Darwin and Dickens, 1860-65
Christina DeCoursey
Dr. DeCoursey spent the 1997-8 academic year teaching
in the Department of American Culture and Literature,
Bilkent University, Ankara.

In 1860, Charles Dickens created a character, the "Uncommercial Traveller," for his journal All The Year Round.Charles Dickens, ("His General Line of Business," “The Uncommercial Traveller," Oxford, New York, Toronto, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1987, p.1.)

The Uncommercial Traveller announces his business as "Human Interest." Modelled on the thousands who sold trifles from town to town, Dickens' Traveller was free to go where he chose, and free to observe, from his anonymous vantage-point, the activities of the classes and the ever-changing performance of Victorian society. In the voice of this liberal-minded vagabond, Dickens reflected on topics as diverse as shipwreck, suicide, temperance, and Joseph Smith's followers heading out to the Great Salt Lake. As might be expected of journalistic pieces written in the period of Dickens' literary maturity, many of these concern the social health and justice of Victorian Britain. The tragedy of suicide led to a reflection on the desolate life of street children; temperance to a reflection on unnecessary human degradation, and so on.

After introducing himself, the Traveller reflected on the year that had just ended, 1859:(Dickens, "The Uncommercial Traveller", p. 3.)

Never had I seen a year going out, or going on, under quieter circumstances. Eighteen hundred and fifty-nine had but another day to live, and truly its end was Peace.

The Traveller used this quietude as a foil for the wreck of the Royal Charter off the Welsh coast. However, the claim that 1859 had gone on, and gone out, in peace, is worth re-examining. Of all years in the nineteenth century, this one stands out, because it is the year in which Victorian peace was forever shattered. For late in that year, humanity was rudely ejected from its comfortable position in the center of God's universe.

On November 24, 1859, the first edition of Charles Darwin's "The Origin of Species" went on sale. In it, Darwin argued that small physiological changes in individuals could cause one species to evolve into a completely different one, over time. This suggested that humanity may not have been created by God. Scientists had long suspected that we were closely related to other hominids. Evolution had been debated by British scientists in the early 1800s. But the suggestion had met strong resistance from religiously orthodox scientists, and so, for many decades, scientists avoided the topic. Darwin had discussed his theory privately with colleagues for some years, but had postponed npublishing, fearing the consequences for faith. But when it appeared that another scientist would publish first, Darwin's book went to press. By November, 1859, his book had been anticipated for months.

The first print run of 1,250 copies sold out on the day of publication. A second print run of 3,000 copies came out in January, 1860, and likewise sold out quickly. Numerous reprintings followed in the next few years, as scientists, philosophers and  others debated the question of human origins. Nothing less than the meaning and purpose of existence was at stake. If humanity had not been created by a benevolent deity for moral purposes, what were we to make of our existence? Given the potential of evolution to undermine the ideological foundations of Victorian society, the debate reached into the pages of periodicals of all kinds, from high-brow journals such as "Fraser's "and "MacMillan's" to popular papers such as the "Family Herald" and the "Morning Advertiser". Intellectual periodicals debated the details. Popular papers called it "the monkey theory," using it to lampoon the leaders of the day. But they all discussed it, endlessly, in great detail, from all
 sorts of perspectives.

Except Dickens "Household Words" may be excused for failing to mention evolution, as it was replaced in 1859 by "All The Year Round". But "All The Year Round" published only two short articles on evolution in the five years following the "Origin". It is unlikely that Dickens was the author of the review articles in "All The Year Round". But it is likely that he selected them for publication, that he exercised minimal editorial authority, and, given the popularity of the topic, that he had a range of opinions to select from.

An anonymous reviewer early in 1860 rejected outright the idea that evolution could apply to humanity. If applied to the animal kingdom, evolution might be viewed as consonant with received Biblical truths. (See Volume 3, 1860, pp. 293-99). This reviewer also argued that natural selection, Darwin's famous mechanism, which made evolution work, was possibly, but not very probably, true.

But the debate was a passing phenomenon, which would find acceptance only "among a limited group of scientific men." ("All The Year Round" 3 (1860) p.175.)

This opinion swiftly became outdated, as more and more scientists accepted that evolution occurred, and began arguing about how it occurred. In 1861, another article in "All The Year Round" rejected evolution again, and focussed on the religious question of the soul, which had traditionally been viewed as setting humanity apart from the beasts.
(This article rejectes evolutionary theory by rejecting natural selection. Two further articles, in 1866 and 1868, give only brief treatment to evolutionary theory, and reject its major points.)

Fearing the loss of this boundary, the author argued: ("All The Year Round" 5 (1861), p.243.)

In this opinion, "All The Year Round" had some journalistic company, but was not in the mainstream.

Dickens' treatment of evolution may be described as a near-silence, when compared with the welter of comment found in dozens of other periodicals. It is very unlikely that Dickens wrote the two review articles, but he was the editor of the periodical, and these articles were resistant to evolution.  His treatment of evolution was also very selective. These articles ignored the scientific aspects of the theory, focussing on its consequences for how humans conceived of themselves. Given that Dickens was deeply engaged with some aspects of science, this resistant, selective near-silence begs for interpretation.

In recent years, historians and philosophers of science have provided sophisticated models of what kind of a thing science is, and for discussing its changing role, representation and reception in society. Contemporary analyses describe science as having four inter-related incarnations: as a body of shared intellectual questions and problems, as an entity organising institutional support, as a community of workers, and as a force applied to and causing changes in society. Technology, sometimes distinguished from science, is discussed as a part of this fourth incarnation.

One might feel tempted to privilege the first, the body of shared intellectual questions. Even before the (1996) Sokal Affair, defenders of the Whig heresy rejected the full implications of the sociology of science. Asserting that science is unlike social or political activity, historiographers like Rupert Hall describe science as defined and driven by its nomothetic epistemological qualities. Thus, changes in scientific ideas over time lend the narrative structure of the history of science a developmental character that reflects a reality in the historical record. This perspective might lead us to regard Zolas Germinale as the best novel of the industrial era, but we would then have to view Dickens works as simply reactionary.

As we might expect, many historians and theorists of science take exception to this resurrection of progress. Shared questions cannot exist incorporeally without the community of individuals interested in them. Science historians Peter Bowler and Martin Rudwick have described the nineteenth- century explosion of scientific knowledge as a product of the informal, cooperative nature of Victorian intellectual commmunities. Scientists were gentlemen, and so introductions, shared experiences at university and abroad, family connections, the conventions of letter-writing and periodical controversy, were the influential factors shaping scientific knowledge. This perspective has an impressive record in accounting for the fortunes of individuals and fields in Victorian Britain. But it fails to relate science to other endeavours of its times. Thus, Dickens works might obtain at best a supporting role in these histories of science, as reflecting the status of science in social discourse. At worst, they become irrelevant.

Pierre Bourdieu and Maurice Crosland have argued that the production of scientific knowledge rests on political struggles for control of the processes of education, certification and promotion within the scientific institution. While their works are very fully theoretised, Bourdieu believes that representations reflect their social context. This leaves little room for understanding Dickens's editorial practise or novels as disputing the social norm. (In the past few decades of the history of science, there has been a general agreement that science is hardly separable from features of its social and historical context. See for example, Mary Jo Nye, "From Chemical Philosophy to Theoretical Chemistry: Dynamics of Matter and " Dynamics of Disciplines," 1800-1950, (University of California Press Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1993); Frank Miller Turner, "Between Science and Religion: The Reaction to Scientific Naturalism in Late Victorian England", (Yale University Press: New Haven, Connecticut, 1974); Frank M. Turner, "The Victorian Conflict between Science and Religion," ed., John M. Merriman
"Consciousness and Class Experience in Nineteenth Century Europe", (Holmes and Meier: New York and London, 1979); R.M. McLeod, "Of Medals and Men: A Reward System in Victorian Science 1826-1914," "Notes and Records of the Royal Society" 26(1971); 81-105; Marie Boas-Hall, "All Scientists Now: The Royal Society in the Nineteenth Century", Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1984; Morris Berman, "Social Change and Scientific Organization: The Royal Institution, 1799-1844", Cornell University Press: Ithaca, New York, 1978; Rachel Laudan, "Ideas and Organization in British Geology: A Case Study in Institutional History," "Isis" 68(1977); 527-538, Donovan Chilton and N. G. Coley, "The Laboratories of the Royal Institution in the Nineteenth Century," Ambix" 27(1980); 173-203, among many others.)

In trying to interpret Dickens's stance on evolution and his portrait of science, we cannot simply dismiss him as reactionary or irrelevant. Even latter-day Whigs must admit that science is shaped by its social reception. The processes of industrialisation drew much criticism in Victorian Britain, and continue to do so today. This continued unease, and the success of Dickens's writings provide some justification for a serious examination of his views on science.

The four incarnartions of science - as an intellectual, institutional, social and technological force - may help us to explore Dickens' views on this subject. We may also use them to evaluate Dickens's portrait of science. Beginning with the effects of applied science, you do not need me to tell you that Dickens wrote extensively about the impact of industrialisation on society. Well before Darwin published the "Origin", Dickens had written his most famous indictments of the ways in which manufacturing affected ordinary Britons' lives. Oliver Twist's experiences of the workhouse and David Copperfield's of the working world illustrate the ways in which the industrial machine demeaned men, women and children, subjecting them to brutal poverty, anguish, and injustice. The smoky, redbrick Coketown of "Hard Times" (1854) and the lives of the urban poor in many of Dickens's novels indicate his belief that industry devastated humanity and society just as it degraded the environment. Such themes compose the basic social weather of Dickens's writing, and are nearly omnipresent in his oeuvre.

It is more difficult to find an example of science in its incarnation as a community of workers. The clearest instance may be the Gradgrind family of "Hard Times". Dickens uses them to portray, rather inaccurately, Benthamite philosophy. He draws the shadow of death over a community organised by the drab, insistent proclamation of "The One Thing Needful": ("Hard Times", Chapter 1.)

The schoolmaster, McChoakumchild, to whom these words are addressed, if we may interpret him as a sample member of the scientific community, seen through Dickens' inaccurate personal optic, becomes the incarnation of his studies. He had ("Hard Times", Chapter 1.)
  The innocents being trained and certified as junior members of this community are similarly transformed, into ("Hard Times", Chapter 1.)
  Being thus deformed by scientific studies, the community becomes destructive. In the penultimate chapter of the book, Louisa is in turmoil about Mr. Bounderby's marriage proposal. When she tries to talk to her father about her feelings, he admonishes her to confine herself rigidly to the facts. Dickens writes: ("Hard Times", Chapter 1.)
  Not for Louisa, the "heart's experiences," or the "tastes and fancies," "aspirations and affections" ("Hard Times", Chapter 1) of full humanity. Having spoiled and diminished the humanity of the Gradgrind scientific community, "What escape," could there be for them, "from problems that could be demonstrated, and realities that could be grasped?" ("Hard Times", Chapter 1.)

In Victorian Britain, science was done in learned societies. Their absence from Dickens's novels may be taken as a problem. Dickens grew up in a world of learned societies. The Geological (1807), Astronomical (1820), Entomological (1826), Zoological (1826) and Geographical (1830) Societies, and the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1829) all predated Dickens' first literary job at 19 years old, as a reporter for the "Mirror of Parliament" (Dickens was 19 when he started this job. The place of learned societies in supporting learned research is true of the explosion of literary as well as scientific societies at this time. These include the Royal Society for Literature, the Camden, Percy, Shakespeare, Chaucer and English Dialect Societies, and many more. The British Museum also grew considerably during the nineteenth century.)

Given that Dickens's voluminous writing often reflected social realities, it is remarkable that we do not see learned societies, even as a part of the destructive forces of industry. Dickens's novels problematise education, but do not treat the Universities Commissions of the 1850s, which were concerned with establishing a science curriculum in the universities. (In the early nineteenth century, Oxford and Cambridge did little to teach the sciences. Until the 1870s, one could get degrees in the subjects of math, classics, law, and theology only. Despite the foundation of scientific lectureships going back some centuries at various colleges, little effective lecturing was done on scientific topics. Young men went to university to receive a liberal education, make contacts useful for later employment, and gain the polish useful in moving in society circles. By the 1850s, the needs of industry and empire had generated criticism of this situation. The Universities Commissions of the 1850s began a process of revision which lasted into the 1870s, reforming the universities and adding sciences to their curricula. (See Sheldon Rothblatt, "The Revolution of the Dons:" "Cambridge and Society in Victorian England", Faber & Faber: London, 1968; Martha Garland, "Cambridge Before Darwin: The Ideal of a Liberal Education 1800-1860”, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1980; Lawrence Stone, ed., "The University in Society", Oxford University Press: London, 2 volumes, volume 2; W.R. Ward, "Victorian Oxford", Frank Cass: London, 1965; D.S.L. Cardwell, "The Organization of Science in England: A Retrospect", Heinemann: London, 1957; Brian Simon, "Studies in the History of Education, 1780-1870", Lawrence & Wishart: London, 1960; S.J. Curtis, "History of Education in Great Britain", Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1953; Celina Fox, "Education, Government and Society in Nineteenth-Century Britain", Irish Academic Press: Dublin, 1977; Albert Halsey, "Origins and Destinations: Family, Class and Education in Modern Britain," Clarendon Press: Oxford 1979; David Wardle, "English Popular Education”, "1780-1973", Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1976; Thomas Lacqueur, "Religion and Respectability: Sunday Schools and Working Class Culture", Yale University Press: London and New Haven, 1976 and Malcolm Chase and Ian Dyck, eds.," Living and Learning: Essays in Honour of J.F.C. Harrison<-">, Scolar Press: Aldershot, Hants and Brookfield, Vermont, 1996; F.W. Garforth, "Educative Democracy: J.S. Mill on "Education in Society", Oxford University Press: London, 1980 and Peter Gordon and John White, "Philosophers as Educational Reformers: The Influence of Idealism on British Educational Thought and Practice", Routledge & Kegan Paul: London, 197; Anne Digby, "Children, School and Society in Nineteenth Century England", Macmillan: London 1980; Imelda Palmer, "Matthew Arnold: Culture, Society and Education", Macmillan: London, 1979; D.G. Paz, "The Politics of Working Class Education in Britain, 1830-1850", Manchester University Press: Manchester, 1980 and Harold Silver, "English Education and the Radicals", Routledge & Kegan Paul: London, 1975, and J.W. Adamson, "English Education, 1789-1902", Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1930.)

It has long been observed, that Dickens participated in the co-opting of working-class aspirations by upper class tastes, arguing the greater merit of traditional education over the pursuits of practical men. But Victorian public opinion underwent a sea-change in the decade following the Great Exhibition, after which time scientific education did not carry the same class taint. But the only vision of scientific institutions we can find in Dickens is that of the Gradgrind's dismal, industrial fellowship.

As though we were peeling an onion, and finding its inner layers dwindling to a vanishing point, we come at last to science as a body of ideas. Certainly, many of Dickens's and Darwin's peers took this to be the heart of the matter. Decades before, Blake had connected the satanic mills with the ideas that produced them, writing: "God us keep from single vision and Newton's sleep." The closest Dickens gets to entertaining science as a body of ideas must be the mangled "isms" and "ologies" of "Hard Times". As with many of his characters, Dickens does not provide realistic portraits of these fields of study. Rather, they are carnivalesque parodies, ciphers whose inability to perform their signifying function does not really matter to the novel. (See Harold Bloom, ed., "Charles Dickens: Modern Critical Views," Chelsea House, New York, New Haven, Philadelphia, 1987. Bloom is using Bakhtin's idea of carnivalesque laughter, as discussed in his "Rabelais and His World". Rabelais used this to undermine the monistic totalitarian medieval religious world, which carnival briefly overturned in anarchy. Carnivalesque laughter gave people the chance to be free of the obligations to believe what you were obliged to. Northrop Frye argues a similar perspective, but bases his analysis in the European reception of Roman comedies of humours, through Ben Jonson's plays.)

In considering the portrait of science in Dickens's works, it seems that it is most often a form of stage dressing. It is available for metaphors like the demonic waterwheel in the chase scene at the end of "Bleak House", as the wheels churn the sleet under Inspector Bucket's coach. It provides large-scale industrial backdrops such as the warehouses of "Martin Chuzzlewit" and the slums of "Oliver Twist". As an instrument of appropriate fate, the killer locomotive of "Dombey and Son" is at the beck of the author. (Dombey's business manager, the menacing Mr. Carker, who steals Dombey's wife Edith, and bankrupts the firm, is killed and his body mutilated when he is struck by a train.) But, as with many of his characters, Dickens treats science in caricature form.

Dickens's caricature of science is produced by viewing this complex entity through a distorting lens. We may accept the Uncommercial Traveller's identification of the Dickensian lens as "Human Interest." Industry was the incarnation of science closest to this lens. The other three aspects of science were  increasingly further away from Dickens's lens, and so appear smaller and more distorted. The way Dickens treats science in his novels, and evolutionary theory in "All The Year Round", are both produced by his habit of viewing science in this way. There was reason to criticise industrialisation. But given Dickens's critical stance, we might expect him to go further, and criticise other aspects of science as well. Instead, he maintains a near silence about them. Was this a failure of imagination? The fact that the articles in "All The Year Round" attacked evolution on exactly the point at which it undermined traditional foundations of human value suggests that he saw the threat from science as a body of ideas, even if he did not confront it himself. But how can we account for Dickens's failure to treat scientific institutions and the scientific community?

In the five years following the publication of the "Origin", Dickens published "The Uncommercial Traveller" (serialised in 1860), "Great Expectations" (1860-61), and "Our Mutual Friend" (1864-65). "Our Mutual Friend" uses science occasionally, as stage dressing. A table in the preposterous Veneerings' sitting room is likened to a galvanic battery. The industrial riverside grime provides a backdrop for the drama of the Hexam family. "Great Expectations" offers little beyond the grim scene off the Gravesend docks when Magwitch is taken by the Customs officers. (Magwitch is taken in Chapter 54. Joe Gargery's forge cannot be considered industrial, forges predating industrial times. A steamship appears on p. 413, but even the usual urban evils are remarkably absent from this novel.)

"The Uncommercial Traveller" may be a better source for understanding the problems in Dickens's portrait of science. Dickens's tendency to speak ventriloquially through his characters has been remarked on extensively. But the autobiographical quality of his journalistic pieces is not of the same kind as can be seen in characters like David Copperfield. Because the Traveller must observe the fiction of a wandering reporter, his observations are comprised of more or less plausible accounts of events taken from everyday life. Thus, there are times when we might interpret the Traveller as reporting Dickens' own views of science.

In the Traveller's pieces, industry has a rather indefinite character. At the Docks, for example, the traveller sees "nautical instruments in cases, and such-like." ("The Uncommercial Traveller", p. 221.)

We cannot suppose Dickens was unaware that the working classes took a lively interest in science, because instruments saved lives.

An extended encounter with the world of science can be found in the Traveller's visit to Chatham Docks. Dickens grew up by these docks. Entering the yard, the Traveller expresses a fear that he is being devoured by its huge gates. He is dwarfed by the HMS Achilles, then under construction, and has trouble taking in the scale of the work:

The infantilism of this scene suggests that Dickens felt overwhelmed by the power of science, incarnate in the industrial setting. He perceived it as a set of blades, beaks, knives and saws, and perhaps could only compose himself to face his sense of endangerment by turning this power into a plaything. This is a form of return to his well-known primal scene, the good child in the hands of an uncaring, destructive industrial society. Later, the Traveller is patronising toward a young sailor who appreciates the new Achilles more than the old copper hull being scrapped nearby. Dickens's fear perhaps made him unable to realise the benefit of iron and steam for such men. And if new ideas reformed the landscape of childhood, this was only to be expected, eventually.

At the end of this piece, we see the Traveller engage in a brief flirtation with science. He is quite taken with the tram-line which delivers timber to the lathes. ("The Uncommercial Traveller", p. 267.)

 He writes:

This begs us to apply it autobiographically. While such a reading must remain inconclusive, here are some possibilities. An Enchanter is a magician, whose art amazes because it seems to accomplish impossible things, and the question of how it is done remains unanswered. As a metaphor for science, it suggests Dickens would rather mystify and enjoy than understand it. In many of his novels, children are portrayed as perplexed by arithmetic and the other things they must learn. Pip, for example, resents the sums imposed on him by Mr. Pumblechook. "Great Expectations" declares that the things Pip must learn in life are matters of the heart: true friendship, and the triumph of love. One feels that Dickens believed that neither Pip nor Louisa nor anyone else really needed algebra.

Dickens had another reason to mystify rather than understand science. The images of endangerment and violence preceding this passage suggest that he thought scientific learning could only be a powerful tool in the hands of evil men for the purposes of manipulating society and the environment. His failure to portray science as community and institution may have allowed him to avoid seeing the human face of this new force. The Traveller is visiting the Chatham Military Dockyard. The lathe he notices is turning lifeboat oars. Lifeboat design had received much scientific and journalistic attention. Members of the Royal Society and the BAAS were cooperating on improving lifeboat design, in order to save lives. The Travellers' first story in 1860 was about the wreck of the Royal Charter off the Welsh coast. But these dimensions of science are so much more difficult to assign to roles like uncaring industrialist or suffering innocence. Instead, science puts in a magical appearance from time to time, domesticated and tamed, in the hands of a "beneficent government," so that its benefits may be enjoyed by good children. This is much simpler, but it is not clear that it serves "Human Interest" so well.

Finally, the Traveller's thought, that he might like to try writing a book in the tramway, or the Enchanter's Car, is wonderfully suggestive. What might Dickens have written, if, instead of holding a resistant near-silence, he had climbed inside the Enchanter's Car, and viewed the luxurious, problematic variety of the nineteenth century world from inside the scientific vehicle? But he never did write that book. (This analysis of Dickens's journalistic work does not suggest that he was a scientific failure. It is perhaps hard for twentieth-century people to appreciate the fear that many Victorians must have felt in response to the new industrial society, or even at viewing industrial machinery. Dickens's work provides us with an important emotional window into that experience. Further, "All The Year Round" had a circulation exceeded only by "Chambers Journal", among the middle-brow literary periodicals. As Richard Altick has pointed out in "The English Common Reader", each periodical, being expensive and novel, was probably read by several people. This suggests that Dickens's reactions were representative of a particular segment of society. Therefore, the analysis of this nineteenth-century literary person's reaction to science provides twentieth-century historians and literary scholars with the chance to explore and understand a human aspect of the process of industrialisation which we, because of our ease with the many forms of science, might otherwise be locked out of.)