Darwin's Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction
Darwin told us a story about ourselves. Novelists tell us stories of ourselves. Is there then some essential similarity between Darwin’s Descent of Man and, say, George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda? Gillian Beer thinks there is, and I believe she has some important points that illuminate both Darwin and Eliot, both biological science and the knowledge discovered by fiction. Unfortunately she has concealed her illuminating points within a cloudy book that will put off all but a handful of fellow specialists in a small branch of literary studies. Let me try, however presumptuously, to recast her argument, with critical additions that may open the issues to a wider audience.
Consider one of the plots Ms. Beer ignores: Darwin’s tale of hair. All human races, he observed, have dabs of hair in the groin, the armpits, and on the scalp. Is that beautiful or not beautiful? (My question echoes the opening line of Daniel Deronda.) Darwin does not care. He will not indulge the aesthetic judgment even to the extent of mocking it, as many twentieth-century writers would, by noting the absurdity of seeking beauty in natural objects such as the pattern of hair on the human body. He does consider the pattern bizarre, from the viewpoint of natural selection, for there is no adaptive advantage in those four dabs. They must therefore be the result of sexual rather than natural selection, like the peacock’s tail or the baboon’s red behind, fixed in the species by a persistent attractive function in the process of mating. They are important to Darwin as evidence that all races of Homo sapiens derived from a single ancestral stock, which must have shared lustful delight in that bizarre pattern of hair before separating in racial preferences for different textures of hair and shapes of lip and nose. Even skin color, which may have some source in natural selection, is mainly a product of sexual selection in Darwin’s story. He fleetingly indulges his aesthetic judgment as a white racist, when he agrees that it is ridiculous to think black skin attractive. But he beats down that feeling with the factual observation that Negroes consider black to be beautiful.
Thus, with respect to aesthetic values Darwin’s Descent of Man strives to be thoroughly relativistic and reductive. Beautiful and not beautiful are bizarre products of sexual selection, changing functions of the reproductive process in particular species and varieties. Ms. Beer is unconvincing in her effort to rescue Darwin from his unaesthetic reputation. She dwells on the fact that he read poetry in his youth, and simply ignores the anti-aesthetic significance of his reasoning about sexual selection. She also fails to note the fundamental difference in Darwin’s reasoning about moral values. In his story the baboon mother who sacrifices herself defending her baby against a predator exemplifies a sublimely progressive moral faculty, altruism, which is rewarded by natural selection and deservedly praised by the loftiest philosophies and religions. Whether he measures by numbers in reproductive success or by a universal…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.