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Darwin’s Science and Storytelling

Image: HMS Beagle, by Conrad Martens, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Resisting the scientific tendency to advance inflated knowledge-claims, the late Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould (best known for proposing the theory of punctuated equilibrium in opposition to Darwinian gradualism) described scientific theories more modestly as “adaptive stories” told in the hope of being able to explain a variety of terrestrial phenomena. In this way a loose mass of data could be satisfyingly shaped into a coherent and intelligible narrative. In some cases, it could even be legitimate to classify such theories as just-so stories or myths, such being “the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the disparate and fragmented state of knowledge.”1 Such considerations, which underscore the role played by narrative in problem-solving, may provide some assistance in assessing the life, work and influence of Charles Darwin.

Darwin Mythologized

We have at our disposal a large storehouse of unimpeachably verifiable knowledge about Darwin, yet into that already capacious storehouse have inevitably crept some elements of hero worship and what is popularly termed “mythologization.” Darwin’s South Seas odyssey provides one example of that tendency. His five-year voyage aboard the Beagle in the 1830s was undoubtedly an eye-opening rite of passage for him but perhaps not quite so foundational to his intellectual development as is sometimes proposed. However formative that half decade was as a personal landmark, it did not provide a definitive foundation for the later development of his views on evolution.

For understandable reasons to do with the aesthetics of constructing a compelling narrative, on the other hand, the Darwin legend has it that his South American experiences were responsible for the formulation of a whole host of evolutionary discoveries. According to the conventional, partly mythicized story the intrepid explorer returned from having garnered the secrets of nature in the exotic realms of the South Seas to share these secrets with his fellow men and women. Such a reading provides an undeniably good imaginative fit with the heroic pattern of a “mythic universal” figure like Prometheus who in Greek mythology brought down fire to earth from the abode of the Greek gods to share its boons with mortals. Resonating with people at a subconscious level, it is the kind of stirring story audiences like to hear, and reporters and other storytellers often have eager recourse to such archetypal narrative patterns. Little though many might know of Greek mythology, such ingrained narrative schemata nevertheless seem to be all but hard-wired into audience expectations of what a “proper” heroic tale should consist of.2

Narrative Tropes

Misia Landau once made the cautionary point that even discussion of the life and works of prominent scientists can suffer from some surprising interferences from folklore and myth.3 She recommended that scientists should be especially aware of age-old and familiar narrative structures since they could be used at some barely apprehended level to embellish and potentially skew the presentation of objective data. Rather like the way we are tempted to embellish stories in everyday life to amuse our interlocutors, she argued, the choice of narrative mode used to explain evidence can predispose the reporter towards readily intelligible patterns of understanding, to the detriment of the unique particularities of the person or phenomenon about whom evidence is being presented.

Hence in the case of the Darwin biography, the Great Journey of Discovery makes for a good story, but once denuded of some of its fictional and mythic accretions, legend and reality do not invariably mesh together. In their study and edition of Darwin’s account of his sea journeying and researches, Janet Browne and Michael Neve point out that Darwin’s ideas did not come to him from his experiences in the field in the South American rainforests.4 In fact, the true story of the formation of Darwinian evolutionary theories had little to do with romantic discoveries in exotic locations. Real life, as Humphrey Bogart once observed, makes for lousy plots, and in Darwin’s case his true-life experience of discovery had little enough to do with the finely honed romance narrative that gradually developed around him.

Remarkably, Darwin’s evolutionary ideas did not derive from any meticulously fact-checked empirical observations in the South Seas or indeed from any other region of the world. Rather did they grow in a series of ad hoc, random installments, the result of his ability to weave together ideas culled from others, not all of them naturalists. As is clear from his explicit hommage to Thomas Malthus as well as from his inadequately acknowledged debt to his grandfather, Erasmus, his “discoveries” were in truth a collage of different hints picked up from his reading or from personal contacts.

The Sage of Down House

Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!

On whom those truths do rest,

Which we are toiling all our lives to find.5

It was not just the South American voyage which lent itself to mythologization, for even Darwin’s life after his return from South America has found itself fitted into a questionable fictional niche. The poet William Wordsworth wrote the celebrated famous lines cited above in reference to his conviction that the early stage of our childhood grants us uniquely penetrating insights into the nature of reality which “fade into the light of day” as we mature. A comparably rose-tinted perception of Darwin as seer or guru evolved in the public mind after the first decade of criticism of his Origin of Specieshad subsided.6 For thereafter, to transpose the matter into the kind of journalistic terms rightly deprecated by Landau, the Darwinian narrative seemed to establish itself as nothing less than the story of how one man and his grandson found the solution to the world’s most impenetrable existential mysteries — and all within less than a century. In a loosely associative but emotionally compelling sense, Erasmus Darwin was to fulfil the narrative role of a John the Baptist figure. Erasmus after all had been the first7 to advance the hypothesis, albeit unproven, of how humankind had evolved naturally and sans cosmic middleman from the state of unicellular beginnings to that of supremely complex and self-aware beings.

Nevertheless, Erasmus could play only the part of minor figure or, in dramaturgical parlance, deuteragonist, in this intellectual drama since his ideas had at the end of the day issued only from a speculative hunch. The voyage of discovery must continue with the grandson at the helm as he cast about for some material mechanism (initially he did not know what mechanism) which could underpin the grandpaternal thought experiment with logical support. The answer he alighted on was of course natural selection, which would have doubtless struck many as the final narrative dénouement of a long story with its origins in the previous century. With a sense of relief, many must have thought, the final curtain could now be lowered on to the stage. Closure had been attained.

The Story Evolves

The story that Charles had continued through to its conclusion in 1859 had been vicariously experienced and in that sense co-rehearsed by a number of prior and present generations of Charles’s peers. Ever since Erasmus’s views became widely known about in the 1790s, many would have been moved to play the slowly developing story to themselves in their own minds, not least because what readers rightly understood to be a further instalment of the story was published by Scottish publisher Robert Chambers in 1844 under the title Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation.8 Chambers’s volume was to become a consciousness-raising exercise sans pareil as he laced together what Erasmus Darwin had written with more modern cosmological studies in his attempt to explain the world to Victorians in wholly material terms. As the late Tom Wolfe noted, the volume became such a hit/succès de scandale that it “lit up the sky,” transfixing a generation which included Tennyson, Gladstone, Disraeli, Abraham Lincoln, and John Stuart Mill. Queen Victoria and Albert even took it in turns to read out portions of the text to each other.9

As Stephen Prickett observed, “no intellectual revolution happens all at once.” The traditional belief in the uniqueness of humanity was already being treated with some skepticism by the middle of the 18th century. Darwin did no more than administer the coup de grâce.10 Hence many readers at the time would have been, in modern parlance, “invested in the outcome” that Charles provided for them in 1859. It had in fact been ardently anticipated by the Victorian public for whom the deep secrets of human existence had represented a seemingly ineradicable “mystery of mysteries.” Just as in the early 16th century the reformer Martin Luther had justly claimed that his deep preoccupation with the Bible was also the concern of all Germans (“My business is everybody’s business”), so the question of the origins of human and animal life was an unremitting matter of curiosity and concern to Victorians. 

Darwin’s bringing closure to that unsolved mystery was truly a consummation devoutly to be desired, and doubtless would have been experienced by some as a form of catharsis in terms of its perceived liberation from theocratic authority. J. W. Burrow succinctly explained this Darwinian revolution in Victorian views as the bringing to an end of countless centuries of more or less animistic attitudes to nature. He continues,

Darwin had asked in his 1842 sketch, comparing the state of biology with physics, “What would the Astronomer say to the doctrine that the planets moved [not] according to the laws of gravitation, but from the Creator having willed each separate planet to move in its particular orbit.”

After 1859 biologists no longer needed to say things of that kind and nor did anyone else.11

Enlightenment Dreaming

Many then will have looked upon the publication of the Origin of Species as the culmination of a daring intellectual adventure whose motto could very credibly have been the Enlightenment rallying cry of sapere aude — “dare to know” (as opposed to merely believe). The erstwhile mystery of evolution could now be safely attributed to intelligible processes of cosmic automatism — although the story ends on a somewhat bathetic note since the precise modalities of this claimed process, being quite literally lost in the mists of time, were not then and never could be amenable to fact-checking.

Notwithstanding that inconvenient truth, however, the works of both Darwins essentially provided an alternative explanatory narrative which challenged what many were beginning to think of as the “outworn creed” of Genesis. Nobody perceived the deeper implications of the Darwinian credo better than one academic who was privy to an advance publication of the views of Darwin and Wallace in 1858 at a meeting of the Linnaean Society in London (where both men’s views were given equal time).12 Reportedly, most learned attendees that day remained strangely underwhelmed by the intellectually incendiary tidings they were hearing, so that it was left to Professor Samuel Haughton of the University of Dublin to connect the dots. Haughton’s view of what was referred to at the time as the development hypothesis was anything but positive and entirely resisted the intellectual hoopla of those willing Darwin on and accepting his views uncritically. He concluded his review in the following terms: 

There is no folly that human fancy can devise, when truth has ceased to be of primary importance, and right reason and sound logic have been discarded, that has not been produced, and preached as a new revelation.13

Science and Fiction

It is noteworthy that Haughton used the terms “preached” and “revelation.” For these terms were particularly prescient in that he could foresee that both Darwin and Wallace were implicitly announcing an ersatz, quasi-Comtean gospel of creation built on a purely secular foundation. As Haughton in his reference to discarding “right reason” also realized, a work ostensibly inspired by the Enlightenment watchword of reason had committed the greatest logical solecism it is possible to commit, which is the proposition that everything can come from nothing. For Haughton this was not revelation but arrant credulity at best and, at worst, hocus pocus. He did not call out the views of Wallace and Darwin for their opposition to religion but to reason. He was invoking the same terms as Wallace and Darwin but turning the terms against them by arraigning them for a lack of common-or-garden logic. His attack was mounted on purely rational grounds, and could just as credibly come from the pen of any rationalist philosopher, then as now.

For the fact of the matter was that in the midst of all his enthralling storytelling, Darwin had made the wholly counterintuitive claim that things could be created without a creator (which explains his famous fantasy about a miraculous chemical reaction in a small warm pond producing inchoate life-forms theoretically capable of future development). For in that way he was setting himself up in opposition not so much to religion as to the two-millennia-old and never before disputed wisdom of ex nihilo nihil fit (nothing can come from nothing), replacing it with its obverse, namely, all things (can) come from nothing. This was a rather conspicuous flaw in his overall argument, and it is not surprising that the truth-value of that paradoxical assertion has remained a focus of debate up to the present day. Routinely defended with great vigor, it can nevertheless seem to disinterested onlookers with no particular stake in enforcing an atheistic worldview more like a materialist fantasy than a sober piece of biological science. In fact, the very stridency of many who now class themselves as evolutionary psychologists (aka sociobiologists) has been a matter of some remark. Dorothy Nelkins for instance noted,

So ardent are their efforts, it is almost as if they aspire to assure the Darwinian fitness of the theory — to assure its survival in the world of cosmic ideas.14

Such forcefulness would be understandable (albeit somewhat boorish) if Darwinian theory were anything like the “slam dunk” the evolutionary psychologists perceive it to be, but that is not the case. Those who had originally greeted the Origin in a mood of joyous epiphany had neglected to notice (or else had elected not to notice) the theory’s lack of logical foundation. Darwin himself fell afoul of a similar lack of what Haughton termed right reason when Sir Charles Lyell had to point out to him on grounds of elementary logic that there could be no such thing as “natural selection,” only natural preservation. Darwin had to climb down on his use of terminology but never seems to have fully comprehended that preservation is by simple definition not a dynamic force with the kind of necessary forward momentum (much less inbuilt telos) which could create new species. 

The famous microbes-to-man narrative, then, seems to rest on grounds as shaky as the fantasy of life’s supposed emergence from a small warm pond (or geothermal vent or whatever). Furthermore, since the much bruited “natural selection” looks to be a quite literally impossible phenomenon in the form envisaged by Darwin, what price evolution itself? For natural selection has since 1859 been seen as the single proof that evolution occurred at all. Can it be the case that both natural selection and evolution are simply stories we have been rather too complacently telling each other for almost two centuries? Can the miraculous-seeming design of Planet Earth really be the result of undirected natural formations? Is it even possible for design to be somehow mimicked sans designer? How does that claimed “mimicry”work precisely? Darwinian theory appears to pose more intractable questions than it provides easy answers.

Even Darwin’s proverbial bulldog, Thomas Huxley, in company with the first supposedly atheist Member of Parliament, Charles Bradlaugh, loudly disavowed the label atheist which in today’s world is bandied about with such uncritical bravura. Both men observed that it would be absurd to deny the existence of an entity of which they confessed to having no conception (Huxley would go on to give wide currency to the term agnostic). Darwin too, unlike his grandfather, who was a proselytizer for the atheist cause, even latterly called himself a Theist (Darwin’s capital T). As J. W. Burrow remarked in his Introduction to his edition of the first incarnation of the Origin

By the time that Darwin came to write Origin he had come to the conclusion, which he retained to the end of his life, that questions of ultimate cause and purposes were an insoluble mystery.15

That seems a soberer and more considered conclusion than that offered by many of his intellectual legatees who have chosen to stride out well beyond the cautious perimeter that Darwin himself marked out. In so doing, to give Darwin the last word, they have surely strayed ultra vires: beyond the powers of humans to go or know.


  1. Stephen Prickett, Narrative, Religion and Science. Fundamentalism Versus Irony (Cambridge: CUP, 2002), p. 18.
  2. See Maud Bodkin, Archetypal Patterns in Poetry [1927] (New York: Vintage, 1958).
  3. Misia Landau, Narratives of Human Evolution (Yale: Yale UP, 1993). 
  4. “The received image of Darwin voyaging alone through vast turbulent seas of thought as he paced the deck of the Beagle is a fantasy.” See Voyage of the Beagle: Charles Darwin’s Journal of Researches, edited by Janet Browne and Michael Neve (London; Penguin, 1989), p. 2.
  5. William Wordsworth, “Ode on Intimations of Immortality,” in Selections from William Wordsworth, edited by Sir Ifor Evans (London: Methuen, 1983), p.107 (lines 114-16).
  6. See my account of initial scientific opposition in Taking Leave of Darwin: A Longtime Agnostic Discovers the Case for Design (Seattle: Discovery Institute Press, 2021), pp. 61-7.
  7. Although he will probably have known of classical predecessors such as the atomist philosophers, Epicurus and Lucretius, so-called because they taught that the world had come about by accident as the result of various different configurations of atoms. It should also be noted that some French natural scientists (philosophes) were advancing similar views at about the same time as Erasmus. 
  8. Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (London: Churchill, 1844).
  9. I am indebted for this information to Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech (London: Penguin, 2016), p. 8.
  10. Stephen Prickett, Narrative, Religion and Science, p. 131.
  11. J. W. Burrow, Charles Darwin: The Origin of Species (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), Introduction, p. 48.
  12. “On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection,” by Darwin and Wallace, communicated by Sir Charles Lyell, Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnaean Society, no numeration, August 1858 (papers read out on July 1, 1858).
  13. See http://darwinonline.org.uk/converted/pdf/1860_Review_Origin_Biogenesis_Haughton_A1128.pdf (pp. 1-9, citation 7).
  14. Dorothy Nelkins, “Less selfish than sacred? Genes and the religious impulse in evolutionary psychology,” in Alas Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology, edited by Hilary and Steven Rose (London: Vintage, 2001), pp. 13-27, citation 14.
  15. J. W. Burrow, Charles Darwin: The Origin of Species, Introduction, p. 24.