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Nature Divinized: Darwin’s Goddess for All Seasons

Neil Thomas
Image: Mother Earth, via Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC BY 2.5 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Yesterday, I began exploring a number of Charles Darwin’s hyperbolic evocations in the Origin of Species. We saw that in his conception, the powers of “natural selection” transcend human intelligence to such a degree that he came close to imputing to “her” the capacity for intelligent design. (See, “Darwin’s Goddess: Natural Selection as ‘Divine Surrogate.’”) The capstone to this crypto-theological way of thinking appears to be laid when he contrasts the selfishness of mankind with the dispassionate care for all animal and human life shown by “natural selection.” It is difficult to gloss that thought as anything but a covert or else unacknowledged reference to the limitless goodness of the Christian God when contrasted with the sinfulness of mankind. George Levine in fact makes the significant point in this regard that “it has long been understood that Darwin was much influenced by the [Paleyan] Natural Theology that much of the Origin is devoted to replacing…yet his imagination of nature is of a designed place, and he adapts many natural theological terms, not least ‘adaptation’ and ‘contrivance,’ in his description of the way nature works.”1

Levine’s response to the text in his capacity as a literary and cultural critic leads him to corroborate Robert J. Richards’s view that Darwin did indeed have a divinized conception of nature. Nor were these two writers the first to make this connection. Bishop Samuel Wilberforce in his extensive review of Origin also charged that what Darwin was really describing under the heading of natural selection was the shaping effort of a divinity (of some sort) rather than the autonomous reflexes of dumb nature.2 Darwin himself was acutely sensitive to the charge that he was “making too much of a Deus” of natural selection and was wont to reply defensively that it was difficult to avoid personifying the word nature.

By using the term “natural selection,” he explained, he had meant “only the aggregate action and product of many laws.” However, this denial is the less convincing for not being able to account for the meanings disclosed by the metaphorical terms in which he chose to clothe his thoughts. Those more oblique modes of self-disclosure provide hints of the way his mind was working at a sub-rational level, and might in modern parlance be termed a “tell.” In fact, linguistic analysis corroborates a point once made by Basil Willey in the context of his discussing what the once prominent Victorian theologian Edward Bouverie Pusey referred to as the doctrinal vagueness of Darwin’s religious views:

This same metaphysical unawareness led him also, almost without noticing it, to replace the absent God with a latent personification of Nature, or even of ‘Natural Selection’ itself. True, he catches himself out from time to time, and warns us that he is only speaking metaphorically when he talks of Natural Selection ‘observing minutely’, ‘with unerring tact discovering each improvement for further perfecting’, and so forth. But he returns so habitually to that way of speaking, that we feel Pusey to be right in accusing Darwin of having introduced, into the theological vacuum he had created, a power acting according to design.3

This inevitably brings up the subject of the possible source of Darwin’s conception: was he simply “romancing” in a purely solipsistic way or was his imagination nourished by conceptual and imaginative templates he had access to in 19th century culture? Where might Darwin’s “divinized” conception of nature have come from? An important clue to answering this question has been provided by Ronald Hutton in his newly published Queens of the Wild: Pagan Goddesses in Christian Europe, to whose chapter on “Mother Earth” I now refer.4

The Eternal Mother Figure

The tradition of a personified Natura Creatrix has a long pedigree in Christian and pre-Christian thought in the form of the ancient Greek Physis and her Roman counterpart, Natura.5 To Aristotle, Physis was the force which generated and animated living things and embodied the elements and primary materials of the world. She was seen as a form of governess and steward to the sublunary world as opposed to that of the heavens which were envisaged as being the place of the most supreme divinity. She was sometimes assimilated to Plato’s conception of the anima mundi (world soul or spirit), an entity endowed by the creator god with the role of linking his ideal realm with the realm of material and mortal beings. Roman poets of the imperial period such as Ovid and Lucretius conceived of her as a cosmic power subordinate only to the creator himself. Claudian referred to her as Mother Nature who had produced an ordered world out of chaos.

Natura was subsequently to be inducted with some ease into the Christianized world post 400 AD and in the 12th century Bernard Silvestris portrayed her as having been created by the Christian God, tasked by him to put the finishing touches to His universe. Similar conceptions were to be expressed in the work of Alan of Lille towards the end of the 12th century when he too saluted Natura as the ruler of the world on behalf of the Christian God. Jean de Meun in the Romance of the Rose referred to her as God’s chamberlain and Chaucer depicts her essentially as God’s deputy. In sum, concludes Hutton, “the concept of a mighty female figure embodying and ruling over the terrestrial world was embedded in Christian intellectual and literary culture all through the periods in which Christianity most completely dominated Europe, the medieval and early modern”6 (i.e., until c. 1650). Thereafter she continued her reign with a now firm place in the Christian cosmological imagination.

The Mythic Universal

Turning now towards Darwin’s own day, in the later Romantic period of the 19th century, when poets like Wordsworth were exhorting readers to let nature be their teacher, Natura was eulogized as a fount of wisdom. The poet Shelley even apostrophized her as “Sacred Goddess, Mother Earth/Thou from whom whose immortal bosom/Gods and men and beasts have birth.” The poet Algernon Charles Swinburne too conceived of Nature as a mighty female deity, embodying and creating the universe itself. Hutton also points to the example of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre whose eponymous heroine, finding herself one night alone and sleeping rough on a moor, is comforted by the thought of Nature, conceived of as a maternal figure, and by that of a loving God, as Nature’s creator. In such ways did Natura remain “resiliently adaptable” up to Darwin’s day and beyond. 

Thus, over countless centuries there had become established in Europe a “Christian pattern of a cosmic feminine force subject to a patriarchal deity.”7 Some modern archaeologists have even gone so far as to claim that the archetype of the Great Mother has been a mythic universal — an image inherent in the human psyche since prehistoric times. Such historical filiations of Natura and the fact that she continued to be so deeply embedded in Victorian cultural understanding make it likely that the idea was lodged in Darwin’s psyche too at some level of apprehension and that his conception of natural selection may not have been anywhere near as purely materialist as the strictly Cartesian part of his mind would have desired. Despite his rational(ist) efforts, he was never able to free himself completely from that form of Christian cosmology which enjoyed such wide currency in the ambient culture of his day. As Barbara Newman has pointed out, the 19th century was the last great age of Nature’s literary career where she was given a strong lease of life by many of the poets whom Darwin himself read, such as Wordsworth and Tennyson. There was even a tendency among some of the Romantics, Wordsworth especially, to “merge Nature with Nature’s God” (the conception first proposed by Spinoza).8

A Materialist Myth

Prosaically summarized at the purely rational level, the Origin of Species aspires to supply a fresh, materialist myth to explain the development of earth’s numerous species. In reality, however, that would-be single-minded project is compromised, even subverted, by interference from a rather insistent metaphorical subtext. Those hidden levels of meaning will doubtless have been informed by what Neal Gillespie once termed the author’s “epistemological double vision” which resulted from the fact that “early in his career Darwin largely dropped theology from his science but not from his world view.”9 That submerged stratum of meaning with its unmistakable echoes of the figure of Natura in past and present Christian cosmological thought makes its influence felt inexpugnably at many metaphorical and lexical levels. If we take into account this large imaginative dimension of the Origin it might reasonably be inferred that Darwin came closer to the spirit of Paley’s natural theology than he or many others, even to this day, would be prepared to acknowledge. 

The paraphrasable content of a text, then, as I have endeavored to show, should never be the end of the story because there is often considerably more “unpacking” to do before we can really understand the deeper import of any given author’s work. But lest any reader should think that I am making the absurd claim that access to the true meaning of Darwinian postulations must necessarily be restricted to some small linguistically trained elite, I would point out that one needs no induction into the specialized skill-set of literary analysis to be able to appreciate the importance of a close and critical reading. All that is required in is an openness and independence of mind and a readiness to empathize with any given text at both a literal and an emotional level by “listening to the music behind the words,” as the colloquial saying goes. 


  1. Darwin the Writer, p. 111, note 6.
  2. Samuel Wilberforce, Review of Origin of Species in Quartely Review [no numeration] 1860, pp.225-264.
  3. Darwin and ButlerTwo Versions of Evolution (London: Chatto and Windus, 1960), p. 30.
  4. Ronald Hutton, Queens of the Wild (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2022), chapter 2, pp. 41-74.
  5. On early origins and development of the idea of nature see George D. Economou, The Goddess Natura in Medieval Literature, second edition (Indiana: Notre Dame UP, 2002), especially pp. 1-27. 
  6. Queens of the Wild, p. 50.
  7. Queens of the Wild, p. 53.
  8. Barbara Newman, God and the Goddesses: Visions, Poetry and Belief in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania UP, 2003), pp. 52, 137.
  9. Neal C. Gillespie, Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1979), p. 125.