Dickens and Darwin I: The Influence of "Species"

Just because the Pilgrim Letters, Vol. 9 (1859-1861), have no listing for Charles Darwin does not mean that Dickens was unfamiliar with On the Origin of Species (1859). Indeed, as Peter Ackroyd (1990) notes in his biography of Dickens, both Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830-33) and Darwin's On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection (1859) were on the library shelves at Gadshill at the time of the writer’s death in June 1870: "It is enough that he was part of his period, and that much of its energy (to use a key word of that time) ran through him and his language" (663). In addition to these significant contemporary scientific works Dickens in 1870 owned copies of

Georges-Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon's Natural History (1797–1808), Georges Cuvier's Animal Kingdom (1827–33), . . . George Henry Lewes's Physiology of Common Life (1859) and Charles Lyell's Geological Evidence of the Antiquity of Man (1863) — [all of which] suggest that he was far from scientifically illiterate . . . [Winyard and Furneaux, "Science by the Book? Forms of Engagement"]

However, as Ackroyd concedes, it is difficult to establish whether Dickens had read the Darwin book cover to cover, as the editor of weekly journals from 1851 until his death he was undoubtedly "acquainted with all the discussions and discoveries of his period" (663) outside the area of natural history; nevertheless, his last three novels in particular

portray the world as an interconnected series of forces, as an organism, not a machine, and the characteristic momentum of this organism was seen in terms of waves and systems. Light. Electricity. Magnetism. Electro-magnetism. Thermodynamics. These are the forces which exist with the very shape of Bleak House itself . . . . [Ackroyd, 663]

At about the time that Darwin published his ground-breaking text on biological evolution Dickens published in both weekly and monthly serializations (the serial itself being an evolutionary literary form) A Tale of Two Cities, a novel about the evolution of European society, as the magisterial "positivist" conclusion (written in the autumn of 1859) makes clear:

I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out. [Book Three, "The Track of a Storm," Ch. 15, "The Footstep Die Out for Ever"]

The same sort of social evolution in microcosm, in the single life within the great network of English society, occurs in the life of Philip Pirrip or "Pip" — the seminal character of Dickens's next novel, Great Expectations, the first published since the appearance in print of Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection, in which the lower-middle or artisan class boy from the marshes, the Darwinian slime, rises to become a pillar of the mercantile class and a writer (a progress not unlike that of Dickens himself, from blacking factory at age twelve to the creator of universally beloved characters just two decades later). That Dickens himself subscribed to the new scientific theory of biological evolution may be inferred from Pip’s describing his five little brothers as having given "up trying to get a living exceedingly early in that universal struggle" (Chapter One), a phrase that suggests the Drawinian phrase "Survival of the Fittest," a concept that Charles Darwin derived from Thomas Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population (first published in 1798, and published in revised editions in 1803, 1806, 1807, 1817,and 1826), whose notions on natural selection as applied to society Dickens has the eminently practical Ebenezer Scrooge articulate in A Christmas Carol (1843). The man of good business and supporter of both Adam Smith's laissez-faire economics and philosopher Jeremy Bentham's Utilitarianism actually argues against interfering with the operation of natural selection when the charity collectors ask him for a contribution to the poor fund. When told that many of the laboring poor would "rather die" than consign themselves and their children to the district workhouse, Scrooge (and therefore, at one level, Dickens himself) counters:

"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides — excuse me &,dash; I don’t know that." [Stave One, "Marley’s Ghost," p. 14]

Like any good social scientist, Scrooge asks for objective rather than anecdotal evidence or hearsay if he is to change his mind about the fate of the "surplus population." He receives such ocular proof of the fallibility of Malthus's principle as applied to society when the Second of the Three Spirits (Christmas Present) forecasts the demise of Tiny Tim: "What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population" (Stave Three, "The Second of the Three Spirits," p. 96). The otherwise genial Spirit then compares the promulgator of such a heartless doctrine to a creature lower on the food chain: "Oh God! To hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!" (97). Dickens's essential humanity, then, found the more callous implications of Social Darwinism abhorrent, even as he found the doctrine of self-improvement (what Samuel Smiles in his 1859 best-seller termed "Self-Help"), of the individual's and of society's striving upward, more appealing.

Dickens and Darwin II: All the Year Round Reviews

In terms of knowing about the contents of the 24 November 1859 best-seller, Dickens must have possessed a reasonable grasp not only of Darwin's scientific treatise about natural selection, but also something of the theological and sociological implications of a book that had excited considerable attention outside strictly scientific circles. Its first run of 1,250 copies sold out immediately, leading to a larger print run of 3,000 copies in January 1860. With such successful sales and reviews in periodicals as various as the low-brow Family Herald, the Morning Advertiser, the middle-brow Fraser's Magazine, and MacMillan's, one might have expected that Dickens's own All the Year Round would follow suit. It did — and did not. Since Dickens sanctioned every single story, article, and serial instalment in his weekly journals, often offering editorial embellishments to make the entire number jump to the same tune called by the "Conductor," the only named contributor, Dickens himself, it is indeed likely that he read and approved of the three anonymous reviews of Darwin’s work published in All the Year Round on 2 June 1860 ("Species"), 7 July 1860 ("Natural Selection"), and 9 March 1861 ("Transmutation of Species "), even if these three extended reviews, allegedly by science writer Richard Owen (rather than Dickens’s usual staff-writer for scientific articles, the humorist and physician Dr. Percival Leigh, 1813-1889), lack the "Dickensey" touches of which staff-writer Elizabeth Gaskell once complained that Dickens had superimposed upon her own contributions. Given the furor that Darwin's work was arousing in the reading classes (not merely among a few scientific men given to disputation) by implying that man was not God's special creation, but the mere byproduct of the biological imperatives of natural selection, it is in fact surprising that Dickens ran only these three, highly technical reviews, and, moreover, never mentioned Darwin or his theories specifically in the three novels he composed after 1859, even though these three —Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood — reflect these new, revolutionary ideas about humanity's place in the scheme of things.

Related Material


Ackroyd, Peter, Dickens. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.

"All the Year Round. Dickens Journals Online." University of Buckingham. Accessed 11 December 2013. http://www.djo.org.uk/

Davis, Paul. Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, 1998.

DeCoursey, Christina. "Darwin and Dickens, 1860-65." Accessed 11 December 2013. http://warlight.tripod.com/CHRISTINE.html.

Dickens, Charles. The Letters of Charles Dickens. The Pilgrim Edition. Ed. Madeline House, Graham Storey, and Kathleen Tillotson. Oxford: Clarendon. Vol. 9 (1859-1861), 1965.

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Il. Marcus Stone. The Illustrated Library Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1862.

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Il. Harry Furniss. Charles Dickens Library Edition. 18 vols. London: Educational Book Company, 1910. Vol. 14.

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Il. Charles Green. The Household Edition. New York: Chapman and Hall, 1876.

Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. All the Year Round. London: Chapman and Hall, 1859, 30 April through 26 November.

Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. Il. John McLenan. Harper's Weekly: A Journal of Civilization. 7 May through 3 December 1859.

Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. Il. Hablot Knight Browne. London: Chapman and Hall, 1859.

Owen, Richard. "Natural Selection." [Anonymous review of Origin of Species]. All the Year Round (63), 7 July 1860. Pp. 293-299.

---. "Species." [Anonymous review of Origin of Species]. All the Year Round (58), 2 June 1860. Pp. 174-178.

---. "Transmutation of Species." [Anonymous review of Origin of Species]. All the Year Round, (98). 9 March 1861. Pp. 519-521.

Williams, Tony. "Mr. Darwin's Latest Theory." The Dickens Magazine, Series 1, issue 4, p. 19.

Winyard, Ben, and Holly Furneaux. "Science by the Book? Forms of Engagement." Dickens, Science, and the Literary Imagination. 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, No. 10: Dickens and Science. Accessed 11 December 2013. London: Berbeck College, University of London, 2010. http://www.19.bbk.ac.uk/index.php/19/article/view/572/531.

-----. "Ways of Knowing: Dickens, Science, and Interdisciplinarity." Dickens, Science, and the Literary Imagination. 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, No. 10: Dickens and Science. Accessed 11 December 2013. London: Berbeck College, University of London, 2010. http://www.19.bbk.ac.uk/index.php/19/article/view/572/531.

Last modified 2 January 2014