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"Darwin's Literary Voice"

aseidman's picture
Darwin’s Literary Voice

Arielle Seidman

February 12, 2009

The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of the Story


I have been having a great deal of trouble grasping the concept of reading Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species as a novel. I’ve had particular difficulty with the notion that Darwin’s works may, in fact, be fiction. I found myself often asking how a work that I had believed all my life to be a factual, scientific text could possibly be read as “fiction.” Even after I convinced myself to apply my background in literary theory to the work, I still did not believe that looking at On the Origin of the Species from a new angle changed the inherent nature of the work. In the course of attempting to reshape my thinking about Darwin and his potential connection with fiction, I asked myself certain questions. The first was, not unexpectedly, “What is fiction?” The second was, “How do the rules of fiction operate upon a work that is based on observation and purely empirical science?” I intend to answer both of these questions in this paper, and to demonstrate how the literary voice can, possibly inadvertently, bring undertones of fiction to an otherwise nonfiction opus.

The answer to the question “what is fiction,” may be found in a number of ways. I chose to seek out the definitions of the word “fiction” in two well-renowned and popular English dictionaries. I will not list here every possible definition of fiction which I located, but will instead choose two which will effectively demonstrate my point. A piece of literature does not, of course, have to meet every single definition of the word “fiction” to be classed under that term, but in fact, as is evidenced by the wide range of titles falling under that category, needs only to subscribe to a single definition. The Oxford English Dictionary classifies fiction as “Arbitrary Invention (OED),” and the word “arbitrary” strikes a chord with me. [1] It implies that in order for something to be “fiction” it must be subjective, something that comes from the head of the author without any rule to govern it from the outside other than the author’s own desires and intentions.

We as the readers can find evidence of some subjective invention in chapter six of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species. This is the chapter in which he begins to talk about the instinct of animals, where it comes from, and how it functions. If Darwin stuck purely to lists of observed behaviors, discussed dryly and didactically, he would have avoided any sort of invention that could be readily identified by the reader (in this case, my attentive and eager self). He does not, however, do quite that. Instead, he provides the animals he discusses with a kind of personification which implies and invents personalities and feelings for them which he cannot in any way prove that they are actually experiencing.

In his discussion of the habits and instincts of bees, Darwin writes “we ought to admire the savage instinctive hatred of the queen-bee, which urges her instantly to destroy the young queens, her daughters (p 221).” The only observation that Darwin has made here is that a queen-bee kills any daughter bees who may hatch. Darwin has watched this; he has seen it and can report what he has seen. As to the “hatred,” supposedly experienced by the queen-bee, this is something that Darwin did not see. Darwin cannot prove that the queen-bee experiences any sort of hatred, as hatred is an emotion, and cannot be observed objectively in another. A human being may act in such a way that we assume he or she is experiencing hatred, or the human being in question may say outright that he or she is experiencing hatred. A bee, however, may not speak it’s loathing, and does not necessarily, or in any way that we can concretely prove or disprove, experience the emotion of hatred. Darwin’s use of that emotional term is evidence of him creating something of a personality for his creatures. He may be doing it inadvertently, or he may do it in a desire to make the reader, a human being, better understand and relate to the acts of the queen-bee. Either way, the choice of “hatred” is subjective and inventive, and we may class it under the term “fictional.”

One definition listed by the Merriam-Webster dictionary claims that fiction is “an assumption of a possibility as a fact irrespective of the question of its truth (Merriam-Webster).” Although Darwin very often asks his readers to question his own assertions, he often accepts the assertions of others as extreme truths, or facts which relate to every human being, regardless of taste or individual experience. Darwin makes broad generalizations; statements which are so all-encompassing, referring to “everyone” or “all people” that he could not possibly have distinct empirical data to prove his assertion. For example, in chapter seven of On the Origin of the Species, Darwin continues his discussion on instinct, claiming that “every one understands what is meant, when it is said that instinct impels the cuckoo to migrate and to lay her eggs in other birds' nests (p. 225).” This cannot possibly be certainly “true” as Darwin cannot possibly have data that this every human being will really understand the term instinct, without it’s having been yet defined, in the same way that he does. This broad generalization is perhaps an exaggeration, or, according to the definition provided by Merriam-Webster, a “fiction.”

Although Darwin spends a great deal of On the Origin of the Species listing instance upon instance of observation and carefully detailed empirical evidence, he is also capable of some embellishment and exaggeration, much to the relief, I believe, of many of his readers. Although not listed in this paper, there are several other cases in which he personifies an animal with an emotion that can only be known through feeling, or in which he makes a broad assertion which he cannot prove. I do not believe that he could ever be called a writer of what is purely fiction, but it does seem to me, based on the definitions and their examples that I have stated in the above paragraphs, that he includes some instances of fiction in his work.

Works Cited List  “Arbitrary.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd edition.  19989Darwin, Charles. The Origin of the Species.” Ed. Joseph Caroll. Broadview Texts, 2003. “Fiction.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd edition.  19989.“Fiction.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009.Merriam-Webster Online. 13 February 2009

[1] “Arbitrary” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “Relating to, or dependent on, the discretion of an arbiter, arbitrator, or other legally-recognized authority; discretionary, not fixed (OED).”


Anne Dalke's picture

"Like a novel"

Take a look @ jrlewis’s essay on “Belief and Skepticism” for a slightly different take on reading Darwin as a fiction writer.

What I see you doing here is using two of Darwin’s literary techniques—personification and over-generalization—as indices to the possibility of our looking @ him as a fictional writer. All that’s quite nicely done—and humorous to boot, for which thanks!

My question is: so what? Once you get us to entertain—as you certainly do—the notion that Darwin has a literary voice, what are the implications? For how we think of his writing, for how we respond to his writing? Does Darwin’s “including some instances of fiction in his work” make him, for instance, less reliable as a science writer? Once you have worked your way—and led us--through this very careful literary analysis, what happens to the text that you “had believed all your life to be a factual, scientific text”? Is it that no longer, or is it that w/ a fictional flair, or has it begun to constitute a different kind of (subjective? “cracked”?) scientific text?

Curious literary minds want to know what precisely the scientific consequences are, for reading “like a novel.”