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Darwin's Freakish Aversion to Abnormalities

LS2's picture


"Nowhere is nature more accustomed to display her secret

 mysteries than in cases where she shows traces of her

 workings apart from the beaten path."--William Harvey


            The first chapter of Darwin's seminal 1859 On the Origin of Species deals not with the accidental and environmental factors that the naturalist became known for promoting as fundamental to the forces of nature. Instead, and rather surprisingly, Darwin chose to begin his magnum opus with a chapter on "Variation under Domestication"--which is to say, a chapter that focuses on fluctuations occurring in the seemingly least organic and accidental of ways, that is, through human intervention. Though this chapter at first appears incongruous to the biologist's following treatise on the unpredictable agency of nature, ultimately the preliminary pages of Origins are illustrative of one of the underlying motifs in Darwin's work, an insistence on continuity, which may ultimately serve to undermine some of the implications of his research.

             According to the naturalist, through an examination of the manner in which breeders' manipulations, whether embryonic or otherwise, one can prove that practically any characteristic of a given organism can be influenced by external forces, and is therefore subject to change over time.  Within this chapter Darwin stresses that "variation under domestication" is circumscribed by man's imagination and sheer capability--"[h]e can never act by selection, excepting on variations which are first given to him in some slight degree by nature"(Darwin 2003 [1859]: 118). However, Darwin also emphasizes that privileged characteristics will continually reproduce themselves in a linear fashion, ultimately yielding a wide breadth of species, each of which is attuned to the fashionable preferences of humanity, or to the differing necessities of life in the wild. Though Darwin underscores that variable features appearing naturally can be selected and bred for, the biologist fails to address those features that are deemed undesirable, and that yet insistently appear: that unstable and disconcerting category of beings now (and perhaps then) known as “freaks.”  Darwin’s theory of evolution, as promoted in The Origin of Species, presents a linear and continuous history of how a diversity of now archetypal species has come to be so well-suited for its environments, but refuses to address those that society and culture has deemed wholly unsuited to the established order, and which continually make evident nature’s discontinuity.

            Darwin insists that mutations which lie largely outside the parameters of normality, those that he continually refers to as “monstrosities,” have little to no bearing on evolutionary thought. He writes that “monstrosities cannot be separated by any clear line of distinction from mere variations,” but that such “mere variations” are not the product of the unpredictable, naturally-occurring developmental theory he ultimately puts forth, but rather of “elements having been affected prior to the act of conception (Darwin 2003 [1859]: 99).  As such, Darwin suggests that these “monstronsities” are individual cases of deviation from collectives of prototypical species. By doing so, however, the biologist implicitly posits a binary hierarchy of normal versus abnormal, thus reinforcing a notion of potential for “perfection” in a given species that his own theory explicitly argues against.  As Mark Blumberg has written, “archetypes engender misconceptions. They feed the illusion that, from the moment of conception, nature had a goal in mind”(Blumberg 2009: 4).Such an “illusion,” characteristic of a foundational narrative that posits an inevitable order, is maintained by Darwin’s refusal to acknowledge mutations that stubbornly arise over time, in a variety of species, and yet with no apparent benefit to any given species.

            The example of “monstrosities,” or “freaks of nature,” is demonstrative of the manner in which evolutionary thought was both informed by, and continues to inflect, cultural and societal norms. According to Blumberg, “Darwin himself had explicitly considered and rejected any role for monsters in his evolutionary scheme”(Blumberg 2009: 34). In light of his express emphasis on natural mutation, such a rejection is, on Darwin’s part, indicative of the manner in which continuity above all else holds a privileged place in his theory of evolution. “Freaks” destabilize this continuity, and make malleable the Linnean categorizations on which Darwin depended in order to classify variant species.  Reappearing over time and, in Darwin’s time, often with no justifiable cause, abnormalities of nature were deemed “evolutionary dead ends—unfit and irrelevant”(Blumberg 2009: 34). Yet, exceptions have long proved rules, and that Darwin makes no attempt in Origins to explain that which seems fundamentally the most illogical, and therefore perhaps the most natural, of phenomenon, speaks to a societal discomfort with that which is not neatly classified, and which does not easily assimilate into a continuous and smooth narrative.

            Though today much work has been done on the congenital and genetic factors that can leads to “abnormalities” in both animals and humans, “freaks” remain an unstable and discontinuous presence in society. By establishing that the variations leading to such anomalies are “mere” and distinct from the adaptive and selective variations that produce the apparently archetypal forms found in nature, Darwin both reflects and reinforces a notion of a perfected body, thus undermining his emphasizes on the accidental.  “Freaks” threatened the continuous and logical assumptions of Darwin’s theory of evolution, and have continued to undermine cultural claims to a mastery of nature.



Works Cited:

-Blumberg, Mark S. Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us About Development and Evolution. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2009

-Darwin, Charles. On The Origin of Species. Ed. Joseph Carroll. Broadview Press: Ontario, 2003

-Harvey, William. The Circulation of the Blood . George Bells and Sons: London, 1889.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Darwin and freaks/monstrosities?

Very interesting additional grist for the Darwin as foundationalist discussion (cf Darwin as foundationalist or no?). Darwin may well have neglected the significance for evolution of "freaks" and "monstrosities." In fairness to him, though, Darwin was, in the passage quoted, trying to argue for his favored explanation of variation, distinguishing between genetic variation and "Geoffry St. Hilaire's experiments [which] show that unnatural treatment of the embryo causes monstrosities." How much of the "undermining his emphasizes on the accidental" was Darwin's and how much Bloomburg's reading of Darwin?