Evolution as Inspiration: Literature and Darwin

Darwin's thoughts and ideas permeated the writing of the late 1800s. Novelists and poets explored themes such as life evolving from the primordial ooze, what is that of the animal in man, and the evolutionary struggle as life "red in tooth and claw" tries to win its battle.

Evolutionary ideas could be portrayed subtly, e.g. as a drawing room conversation reflecting how a character was educated in the issues of the times. Portrayed overtly; evolution was confronted in fiction like The Island of Dr Moreau (1896). In it H.G. Wells writes about animals who are transformed by a scientist (skipping years of evolutionary time) to become men but by not having the concurrent "moral evolution" the beast-men eventually fall back into their savage ways. In The Time Machine (1895) Wells speculates on the ultimate fate of man after 800,000 years of evolution. Would we become savagely competitive and mechanically inclined Morlocks (the working class) or the artistic but unmotivated Eloi (the leisure class)?

Still other writers confronted the theme that as the traditions of natural theology were dismantled by Darwinian science, the world had to be reconstituted not from divine inheritance but from arbitrary acts of human will. The story of the struggle to rise up from lowly origins fit in with social Darwinist and capitalistic ideas of success.

Biology has learned more about what drives animals and perhaps humans to reproduce, creating yet another lens for Darwinian and evolutionary ideas to be used in literature. More recent analysis have explored the makeup of human nature including why certain characters select the spouse they do, looking at Othello and male sexual jealousy, Madame Bovary and the biology of adultery, and Catcher in the Rye and the biology of parent-offspring conflicts.