Darwin y la tragedia griega


Tratando del lenguaje de OSMNS y refiriéndose a expresiones como selección natural, lucha por la vida y otras semejantes, Stanley Edgar Hyman escribe:


In fact, these terms are much more than metaphors. They people the world of nature with protagonists and antagonists where previously we had seen only a solitary cactus or a growing seed. Moreover, the dramatic action they summon up is tragic. In Gilbert Murray’s terms, the basic ritual stages of tragedy are agon or contest, sparagmos or tearing apart, then anagnorisis or discovery and epiphany or joyous showing forth of the resurrected protagonist. Darwin’s struggle for existence is clearly Murray’s agon and sparagmos, and his natural selection or survival of the fittest, anagnorisis and epiphany. For the final exultation that the Greeks felt at the affirmation of Reliving Dionysus, Darwin substitutes a quieter tragic satisfaction.He writes:

When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.” The Origin concludes: “Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life….

De hecho, estos términos son mucho más que metáforas. Ellos llenan a la naturaleza de protagonistas y antagonistas donde antes habíamos visto solamente un cactus solitario o una semilla que crece. Por otra parte, la acción dramática que convocan es trágica. En términos de Gilbert Murray, las etapas rituales básicas de la tragedia son agon o confrontación, sparagmos o lucha, anagnórisis o descubrimiento y la epifanía o final feliz, mostrando finalmente al protagonista resucitado. La lucha por la existencia de Darwin  es claramente agon y sparagmos de Murray, y su selección natural o supervivencia de los más aptos, son respectivamente anagnórisis y epifanía. Para la exaltación final que los griegos sentían en la afirmación de revivir a Dionisio, Darwin sustituye una más tranquila trágica satisfacción. Él escribe:

Cuando reflexionamos sobre esta lucha nos podemos consolar con la completa seguridad de que la guerra en la naturaleza no es incesante, que no se siente ningún miedo, que la muerte es generalmente rápida y que el vigoroso, el sano, el feliz, sobrevive y se multiplica.

Y OSMNS termina:

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life,



Stanley Edgar Hyman [2]

The Centennial Review of Arts & Science

Vol. 3, No. 4, 1859-1959: Darwin-Marx Centennial (FALL 1959), pp. 364-375


The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life appeared in 1859, and immediately caught the imagination of the world.

The first edition sold out on the day of publication, and the second shortly after. Within a few years most of the thinking world was convinced[3] of the evolution of species, as it had not been by Buffon, Lamarck, Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus, Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of Creation, or anyone else. It has rarely been doubted that this enormous effect was achieved by the power of scientific argument, that is, by the book’s rhetorical organization[4]. This was certainly Darwin’s view[5]. He begins the book’s final chapter: “As this whole volume is one long argument.” One of Darwin’s latest biographers, Sir Arthur Keith, in Darwin Revalued, best states the prevailing view: “In the Origin he had assembled such a solid mass of observation” that conviction followed inescapably. There can be no doubt that the book’s rhetorical effectiveness is great.

Darwin states his theories simply and plausibly[6], bolsters them with a great deal of convincing evidence (beginning close to home with domestic animals) and scrupulously notes the difficulties and puzzles remaining. Yet the problem remains. The evidence to establish the idea of evolution by natural selection inductively was not really available in 1859[7], and many of Darwin’s processes[8] turn out on closer examination to be plausible hypotheses[9], and his causes tautologies[10]. Nor does the vehemence of the reaction pro and con suggest the characteristic effect of a scientific demonstration.




I would submit that The Origin of Species caught the imagination of its time as a dramatic poem, and a dramatic poem of a very special sort. This view would certainly have surprised Darwin. He was under no illusions about his literary powers, and although he worked quite hard at the writing and rewriting of this book, he saw its prose as “incredibly bad.” [11] His effort was to produce the straightest possible piece of factual writing, and he was only dissuaded by the publisher, John Murray, from calling the book An Abstract of an Essay on the Origin of Species. It is the judgment of a popular textbook that Darwin’s work “cannot be said to belong to literature, if in the definition of literary work is presupposed an effort toward artistic expression.”

Theodore Baird, whose “Darwin and the Tangled Bank” is one of the few efforts I know to correct this conventional estimate, boldly claims that the Origin is not only a work of literature, but “the complicated literary expression known as tragedy.” It is here that any literary consideration should begin. The Origin is much less overtly dramatistic than the Journal of Researches, with the act-scene fitnesses of the earlier book here confined mostly to the great historical pageant of palaeontology, as when Darwin notes that the geological strata mark “only an occasional scene, taken almost at hazard, in an ever slowly changing drama.” The key term in the Origin is “the struggle for existence.” Darwin explains:

In looking at Nature, it is most necessary to keep the foregoing considerations always in mind—never to forget that every single organic being may be said to be striving to the utmost to increase in numbers; that each lives by a struggle at some period of its life; that heavy destruction inevitably falls either on the young or old, during each generation or at recurrent intervals.

All through the book, he refers to “a constant struggle going on,” “the constantly-recurring Struggle for Existence,” “victory in the battle for life,” and so on. From this struggle comes “natural selection,” or, in Herbert Spencer’s more vivid phrase that Darwin adopted, “the survival of the fittest.” Darwin was quite aware that all these terms were ‘metaphoric, a heightening of much less dramatic processes. He writes of “struggle for existence”:


I should premise that I use this term in a large and metaphorical sense including dependence of one being on another, and including (which is more important) not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny. Two canine animals, in a time of dearth, may be truly said to struggle with each other which shall get food and live. But a plant on the edge of a desert is said to struggle for life against the drought, though more properly it should be said to be dependent on the moisture. A plant which annually produces a thousand seeds, of which only one of an average comes to maturity, may be more truly said to struggle with the plants of the same and other kinds which already clothe the ground. The mistletoe is dependent on the apple and a few other trees, but can only in a far-fetched sense be said to struggle with these trees, for, if too many of these parasites grow on the same tree, it languishes and dies. But several seedling mistletoes, growing close together on the same branch, may more truly be said to struggle with each other. As the mistletoe is disseminated by birds, its existence depends on then, and it may methodically be said to struggle with other fruit-bearing plants, in tempting the birds to devour and thus disseminate its seeds. In these several senses, which pass into each other, I use for convenience’ sake the general tetra of Struggle for Existence.


He writes similarly of “natural selection”:


In the literal sense of the word, no doubt, natural selection is a false term; but whoever objected to chemists speaking of the elective affinities of the various elements?—and yet an acid cannot strictly be said to elect the base with which it in preference combines. It has been said that I speak of natural selection as an active power or Deity; but who objects to an author speaking of the attraction of gravity as ruling the movements of the planets? Everyone knows what is meant and is implied by such metaphorical expressions; and they are almost necessary for brevity.


In fact, these terms are much more than metaphors. They people the world of nature with protagonists and antagonists where previously we had seen only a solitary cactus or a growing seed. Moreover, the dramatic action they summon up is tragic. In Gilbert Murray’s terms, the basic ritual stages of tragedy are agon or contest, sparagmos or tearing apart, then anagnorisis or discovery and epiphany or joyous showing forth of the resurrected protagonist. Darwin’s struggle for existence is clearly Murray’s agon and sparagmos, and his natural selection or survival of the fittest, anagnorisis and epiphany. For the final exultation that the Greeks felt at the affirmation of Reliving Dionysus, Darwin substitutes a quieter tragic satisfaction. He writes:


When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.” The Origin concludes: “Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life….


We realize that this dramatic and tragic vision of life comes from Darwin, rather than from his subject matter, when we see how undramatic most contemporary formulations of natural selection are. A typical one is that of George Gaylord Simpson in The Meaning of Evolution in 1949: “In the modern theory natural selection is differential reproduction, plus the complex interplay in such reproduction of heredity, genetic variation, and all the other factors that affect selection and determine its results.” Darwin was aware of differential reproduction as early as his draft for the Origin in 1844, but always within a larger context of struggle: a fleeter fox would survive better and “rear more young,” but “the less fleet ones would be rigidly destroyed.”


The archetypal image of the Origin is the war of nature, an image Darwin at first believed he had borrowed from Alphonse de Candolle. The 1841 outline for the book begins the section on “Natural Selection”: “De Candolle’s war of nature.—seeing contented face of nature,—may be well at first doubted.”


These notes are amplified in the 1844 essay into: “De Candolle, in an eloquent passage, has declared that all nature is at war, one organism with another, or with external nature. Seeing the contented face of nature, this may at first be well doubted; but reflection will inevitably prove it is too true.”

When Darwin had to choose a few pages from his manuscript to accompany Wallace’s paper in the historic presentation of the new theory to the Linnean Society in 1858, he began with that passage which he clearly recognized as the heart of his message. By the time the passage appeared in the Origin the next year, Darwin had recognized that De Candolle had no patent on the war of nature, and lumped him in with others. The important thing now was tearing off the pacific mask that life wears, and Darwin writes of the illusion concealing the tragic reality like a Melville narrator:


We behold the face of nature bright with gladness, toe often see superabundance of food; we do not see or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on in-sects or seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life; or we forget how largely these songsters, or their eggs, or their nest-lings, are destroyed by birds and beasts of prey; we do not al-ways been in mind, that, though food may be now super-abundant, it is not so at all seasons of each recurring year.


The flatness at the end is almost deliberate; Darwin’s vision is tragic, but it is not hysterical. It never rises in pitch to melodrama, as in the “Nature, red in tooth and claw” of Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” or the Grand Guignol vision of some of Darwin’s followers. After millions of years of evolution, Romanes writes typically in 1892:


We find that more than half of the species which have survived the ceaseless struggle are parasitic in their habits, lower and insentient forms of life feasting on higher and sentient forms; we find teeth and talons whetted for slaughter, hooks and suckers moulded for torment—everywhere a reign of terror, hunger, and sickness, with oozing blood and quivering limb, with gasping breath and eyes of innocence that dimly close in deaths of brutal torture!


Darwin is aware of the tragic ambivalence of life and death, that for use thousand years “pigeons have been watched and tended with the utmost care, and loved by many people,” and for just as long have been as considerately raised and tended for the pot. In the Journal of Researches, Darwin was moved to horror and revulsion by the fact that the natives of Tierra del Fuego, in times of hunger, kill and eat the old women of the tribe sooner than their dogs[12], because “Doggies catch otters, old women no.” By the time of the Origin, this is accepted with calm objectivity:

We see the value set on animals even by the barbarians of Tierra del Fuego, by their killing and devouring their old women, in times of dearth, as of less value than their dogs.




When the Origin appeared, it was reviewed in the American Journal of Science and Arts by Asa Gray, perhaps the shrewdest (as Huxley was the most brilliant) of the Darwinians. Gray noted that Darwin’s frankness about objections and unsolved problems gave the book the character of a mythic quest. He writes: “The interest for the general reader heightens as the author advances on his perilous way and grapples manfully with the most formidable difficulties.” In the Origin, Darwin tends to make the imperilled knight not himself but his theory: a difficulty would be “fatal to the whole theory,” an argument is “a fatal objection,” “Such objections as the above would be fatal to my views,” and so on endlessly. But Darwin’s imagery in correspondence makes it clear that the life at stake is Darwin’s own. Sending an advance copy of the book to Hugh Falconer in 1859, he wrote: “Lord, how savage you will be if you read it, and how you will long to crucify me alive!” He wrote to H. G. Bronn in 186o: “The objections and difficulties which may be urged against my view are indeed heavy enough almost to break my back, but it is not yet broken!” When Lyell refused to come out in support of the theory publicly, Darwin wrote to him: “You cut my throat, and your own throat; and I believe will live to be sorry for it.” In later years Darwin’s correspondence is full of “It is clear to me that I ought to be exterminated,” “I know well that I deserve many a good slap on the face,” “If I am wrong, the sooner I am knocked on the head and annihilated so much the better.” He seems to have seen himself as the scapegoat, the sacrificial victim, sometimes the Judaeo-Christian blameless victim without blemish, but sometimes the guilty pagan slayer who must himself be slain. When the theory of evolution first took publishable form, in 1844, Darwin wrote to Hooker “I am almost convinced (quite contrary to the opinion that I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable.”


If Darwin’s tragic vision embraced bloodshed and murder, it also embraced beauty and joy. The Origin is as full of the word “beauty” as the Journal of Researches, but now it is a utilitarian beauty. Sometimes it is a “beautiful adaptation” to function, like that of the woodpecker, the mistletoe, or the giraffe; sometimes it has a visual loveliness too, as in “the beautifully plumed seed of the dandelion”; sometimes it is an abstraction, like the power engaged “in slowly and beautifully adapting each form to the most complex relations of   life”; sometimes it is pure exultant generalization, “there is so much beauty throughout nature.” The last sentence of the book, beginning “There is grandeur in this view of life,” concludes “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.” The “wonderful” means, of course, “wonderfully adapted to survive.” In 1863, Darwin wrote to Huxley: “With a book, as with a fine day, one likes it to end with a glorious sunset.”

The Origin, although it resolutely postpones consideration of human origins for a later work, is oddly anthropocentric. One reason is that Darwin constantly humanizes animals in what used to be called the “pathetic fallacy”: male alligators have courtship rites “like Indians in a war dance”; frightened ants “took heart” and a single ant stood “an image of despair over its ravaged home”; in the consolatory statement quoted above, the surviving animals are not only vigorous and healthy, but “happy.” Man is always on Darwin’s mind as he talks of the lower orders. The criteria for an “advance in organization” among the vertebrate are “the degree of intellect and an approach in structure to mats.” When the Origin announces the descent of man, he is not named, simply lumped in: “According to this view it may be inferred that all vertebrate animals with true lungs are descended by ordinary generation from an ancient and unknown prototype, which was furnished with a floating apparatus or swimbladder.” Later in the Origin Darwin concludes in more detail that the higher vertebrates “are the modified descendants of some ancient progenitor, which was furnished in its adult state with branchiae, a swim-bladder, four fin-like limbs, and a long tail, all fitted for an aquatic life.” (More explicitly, Darwin wrote to Lyell in 186o: “Our ancestor was an animal which breathed water, had a swim bladder, a great swimming tail, an imperfect skull, and undoubtedly was an hermaphrodite! Here is a pleasant genealogy for mankind.”).




The chief thematic metaphor in The Origin of Species, constituting the book’s principal imaginative design, is a visual figure that develops in richness and complexity as it goes through a series of metamorphoses. It begins as the ladderlike polity of life, a form of the medieval Great Chain of Being (so exhaustively studied by A. 0. Lovejoy in his book of that title). Early in the book, Darwin writes of “places in the polity” of nature, “places which are either unoccupied or not perfectly occupied by other beings,” “a place in the natural polity of the country,” “new places in the polity of nature.” Eventually this progresses from simple to complex, and becomes a vision of “one long and branching chain of life,” of which we know from the past only a few links (the nonsense of the “Missing Link” apeman seems to be based on this passage). As the book goes on, the figure modifies from the chain, either simple or complex, to that of a living tree, in a remarkable extended metaphor (earlier used in a letter to Gray that was one of the documents presented to the Linnean Society):


The affinities of all the beings of the some class have some-times been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth. The green and budding twigs may represent existing species; and those produced during former years may represent the long succession of extinct species. At each period of growth all the growing twigs have tried to branch out on all sides, and to overtop and kill the surrounding twigs and branch., in the some manner as species and groups of species have at all times overmastered other species in the great battle for life. The limbs divided into great branch, and these into lesser and lesser branches, were themselves once, when the tree was young, budding twigs, and this connection of the former and present buds by ramifying branches may well represent the classification of all extinct and living species in groups subordinate to groups. Of the many twigs which flourished when the tree was a mere bush, only two or three, now grown into great branches, yet survive and bear the other branches; so with the species which lived during long-past geological periods, very few have left living and modified descendants. From the first growth of the tree, many a limb and branch has decayed and dropped off; and these fallen branches of various sizes may represent those whole orders, families, and genera which have now no living representatives, and which are known to as only in a fossil state. As we here and there see a thin straggling branch springing from a fork low down in a tree, and which by some chance has been favoured and is still alive on its summit, so we occasionally see an animal like the Ornithorhynchus or Lepidosiren, which in some small degree connects by its affinities two large branches of life, and which has apparently been saved from fatal competition by having inhabited a protected station. As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken brandies the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications.


Darwin continues to use the tree figure, later referring to the variety of species as “like the branching of a great tree from a single stem.” Even this image, however, ultimately will not contain the infinite richness of ecological relationships in nature, which he describes as progressing “onwards in ever-increasing circles of complexity.” The book’s final paragraph achieves the ultimate transformation. It begins:

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.


With the image of the tangled bank, so reminiscent of Shakespearean lyric, Darwin embraces all the rich complexity of life. The image of the great Chain of Life is ordered, hierarchic, and static, essentially medieval; the great Tree of Life is ordered, hierarchic, but dynamic and competitive, a Renaissance vision; but the great Tangled Bank of Life is disordered, democratic, and subtly interdependent as well as competitive, essentially a modern vision.


The minor metaphors in the work fall into place within this great organizing metaphor. “Struggle for existence” and “survival of the fittest,” noted above, are other ways of looking at the tangled bank. The metaphors are epiphanies or showings forth; for the most part they image process in dramatic action, provide scenes “in an ever slowly changing drama”: “as with mariners shipwrecked near a coast”; “to feel no surprise at sickness, but, when the sick man dies, to wonder and to suspect that he died by some deed of violence”; “when we no longer look at an organic being as a savage looks at a ship.” A constant metaphor is language itself: “a breed, like a dialect of a language”; “It may be worthwhile to illustrate this view of classification, by taking the case of languages”; “Rudimentary organs may be compared with the letters in a word”; and so on. J. Arthur Thomson, in Dar-win and Modern Science, praises Darwin’s “clear visions” and they are all metaphors: “visions of the web of life, of the fountain of change within the organism, of the struggle for existence and of its winnowing, and of the spreading genealogical tree.” Darwin says of morphology, defined in the Origin’s Glossary as “The law of form or structure independent of function”: “This is one of the most interesting departments of natural history, and may almost be said to be its very soul.” Similarly, Aristotle says in the Poetics (in By-water’s translation): “But the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others; and it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.” By this criterion Darwin displayed genius as morphologist and metaphorist alike.


Perhaps the most surprising thing in The Origin of Species, to those who think of Darwin as the type of the prosaic scientist, is that it repeatedly calls not for an act of understanding but for an act of the imagination. Darwin writes: “It is good thus to try in imagination,” “How strange are these facts!” “no one with the most vivid imagination would ever have thought,” “no one can have marvelled more than I have done,” “the fact is a marvelous one,” “But these cases are so wonderful,” “Glancing et instincts, marvellous as some are,” “We see the full meaning of the wonderful fact,” and so on. The call is not only for imagination, marvel, wonder, but for the sort of immersion in nature that led Emerson to say “Books are for the scholars’s idle hours.” Darwin writes:

It is hardly possible for me to recall to the reader who is not a practical geologist, the facts leading the mind to comprehend the lapse of time…. Not that it suffices to study the Principles of Geology, or to read special treatises by different observers on separate formations, and to mark how each author at-tempts to give an inadequate idea of the duration of each formation, or even of each stratum. We can best gain some idea of past time by knowing the agencies at work, and learning how deeply the surface of the land has been denuded, and how much sediment has been deposited…. Therefore a man should examine for himself the great piles of superimposed strata, and watch the rivulets bringing down mud, and the waves wearing away the sea-cliffs, in order to comprehend something about the duration of past time, the monuments of which we see all around us. It is good to wander along the coast, when formed of moderately hard rocks, and mark the process of degradation.


Perhaps not to far as it might seem from Proust’s comparable venture in comprehending the duration of past time.

[1] The article entitled Darwin the dramatist, was written by Stanley Edgar Hyman and published in The Centennial Review of Arts & Science in 1959. The annotations contain my commentaries to it. Information about the author is taken from Wikipedia (Newspeak dictionary).

[2] Stanley Edgar Hyman (1919–1970) was a literary critic who wrote primarily about critical methods: the distinct strategies critics use in approaching literary texts.  He was influential for the development of literary theory in the 1940s and 1950s. Equally skeptical of every major critical methodology of his time, he worked out an early instance of a critical theory, exploring ways that critics can be foiled by their own methods. “Each critic,” Hyman wrote in The Armed Vision, “tends to have a master metaphor or series of metaphors in terms of which he sees the critical function. This metaphor then shapes, informs, and sometimes limits his work.” Hyman saw it as his own critical task to point out these overriding themes by which, tacitly, other critics organized their work and their thinking.

Hyman was born in Brooklyn, New York and graduated from Syracuse University in 1940. He was a staff writer for The New Yorker for much of his life, and although he did not possess a graduate degree, taught at Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont. From 1961 to 1965, Hyman was the literary critic of The New Leader.

[3] A rather curious sentence: most of the thinking world was convinced of the evolution of species. It shows:  1) how little evidence is required to convince so many people, 2) How scarcely thinking is the thinking world. Perhaps the non-thinking world may be clever.

[4] Confusion between scientific argument and rhetorical organization. These are here shown as equivalent, but indeed these are quite different things. OSMNS is very weak in the first, but strong in the second.

[5] Please see footnote number 11.

[6] In a strict sense there is not a scientific theory that may be attributed to Darwin.

[7] Establish an idea? Is this a scientific objective?

[8] What are those Darwin’s processes?

[9] Is it possible to confuse processes with hypotheses?

[10] First, Darwin confused selection with breeding (a methonimy). To escape this mistake he uses the expression natural selection (an oxymoron). To escape this he defines it as survival of the fittest (pleonasm). Then he starts constructing several prosopopeyas, attributing actions to these constructions. The rhetorical analysis of chapter IV of OSMNS shows an accumulation of mistakes. Tautology is only a small part of it. Please see the book Está usted de broma Mr Darin? La retórica en el corazón del darwinismo for an explanation (English version in progress).

[11] He may have had the help of others, such as for example Thomas Henry Huxley. Adrian Desmond, the biographer of both, Darwin and Huxley, points to a paragraph in OSMNS as being a product of Huxley. There are very probably some more paragraphs in OSMNS due to Huxley.

[12] This has been repeated in many instances but never confirmed by any anthropology study or even the simplest evidence.


Related posts:

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  2. La felicidad de contemplar cuatro gusanos en el párrafo octingentésimo cuadragésimo y último de El Origen de las Especies
  3. Final feliz con el mayor disparate de la historia de la ciencia en el párrafo septingentésimo primero del Origen de las Especies
  4. La selección natural no existe: algunas explicaciones rápidas
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