Thanet Writers Spotlight Charles Darwin

Melissa Todd highlights the life, works and legacy of writer and scientist Charles Darwin, and spotlights his connection to Thanet.

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It’s more than 160 years since The Origin of Species was published, but its legacy continues to resound and ricochet like a stubborn genetic mutation. Written predominantly at Down House in Kent, it came to encapsulate and represent a staggering cultural shift, with transformative implications for art and literature. Suddenly science, not God, could be found at the centre of creation, so that creatives had to relearn everything they’d ever known overnight. Today’s equivalent might be our suddenly discovering there is actually a flying spaghetti monster, that the Queen is a lizard, that there’s really a wizard hiding behind a curtain pulling our strings. Our place in the world, our faith, our identity, our understanding of life and death, our narratives, our philosophies, would all need to be reimagined. It was a terrifying, inspiring time, and creatively fruitful, as terrifying times tend to be. Some of the finest literature ever produced was written in the thirty years or so after Darwin published. We literary types owe him one heck of a lot.

A few years before the publication of The Origin of Species, Darwin came to Ramsgate for a holiday, partly in hope the sea air might improve the health of his 9 year old daughter, Anne, who suffered from tuberculosis. The whole family stayed at 8 The Paragon, Ramsgate, not far from the Sailor’s Church, overlooking the sea: they spent much of their time on the beach, and his daughter Etty wrote of her father, “we see more of him in a week of holiday than a month at home.” But Darwin continued to work and study even on holiday, making careful patient observation of the barnacles he saw, and writing to a fellow scientist: “I shall return home in about ten days, and I will then immediately look over my MS and write to you fully on the subject.”

This thorough, indefatigable observation and meticulous analysis of a life form is typical of Darwin’s method, but he made the choice to write up his ideas as a popular piece of literature, taking great pains to make it accessible to the wider public, rather than other learned scientific minds, the better to widely demonstrate the truth of his ideas. Darwin was a fine writer. The arguments we read in his writing are aesthetically pleasing as well as scientifically sound. His rich use of metaphor and interlacing philosophies and plot lines have been likened to the works of Charles Dickens and George Eliot. The concept of Natural Selection itself is a metaphor, an analogy drawn from the selection of domestic animals for breeding. Darwin includes every possible argument that might be made against his theories and elegantly dismisses them, with overwhelming quantities of data, examples and detail, making the book perhaps one of the most sustained and compelling arguments ever written. He aimed to create a lasting work of art: a thing of beauty as well as a scientific treatise. This ensured that his research around natural selection came to the public’s attention very rapidly, and also that the outraged response he anticipated was swift and vivid. He fully understood the implications of his theory, holding back publication for fear of upsetting those with religious faith, including his family. Ultimately his commitment to truth overcame his anxiety at upsetting the entire Western world. There’s guts.

Charles Darwin was as much a committed family man as he was a scientist, and the death of Anne a year after their holiday in Ramsgate had a devastating effect on him – indeed, some argue convincingly that it was partly responsible for the loss of his own faith. His great great grandson and biographer, Randal Keynes, wrote of the loss: “In her last days, he had watched as her face was changed beyond recognition by the emaciation of her fatal illness. You could only understand the true conditions of life if you held on to a sense of the true ruthlessness of natural forces.” All nature is war, as Darwin went on to write, and simple dumb chance is the main determiner in the struggle for survival and the course of evolution. This was devastating for Victorians, who were committed to hard work on earth and to God’s overarching plan, which would reward sacrifice, duty, graft. In fact, this will make little or no difference, Darwin explained. Work as hard as you like, you will live or die according to the circumstance of your birth and the environment in which you find yourself. This notion has been supported by 160 subsequent years of study and observation and is accepted by virtually almost every scientist on earth – if not social policy makers, who continue to insist that through hard work and continuous effort one can overcome the circumstances of one’s birth, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. When Britain is a meritocracy Darwinian thinking might reasonably be challenged and critiqued. I reckon he’s safe a while longer.

Darwin’s success is indeed indicative of his own theories. From a prosperous professional family and university educated, small wonder his theories were published first and his name remembered, his face printed on our £10 notes, over Alfred Wallace, say, who had very similar ideas and conducted equally meticulous research, but had none of Darwin’s social and educational advantages, and whose name is thus largely forgotten.

Darwin’s influence on literature is impossible to overstate. Poets, dramatists and novelists rushed to make sense of his ideas and apply them to the characters and lives of their literary creations. There can be few solitary thinkers who have had such a colossal impact on the literary output of others. Up to the First World War, Victorian and Edwardian writers explored the psychological, ethical and social implications of Darwin’s thinking in a wide range of different forms and genres, including realist novels, naturalism, science fiction, satire, children’s fiction and plays. Some embraced Darwin’s theories; others were more sceptical and critical, preferring other models to explain how the world and its inhabitants came into being. Whatever his take on Darwin, no writer could resist responding to him. The protagonist of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters is modelled on Darwin’s life, while George Eliot self-consciously set up her novels as scientific studies, ecosystems which can only be fully comprehend through the minute study of its many parts. Darwinism brought us some magnificent science fiction too – The Water Babies, The Time Machine, Erewhon, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the island of Dr Moreau, all playing with notions of evolution and its likely antithesis, degeneration. And mention must also be made of Thomas Hardy, a passionate devotee of Darwin, evident from his characters’ efforts to fit themselves to their surroundings, and the inevitable catastrophe (Tess, Jude the Obscure) when they fail.

The First World War largely meant an end to such abstract concerns, although debates around Darwin revived in the 1920s, particularly in the US, where a rising interest in creationism (ie. the belief that the universe and its contents originated from divine creation) led several states to ban the teaching of Darwin’s theories. This caused a resurgence of interest among many American poets, including Robert Frost and Edna St Vincent Millay, with particular emphasis on man’s relationship with other creatures, and using Darwinist thinking as a paradigm to better understand human nature.

“I’m not the least afraid of death” he told his wife, as she nursed him through a heart condition exacerbated by the many tropical diseases he encountered and fought on his travels. Darwin died aged 73, at Down House. He expected to be buried at St Mary’s Church in Down, but his colleagues petitioned that he be honoured with burial at Westminster Abbey, where he lies close to John Herschel and Isaac Newton.

Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.

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