context of postmodern poetics. These ‘Darwinian fantasies’ are told by unreliable narrators who refer to numerous classics as well as to other literary Darwiniana. The narrators mostly talk about books they read, the ones Darwin reads (and writes), and they presume that we readers have read them all. In reading these narratives we are closed up within a vicious circle of texts corresponding with one another, but having no relation to any extra-textual reality, past or present. History itself is a myth, a laboriously yet vainly re-produced ‘faction’ about our past. “Depictions of Emma Darwin in Recent British Non-Fiction” offers an analysis of the literary lives of Emma Darwin as myths. Referencing Roland Barthes, Mircea Eliade, and Edward Caudill, this essay looks at Mrs. Darwin’s recent biographies from the angle of media studies, popular culture studies, and anthropology. Keeping in mind that ‘myth’ in the popular understanding denotes a tale which lacks literal truth and yet is a vehicle for a greater truth transcending the factual details, the numerous avatars of Emma Darwin we see in non-fiction written at the turn of the millennium serve to argue diverse ideological points. For some she is an embodiment of nineteenth-century wifely virtues who teaches us what true femininity is; for others she is a disappointed reader of Jane Austen’s books whose life fails to resemble fiction; for yet others she is a fundamentalist Unitarian focused on her religion and blind to other people’s ideas. Moreover, although the books analyzed in this essay are non-fiction, they make free use of the novelistic stock figures one encounters in Victorian literature: the happy wife, the dutiful mother, the skillful housewife, the shrewdly intelligent girl from the landed gentry who mocks her suitors mercilessly, and the devoted Christian widow. All in all, fact and fiction blur in the biographies of Emma Darwin, just as it is in the case of those devoted to her husband. ← 10 | 11 →

One cannot overestimate the impact of Darwin’s theories on British literature of the 19th and the 20th centuries, particularly as regards science fiction. On the Origin of Species and the polemics the publication of the book provoked, made notions such as evolution, devolution, and anthropogenesis enter the popular imagination and find their way to ‘penny-dreadful’ novels. The very idea of evolution seemed uncanny at that time: if humanity has evolved from lower animals the line dividing what is human from what is not must be very tenuous indeed. The beast is hidden in each one of us, and can be easily awoken. The half-human hybrids we read about in ancient mythologies are therefore not just fantasies, but may become horridly real. The Gothic novels by Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and most of all H.G. Wells, the author of the many-times filmed The Island of Dr. Moreau, fed on such fear and simultaneously prompted the emergence of a new literary genre: science fiction. Its authors speculated on the possibilities of devolution. They stipulated that if we have evolved over the eons, we may also devolve, as well – which, as falling is to climbing, will in fact be all the easier. Thus Dr. Jekyll may one day be horrified to find Mr. Hyde actually hidden within his own self. Dorian Gray may live through a similar trauma seeing his own bestiality exteriorized in his wicked image. By the same token, Wells’ narrator – who, marooned on Moreau’s island, encounters human-bestial hybrids – first thinks that Moreau’s horrid experiment involves the reversal of evolution, and that the scientist, by subjecting people to some cruel vivisection, exposes the pre-human beast we all carry within. However, Moreau in fact is attempting the opposite and trying to humanize the animals. The doubt concerning what the terms ‘human’ and ‘bestial’ mean adds to the uncanny appeal of this work.

When in the 1920s Hugo Gernsbeck created the first American pulps devoted to science fiction, he started by re-printing Wells and Verne. The pessimistic late-Victorian fantasies about mad scientists and the bestial nature of people served as models for even more pessimistic tales from the times of the Cold War and nuclear tests involving A and H bombs. Today, over one hundred years after Wells, Darwin’s theory continues to have an enormous impact on culture. Since the creation in the 1940s and 1950s of the ‘Modern Synthesis’, the blend of evolutionism and modern genetics, Neo-Darwinism has been considered the latchkey to all natural history. British intellectuals from Richard Dawkins to David Attenborough stridently claim we are very near to understanding how nature works and contemporary writers feel obliged to comment on this supposition.

The most vivid contemporary attempt at describing devolution is to be found in J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World. Similarly to his other early novels ← 11 | 12 → (The Crystal World and The Drought) The Drowned World is a catastrophic novel in which Ballard depicts a dying civilization and a passive, defeated human race. The end of the world as we know it is a good moment to study sundry human reactions to trauma and to describe a noble but resigned protagonist whose aim is to die in the way he is destined to die. Ballard enters intertextual dialogues with Freud, Darwin, and the surrealists, and his reader is expected to decipher and interpret allusions and be brave enough to draw the most pessimistic conclusions. In this book the catastrophe is due to the hyperactivity of the Sun, which has resulted in mutants resembling primordial organisms from archaic epochs. Gradually, as Earth’s climate and geography go back to their state from millions of years ago, biological evolution is also reversed. Ferns and reptiles dominate the Earth, mammals cease to multiply, and the remnants of the human race (forced to move to the poles) are witnesses of the end of civilization. The waters of the melted ice-caps flood most of the Earth and the heat is unbearable. The new coast-lines resemble those from the very distant past; the remains of human cities are deluged and looted by all kinds of pirates and savages. According to Ballard, despite our human nature and mammalian anatomy all of us retain on the cellular level memories of previous stages of evolution. We ‘remember’ our ancestors who evolved into humans. One of the characters postulates our innate propensity for backward movement; he believes that deep in our souls are traces of the passage from the most primitive protozoa to Homo sapiens. Memories from the turn of the Paleozoic and the Triassic era are encoded somewhere in the hind-brain. These long-latent genetic recollections of our ancestors, the first air-breathing amphibians, are now awoken by external stimuli resembling those from millions of years ago.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (May)
Darwinian fiction evolutionary discourse myth of Darwin Darwinism
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 150 pp.

Biographical notes

Dominika Oramus (Author)

Dominika Oramus is professor at the University of Warsaw. She teaches at the Institute of English Studies. Her special interests are 20th century British fiction and the poetics of postmodernism, Angela Carter and J.G. Ballard.


Title: Charles Darwin’s Looking Glass
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152 pages