The nineteenth century was rife with cataclysmic changes in economics, technology, and science. An increasingly diversified market of goods and services, new inventions, and population shifts were just some aspects of the rapid innovation and progress made during the 1800’s. Additionally the ideological discourses thrived with print material that challenged, provoked and brought new insights into the public mind. No other publication shook the foundation of how people saw the world more than Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. This book collapsed the relative peace between religion and the sciences, threatened the Victorian social order, and made Darwin himself vulnerable to reproof from traditionalist practitioners in his field. For this reason Darwin’s work can be quite radical during the Victorian period.
Charles Darwin writes, “changed habits produce an inherited effect…with animals the increased use or disuse of parts…has marked influence…Hence if man goes on selecting and thus augmenting…he will almost certainly modify unintentionally other parts of structure.”(Darwin 14) Here Darwin speaks to the variability of characteristics among living things domesticated and compares them with attributes of the same species in a “state of nature” (the wild). Darwin said, “I fear great evil from vast opposition on all subjects of classification. I must work out hypothesis and compare with results. If I acted otherwise my premises would be disputed.” Here Darwin gives his reasoning for his scientific approach with his extensive time spent gathering evidence and traveling the world to assure the validity of his results.
Correct as Darwin’s theories may have been, religious authorities during the nineteenth century would not readily accept Darwin’s theory of species change. Though Darwin’s use of descriptive examples draw from zoology, botany, morphology this evidence supported how selective breeding affected species change; the church’s stance on the biblical origins of creation ran counter to Darwin’s evidence. This would disturb the so-called “harmony” between sciences and the church. If God made all living things in seven days then Darwin’s theory would be considered heresy. In spite of such an implication, Darwin was committed to methodological practice.
“A struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase.” (Darwin 63) Here Darwin’s theory of natural selection gives example to the chaotic state of the natural world. Darwin writes on that “In looking at Nature, it is most necessary to keep the foregoing considerations always in mind-never to forget that every single organic being may be said to be striving to the utmost to increase in numbers; that each lives by a struggle at some period of its life’ that heavy destruction inevitably falls either on the young or old, during each generation or at recurrent intervals. Lighten any check, mitigate the destruction ever so little and the number of species will almost instantaneously increase to any amount.” (Darwin 65) This explains to Darwin’s reader the state of struggle in which living things have to endure in order to survive. These things being clear and rational, unfortunately implied a subtext that would cause the Victorians to bristle. Such a naturalistic, chaotic world was anathematic to one that was controlled by the eyes of an all seeing God. Darwin did not mention a divine presence in this passage. It was wholly material the laws within the state of nature. It seemed a merciless world that was not dependent upon the powers of prayer- but dependent only on survival. Such a world could presumably translate to some readers that a Judeo-Christian ethos was inconsequential when the true powers of fate lay in the uncontrollable laws of nature.
When Darwin wrote of the importance of the “largeness of area” he gave his readers some hope of how a species could “endure” for a longer length of time. Again there is no mention of a divine presence that ensures the safety of a living thing- only certain conditions that have proved “favorable” to the organisms he has studied over time. To think of “largeness of area” in human terms, one thinks of the types of dwellings the poor would find themselves living. The influx of immigrants into Ellis Island during the nineteenth century forced them into crowded tenements because of their lack of resources. Additionally on plantations, the enslaved were placed into one room cabins where one or two families would reside. Applying Darwin’s thesis it is no wonder that many of them suffered disease, abject poverty and due to their social location, social death.
Ironically as time would progress Darwin’s ideas would reach an audience that could reason with his evidence and apply the variables found in a “state of nature” to human beings.
Social Darwinism would find a large following in the United States. This theory attempted to explain human progress and posited that “like animals, society evolved adapting to the environment. Herbert Spencer’s term “survival of the fittest” kept the strong and cast out the weak. Such a belief system would impact how some policy makers viewed government intervention with those rendered indigent. Reform would “disturb” the nature’s intended purpose: to obliterate the weak and leave the strong. Such a thought pattern would jibe well with the capitalist ideology of the nineteenth century and exemplifies how easily scientific evidence can be used politically in service to whatever hegemonic impulse served those in power.
For the Victorians, any aspect of knowledge that threatened the status quo was dangerous- Darwin’s evidence implicitly highlighted a natural world devoid of manners, form and ceremony. The state of nature was a dangerous place that relied purely on instinct. Since many of the rules of Victorian behavior were undergirded by a Judeo-Christian ethos, Darwin’s ideas were subversive. But in Darwin’s view it was truth as he had studied, researched and written about. Keepers of conservative tradition, Victorians, and the religious establishment would all oppose much of the content in The Origin of Species.
Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. London: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.
Croce, Paul. Nineteenth Century Science and Religion. Encyclopedia of American Cultural and Intellectual History 1999