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On the Political Language of Charles Darwin

themword's picture

On the Political Language of Charles Darwin

            When telling a story, an author uses language related to and influenced by the political and social environment in which he or she is living. Such is the case with Charles Darwin in his “On the Origin of Species.” I believe that the vocabulary Darwin chose to utilize in his text reflects the Victorian Era in which he lived. Because of my interest in political science, I will discuss language relating to colonization and development, drawing from both Philip McMichael’s Development and Social Change and Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

            The Age of Imperialism (1837-1901) arose during the Victorian Era. During this period, developed countries colonized less developed areas. Colonialism, as defined by Philip McMichael, is “the subjugation by physical and psychological force of one culture by another […] through military conquest of territory and stereotyping the relation between the two cultures” (McMichael 27). The native populations of colonized lands were viewed as “backward” or uncivilized, because they were non-European. Such attitudes were used to justify colonization (27).

Development was also used to justify colonization. The term development itself came out during the colonial era. It was “interpreted by European political elites as social engineering of emerging national societies” and the “regulation of [the] disruptive effects” of industrialization (McMichael 25). Development as a tool of social engineering expanded to the colonies, and the British forced the same social changes occurring back home on the native populations. In other words, the Europeans were trying to “civilize their colonies” (37).

Darwin uses the language colonization in his book, and not just in his actual use of the word “colonists” (Darwin 315, 342, 345). When I think about colonization, I think about the Old World and the New World. Darwin applies this term to describe geographical distribution. “One of the most fundamental divisions in geographical distribution is that between the New and Old World” (310). I found the use of these terms to be of particular interest. Throughout the book, Darwin uses the actual names of countries and continents. Why did he decide to use these words in this particular section, the same section where he uses the word colonists? What I find even more interesting is the fact that he is using these words in relation to free migration as an explanation as to why we see similar species in different parts of the world. The word colonists appears a lot more positive than I interpret it to be. He describes how colonists will adapt “to their new home” (347). I do not think of colonists as having to adapt, I think of the colonized population as having to adapt to the situation they are faced with. Darwin seemingly uses “colonists” as a synonym for “immigrants.” A strong example is when Darwin writes, “ It would be a great error to argue that because a well-stocked island, like Great Britain, has not […] received within the last few centuries […] immigrants from Europe or any other continent, that a poorly-stocked island […] would not receive colonists by similar means” (321). I suppose that both colonists and immigrants are looking for a better life, but colonists often settle on land because they are ordered to, and they are claiming the land in the name of a nation or empire. They are expanding their territory. Immigrants, on the other hand, settle in another land out of self-interest or a group’s interest. They may even settle another land because they have been displaced by a person or event. In that sense of the world, they are more equal to the colonized rather than colonizers.

I believe that Darwin chose to use the words “colonists” and “immigrants” in a synonymous fashion in order to make the true nature of colonialism/imperialism sound less negative. I do not know what his views on imperialism were, but knowing that his readers would have different views, he most likely felt that using these words in a similar manner would not upset anyone. He may have thought that no one would not notice the way he used these words.


Works Cited


Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Ontario: Broadview Press, 2003. Print.


McMichael, Philip. Development and Social Change. Los Angeles: Pine Forge Press, 2008. Print.




Anne Dalke's picture

Colonizing Darwin

What's most intriguing about your project, themword, is your decision to read Darwin through the lens of your own discipline of political science. Doing so offers a great  social science-y compliment to the "two cultures" crossing of this course, which is building a bridge between evolutionary biology and literary studies.

It's striking to me to see you use that framework to foreground some of Darwin's colonialist language: the terms "development," "colonists," and "New and Old World" all now have a layered (and more disturbing) resonance for me than they did before, and form a paradoxical background for Darwin's description of "free migration" and the undirected emergence of evolutionary patterns. I've long been aware, of course, of the way in which Darwin's principles of natural selection were appropriated by the Social Darwinists, like Herbert Spencer, to argue that established social structures were the result of a process of "natural" selection of the rich and powerful, but it hadn't occurred to me to consider the degree to which such ideas might have already been implicit in Darwin's own language.

A couple of your claims are a puzzle to me, though; for example, that "the term development itself came out during the colonial era." What do you mean, "came out"? My own perusal of the OED suggests that the word was first put in use by naturalists, not geographers, adventurers or colonialists. A similar search for "colonists" suggests an original meaning of those who settle where they are not "indigenous"; the negative connotations--which you accuse Darwin of "hiding" from us, "to make the true nature of colonialism/sound less negative"--may well have accrued in the time between when he wrote and when you read what he had written. As you show, Darwin's vocabulary "reflects the Victorian Era in which he lived"; likewise, your vocabulary reflects your own era; you're reading retrospectively, through the lens of presumptions he didn't share.