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Charles Darwin was not a philosopher. He did not formulate a comprehensive theory built on broad abstract issues. But we can extract from his observations and inductions an overall design that encompasses the diverse workings of organic life. We can derive a theoretical structure, an evolutionary drama, from the concrete facts and ideas he addressed in The Origin of Species (1859).
Can we extend that structure to notable literary writings? Can a recurring narrative be fashioned from an evolutionary cycle? Could a biological contradiction generate an ethical puzzle? Surprisingly, although he had little to say on the literary relevance of his major work, Darwin provides a way to understand tragic and biblical stories. The Hebrew Torah, the Books of Ecclesiastes, Job, and Matthew, and plays by Shakespeare, O’Neill, and Beckett describe in their differing vocabularies the paradox that he outlined when he observed the interaction of a natural drive to attain permanence with a capacity to deviate from, modify, or transform an established identity. Western literature is stamped with Darwin’s imprint.
Ethical qualities” follow an organic pathway. The evolutionary patterns of species creation, survival, and extinction are repeated in human terms. Tragedy, for example, usually thought to celebrate commendable values, actually centers on the subversion of those values. In this literary form, unstable heroes conceive assertion of identity and radical deviation as irreconcilable drives in ceaseless opposition. On one hand, they resist the challenge of change by stubbornly upholding a sacred principle of proper conduct. On the other hand, they lack emotional balance and ethical consistency. They oscillate between rigid unvarying belief and elastic uncontrolled digression. Their fluctuation leads, in the absence of secular or supernatural intervention, to evolutionary failure.
In contrast, many characters in the two Testaments are more successful, while responding to social, environmental, or self-generated challenges, when they take advantage of the productive revisions offered by a benevolent supernatural presence. The Hebrew Torah and the Gospel of Matthew, commonly believed to be at odds with Darwin’s discoveries, are entirely compatible with the narratives of evolution except for the presence of a transcendent mediator. Both biblical chronicles offer a solution to the paradox confronting cultural as well as organic life. They both feature extensive adaptive reconstruction! Avoiding the profitless impasse described by tragic drama, they attest to the idea that the safety of a population depends on its ability to renovate an endangered identity (adaptation).
These essays will argue that prominent figures in Western literature represent the evolutionary options, that they are Darwinian figures. We shall consider unyielding fanatics who never engage in moral revision, and monstrous mutants that have dissolved integrity, and “intermediate varieties” that revolve between those extremes. But the focus will be on characters who toil mightily, often with limited success, to integrate the certainty of inherited dogma with the originality of useful change. The supreme necessity to implement a balanced adaptation will provide our central subject, as it is in The Origin of Species, and Charles Darwin, though silent on literary or religious accounts of that necessity, will serve as our guide. His masterwork provides a plausible way to make sense of tragic and biblical literature.
“Any one whose disposition leads him to attach more weight to unexplained difficulties than to the explanation of a certain number of facts will certainly reject [my] theory,” Darwin wrote (Origin, 453). There is so much to be gained when we observe a number of facts in order to answer one question: How do skilled writers transform a biological puzzle into a narrative issue?