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Darwin and the Victorian Culture Wars

Neil Thomas
Photo: Mrs. Humphry Ward, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: We are delighted to present a series by Neil Thomas, Reader Emeritus at the University of Durham, “Darwin and the Victorian Crisis of Faith.” This is the second article in the series. Look here for the full series so far. Professor Thomas’s recent book is Taking Leave of Darwin: A Longtime Agnostic Discovers the Case for Design (Discovery Institute Press).

In order to explain Charles Darwin’s curious rehabilitation, it is necessary to be clear about the fact that we are not dealing with a scientific adjudication here. The scientists had already pronounced on the Origin in resoundingly negative reviews — which inevitably leads to the conclusion that something else must have been going on here. 

In this regard, a useful memoir has been left us by the acclaimed female author who by both birth and marriage was plugged into the 19th-century zeitgeist like few others, namely Mrs. Humphry Ward (born into intellectual aristocracy as Mary Augusta Arnold), the author of a particularly moving novel about loss of faith, Robert Elsmere (1888). In looking back at her experiences of Oxford in the 1860s and 70s, Ward noted that “the men of science entered but little into the struggle of ideas that was going on […] It was in literature, history and theology that evolutionary conceptions were most visibly and dramatically at work.”1 This judgment inevitably points us away from science proper in the direction of sundry Victorian debates and culture wars in our search of answers to the question of why Darwinism was able to triumph (and still is able to triumph) against the ascertainable scientific facts.

An Unblinking Perspective

From the perspective of the cultural producers and commentators identified by Ward, Darwinism will have worn a rather different aspect than that observed from the unblinking perspective of empirical science. Within that philosophic context there had emerged over several centuries a succession of voices all essentially calling for God’s dethronement, beginning with Spinoza in the 17th century, proceeding via Gibbon, David Hume, and Rousseau in the 18th century, and thence through to Feuerbach, Arthur Schopenhauer, and others in the 19th century. After the unfurling of that long metanarrative, it has been contended, “by the time Charles Darwin provided an explanation for the origins of life without reference to God in 1859, the [philosophic] work was virtually completed.”2

Or perhaps not quite completed. To be sure, many wanted and indeed willed it to be completed. On the dubious principle that empirical facts should never be allowed to get in the way of a good story or philosophic narrative, it appears that — turning a blind eye to the scientific inadequacies of the Origin of Species revealed by the expert reviewers — the Origin was glossed by some as a (pseudo)-scientific confirmation of a long-nourished philosophicproject. In this way the Darwinian narrative could be co-opted and integrated into the philosophical argument so as to give it the prestigious imprimatur of science. So was it this piece of PR legerdemain which accounted for people’s acquiescence in Darwinian notions?

How Doubt Arose

The instrumentalization of Darwinism by atheistic philosophy may conceivably supply part of the reason that the Origin of Species gained traction amongst the educated elite but it is unlikely that its success within the rarefied realm of formal philosophy tells the whole story. It seems unlikely that the atheistic narrative built up by generations of philosophic voices would in itself have proved adequate to give the scientifically excoriated theory of Darwinism the “pass” it came to receive. 

As Alec Ryrie aptly pointed out in his recent “emotional” history of Doubt, “intellectuals and philosophers may think they make the weather, but they are more often driven by it,”3 and the more decisive forces in the eventual acceptance of Darwinism may have issued from works of imaginative literature with a more universal outreach. Doubt, Ryrie indicates, arose in popular sentiment long before it was translated into formal philosophical terms, its emotional contours being perfectly visible to most before it was endowed with its precise conceptual shape in the high-culture discipline of philosophy.

Next, “Literary Footnotes to the Book of Job.”


  1. Mrs. Humphry Ward, The Writings of Mrs. Humphry Ward: Robert Elsmere (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1909), Introduction, p. xxii. Cited by Michael Ruse, Darwinism as Religion: What Literature Tells Us about Evolution (Oxford: OUP, 2017), Preface, p. x.
  2. Alec Ryrie, Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt (London; Collins, 2019), p. 3.
  3. Ryrie, Unbelievers, p. 4.

Neil Thomas

Neil Thomas is a Reader Emeritus in the University of Durham, England and a longtime member of the British Rationalist Association. He studied Classical Studies and European Languages at the universities of Oxford, Munich and Cardiff before taking up his post in the German section of the School of European Languages and Literatures at Durham University in 1976. There his teaching involved a broad spectrum of specialisms including Germanic philology, medieval literature, the literature and philosophy of the Enlightenment and modern German history and literature. He also taught modules on the propagandist use of the German language used both by the Nazis and by the functionaries of the old German Democratic Republic. He published over 40 articles in a number of refereed journals and a half dozen single-authored books, the last of which were Reading the Nibelungenlied (1995), Diu Crone and the Medieval Arthurian Cycle (2002) and Wirnt von Gravenberg's 'Wigalois'. Intertextuality and Interpretation (2005). He also edited a number of volumes including Myth and its Legacy in European Literature (1996) and German Studies at the Millennium (1999). He was the British Brach President of the International Arthurian Society (2002-5) and remains a member of a number of learned societies.



Alec RyrieArthur SchopenhaueratheismBaruch SpinozaCharles DarwinDarwin and the Victorian Crisis of Faith (series)DarwinismDavid HumedoubtEdward GibbonevolutionfaithintellectualsJean-Jacques RousseauLudwig FeuerbachMary Augusta ArnoldMrs. Humphry WardnovelsOn the Origin of SpeciesOxfordphilosophyRobert ElsmereVictorian England