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Darwin, the writer.

mfradera's picture
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Darwin, the writer.

            I choose to examine Darwin’s writings as a body of literature. Often, when critically examining the quality or viability of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, one looks to understand the pillars of his claims in scientific terms rather than in literary ones. In addition to the evidence he presents, the way he presents said evidence reveals a good deal about his own conviction in the endeavor of putting forth the idea of natural selection as a means of speciation. Paying particular attention to Darwin’s use of punctuation, his strategies of presenting proof to his readers reveals itself to be just as fascinating as the theory he proposes.

            When reading On the Origin of Species, today’s reader is undoubtedly surprised to see Darwin’s use of the exclamation marks/points. One might even go so far as to call his use of this punctuation excessive and unfounded. When one reads that, “it is quite credible that the presence of a feline animal in large numbers in a district might determine… the frequency of certain flowers in that district,” one would hardly find it necessary to punctuate such a statement with an exclamation mark. Readers and writers of our period understand the exclamation mark to be a precious commodity, used in moderation to express extreme emotion, a warning, or and sever command. Potential also exists for the exclamation point to illustrate and automotopia or (obviously) to follow an expletive. The only place an excessive use of the exclamation point is not seen as excessive is in the comic book genre of writing. In comparison to the writing of his contemporaries, however, Darwin’s choice of punctuation is less out of place. His use of exclamation marks seems to be a direct reflection of 19th century sentimentality. In fact, the explosive emotion and passion with which he writes about various specimens is reminiscent of 19th century romance novels; the secret, twenty-year development of his text and eventual publication parallels the distant love affairs and passionate consummations related in novels such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, both published only a decade earlier than On the Origin of Species and were still (and continue to be) wildly popular. As in comic books today, the excitement conveyed in his writing place readers with him, as if he has just in that same moment made said discovery. For example, he notes that, “When we look at the plants and bushes clothing an entangled bank, we are tempted to attribute that proportional numbers and kinds to what we call chance. But how false a view is this!” (124). One must also take a moment to note the metaphorical description used, ascribing fauna as the clothing which covers the earth. Earlier he personifies nature in his remark, “We behold the face of nature bright with gladness,” (115), not only expressing the “gladness” with which he and implicated fellow naturalists engage with nature and approach a field of study, but also gives nature a face with which to engage, both effects further reflecting his congruency with other genres of 19th century literature.   

            More striking than Darwin’s expletive sentiments toward his research as a naturalist are those statements which do not directly relate to specimens and science. More fascinating are his passionate beliefs about humanity. For instance, “How fleeting are the wishes and efforts of man! how short his time!” he exclaims in reference to a comparison between the pedigree breeds of animal produced through unnatural selection as performed by humans and the speciation of organisms produced by natural selection as performed in or by nature (132). Indicated by the lower case continuation of the second “how,” we see that the desire to express emotion could not even be contained until the end of the sentence. Also striking is how bold and all-encompassing this statement is; it doesn’t explicitly relate to the previous comparison of natural and unnatural selection. The boldness of this statement is especially surprising when considering his main literary strategy of persuasion, the rhetorical question. In fact, he directly follows this statement with a rhetorical question: “Can we wonder, then, that nature’s productions should be far ‘truer’ in character than man’s productions; that they should be infinitely better adapted to the most complex conditions of life, and should Plainly bear the stamp of far higher workmanship?”

            Darwin also uses the exclamation mark in lines of rhetorical questioning. At one point he begins to ask, “but how simple is this problem [of definite laws],” finishing his sentence with, “compared to the action and reaction of the innumerable plants and animals which have determined… the proportional numbers and kinds of trees now growing on the old Indian ruins!” (125). As a strategy of persuasion, rhetorical questions work well in leading readers to make conclusions based on the line of questioning rather than claims explicitly made. Such a strategy is employed most famously by litigating attorneys. This is particularly useful when rhetorical questions are placed as a sequential set rather than dispersed throughout a text. In such a way, one is able to persuade without coming across as combative. Set against his liberal use of exclamation marks, however, Darwin’s use of rhetorical questions reads as tentative and reflects a lack of confidence. At one point he asks, “but may not the areas of preponderant movement have changed in the lapse of ages?” (314). Rather than simply writing a thoughts or conclusions on the changes in movement of the continents over time, he institutes a passive refiguring of a declarative statement. Such a structuring of thoughts reveals an extreme hesitance and insecurity. Darwin’s twenty-year delay in publication also supports this. Thus, his aforementioned boldness is made even more surprising.

            Through just an examination of Darwin’s choice of punctuation, much about Charles Darwin the writer is revealed more so than Darwin the naturalist. His use of rhetorical questions makes his voice appear too hesitant while his potential over use of exclamation marks comes across as the rant of one too eager. At the same time that they work to passively persuade, his lines of questioning seem to fail to completely convince the author, himself. Such stylistic choices do less to bolster his argument and more to give us insight on his thought processes. The sum of these parts presents a fairly conflicted writer, both bold and timid, as indeed historical documents point to and mark him to be.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Darwin: a fairly conflicted writer?

That's an interesting argument indeed. Maybe non-foundationalists are always "conflicted," to one degree or another? One would though need for the argument more comparison to other writings of the time, no? As you point out, Darwin's use of the exclamation point surprises us but might not have been surprising to others at the time Darwin was writing.