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Darwin’s Goddess: Natural Selection as “Divine Surrogate”

Neil Thomas
Image: Mother Earth, by Glyptothek, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

On the face of it, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species might seem to be an unlikely quarry for the attentions of literary critics. Its author with his habitual honesty was commendably frank about his linguistic infelicities and the multiple difficulties he and wife Emma had to face in order to knock the unwieldy volume into publishable shape. There must even have been some doubt whether the book would have appeared at all by late 1859 had it not been for the help provided not only by his unstinting wife but by Emma’s friend, Georgina Tollet, both of whom found their work cut out for them to ensure that spelling, grammar, and overall comprehensibility all passed muster.

At a time when professional proof-readers were not routinely employed by publishing houses, vetting and editing prior to publication was typically done by wives, sisters, daughters, and nieces, so that Janet Browne could once observe that “the Origin of Species was much more of a collaborative effort than has ever been suspected.”1 This is not of course to say that the Origin should not be studied in depth or indeed analyzed in terms of its literary merits. Copy-editing as an ancillary back-up service is one thing but writing itself quite another. The eminent historian of ideas Basil Willey once remarked that Darwin was “possessed” by the mysteries of evolution and something of the wonder Darwin felt when presenting his findings and expounding his ideas can be caught in a host of metaphors and rhetorical purple passages, many of which also suggest some rather arresting subtextual meanings. Those latent implications are what I wish to foreground here. 

The Origin of Species as Literature

There may well be differing opinions about the overall writing quality of the Origin but literary specialist Gillian Beer once made the surely uncontroversial point that any important text is best submitted to close reading (rather than remaining something people know a smattering about from others’ summaries of it). She wrote, “One’s relationship to ideas depends significantly on whether one has read the works which formulate them. Ideas pass more rapidly into the state of assumptions when they are unread. Reading is an essentially question-raising procedure.”2 Beer’s recommendation of best practice here was enthusiastically taken up in a more recent volume by critic George Levine in which, although he tends sometimes to overdo the ascription of literary virtuosity to Darwin’s generally unadorned writing style,3 nevertheless has some interesting insights into Darwinian conceptions springing from his vigilant response to the author’s verbal and stylistic choices. Levine fully concurs with Beer that “coming to terms with what Darwin really said entails coming to terms with the way he developed his ideas and the language he found to express them.”4 In that regard Levine’s discussion of Darwin’s central metaphor, natural selection, is particularly fruitful. 

Thinking in Metaphors

When questioned by colleagues Darwin was sometimes inclined to dispute or pooh-pooh the implications of his own metaphors, but Levine’s precise analysis of the verbal texture of Darwin’s argument disallows such evasions. Metaphors are not to be “skimmed off” for they play an important role in conveying the totality of the message any given author wishes to convey. The late Stephen Jay Gould (no mean English stylist in his own right) once observed that “our mind works largely by metaphor and comparison, not always (or often) by relentless logic.”5

Prior to Darwin, breeders had used the term “natural selection” to refer to the wholly inscrutable and unpredictable ways in which nature worked, processes into which breeders had no insight and over which they would readily admit they had no control. Darwin told his friends and colleagues that he had chosen to give a new spin to the old term because he saw a close analogy between what he imagined to be nature’s selective processes and those of domestic breeding. This was, however, anything but a matter of giving a small semantic tweak to the traditional phrase since he was in reality turning the traditional meaning of natural selection on its head. According to Darwin it was after allpossible to gain insight into nature’s ways — pace generations of breeders and agriculturalists. His closest peers, on the other hand, still professed themselves unable to construe nature’s operations so easily and continued to view natural processes as very largely opaque and unintelligible. Eventually Darwin came to be persuaded by Alfred Russel Wallace and others that natural preservation might be a more accurate term to use since artificial and natural breeding were simply not comparable. Wallace had pointed out that nature simply does not select in a way comparable to the intelligent methods employed by livestock breeders so much as passively “allow” the unfit to wither on the vine.

A Benign Effect

Darwin’s albeit tardy acquiescence in the formulation “natural preservation” nevertheless had a benign effect rhetorically since it facilitated a partial reframing and modification of his conception of nature to direct attention now to nature’s role not as an exterminator but as a nurturing facilitator of those forms of life which had any chance at all of surviving — which were “worth saving,” so to speak. Underscoring this positive function of nature’s ways had the welcome effect of making the central metaphor of Origin more maternal than military, the emphasis falling now on fostering rather than culling. Hence, we encounter Darwinian locutions such as natural selection “tending” to “her” innumerable charges, or, referencing one of Darwin’s more purple passages, “daily and hourly scrutinizing” (as one does with human babies and the young in general) in order to foster healthy developmental outcomes in the human and animal world. 

For these reasons it is tempting to side with Levine in his somewhat startling contention that Darwin in the back of his mind conceived of natural selection not as an indifferent process — what Daniel Dennett has reductively termed an algorithm — but as “a woman, perhaps a goddess”6 whose operations have every appearance of working teleologically. Her sway seems in fact to be so positive, even providential, that Robert J. Richards was once moved to term Darwin’s conception of natural selection a form of “divine surrogate.”7 In fact, when parsed carefully, the lexical and metaphorical structure of Darwin’s argumentation emerges as little less than a periphrastic description of the goddess Natura (or Gaia) newly rehabilitated for the second half of the 19th century in a manner reassuringly replete with the latest scientific terminology. Given such a veiled subtext, it is no wonder that Darwin held out so long against Wallace’s argument that natural selection and human breeding methods were about as comparable as chalk and cheese. For the metaphorical and not fully acknowledged subtext of his presentation of natural selection (never spelled out in express terms) is that “she” came close in his mind to becoming a de facto goddess. This would explain his enormous faith in what he hinted were the essentially directive powers of a process which others could see only as being imponderable. I will say more on this tomorrow.

Next, “Nature Divinized: Darwin’s Goddess for All Seasons.”


  1. Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, Volume 2 of a Biography (London: Pimlico, 2002), p. 77.
  2. Gillian Beer, Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-century Fiction (London: Routledge, 1983), p. 6.
  3. Although Levine does make the fair point that Darwin “had no pretensions to high literary style and no concern to produce a book that would be beautiful or moving — as, in fact, it sometimes is. He might even have been alarmed if he were to have found himself in this book juxtaposed to Dickens and George Eliot instead of to Cuvier, say, or Lyell.” Darwin the Writer (Oxford: OUP, 2011), pp. 15-16.
  4. Darwin the Writer, p. 88.
  5. Gould, Bully for Brontosaurus (NY: Norton, 1991), p. 264; cited by Michael Ruse, The Gaia Hypothesis: Science on a Pagan Planet (Chicago: Chicago UP, 2013), p.34.
  6. Darwin the Writer, p. 87.
  7. The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe (Chicago: Chicago UP, 2002), p. 537.

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.



agriculturalistsBasil WilleybreedersCharles Darwincopy-editingEmma DarwinfaithGaiaGeorge LevineGeorgina TolletGillian BeergoddessJanet Browneliterary criticsliteraturemetaphorMother NatureNaturanatural preservationnatureOrigin of SpeciespaganismRobert J. RichardsStephen Jay Gould