Think Piece

Communard Darwin? Radical Politics and the Descent of Man

by guest contributor Henry-James Meiring

By Henry-James Meiring

2021 marks the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man (1871) in which Darwin applied his theory of evolution to human development. It also happens to be the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune, which saw ordinary Parisians revolt against the French Government in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war. While numerous reflection pieces this year have acknowledged this joint anniversary, most have overlooked the common context in which these seemingly separate events co-occurred. By situating Darwin’s Descent within broader Anglo-French relations, I hope to show how these two events – considering the politics of the period – came to be intimately intertwined in the imagination of the British public.

When Darwin’s theory of evolution was first published in theOrigin of Species (1859), the book was conspicuously silent about how his theory applied to humans. The subject was so “surrounded with prejudices” that Darwin was determined to avoid it altogether. It was only when he became frustrated by the way others conceived of human evolution that he took to writing Descent a decade later.

Since the publication of the Origin, Darwin had served as a blank canvas on which ideologues projected their love or scorn. In the early 1860s, Manchester industrialists read Darwin’s ideas as a vindication of their laissez faire economic principles, while many communists were also intensely interested in his theories for their own political agendas. Darwin’s contemporaries, therefore, read his work in a variety of political and ideological contexts. The publication of Descent would be no exception.

Upon its publication on 24 February 1871, Descent soon filled the pages of the Victorian press. A reviewer for the Academy remarked that Descent was “one of the most remarkable works in the English language” and that it would prove “equally attractive to the naturalist and the general reader” (183)—and so it did. Darwin’s publisher, John Murray, struggled to keep abreast of the public demand as copies flew off the shelves. The contents were debated in the press, letters, and private conversations across the globe. The scene was eloquently captured in theEdinburgh Review “[s]ince the publication of the ‘Origin of Species’ in 1859, no book of science has excited a keener interest than Mr. Darwin’s new work on the ‘Descent of Man.’ In the drawing room it is troubling alike the man of science, the moralist, and the theologian” (195). Descent was an instant literary—albeit controversial—sensation.

Shortly after the publication of Descent, Darwin wrote to Ray Lankester, “I think you will be glad to hear… that my book has sold wonderfully, and as yet no abuse (although some, no doubt, will come, strong enough).” This was a prescient statement on the part of Darwin for abuse was indeed on its way. Darwin’s inclusion of a naturalized account of morality elicited an outpour of strong emotions from all corners. He rejected essentialist moral categories of right and wrong and postulated that different animals could, depending on their social structures and the environment, develop widely different moral systems. Darwin sketched a scenario in which humans were raised like bees resulting in a vastly different set of morals. This idea of moral relativism proved irresistible to his detractors. Many felt that Darwin had transgressed into the domains of religion and philosophy and made his theory of morality the object of their scorn. It was therefore neither the detailed description of human progressive bodily development nor his discussion of sexual selection that drew the public’s attention but rather his suggestion that morality was the product of a secular evolutionary process.

A particularly hostile review soon appeared in the Times as readers encountered Darwin’s latest work amongst pages of reports from Paris. The reviewer was quick to establish Darwin’s radical credentials. In the first few lines, the reviewer stated that Darwin’s theory of evolution was not new but had originated with the French naturalist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, whose theory of evolution had been especially influential amongst British radicals in the 1820s and 1830s who found in his work a biological justification for the dissolution of Church and aristocracy and the establishment of a new economic system. The reviewer then reminded readers that Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who had himself been a radical dissident, had promoted his own theory of evolution in the eighteenth century. The underlying message to readers was that Darwin, his work, and his family were deeply entrenched in radical politics. The reviewer then proceeded to state that Darwin’s ideas would lead to bloody revolutions as seen in France.

Many readers found the Times article persuasive. Members from the public wrote to Darwin to express their deep disgust with Descent. A Mr. George Frederick Ansell, for instance, wrote to Darwin the following day, confessing that he read the article and thought that while Darwin was free to believe what he liked, he himself had “never seen a cucumber grow or be developed into a Melon.”

In the same issue of the Times, readers encountered numerous reports from France detailing those indecent and violent acts in the streets of Paris. The insurrectionary Paris Commune ended after just two months on 28 May 1871, when the French army captured the last remaining positions held by the Commune, the British public was simultaneously enamored and horrified at the daily news reports from France. Many British conservative commentators attributed the French Empire’s decline to a decay in morals brought on by secular materialist doctrines. Radical thought was seen to be dangerous and causal in fomenting political violence in France since the eighteenth century. Notably, evolutionary science was among those radical ideas that were identified as a distinctly French import. The historian Adrian Desmond has pointed out that the British gentry were deeply suspicious of “republican rabble across the Channel” (2), especially given that France, and in particular Paris, had experienced several revolts since the storming of the Bastille in 1789. Scenes of chaos reported in the British press merely confirmed the horrors that would await if anticlerical and radical republican politics were to take hold in Britain.

Thus, in the words of Desmond: “if France’s periodic convulsions were fueled by poisonous, naturalistic, evolutionary philosophies, then the conservatives were determined to keep them off English soil” (2). Many saw Darwin’s brand of evolutionism as a threat to the Empire’s moral integrity and linked Darwin’s ideas and those atrocities across the Channel.

Paris’s misfortune, therefore, provided many of Darwin’s critics with ammunition to set in motion a good old fashioned smear campaign, painting Darwin as a fellow Communard. Darwin’s opponents were moving to discredit his claims by attempting to establish a clear link between his work and the French radical revolutionary politics of the day. In effect, they portrayed his book as a dangerous political tool in the arsenal of radicals which needed to be opposed unless readers wanted to see a repeat of Paris in the streets of London. The oldest and most prestigious quarterly, the Edinburgh Review, engaged in the same moral politics. An anonymous reviewer warned of the impending doom that would come about because of Darwin’s ideas about morality. The reviewer went on to argue that people would abandon their virtues if human morality was solely the product of modifications of faculties possessed by lower species. If moral sense was therefore merely a special type of social instinct, there would be essentially no difference between humans and other animals, and one would lose all hope for a better future. Descent’s immoral message, warned the reviewer, would spread like a disease throughout Victorian Society and destroy its very foundations. These words conjured up fresh memories of the recent Paris revolution for readers before the reviewer went on to describe Darwin as a radical revolutionary, heretic, and materialist.

John Morley, in response to the negative press, wrote to Darwin to ask whether he was indignant or amused at writers who called him reckless for broaching new moral doctrines while Paris was ablaze. One such writer was the Archbishop of York, who proclaimed his opposition to the materialist doctrine of evolution. The charge of materialism was at its root a moral indictment of Darwin’s character and science. Darwin’s most ardent rival and critic, St. Georges Mivart, agreed with the archbishop. In a piece for the Contemporary Review, entitled “Evolution and its Consequences,” he announced that Darwin’s theories would lead to moral degradation and “horrors worse than those of the Paris Commune” (196).

In the end, the campaign against Descent proved successful. Most Victorians rejected Darwin’s “French” theories of human evolution, especially his notion of morality, in favor of a teleological inspired evolutionism that could sit comfortable beside their Christian faith. Thus, in reflecting on the joint 150th anniversary of Descent of Man and the Paris Commune, this period in history emerges as a seminal moment in the origination of an idea that bound Darwin to contemporary, radical politics. While the Paris Commune drifted out of the public memory, new events and political ideologies appeared to take its place as critics and supporters invoked Darwin for their own causes.

Henry-James Meiring is a doctoral candidate in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at The University of Queensland. He previously practiced as a clinical psychologist in South Africa for several years before completing his Master’s in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology at the University of Oxford in 2018. His research focuses on the moral discourses that developed around the proliferation of Darwinian theories of evolution in late Victorian Britain. Other research interests include psychoanalysis, psychology, and evolutionary science. His article “Thomas Robert Malthus, Naturalist of the Mind” was recently awarded the Annals of Science Best Paper Prize for 2019.

Featured Image: Caricature by André Gill of Charles Darwin and Émile Littré depicted as performing monkeys at a circus breaking through gullibility (credulité), superstitions, errors, and ignorance. From La Lune Rousse, 18 August 1878, via Wikimedia Commons.

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