Eve-Marie Engels and Thomas F. Glick (eds.), The Reception of Charles Darwin in Europe

Eve-Marie Engels and Thomas F. Glick (eds), The Reception of Charles Darwin in Europe , vols 1 and 2 (London: Continuum, 2008), lxxii + 659 pp, £225 hb, ISBN 9780826458339; Thomas F. Glick and Elinor Shaffer (eds), The Literary and Cultural Reception of Charles Darwin in Europe , vols 3 and 4 (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), lii + 723 pp, £200 hb, ISBN 9781780937465.


Since 2002, Elinor Shaffer has been editing an exemplary series of books on The Reception of British and Irish Authors in Europe. Their coverage, though unsurprisingly canonical, has been wide, running from Swift, Hume and Sterne in the eighteenth century, through the major Romantic poets and Victorian novelists, to aesthetes and modernists such as Pater, Yeats, Woolf and Lawrence. Of the authors covered by the series to date, only four have had such an impact on European culture to merit multiple volumes. Byron, Dickens and Joyce have two volumes a head. Charles Darwin has four. This is not, perhaps, a fair competition. Darwin’s ideas impacted on the sciences and on intellectual culture at large, not to mention politics and religion – regions where the impress of Dickens, for instance, would be less likely to be traced or at least less profound. Much of Darwin’s influence came not even through translators but through interpreters and controversialists, so it can barely be deemed a literary influence in its origin at all, even if it is in its effects. Nevertheless, it remains striking that, measured in column inches, the most influential British author of the last three hundred years outside the Anglophone world should be not Dickens or Byron or Joyce, but Darwin. (The volume on Newton is still forthcoming. As yet, there is no volume on Shakespeare on the books.)

The four volumes on Darwin have come out in two instalments. The first two volumes are concerned with the channels through which Darwin’s ideas flowed across Europe, the diverse forms which evolutionary theory took in his wake, and its perceived implications within different cultures. The thirty essays which comprise this volume are principally studies in intellectual history, although there are glimpses on the way of literary and artistic responses – novels from Finland, Poland and Italy, satire from the Netherlands, an operetta from Catalunya. As such, they do not contribute much directly to the project of studying literature and science. They do, however, provide a remarkably comprehensive background for anyone wanting to begin researching poetry, fiction or drama that appears to engage with evolution as an idea in virtually any country in Europe. There are multiple essays in these two volumes alone on the spread and interpretation of Darwin’s ideas in Germany, France, Spain, Hungary, Russia and the Czech lands, and an individual essay each on Ireland, Finland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Italy, Catalunya, the Vatican and Romania. This coverage is immensely impressive and helpful in itself. The decision to take current countries as the main geographical units under investigation – rather than language communities, for example, or the political states that existed at the time when Darwin’s ideas were spreading – may seem ahistorical. On the other hand, it enables us to see how the political and cultural identities of the different regions formed by diverse nationalisms in the late nineteenth century bore in turn on their several responses to Darwinism. Also, by focussing on multi-ethnic and multilingual countries and regions, the editorial strategy allows us to see how conflicts between different languages and their cultural traditions and political and social statuses shaped the reception of scientific and therefore ostensibly impartial ideas. This is particularly clear in the excellent essay on Darwin’s reception in Bohemia and Moravia in volume 1 by Tomáš Hermann and Michal Šimůnek. Inevitably there remain blind spots, but for the most part these can be filled in by careful reading around. A preliminary impression of responses to Darwin across the Austro-Hungarian Empire can be compiled from the chapters on German science and on the territories under Austrian rule. If you want to gain a sense of how Darwinism entered Sweden, read the chapter on Finland in the first instance. There is a very thorough and informative essay by Eduard Kolchinsky on ‘Darwinism and Dialectical Materialism in Soviet Russia’, but no equivalent discussion of Darwinism in Nazi ideology and science in the chapters on Germany, yet Hermann and Šimůnek’s discussion of the Czech lands again provides a valuable microcosm of how this important theme was played out across Europe.

The survey essays which make up the bulk of the first two volumes are complemented by three further groups of essays. One is a series of national case studies on how the key Darwin anniversaries – 1909, 1959, 1982 and 2009 ­– were marked in different European countries. Spread over volumes 3 and 4, these essays cover Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, German-language science, Russia, France, Italy and Portugal. For the most part, they concentrate on the scientific communities in these countries, including their public engagement, so although they are included in the volumes on Darwin’s literary and cultural reception they remain primarily studies in intellectual history. A second, more amorphous group, again of intellectual histories, comprises case studies of key figures or specific contexts. There are exemplary essays by Eve-Marie Engels on Darwin himself, by Mario Di Gregorio on Haeckel, and by Vítězslav Orel and Margaret Peaslee on Mendel’s engagement with Darwin. More marginal but no less interesting are Thomas F. Glick’s study of the enabling role played by Teilhard de Chardin for the evolutionary synthesis in Catholic Spain, Angus Nicholls’s of F. Max Müller’s critique of The Descent of Man, and Maria Zarimis’s of responses to Darwin by the leading Greek intellectuals Nikos Kazantzakis and Grigorios Xenopoulos. There are two essays by Joy Harvey and Michel Prum assessing the French translations of Darwin, and one by Paul White on Darwin’s continental correspondence. Among the most impressive of all these case studies is a comparative analysis by Helmut Pulte of how British and German physicists responded to Darwin. Pulte sheds new light on William Thomson’s resistance to Darwinism by contrasting it with the more sympathetic and complex responses of Hermann von Helmholtz and Ernst Mach. This essay epitomises exactly what this collection as a whole aims to do, and accomplishes, which is to enable us to gain a fuller and richer understanding of Darwin’s significance and the trajectories within the history of evolutionary theory by placing different national and intellectual contexts alongside one another.

From the detailed analysis of Darwinism in individual countries, moments and contexts, certain patterns begin to emerge. Broadly speaking, northern European and Protestant countries were at least initially more accepting of Darwinism than southern European and Catholic ones. In northern Europe – and more surprisingly Italy – Darwin was filtered very largely through Ernst Haeckel’s synthesis of natural selection, Lamarckism and the German morphological tradition. In Iberia, the main channel was through the French translations of Clémence Royer – another Lamarckian – and others. But where the German scientific community accepted and augmented Darwin’s ideas, the French, as Patrick Tort shows in a pair of impressive essays in volumes 2 and 4, responded to the English pitch to claim evolutionism by rehabilitating their own evolutionary tradition, under the auspices of Lamarck and at Darwin’s expense, for all that the French scientific establishment had repudiated Lamarck for most of the nineteenth century. Across Europe, as in Britain and America, Darwin’s own ideas had to compete with other versions of evolutionism, as well as the hardened resistance of the Roman Catholic church and the more scrupulous Protestant sects.

The authors of the essays typically use the term ‘the eclipse of Darwinism’, coined by Julian Huxley and revived by Peter Bowler,  to characterise the period around the turn of the century when Darwinism proper was under threat from other evolutionary paradigms. What we see across the collection as a whole, however, is a polyphony of differing evolutionary syntheses. Across Europe some biologists endorsed Lamarckism or Mendelian saltationism or orthogenesis, to varying degrees, while others contributed to what would emerge as the Modern Synthesis (another of Huxley’s phrases) of Darwinian natural selection with Mendel’s particulate genetics. But the lines between the different positions were rarely as hard as they seem. Even Hugo De Vries, typically characterised as one of the founders of saltationism and among the most prominent critics of Darwinism, is shown praising the impact of the theory of natural selection by Janneke van der Heide in her essay on the Dutch celebrations of the Darwin anniversaries. Indeed, it is a real strength of this collection that it shows that the Modern Synthesis was not simply an Anglo-American initiative, as it is often presented, but incorporated the work of German, French, Russian and Spanish biologists, among others. Yet in spite of this, while British and American scientists adopted the Synthesis by the mid-1940s, this was not replicated across Europe. Instead the Synthesis met with several forms of institutional resistance, from Catholicism’s hold on education in Spain and Italy, from Protestant opinion in West Germany and the Netherlands, from Lamarckism in France and, under the aegis of Lysenko, across Communist Eastern Europe. It was only by the late 1970s that biologists across the continent had accepted that the Modern Synthesis was basically correct, even as its more rigid forms were themselves beginning to be challenged in America and Britain. Even today, the religious resistance to evolution prevalent in the U.S.A. is not absent from Europe, while Lysenko’s Soviet Lamarckism is enjoying a resurgence in Putin’s nationalist Russia.

The fourth group of essays in the collection is the one likely to be most directly relevant to the readers of this review: the studies of Darwin’s literary reception. To come back to the opening comparison between Darwin and other authors in the series, these account for approximately one volume, albeit a generous one, out of four, although they are spread over volumes 3 and 4. Volume 3 opens with a pair of engaging essays by Philip Ajouri and Nicholas Saul, forming an excellent and inviting introduction to Darwin and Darwinism in German literature from 1859 to 1914. Further survey chapters, tending to concentrate on the same period, cover Danish, Norwegian and Dutch literature in this volume and Italian, Portuguese and Spanish literature in the next. Donald Rayfield’s account of the response to Darwin in Russian literature foregrounds Anton Chekhov and Osip Mandelshtam, while Muireann Maguire examines Darwin’s changing place in twentieth-century Russian prose, particularly science fiction. These essays add texture to Kolchinsky’s account of Darwin’s Soviet reception in volume 2. Similarly, Daniel Schümann’s study of three Galician writers writing in German, Ukrainian and Polish – Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Ivan Yakovlevych Franko and Jan Parandowski – complements Hermann and Šimůnek’s account of the multi-ethnic response to Darwin in Moravia and Bohemia.

Consistent with Tort’s account of the revival of Lamarckism in place of Darwinism in France, there is no survey essay on French literature. Instead France is represented by three case studies of major authors. In ‘Darwin, Zola and Dr Prosper Lucas’s Treatise on Natural Heredity’,David Baguley extends the argument of his earlier essay ‘Zola and Darwin: A Reassessment’ that Zola’s engagement with Darwin has been greatly exaggerated, and that we should look instead to other sources, in this case Lucas, for the origins and overarching structures of his Naturalism.[i] In ‘Darwin and Proust’, Céline Surprenant first establishes Proust’s knowledge of Darwin and his admiration for George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, before moving on to trace allusions to Darwin and Darwinian structures of thought in À la recherche du temps perdu, in particular Proust’s sophisticated use of Darwin’s botany to articulate homosexual encounters and desires. The third case study, by Fanny Robles, is of the prehistoric and science fiction of J.-H. Rosny Aîné. There are two further case studies in volume 4 supplementing the survey essays on Iberian literature: a study by Patricia Silva McNeill of the Portuguese novelist José Maria de Eça de Queiroz, who served as a diplomat in Newcastle and Bristol during the 1870s and 1880s; and an essay by Travis Landry on how Darwin’s theory of sexual selection was received in Spanish intellectual and political culture and literature.

My prevailing impression on reading through all these essays is of the extraordinary richness of the literary response to Darwin across Europe. The libraries of books on British and American literature engaging with evolution could be replicated for any of the national literatures covered in this collection. The prevailing themes recur across the different countries: the urge to reaffirm teleology through evolution; the contrary impulse to face the reality of Darwinian evolution and accept that we give meaning and purpose to our own lives; the often corresponding affirmation or interrogation of religious belief in an evolved world; the Naturalist project of biologising the human subject in fiction, which may not have been a Darwinian project in France but clearly was in Spain and Germany, for example; the literary encoding of diverse social Darwinisms; and so on. But these overarching patterns are less significant than the imaginative explorations of them by individual novelists, poets and dramatists. Each new author encountered offers a distinctive reimagining of the Darwinian condition. The experience of reading these essays for a scholar of English literature is at once inviting, enriching, humbling and chastening. Keats’s famous images of reading as the exploration and discovery of unknown lands, even new planets, are apposite here. Each literary chapter in this collection is a prospectus for a new realm. The topography in each case is broadly familiar, and the laws of nature are the same, but the details of the landscapes are unique and the prospects for discovery are rich. The chapters here appear as excellent guides to what you will find when you arrive. They give you a good sense as well of how it will compare to what you know already from your own country. But they make you acutely aware too that, no matter how extensive your knowledge of your own land is, if that is all that you know it remains pretty parochial. Yet to explore these new lands you do not only need to cover more territory, travelling in some cases through immense stretches of print to do it. You also need to learn their languages.

It is clearly a Quixotic hope that anyone could master all the literatures covered in this collection, and so gain a complete understanding of all the questions posed of Darwin and evolution by Europe’s writers, and all the answers they have given. But just as no one enters a travel agent with the intention of seeing the whole world, instead browsing the brochures to decide where to go first, so reading this collection will open your eyes to new authors you might read and new insights you might gain into the literary history of Darwinism and the Darwinian condition. You may choose to pursue individual writers because of their affinity to others you already know, or because they offer your something you have not seen before. You may pursue particular literatures because you can already read their languages, or be so inspired by what you learn about given authors that you want to learn their languages just to read them. Otherwise you may take the pragmatic decision that time is short and settle for reading them in translation. But whatever your expertise, however you approach the field, and however much further you take your own explorations within it, your knowledge and understanding of the range, detail and ultimately the value of literary responses to Darwin will be greatly enhanced by reading this collection.


John Holmes, University of Reading



[i] David Baguley, ‘Zola and Darwin: A Reassessment’ in The Evolution of Literature: Legacies of Darwin in European Cultures, ed. by Nicholas Saul and Simon J. James (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2011), 201-12.