Darwinism in literature is to be distinguished from “literary Darwinism,” one of the many facets of the crackpot psychological theory known as “evolutionary psychology,” currently taking its lumps from sensible and sensitive lit critics.
By Darwinism in literature, I mean the conscious, intentional, and intellectually respectable elucidation of a Darwinian perspective on life, often in classic literature. To illustrate that, here are some short sections of Nancy Pearcey’s Saving Leonardo (not, as reported earlier, Total Truth). This is literature made easy, fun, and most enlightening. STEM grads, study lit for free in a low-bore, crackpot-free environment:
Jack London’s God
With his square chin and dark tousled hair, Jack London was the perfect image of the rugged outdoorsman. It was an image he cultivated skillfully in order to boost book sales. As a result, he became the best-known representative of literary naturalism, a movement that fleshed out in fiction the tenets of philosophical naturalism. These were novelists and playwrights who portrayed humans as biological organisms with no real freedom, determined by their genetic heritage and social environment.
As a young man, London worked as a sailor, pirate, hobo, and prospector in the Alaskan gold rush—rough, demanding experiences that prepared him to take a Darwinian view of the world. Largely self-taught, London acquired his education by devouring books in the public library. There he came upon the works of Herbert Spencer, a British philosopher who was the most influential popularizer of evolution in nineteenth-century America. Immediately the young writer underwent what one historian calls “a conversion experience.” In Spencer, he found evolution projected onto a large screen, applied not only to biology but also to sociology, art, literature, commerce—evolution expanded into a complete worldview. It was Spencer who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” (Charles Darwin borrowed it from him). And he saw the process at work everywhere, not only in nature but also in human society. Spencer, more than anyone else in the nineteenth century, brought evolution to America.
And London, more than anyone else, integrated an evolutionary worldview into American fiction. Through Spencer he discovered Darwin, whose works he read so thoroughly that he could quote entire passages by heart. He embraced other materialist thinkers as well, such as Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche. Yet it was Spencer who remained his “god,” the deity to whom “he would remain faithful for the rest of his life.”
The way he served his god was by writing stories expressing Spencer’s evolutionary worldview. In “The Law of Life,” Koskoosh is an old Eskimo, abandoned by the tribe and left to die in the falling snow. Weak, blind, and waiting for the wolves that will inevitably devour him, he reconciles himself to his fate by musing that, in the evolutionary scheme of things, the individual does not really matter anyway. Nature assigns the organism only one task: to reproduce so the species will survive. After that, if it dies, “what did it matter after all? Was it not the law of life?” The story pounds home the naturalistic theme that humans have no higher purpose beyond sheer biological existence.
Naturalism may be the most prominent Enlightenment-based worldview in our own day. One philosopher considers it the “deepest and most decisive” division separating analytic from continental philosophy. …
The literary naturalists used fiction to portray society as a product of evolution, subject to the law of tooth and claw. They proposed to rip away the façade of respectable society and uncover the animal nature at the heart of human nature—the “beast within.” For example, Honoré de Balzac treated the novel as a “zoology” of human types formed by adaptation to their habitats. His goal was to tear away the hypocrisy of polite society to show the egoism, passion, and violence lurking beneath.
If humans are mere beasts, then they have no real freedom but are determined by their biological heritage and cultural conditioning. The poet Edgar Lee Masters in Spoon River Anthology (1916) pictured humans as rats caught in a trap, struggling helplessly against the wires of the cage. The naturalists’ credo is often summed up with a line from An American Tragedy (1925) by Theodore Dreiser: “All of us are more or less pawns. We’re moved about like chessmen by circumstances over which we have no control.”
Dreiser’s personal odyssey followed the same trajectory as London’s. He too underwent a naturalistic rite of passage by reading Spencer and Darwin. As he later recalled, Spencer blew him “intellectually to bits,” destroying the last vestiges of his Catholic upbringing. He concluded that all human “ideals, struggles, deprivations, sorrows, and joys” were nothing but products of chemical reactions in the brain. “Chemic compulsions,” he called them.
Similarly, Frank Norris portrayed humans as animals under a thin veneer of civilization— brutes beneath the skin. In The Octopus (1901), nature is virtually a substitute deity, and a cruel one at that. “Nature was, then, a gigantic engine, a vast cyclopean power, huge, terrible, a leviathan with a heart of steel, knowing no compunction, no forgiveness, no tolerance; crushing out the human atom standing in its way.” By the end of the novel, the main character gains brief insight into “the explanation of existence.” He realizes that “men were nothings,” that “FORCE only existed—FORCE that brought men into the world, FORCE that crowded them out of it . . . FORCE that made the wheat grow, FORCE that garnered it from the soil.” The naturalists portrayed nature as immense, powerful, pitiless, indifferent. Its forces completely overshadow the puny, insignificant efforts of human beings. (p. 144, 148-52)
(Part II to follow.)