Charles Darwin's "The Origin of Species": Science, rhetoric and revolution

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

20 Pages, Grade: 1,0




I Historical Background
I.1 Survey of evolutionary thought up to 1859
I.1.1 Biblical Creationism
I.1.2 The first transmutationists: Erasmus Darwin and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck
I.2 The development of Darwin’s theory
I.2.2 The arguments of the theory
I.2.2 Darwin’s style and scientific method

II Darwin’s On the origin of Species: A rhetorical text
II.1 Rhetorical figures
II.1.1 Simile and metaphor
II.1.2 Personifications
II.2 After the publication
II.2.1 The reception of Darwin’s theory
II.2.2 Social uses and abuses of Darwinian thought




Only now can we appreciate in how many different ways the Origin departed from established concepts and how many new directions it opened up. Every modern discussion of man’s future, the population explosion, the struggle for existence, the purpose of man and the universe, and man’s place in nature rests on Darwin.[1]

With these words Ernst Mayr opens his introduction to the facsimile of the first edition of Darwin’s The Origin of Species[2] and thus outlines the dimensions of its significance and place in cultural history. The difference, which separates the book and its author from many other scientific works of similar importance, is the degree to which it has been brought up in public debates. Additionally, it was noticed that Darwin’s success had also something to do with his talent as a writer: he made us see the world in a different light with figures of speech. But to claim that Darwin was a rhetorician is not to dismiss his science, but to draw attention to his accommodation of his message to the professional and lay audiences whose support was necessary for its acceptance. While the debate in natural sciences was largely over by the end of the 1940s, the cultural debate came up again. Catchwords like Social or Cultural Darwinism indicate the transfer of the biological theory to other spheres. Nowadays, most of the main religions have accepted the theory of evolution and promote a co-existence of scientific description and religious traditions.[3]

In the course of this essay, I will first attempt to shed light on the historical background, beginning with a short survey of evolutionary thought up to the publication of the Origin (I.1). In addition, I will have a closer look at Darwin and his work itself (I.2). In chapter two, Darwin is presented as a rhetorician and attention is drawn to the most amazing rhetorical figures he uses in his work (II.1). My aim is not to provide a comprehensive study, a task that is beyond the scope of this essay, and therefore certain aspects can not be dealt with and others will only be touched upon. In the end, the last part of this essay will be an attempt to introduce the reader to the reception of Darwin’s theory (II.2). Certainly, this can only be a broad overview, focusing on major subjects as religion, science and the way in which Darwin’s work was used to justify political and social concepts (II.2.2).

I Historical Background

The origin of species had been the subject of extensive scientific discussions for quite some time when Darwin published his book. Three major discoveries had activated the debate: First, the discovery by geologists that the world was much older than had so far been assumed on the basis of biblical evidence.[4] Second, the discovery by naturalists that there where many different species, especially in other continents – a discovery which did not fit in the picture of the species as painted by Carolus Linneaus[5] in the 18th century. Finally, the discovery by palaeontologists of fossilized plants and animals remain, which seemed to have belonged to such strange creatures that classification was extremely difficult. Therefore, scientists of those times were asking themselves questions like: How could evolutionary ideas be coped with? How could they be reconciled with the story of creation as told in Genesis? How had living creatures come into existence? The following chapter will be an attempt to grasp the historical developments and intellectual climate that lead to Darwin’s Origin. The work is deeply embedded in the culture of Victorian England and should be viewed with that background in mind.

I.1 Survey of evolutionary thought up to 1859

Since the publication everyone has identified evolution with Darwin. Practically overnight it was forgotten that others too had developed their own models of evolution. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that Darwin did not create the idea of evolution as it had been around for a long time. Scientific specialization was still in its infancy and many scientists where generalists of a sort, often with a religious vocation. Therefore it is often complicate and rather artificial to seperate scientific and religious ideas. The world view of unchanging, fixed species can be traced back to ancient Greece and Aristotle, who based his assumption on human reason and rationality. Christianity had similar ideas about species connected to the scheme of the Great Chain of Being that described a specific place for each individual in the universe. A predecessor of Darwin was the French scientist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who was influenced by Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather. Trying to understand the development and presentation of Darwin’s theory without reference to these earlier debates, shown in the following, can only lead to misunderstanding and oversimplification.

I.1.1 Biblical Creationism

The doctrine of evolution came face to face with theology. It replaced fundamental aspects of the traditional Christian worldview by a new interpretation of nature. In the orthodox way, the world had been created in six days and contained from that time onwards all the heavenly bodies, including animals and plants, that it now contains. In the old worldview, the pattern of each species is designed by its creator. The so called argument from design, which implied a constant, static and stable world without room for notions of development and evolution, holds that the perfection of each design and the adaptation of each species to a particular way of life, confirms the benevolence of God. Earth had been created at a certain point in history and would basically stay the way it had been intended. Therefore, Charles Darwin became criticised because many felt that his teachings had challenged the creation accounts as told in the Old Testament. While modernists accepted the notion that the Bible was a human document of faith and should not be interpreted literally, evangelical fundamentalists believed in the dogma of Biblical Literalism. For them the book of Genesis is to be understood in a literal way:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.[6]

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.[7]

In this context it becomes clear that many of the principles that Darwin had proposed were antagonistic to a literal understanding of the Bible. With his work Darwin broke away from certain ideas and conflicts arose time and again during the years following its publication.

I.1.2 The first transmutationists: Erasmus Darwin and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck

Charles Darwin was not the first to express ideas of evolution. Predecessors were Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin. Both accepted the notion of spontaneous generation, but realized that only simplest forms of life might be formed in this way.[8] They thus were forced to postulate a process by which living structures became progressively more complex. They have been hailed as the founders of modern evolutionism, although much of the later enthusiasm for their work arose as a by-product of opposition to Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

Erasmus Darwin worked as a physician,[9] but was internationally known for his poetic depictions of the natural world and his speculations about the nature and origin of life. Although he died several years before Charles was born, the younger Darwin certainly knew about the evolutionary ideas expressed in his grandfather’s work Zoonomia (1795). No doubt, Erasmus did anticipate aspects of sexual selection and the struggle for existence, but the real influence he exerted lies not in a few isolated passages seeming to anticipate modern ideas, but in a generally more dynamic view of natural relationships. Erasmus Darwin saw sexual reproduction as the key to nature’s creative activity. It was the generation of new individuals, which gave life the power to respond to an ever-changing environment – a truly creative renewal allowing the species to gain from the purposeful activities of every generation of its members. Charles Darwin too was to share this fascination with reproduction. This is one of the less modern aspects of Charles Darwin’s thought and it has its roots in Erasmus’s views on the significance of sex as nature’s great renovating power.[10] But from his medical interests and because his work proposed a theory of development, he has naturally become a focus for the kind of historian who tries to show that it was only by gleaning insights from his precursors that the younger Darwin was able to formulate his theory. But care has to be taken not to confuse the elder Darwin’s recognition with the younger’s theory of the struggle for existence taking place among the individuals of each species.[11]

In contrast, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was a professional naturalist who wrote a very similar theory. To begin with, Lamarck invoked spontaneous generation as the starting point of living development but decided that this produced only the lowest forms of life.[12] He then postulated an inherently progressive trend which carried life up to higher levels of organization. In each generation, the active power of the nervous fluid tended to carve out more complex channels, so each organism ended up slightly more advanced than its parents.[13] Significantly, he did not accept extinction: species could change, but they did not die out. For him nature was powerful enough to ensure that no forms could ever die out completely. When it was pointed out that some fossils differed from those of living species, Lamarck retorted that the ancient species had changed into the modern ones and did not die out. These aspects of his thinking links him back to the 18th century worldview, not forward to modern Darwinism.[14] For later biologists, however, Lamarck’s name has become associated more closely with the mechanism of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, even though he introduced this mechanism only as a secondary, distorting factor. This hypothetical mechanism of adaptive evolution is based on the assumption that the effects of bodily changes in the adult animal can be passed on to the offspring and can thus accumulate to transform the species.[15] Portraying Lamarck as the true founder of modern evolutionism will not work. There are substantial differences between his ideas and Darwin’s, and there is no doubt that it was Darwin who finally persuaded the entire scientific community to take evolutionism seriously.


[1] Mayr, Ernst (1975). On the Origin of Species. A Facsimile of the First Edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. vii.

[2] Full title: Charles Darwin. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London: J. Murray, 1859. Subsequent references in this essay will be taken from the following edition: T. Griffith (ed.). The Origin of Species. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 1998. Quotations will refer to the text of the 1st edition.

[3] Bowler (1990), pp. vii-ix.

[4] Bowler (2003), p. 4. James Ussher, archbishop of Armagh has become notorious for estimate that the creation took place in 4004 B.C.

[5] Carolus Linnaeus created the first modern system of biological classification, by building an image of a divinely ordered universe. He conceded that new species might appear in the course of time, but his chief explanation of the process was hybridization. He assumed that God had created an array of distinct species which perpetuated themselves unchanged to the present. His technique was outlined in his work Systema Naturae (1735). See also Bowler (2003), p. 67; Henkin (1968), p. 21.

[6] Genesis 1, 1-2.

[7] Genesis 1, 26.

[8] Bowler (2003), p. 84.

[9] He developed his ideas not from a study of natural history, but from his medical interests. See Bowler (2003), pp. 85-86.

[10] Bowler (1990), p. 38.

[11] Bowler (2003), p. 85.

[12] Bowler (1990), p. 20. To conservative thinkers this claim seemed to strike at the heart of the traditional belief that life was the gift of a divine Creator. See I.1.1.

[13] Bowler (2003), p. 87.

[14] Bowler (2003), p. 89.

[15] Bowler (1990), p. 21. To use one of Lamarck’s best-known examples, the efforts made by generations of giraffes trying to reach the leaves of trees are supposed to have gradually lengthened their necks until the modern species was formed.

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Charles Darwin's "The Origin of Species": Science, rhetoric and revolution
Catholic University Eichstätt-Ingolstadt
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Claudia Irion (Author), 2008, Charles Darwin's "The Origin of Species": Science, rhetoric and revolution, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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