Temporality and Eternity in Origin of Species
Even a cursory glance over On the Origin of Species quickly reveals the profound debt that Darwin owed to recent geological inquiries in general and Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology in particular. In the chapter “On the Imperfection of the Geological Record,” Darwin explicitly invokes long periods of geological formation lasting millions of years – a relatively conservative number from our present perspective – as a means of defending his views on natural selection’s ability to gradually differentiate species over prolonged periods of time. Darwin’s theory in many respects applies Lyell’s own thoughts on uniformitarianism, which postulated that the earth was shaped by slow-moving geological forces still in motion, to an evolutionary perspective on species differentiation that Lyell himself disavowed. The key ideas that Darwin borrows from Lyell’s uniformitarianism are two interrelated understandings of temporality: on the one hand, the scope of Lyell’s geological project allowed Darwin to envision a scale of time (millions of years) large enough to encompass natural selection; on the other hand, the incremental changes that Lyell tracks over millions of years provided Darwin with another mode of temporal comparison that emphasized the minute variations that occurred within any observable period of time (think of Darwin’s own findings on the miniscule effects of erosion). For Lyell, these two understandings of temporality are intimately related: taking the earth itself as his protagonist, Lyell establishes an alternate understanding of temporality that would take the variations of the earth as its primary focus and not a human lifetime or the rise and fall of a civilization. Darwin, however, severs these two modes of temporality from each other in his work. Whereas for Lyell subject determines scale, Darwin retains the enlarged temporal scope of geology but redirects the associated emphasis on the minute changes that occur within any discernible period to species and individuals that of necessity are smaller than this vast period of time.
There are several significant consequences generated by this conception of time, most of which I can only briefly touch on here. The primary point that I would like to turn our attention to is the way in which time itself is represented in this theory. Walter Benjamin famously made a distinction between “messianic” time – time that anticipates a future event – and the “empty homogenous time” of capitalist modernity (or, in Bendict Anderson’s more lucid terminology, simple calendrical time). Darwin’s time, though, fails to fit tidily into either one of these categories. Although he renounces any teleological goal and focuses on the steady march of years, Darwin’s notion of time differs from “empty homogenous time” in its use of “eternity,” a term often paired with messianic eschatology – e.g. “The consideration of these facts [of geological time] impresses my mind almost in the same manner as does the vain endeavor to grapple with eternity” – and in the comparative lens through which he confronts temporal progression. Darwin’s time, in other words, is never “empty”; it is constantly filled by the individual species under consideration, which constricts the endless time of “eternity” into a manageable framework with a relative and variable set of plural goals. Time here is drastically estranged from any single subject, whether this be messianic fulfillment or the earth itself, but neither is it a single formless “eternity” unmoored from eschatological thought. Instead, Darwin uses the metaphor of eternity to signal periods of time that exceed comprehension but which are nevertheless finite – millions of years, though long, do not stretch forever – in order to explain the infinite number of relative temporal lenses, from the seconds-long life of an insect to the centuries-long variation of elephants. We might say, then, that Darwin institutes a comparative method of temporal analysis that enables him to contrast different scales of time based on the parallel endpoints imaged for both temporal frameworks: species variation.