U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reading Darwin, Reading with Philosophers

For an intellectual historian, relationships with philosophers can be rewarding and maddening at the same time. As a species, philosophers, particularly of the Continental variety, show a pronounced tendency to stick to the forest and shun the trees. They prefer heights and abstraction, but then they read far more closely than the rest of us, burrowing down into texts with real enthusiasm. Intellectual historians can seem crabbed or narrow when we meet philosophers in their environs, because we tend to sound off about things like “context.” This calling of ours disturbs and puzzles the philosopher, not the least because the intellectual historian is still a historian, a species that relishes particulars and harbors serious suspicion about universals. We burrow too, but we work across ground far and wide while the philosopher roots around in a carefully turned over plot.

I happen to be reading Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) with a philosopher right now, and it’s been great fun. My philosopher friend has forced me to confront the text rather nakedly because he gets impatient with my overload of context. He finds my eye for the weird detail fascinating. It takes a lot of sifting through workaday stuff to find weird stuff. He can appreciate the close reading in that.

Still, I wonder if his fascination has a small amount of pity in it, rather like an owl has, peering down at a mouse as it scurries along the ground below, the rodent unaware that it’s about to be made a meal. So I’ve tried to read the book anew as an experiment, adopting a naïve epistemology where I think about reading the text as if for the first time. Maybe the mouse was blissfully happy before it got snatched up and eaten.

The sea of books in intellectual history that consider Darwin and Darwinism as an influence on thinkers and schools of thought in the United States make it nigh impossible to read Origin anew. It’s hard to read the book without mentally trotting out what Darwin hath wrought, reading later developments into the text. I suspect most of us have a standard “Darwin’s Impact” list rolling around somewhere in our heads. Darwin suggested Nature without design; Darwin imagined in Nature a brutal struggle for survival; Darwin pointed the way toward a world of relations rather than fixed categories of being; Darwin left a fluid world marked by constant change and development, and so on.

From there, the story goes, countless thinkers then took Darwin’s ideas and applied them in countless ways. Everyone spoke Darwin after his or her own fashion, and in the end Charles Darwin would scarcely have recognized the many dialects. Social Darwinism spoke to those with cruel purposes. Pragmatists developed a fluid, open universe from Darwin’s words, where ideas became ever-changing tools for adapting to ever-changing environments. Still others found the slough of despond, reading in Darwin news of a darkly deterministic world. Henry Adams simply succumbed because it seemed pointless to object. Darwinism shared wry affinities with the kind of failed education that came along with residual Calvinist family traits: “He was a Darwinist before the letter, predestined to follow the tide; but he was hardly trained to follow Darwin’s evidences…Henry Adams was a Darwinist because it was easier than not, for his ignorance exceeded belief…”[1]

Context like this swims around in my mind as I try to rediscover the pleasures of this text from a naïve point of view. I’m surprised by how much I enjoy it once I let go some and pay attention to him as a writer. Part of the joy probably stems from Darwin’s rush to publish, since Alfred Russel Wallace had reached similar conclusions separately. (Damn, more particulars and context!) Darwin accounts for the phenomenon in the book, explaining that variations sometimes occur in the same way in different creatures independent of inheritance from a common ancestor: “I am inclined to believe that in nearly the same way as two men sometimes independently hit on the very same invention, natural selection…has sometimes modified in very nearly the same manner two parts in two organic beings, which beings owe but little of their structure in common to inheritance from the same ancestor.”[2]

This necessitated an “abstract” as Darwin describes the text, meaning that he leaves out most of his evidence. A “big book” lurks behind the action. He can only give a digest. The reader feels the author’s wish that he had time to lay it all on us. This is because Darwin tells us in several places that he wishes he could lay it all on us. He can’t, so the reader gets lots of the equivalent of “trust me, I’ve got lots of evidence for this one.” He concocts imaginary scenarios to explain his meaning in more than a few places. When thinking about the struggle for survival, for example, “It is good thus in our imagination to give any form an advantage over another” (62).

When Darwin describes evidence of flora and fauna out in the world, the results sound like wonder, as if a couple of decades of research threaten to pour out all at once. Some of my favorite passages come when Darwin resorts to imperatives and the first person plural, peppering in exclamations:

When we look at the plants and bushes clothing an entangled bank, we are tempted to attribute their proportional numbers and kinds to what we call chance. But what a false view is this! Every one had heard that when an American forest is cut down, a very different vegetation springs up; but it has been observed that ancient Indian ruins in the Southern United States, which must formerly have been cleared of trees, now display the beautiful diversity and proportion of kinds as in the surrounding virgin forests. What a struggle between the several kinds of trees must here have gone on during long centuries, each annually scattering its seeds by the thousand; what war between insect and insect—between insects, snails, and other animals with birds of prey—all striving to increase, and all feeding on each other or on the trees or their seeds and seedlings, or on the other plants which first clothed the ground and thus checked the growth of trees! Throw up a handful of feathers, and all must fall to the ground according to definite laws; but how simple is this problem compared to the action and reaction of the innumerable plants and animals which have determined, in the course of centuries, the proportional numbers and kinds of trees now growing on the old Indian ruins! (61-2)

In earlier readings I passed up countless metaphors and missed so much of the pleasure of the text (see Roland Barthes, I guess). Of course, Natural Selection is the most powerful metaphor in the book, the one that Darwin worried over later. Extrapolated from domestic selection among breeders and fanciers, the central metaphor sets up a genuine tension in the book between the impossibly short span of human beings’ various manipulations of nature and the eons necessary for natural selection to do its work. The latter ranks astoundingly higher in quality than the former: “how fleeting are the wishes and efforts of man! how short his time! (65) Darwin has occasion to think about the whole in a way not dissimilar from the classic philosopher’s god in Origin, largely inscrutable, with reasoning beyond human comprehension by virtue of its sense of the whole. We can marvel at the harmonious whole and only speculate, in our ignorance, at the forces underlying it all. Believers in independent creation like Louis Agassiz come off as impious if variations exist for no discernible reason other than fiat, without distant sources in a common ancestor. They would make a toy God to fit their fancy: “To admit this view is, as it seems to me, to reject a real for an unreal, or at least for an unknown, cause. It makes the works of God a mere mockery and deception” (126).

A couple of uses of figurative language under the heading of the master Natural Selection metaphor caught my eye: an “economy of nature” and “polity of nature.” My philosopher friend captured on them pretty quickly once I mentioned them. He figured that really understanding the fundamental idea in the text would require reading the prevailing economics of the day. He reached a conclusion independently that more than a few astute readers of Darwin have: Thomas Malthus is the critical thinker for Origin of Species. He sounded an awful lot like an intellectual historian with a claim like that.

Natural Selection does work metaphorically like a polity/economy (political economy?) in the book. As a metaphor, it accounts for the complex relations that characterize the competition between various rivals over scarce resources, until certain groups eventually fill up bounded spaces. After all, “the number of places in the polity of nature is not indefinitely great” (84). Once an area fills up, those beings with profitable variations rub out the ones without them. Nature selects slightly better modifications. It follows that “the more diversified the descendants from any one species become in structure, constitution, habits, by so much will they be better enabled to seize on many and widely diversified places in the polity of nature, and so be enabled to increase in numbers” (86).

The other day, we joked about whether humanities people are a species, making historians and philosophers variations. Our species is threatened with extinction in the bounded space of the academy right now. Maybe we need to become more diversified. I suppose we’ll keep reading together and see what comes out of it.

[1] Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (Oxford, 1999), 190.

[2] Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (Oxford World’s Classics, 2008), 145. Succeeding references parenthetical

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. What an interesting account of reading. A quick note, there is some recent very smart work by Trevor Pearce (a philosopher) who sees Darwin’s economy of nature as rooted as much in Linneaus as Malthus. Also he has a nice argument that “economy of nature” for Linneaus isn’t a simple import from political economy. It’s quite possible that political economy learned much from natural history rather than the flow of ideas running one way from polItical economy to natural history


  2. Thanks for the post, Peter! I love how you demonstrate that historians in general read and discern differently (i.e. historical thinking), but that intellectual historians in particular look for abstractions and see meaning in ways that can correlate with philosophers. I like to think that intellectual historians have feet in the best of both worlds, but we know that some do both inadequately (as I’m sure I have in varied readings and in my less-than-perfect historical accounts). In any case, I love thinking about our intersecting fields of vision with philosophers. – TL

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