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The Aesthetic Construction of Darwin’s Theory

  • David Kohn
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 182)

Abstract

The nature and operation of natural selection are conveyed in the Origin of Species by two famous metaphors, whose history in Charles Darwin’s consciousness form the substance of this paper.1

Keywords

Natural Selection Yielding Surface Scientific Content Paradise Lost Natural Selec 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
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    Mayr notes Darwin began as a typologist and that even after 1838 typology remained an important component of his thinking. Mayr, E., One Long Argument: Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Modern Evolutionary Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), p. 79. Mayr’s observation is illustrated by the maturation of the wedge metaphor. Only in Natural Selection, written after the decade-long study of barnacle and pigeon variation has the shift to individuals taken place: ‘Nature may be compared to a surface covered with ten-thou sand wedges, many of the same shape representing different species, all packed closely together and all driven in by incessant blows’: Here we have each wedge an individual and each wedge with its unique species shape. The quarryman’s wedge has faded, and Darwin is considering wedges of many shapes and sizes. So we are dealing with populations of wedge species. Even here the variability of the individual shapes is not specified. So as Mayr suggests, in some sense the shift to populational thinking is never total. To some historians Mayr’s terminology of populational versus typoplogical ‘thinking’ may seem to reveal an anachronistic commitment to an essentialist history of antonomous ideas. Yet Darwin clearly participates in the larger historical transition that really concerns Mayr. Thus, for a modern evolutionist such as Mayr, by 1857 Darwin’s ‘thinking’ — here meaning his imagery — was implicitly populational while in 1838 it was not. Given Darwin’s argument with its explicit use of variation, how else would one interpret individual wedges but as variable individuals? Yet it is also implicitly typological. A true Mayrian Darwin should never have written ‘many of the same shape representing different species’. The issue never gets beyond the implicit. He will always reside in the contradictory zone of implicitly ‘typological’ and implicitly ‘populational’ thinking. But the contradiction is not Darwin’s. It arises because history probably doesn’t operate in the way Mayr assumes it does: as a march of developing ‘thinkings’. But, I suggest we should be grateful to Mayr for his Whiggish categorical distinction between typological and population thinking. He gives us, and himself employs very effectively, a hermeneutic that helps clarify Darwin’s intentions.Google Scholar
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    Gruber, H. E., ‘Aspects of scientific discovery: aesthetics and cognition’, Reality Club 5, in press, attempts to systematize the aesthetic process of creative scientists. In part his model is based on his own deep study of Darwin. But he suggests that ‘For creative scientists the use of a relatively free literary form may be one good way to get some ideas said provisionally, unhampered by the demands of scientific discipline’ MS p. 18. He is referring to the ‘Beagle’ Diary as a narrative medium. As we see here the process of ‘playing’ may be very deep and have very concrete pay off.Google Scholar
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    Beer, G., “The face of nature”: Anthropomorphic elements in the language of The Origin of Species’, in L. Jordonova (ed.), Languages of Nature: Critical Essays on Science and Literature (London: Free Association Books, 1986), p. 236 discusses an analogous phenom enon in the 1857 version where Darwin’s use of similes such as ‘may be compared to’, representing’, and ‘we may suppose’ dilutes ‘the elaboration and immediacy of experience’.Google Scholar
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    Beer, op. cit., 1986, p. 233 aptly summarizes the important wider claims in Colp, R., ‘Charles Darwin’s vision of organic nature’, New York State Journal of Medicine 79: 1627, 1979: ‘Colp speculates on the sexual and unconscious significance of wedging for Darwin. He links its appearance in Darwin’s thought to his imminent marriage and also to his feelings towards his Wedgwood relations, and he considers that it may have come to symbolize Darwin’s assertion of himself in the areas of work, sex, money, and resistance to opposition’.Google Scholar
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    As Beer, op. cit., p. 228 notes, “In the first edition of The Origin both nature and natural selection have grammatically the function of agents”. Natural Selection after all is the analogue of Artificial Selection, which implies a breeder -” As Beer further notes: Darwin endows natural selection ‘with latent activity’. Variation causes, generation multiplies, but natural selection ‘picks out with unerring skill’. The implication of an active and external agent is far stronger in the long run”. In this regard also note (Beer p. 231): The sense of a brooding presence [in the Origin, 1st edn] was perhaps reinforced by the way in which he distinguished the gender of nature and natural selection. Nature is always ‘she’ whereas natural selection is neuter — the neuter becomes a form of sex, sexless force.’ Perhaps it is Darwin’s own sexuality that is masked as a ‘sexless force’. Although Beer does not go as far as Colp in asserting Darwin’s self identification in/with the wedging metaphor, having clearly deciphered that natural selection is an agency, with implied personification, and possessor of a sexless (neuter) gender — she clearly recognizes a personal agency in the ‘wedger’ when she speaks of ‘the implied presence of a figure wielding a hammer’.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Beer, op. cit., p. 237: ‘The wedge imagery is here [Origin] summarized and placed in apposition to Nature — not ‘the economy of Nature’, or ‘the surface’ but ‘the face of Nature’.Google Scholar
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    See Beer, op. cit., pp. 232–3 for Victorian scientific and literary expressions of nature as feminine. Note that feminizing Nature serves Darwin’s secularizing naturalistic strategy by distinguishing ‘her’ from God.Google Scholar
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    Burkhardt, F. and Smith, S. (eds.), The Correspondence of Charles Darwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), vol. 5, pp. 540–542, ‘Charles Darwin’s memorial of Anne Elizabeth Darwin’; olp, op. cit., 1987; Darwin Papers, Cambridge University Library, DAR 210.13).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Kohn
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of HistoryDrew UniversityUSA

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