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Darwin’s Literary Models

It may not be structured like a journal paper, but On the Origin of Species was written according to classical rules of rhetoric

Keith Thomson

The Science of Rhetoric

2010-05MargThomsonFB.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageSince Francis Bacon’s time (particularly since the publication of The Advancement of Learning in 1605), methods of scientific discovery have been categorized as some variant of either deductive (proceeding from the general to the particular) or its opposite, inductive. Method, however, is not the same as exposition. A piece of science might be created in one mode but be much better explained in another. In terms of rhetoric, the modes corresponding to deduction and induction were, respectively, synthetic and analytic. Coral Reefs is written in the latter, analytic mode. The Origin hews more closely to the synthetic, in which the author first lays down a central proposition and then presents more and more arguments to extend and confirm it.

Students of science today, and likely their mentors as well, are not schooled in the subtleties of logic and rhetoric. The composition of a scientific paper follows very simple conventions—woe betide anyone who submits a paper to a peer-reviewed journal without following the prescribed rules faithfully. Things were different in Darwin’s day; styles of writing about science ranged from the mathematically precise to the discursively narrative. But that is not to say that there were no rules or models: On the contrary, in the late 18th century and early 19th century, attention to rhetoric and logic flourished.

The standards were high. In his 1687 Principia Mathematica, Isaac Newton had pronounced his famous four rules for reasoning, of which the first is the most famous and influential: “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” Closer to Darwin’s time, the most influential works included Joseph Priestley’s A Course of Lectures on Oratory and Criticism (1777), John Locke’s essay Of the Conduct of the Understanding (1706), Lord Kames’s Elements of Criticism (1762) and William Duncan’s The Elements of Logick (1748), all of which still make fascinating reading today. Among the most widely read and influential of all was Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1784). And all rhetorical style traced back to, and reacted against, the classics, particularly the works of the great Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero. As Darwin was a superbly well-read intellectual, it is natural to ask, with respect to his “long argument,” where did he stand in relation to this great literary tradition? The question has fascinated historians and philosophers of science. Among the most notable contributors to the discussion are Martin Hodge at the University of Leeds, Matti Sintonen at the University of Helsinki and Doren Recker at Oklahoma State University.

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