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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

In David Lodge’s great comic novel of academic life in the long-distant days of 1969 and 1970, Changing Places, members of the English department at Euphoria State University play a typical intellectuals’ game: humiliation. Each player must admit to having not read some canonical work in their field; for example, to have not read Mrs. Gaskell’s Cranford would earn fewer points than Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Too many biologists, sad to say, could win this game by producing their own ace—Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Everybody has a copy, but, like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, the work is rarely read from cover to cover.

2010-05MargThomsonFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageDarwin originally hoped that his great masterpiece, published in 1859, would be titled An abstract of an Essay on the Origin of Species and Varieties Through Natural Selection. As is well known, the book was written in great haste after Alfred Russel Wallace seemingly scooped Darwin by arriving at just the same idea. Darwin was forced quickly to digest the work he had pursued for the previous 20 years into a (relatively) short book, and we are all the winners for that. Under its final and even longer title, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, the book is a lucid exposition of his theory and far more influential than the obsessively detailed work that he originally intended to write would ever have been.

Those who, in this past bicentennial year of Darwin’s birth and sesquicentennial year of the publication of the Origin, have taken the time to study the book carefully may have noticed an oddity of its structure. It is quite unlike most scientific books of its time, or of ours, in the development of its subject. As Darwin explained both in his final chapter and his later Autobiography, the 501 pages of the Origin were composed as “one long argument,” and, like everything Darwin did, it was carefully calculated. Philosophers and logicians have, therefore, long been interested in Darwin’s rhetorical method.

Darwin’s other books—such as The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs, (1842), The Various Contrivances by Which Orchids Are Fertilised by Insects (1862), The Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants (1865), The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms (1881), and even his controversial The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871)—follow what seems to be a more conventional format. First the facts are laid down, then the various rival explanatory theories are laid out, and finally Darwin gives his own ideas. The approach can be seen particularly clearly in Darwin’s Coral Reefs.

The first thing that is different about the Origin is that the title contains a one-sentence précis of its conclusion. Right on the cover, Darwin defines natural selection (a new term for his readers) as “the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.” But the book is different from Darwin’s others principally because of the way in which he makes his “long argument” and, in fact, because it is an argument—an exercise in formal rhetoric—rather than an analysis or an exposition.

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