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Rhetorical Landscape In The Origin of Species

ajohnston's picture

 Audrey Johnston


Professor Grobstein and Professor Dalke

Bryn Mawr, Spring 2011

Web Project #1



            Rhetorical Landscape In The Origin of Species



In 1859, Charles Darwin first made public his theory of evolution in The Origin of Species. This text illustrates the premise of adaptive change of the ever-present variation of traits in organisms and the accompanying mechanism of “natural selection” which guides the survival of certain organisms based on beneficial traits. The Origin of Species was set loose into a world not only unfamiliar with an evolutionary theory of such potent evidence and precision, but also steeped in religious ideology and fixed with the premise of an omniscient creator. Darwin’s task as an author and as a naturalist, therefore, was to intrigue and satisfy the general public and the scientific community. The initial sell-out and six editions printed during Darwin’s lifetime attest to his success in charming both audiences. Just where did Darwin’s theory derive the weight to rock the scales of western creation stories from a primarily biblical perspective to an empirical one? The abiding quality of the theory of evolution is evidence of its scientific integrity, yet its presentation in The Origin of Species is embellished and buoyed by Darwin’s mastery of rhetoric. In “Darwin and The Origin of Species: The Rhetorical Ancestry of an Idea,” John Angus Campbell notes, “Darwin’s victory was very much a victory over the imagination of his time,” (Campbell, 145). Indeed Darwin’s The Origin of Species was a visionary conquest with roots in Darwin’s lyrical and theological artistry and deftness in persuasion made palpable by the page. 

            Darwin’s tone and language take shapes colloquial, theological, and poetic. To begin, the commonness of his language renders closeness between himself as speaker and his audience. In turn, the magnitude of his theory is softened, its radicalism made palatable by his humility and wealth of evidence. From the title to the thread of key terms such as “variation,” “survival,” and “competition,” the scientific argument in The Origin of Species is mobilized in a vernacular tongue. As a result, the theory could be accessed, appreciated, and relayed by audiences of all backgrounds. The only requirement in reading Darwin was literacy and a familiarity with the struggles of life and death.

            In tandem with the rhetoric of colloquial communion between reader and author, Darwin sought to establish a theological course through The Origin of Species. In the first edition, the final line wound theory around theology with the assertion “There is grandeur in this view of life…with its several powers having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one.” This was changed into “…breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one…” in the second and subsequent editions (Campbell, 4-5). In this summation, Darwin laces his theory of a web of evolving web of life in the firm foundation o f an all-knowing creator and the concepts of faith, determination, and fate. In doing so, he applied a theological balm over perceived rifts between The Origin and the bible. Though his observations and propositions imply the presence of random change and differential reproductive success, these theological bookends appear as a diversion from scientific evidence contrary to popular religious belief.

In addition to placing religious ideals at prominent intersections in the text, Darwin also imbedded the concept of a “creator” within the figurative explanations of his theory itself. “Natural Selection” – a premise at the heart of The Origin of Species – is a phrase that conjures a “selector” directing the course of evolution. This in turn anthropomorphizes the flourishing of adaptive traits in a rhetorical gesture that locates power in a mysterious omniscient had, parallel to the story of Genesis. Campbell comments, “Darwin uses rhetorical language simultaneously to propose a new paradigm for science and to create a new popular understanding for humanity’s relation to nature. The key element of the tension between Darwin’s image of the human selector (the breeder), whose operations are known to the audience, and the operation of nature, whose ways are unknown. The image of the selector is persuasive precisely because it brilliantly exploits a technological symbol and thus competes with the idea of miracles in a concretely believable way.” (Campbell, 12). “Natural Selection” is, thus, a rhetorical bridge between Darwin’s two disparate audiences, allowing the text to traverse both religious and scientific mindsets through alluring new technical terminology couched in the comforting imagery of control. As such, Darwin sought to soften the elements of evolution that may delineate religion and science and in doing so the seeds of his evolutionary theory were spread far and wide.

Finally, there is a persuasive imagistic narrative at work in The Origin of Species. Darwin is an imaginative lyricist, as apparent in the poetic renderings of his theory through metaphor and simile throughout the book. One of the most prominent metaphors is of the “Tree of Life” in conjunction with trees in nature as an overarching explanation for the mechanisms of evolution from a historical standpoint.  Darwin writes, “As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides may a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications.” (Darwin, 127). The naturalist employs a stylistic device of metaphor that is captivating on many levels. To begin, it gives a clarifying and aesthetically appealing perspective to the many layers of scientific observation within the text. At the same time, it once again returns to themes from Genesis (paralleling the biblical “Tree of Life”), as well as firmly setting evolution in a natural setting. Through poetic weaving of all three aims, Darwin’s text appeals to many different readers with the added emphasis of an entertaining visual and lyrical narrative to strengthen the tale being told (Irion, 10).

The subtle yet significant edge that rhetoric lent to The Origin of Species bears witness to the power of literature in the evolution of scientific thought. Looking closely at the nature of this particular text, we see just how aptly the book itself was adapted to the environment of the time. Small and spellbinding, it carried a revolutionary idea on the wings of words both colloquial and theological. One wonders what would have become of Darwin’s theory of evolution had it been simply left to languish as an abstract, or had the naturalist sought circulation in a different venue. In reflecting upon The Origin of Species, it is apparent that Darwin possessed a powerful intuition about his audience, and held the tools necessary for laying a good story down in print.







Works Cited:


Campbell, John Angus. Charles Darwin: Rhetorician of Science. Landmark Essays on Rhetoric of Science, 11, 4-12.


Campbell, John Angus. Darwin and The Origin of Species: The Rhetorical Ancestry of an Idea. Landmark Essays on Rhetorical Critcism, 5, 145.


Darwin, Charles (1859). The Origin of Species. New York, NY: Penguin.


Irion, Claudia (2008). Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species”: Science, rhetoric, and revolution. Germany: GRIN Verlag.






Paul Grobstein's picture

Darwin's rhetoric

 "a revolutionary idea on the wings of words both colloquial and theological"

I'm intrigued indeed not only by the inquiry into how Darwin said what he said but also what might have been different if he had said it differently.  Along these lines, there is not only an interesting possible distinction between ... form and content? .... but also between readers and cultural impact.  My guess is that most people encountered Darwin second hand rather than themselves actually reading The Orgin.  If so, the audience Darwin "knew' was a particular rather than a general one.