decorated initial An “The Tooth and Claw Centennial,” a sympathetic and extremely perceptive reading of In Memoriam (and not just in relation to Victorian and modern science), Stephen Jay Gould, the famous evolutionist and interpreter of science to nonscientist readers, begins with expressing his pleasure in the fact that T. H. Huxley honored Tennyson because, as Darwin's famous advocate explained, “he was the only modern poet, in fact I think the only poet since the time of Lucretius, who has taken the trouble to understand the work and the tendency of the men of science” (64). Gould next points out that he writes about Tennyson's great poem because a line from it — “Nature red in tooth and claw” — has become a “canonical descriptor” of Darwinian evolution, and in return “a long tradition of literary criticism has read evolution into the biological passages of In Memoriam, and the uniformitarian geology of Charles Lyell into Tennyson's lines about the earth and its historical changes” (67).

Pointing out that indeed “Tennyson was a champion of science, not an embodiment of the unjust (and probably nonexistent) stereotype of an affected, antitechnological, romantic poet” (67) Gould nonetheless argues that the general agreement that the poet anticipated Darwin and followed Lyell is mistaken, and that it is so because “we remember and honor supposed ‘winners’ and forget the scientists now branded as wrong” (71) — that is, because we know so little about the history of nineteenth-century science. Drawing upon the work of the Dutch historian of science, Nicholaas A. Rupke, he argues convincingly that the poet's biology and geology

derive from a single and different source — the progressivist and catastrophist geology that represented the main line of early-nineteenth-century thought (and that Tennyson had studied at Cambridge under his tutor, the great historian of science William Whewell, who knew and supported the catastrophists, and who even coined their name).

The catastrophists — Buckland, Sedgwick, Conybeare, and others . . . were the geological giants of Tennyson's youth. They argued for a nonevolutionary, directional history based on successive creations of successive excellence separated by catastrophic episodes of extinction. Tennyson often cites them directly. [71]

So much then for Tennyson's detailed anticipations of Darwin and his theories of evolution! Or is that the whole story, and have the literary historians been that far off target?

I raise this point because Gould's own position on evolution seem strangely close to that of the author of In Memoriam. He explains in another essay, “Lucy on the Earth in Stasis,” that whereas scientists and nonscientists alike have understood evolution as slow continuing progress or improvement, he advocates “punctuated equilibrium” (135), a conception of evolutionary change that maintains species remain essentially static for enormous lengths of geological time and then change dramatically in comparatively brief periods. “I shall not hide my preferences and biases,” he tells us. “I helped to devise the theory of punctuated equilibrium with Niles Eldridge in 1972. I have cheered from the sidelines (and occasionally given [it] a boost in this essays) as catastrophic theories of mass extinction make their comeback” in arguments that a giant meteor striking the earth caused the extinction of the dinosaurs (171; emphases added). It seems to me that we have not been so mistaken after all, for whatever his sources in contemporary geology, Tennyson has ideas very similar to Gould's — that is, his drawing upon the catastrophists produces what we may take as something close to a post-Darwinian theory of evolution, though not Darwin's own.

Note: One reason that species appear essentially unchanged for long periods, Gould argues, lies not in the fact that environmental change fails to prompt biological change but that environmental changes generally take the form of oscillations, so that in adapting, organisms change first one way and then back again. Jonathan Weiner's Pulitzer-prize winning The Beak of the Finch demonstrates such oscillatory maintenance of (apparent) stasis with observations made over several years on birds in the isolated Galápagos Islands.


Gould, Stephen Jay. “The Tooth and Claw Centennial.” Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections on Natural History. New York: Harmony Books, 1995. 63-75.

Rupke, Nicholaas A. The Great Chain of History. Oxford; Oxford UP, 1983.

Weiner, Jonathan. The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Last modified 15 November 2011