Anthropomorphizing Darwin

Upon first reading, it is striking how much Darwin’s On the Origin of Species reveals (and even revels in) the cultural preoccupations of its time, despite its contemporary popular representation as a revolutionary, timeless scientific treatise.  In fact, Darwin’s seminal work emerges from close reading as one of the most fascinating artifacts of Victorian literary influence—an influence that remains apparent in spite of Darwin’s continual insistence that he is merely recounting observations and drawing well-substantiated hypotheses.  He makes his literary preoccupations most explicit in the chapter “Struggle for Existence,” in which he stresses his use of the phrase in a “metaphorical” sense.  At the beginning of this chapter, the metaphor remains clearly labeled as such: the relationships between indirectly competing species and genera can be classified only in the figurative sense, as the mistletoe “may metaphorically be said to struggle with other fruit bearing plants, in order to tempt birds to devour and thus disseminate its seeds.”  In the final clause of this sentence, however, Darwin seems to slip from an explicitly acknowledged literary register into the implicit language of personification—mistletoe becomes a tempter-figure, if only for a second, in the mind of the reader (or at least, seemingly, in Darwin’s mind).  Anthropomorphizing verbs emerge in force later on in the chapter, as Darwin peppers his account of plant survival with images of seedlings who “suffer,” plants who “choke,” and vigorous shoots who “kill.”  Still later, the “struggle” between insects escalates into a “war.”  These rhetorical flourishes seem jarring in a scientific work, at least from a modern perspective, but they would arguably have acted as comforting guideposts to many Victorian readers. 

Darwin is constantly concerned with anticipating doubts and responding to possible criticism in advance, and the modern reader can often sense his frustration with the beliefs held by many of his peers (as evidenced by his offhand remark about “women and children” who “find value” in cats).  Since theories concerning the human-like qualities of domesticated animals were emerging during the time that Darwin’s work was published (along with a newfound fad for such anthropomorphized depictions in art and literature), he could have extended this discourse in his own work to include all living things, from plants to insects on up in order to arrest the attention of the non-scientist Victorian reader.  Of course, he never explicitly acknowledges this extension, electing instead to keep it as an unmarked thread that runs throughout his work (although most of the time his language remains clinical and more detached).  By investing his objects of study with human qualities, he seems to make his argument more palatable (more like a story) for the average reader, but with what results?  His image of the “contest” between male animals for female attention and ultimate rights to procreation is compellingly strewn with heraldic imagery, recalling an earlier, courtly literary tradition, but does it partially undermine his insistence that “Nature” always trumps “Art?”  When he expands this image to speak of the female bird “selecting” their mates, he seems to be destabilizing the hierarchy of sexes, at least within the ornithological kingdom.  Since he has drawn upon this human literary discourse, though, there are arguably glimmers of a more revolutionary sexual inversion at work here: the more Darwin’s birds become human-like, the more the reader might be led to draw comparisons with human endeavors. By extending his analogy to equate these female birds with human breeders of animals who “select” prized features, he seems to come full circle—anthropomorphized peahens and unconsciously-motivated “men” occupy relatively the same position.  While Darwin repeatedly insists that word-choice ultimately matters little, you could certainly say that here, at least, it matters a great deal.  I doubt Darwin intended any bit of his work to be read as a proto-feminist treatise, but as he invokes multiple cultural and literary discourses, he is no longer in control of all the possible readings to be found therein.  Like the teeming species he describes, his work itself seems to spawn a vast progeny of interpretations.


-Heather Freeman


~ by Heather on January 22, 2009.

One Response to “Anthropomorphizing Darwin”

  1. Darwin always makes sure to say it’s the male who “possesses” the female, despite the competition they undertake and the agency of females required.

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