On Monday night, when George Levine recommended Darwin’s Plots, a book first published in 1983, he didn’t mention that he wrote the foreword to this book, penned by Gillian Beer. But the tie is far from surprising when one considers the topic — the evolutionary narrative found in Darwin’s writing.
Levine’s more recent Darwin Loves You, though original and enjoyable, echoes many of Beer’s notions, from the importance of considering Darwin’s metaphors and language to reconsidering Darwin “as much of a believer in cooperation” and “mutual aid as in ruthless competition.” Darwin’s Plots also pushes readers to consider Darwin as a careful writer and an ongoing influence on modern literature and language. In fact, Beer (and Levine) place Darwin in the realm of literature, alongside the likes of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Virginia Wolf. But Beer, through careful analysis of Darwin’s writing, notes that Darwin was also influenced by these writers and others. Beer notes similarities in Darwin’s prose and the likes of Milton, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Dickens. She also labels the Victorian naturalist a “Romantic materialist,” which seems akin to calling someone a “nostalgic agnostic.” Considering Darwin as a Romantic materialist was, for me, considering him in an entirely new light. Additionally, Beer reminds readers that to skim Darwin’s writing is to miss out on his writerly charm and, on occasion, intended meaning.
Also, having spent time researching Victorian writer Edward Bulwer Lytton, I am fascinated by Beer’s notion that science was often considered fiction (or, perhaps, a twist on an old cliché — science was stranger than fiction):
“Most major scientific theories,” she explains, “rebuff common sense. They call on evidence beyond the reach of our senses and overturn the observable world. They disturb assumed relationships and shift what has been substantial into metaphor... Such major theories tax, affront, and exhilarate those who first encounter them, although in fifty years or so they will be taken for granted... When it is first advanced theory is at most fictive. The awkwardness of fit between the natural world as it is currently perceived and as it is hypothetically imagined holds the theory itself for a time within a provisional scope akin to that of fiction” (1).
Beer overlays Darwin’s language on the outline of the novel, and shows readers that his writing can be read as both science and poetry. Both Darwin and fiction writers tackle the notions of natural selection (er, daily life) through courtship, matchmaking, beauty, and utter brut force. To this day, as Levine points out, we still can reinterpret and reconsider Darwin’s prose. Amazingly, much of his writing and ideas still read fresh and relevant.