Ethics and Evolution: Tensions in Post-Darwinian Literature

Literary Climate Approved Edition of A.S. Byatt's novella Morpho Eugenia from Angels and Insects

Literary Climate Approved Edition of A.S. Byatt's novella Morpho Eugenia from Angels and Insects

In 1809, Jean Baptiste Lamarck’s mechanism for evolution proposed in his essay Zoological Philosophy, namely that the acquisitions and losses of an individual during its lifespan are passed onto its offspring, was roundly rejected by Lamarck’s contemporaries as biologically impossible, and yet he may have been correct in terms of social evolution. Each human does not have to reinvent the wheel as it were during his lifetime and it is therefore true that acquisitions of knowledge achieved by society as a whole are inheritable, though not through genetics (the word Lamarck would have used if it existed in 1809). Instead, acquisitions can be “transmitted down the stream of time on the vehicle of words and other symbols and representations” (J. Huxley 504). In short, acquisitions of knowledge became inheritable when man became capable of communication.

Individuals and societies therefore have a mutualistic relationship: the individual relies on wealths of societal knowledge in order to grow, and likewise societies serve as little more than repositories of individual knowledge for other individuals to learn from. While the individual is therefore inherently higher than the State, he also requires “the proper organization of society to achieve his welfare and realize his development” (506). The individual cannot evolve education into a continuous and cumulative process in isolation, and so “biological or organic evolution [had to] at its upper end [become] merged into and largely succeeded by conscious or social evolution” (504). Yet while the utility of societies for the promotion of cumulative education cannot be doubted, it does not seem likely that this was their original purpose.

Societies had likely banded together to survive; I do not doubt that their formation was originally intended to benefit individual survival and that the principles of natural selection still held true at the inception of fetal societies. Laws would then have been developed in opposition to natural selection to “curb the cosmic process and remind the individual of his duty to the community,” (T.H. Huxley 502) because the community was the main means of survival. Indeed, today’s sociobiologists argue that it is often “in an individual’s self-interest to cooperate with others, rather than (as traditional evolutionary ethicists thought) to fight flat out” (Wilson 508). Duty to community therefore very likely evolved as a product of natural selection – it was beneficial to human survival.

The only problem was that communities were so efficient at survival that humans no longer felt the threat of the natural struggle. We can see that in1745 the word most commonly associated with “wilderness” was terror and yet, wilderness specifically referred to “places on the margins of civilization” (Cronon 1). Humans still feared the natural struggle – it was out there if they left their communities, but as long as they stayed within the bounds of civilization it no longer applied to them. The feeling of safety established in societies in 1745 speaks to the truth of T.H. Huxley’s proposition that as civilizations progress, the influence of natural selection over humans decreases (502). It should not surprise then that the connotations of wilderness were biblical, taken from the King James Version, which also stated that man had dominion over nature. Man was not only removed from the natural struggle, but was seated in a throne above it.

Now let the pot simmer for one hundred and fourteen years. Societies still exist for the purpose of survival (God forbid you were banished), but since this is hardly a common worry, societies exist moreover so that education can be a cumulative process. And this is an important distinction: generations of people have lived and died that never felt the threat of natural selection. As outsiders looking in (or in terms of the hierarchy, looking down), perceptions of nature have changed. Nearly one hundred years of Romantic natural history have taken place. Humans have distanced themselves from the hellish struggle and poets like William Blake have come to see “Heaven in a Wild Flower” (157). The ethics in societies therefore can no longer seem to be necessitated by survival, as they are in ant colonies which are “genetically hardwired” to cooperate (Ruse 508), but are rather “bred by nineteenth-century humanitarianism out of traditional Christian ethics,” (J. Huxley 503). The threat for Victorians is no longer natural, but supernatural, and so they feel ordained to be a different order, and see what I had previously called social evolution—the next step from biological evolution—not as social evolution, but rather a system of ethics deriving from a higher purpose than natural utility. We do not see ourselves as natural and so the Ten Commandments apply to humanity alone; “if animals do show tolerance or altruism—” traits considered distinctly human— “these terms are often placed in quotation marks lest their author be judged hopelessly romantic or naïve” (De Waal 511). In short, humans are ruled by ethics from some divine sphere while animals are ruled by a worldly instinct. And, of course, this is the year Darwin releases The Origin of Species.

Darwin expected “theologians, people untrained in scientific investigation, and even those scientists who were strongly religious to object violently to his theory,” (Hull 257). This vehement rejection of Darwin’s ideas, I believe, arose from a logical fallacy regarding what exactly the implications of Darwin’s ideas meant for mankind. This fallacy “is the notion that because, on the whole, animals and plants have advanced in perfection of organization by means of the struggle for existence and the consequent ‘survival of the fittest’; therefore men in society […] must look to the same process to help them towards perfection” (T.H. Huxley 501). Huxley further suggests that the fallacy may have “arisen out of the unfortunate ambiguity of the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’” because “‘fittest has a connotation of ‘best’; and about ‘best’ there hangs a moral flavour” (501). If nature has a moral imperative and man is natural, then man must follow nature’s ethics, not God’s. The dilemma here arises because people forget the evolutionary utility of ethics; they see God and nature at strife, as Tennyson suggests (422). This vehement rejection then should have risen from a tension between the self-assertion necessitated by survival of the fittest and the self-restraint necessitated by societal ethics—what Huxley calls the fitting of as many as possible to survive (502) because they were believed to be God’s word, not nature’s. This tension, caused by Origin’s release into a society far removed from the struggles it described, exists in post-Darwinian society, which we can see through characters in literature that struggle to resolve ethics into evolution, or God into nature. For those who succeed in this resolution, there stands a second dilemma: if ethics derive from natural utility, and not from some divine sphere, then morality becomes anxiously ambiguous: when is altruism in a man’s best interest? And when is egoism?

For the remainder of this essay, it is my aim to analyze how the tension between ethics and natural selection, or God and nature, drives each character’s perception of morality in A.S. Byatt’s Morpho Eugenia, a retrospective Victorian novella, and use this analysis as a proxy for each character’s real-world counterpart. I have chosen Byatt’s work where I could have assessed almost any piece of post-Darwinian literature, particularly for its hindsight (it was published in 1992), its proximity to Darwin’s biography (its protagonist is a naturalist), and its historically accurate and varied depictions of Victorian reactions to Darwin and his contemporaries.

The two most adept thinkers in Morpho, William Adamson and Harald Alabaster, closely mirror the two camps of the God vs. nature debate as they existed directly after Darwin’s publication. Their philosophies are anchored in other thinkers of the time – they reference Darwin, Paley, Wallace, Clare and the Duke of Argyll to name just a few, and they can therefore be seen as quintessential representations of intellectual Victorians. Adamson, the naturalist, represents a thorough scientific understanding of the implications of Origin, such as I have already identified, while Harald Alabaster closely mirrors religious figures like Lord Tennyson: he sees nature as “red in tooth and claw” and works tirelessly to fit such a conception into the design of the loving God of his Sunday sermons.

As a naturalist working at the time of Darwin, Adamson has the most thorough scientific understanding of the tension between ethics and natural selection. From the opening ballroom sequence, we see Adamson draw the paradoxical distinction between Victorian propriety, which insisted upon a woman’s chastity until marriage, and a primal sexual instinct which exists in humans as a natural species. These thoughts are pitted against one another in terse, single-sentence battles; for instance, Adamson notes of Eugenia: “She was both proudly naked and wholly untouchable” (7). Linguistically, Byatt is careful at the start of the work to give equal weight to each option: proudly naked and wholly untouchable are both phrases consisting of an adverb and adjective. Byatt therefore resists passing judgment yet, and sets up the paradox that will drive the plot. Already we can see physical traces of the tension created by the paradox: Adamson shifts around in his suit, effectively nervous in his own skin, as he reflects as “a scientist and observer-that these dances were designed to arouse his desire […] however demure the gloves, however sweetly innocent the daily life of the young woman in his arms” (7). It is this work as a scientist and observer that allows Adamson to draw up images from out there (28) and contrast them with Victorian morality.

Harald Alabaster also understands the tension and consciously struggles with it; it has changed his entire world view. He says:

“The world has changed so much, William, in my lifetime. I am old enough to have believed in our First Parents in Paradise, as a little boy, to have believed in Satan hidden in the snake, and in the Archangel with the flaming sword, closing the gates. I am old enough to have believed without question in the Divine Birth on a cold night with the sky full of singing angels and the shepherds staring up in wonder, and the strange kings advancing across the sand on camels with gifts. And now I am presented with a world in which we are what we are because of the mutations of soft jelly and calceous bone” (68-9).

Harald is thus an important character to understand the psyche of; he is older than William, and therein mirrors William’s father, Martin Adamson, whose dreams and waking moments were filled with the fear of Hell. Harald has not been born into a world where Divinity is in question, as William has since he has kept up with pre-Darwinian science. Harald’s views are thus difficult to shake, like Tennyson’s, because he lived through the turning point of unquestioning belief into skepticism.

Of course William likewise struggles to reconcile nature’s moral imperative with God’s, but his attachment to God is less personal. Indeed, I find it of some interest that in his reflections, Adamson comes to the same word as Annie Dillard – to quote her: “nature is above all profligate” (66). Both Dillard and Adamson (who says profligate on page 120 if you must look it up) are referencing a passage in Origin in which Darwin explains that natural selection works because “many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive” (97). Dillard continues her lament on the subject much as Tennyson would: “Evolution loves death more than it loves you or me,” and closes by asking the key question: “are [man’s] values then so diametrically opposed to those that nature preserves?” (178). I address this point to emphasize that Adamson as a young man is not merely interested in the paradox; he realizes the full implications of Origin, yet his attitude on the subject is different from Harald’s. William can accept nature’s profligacy for what it is.

Harald does not deny the works of naturalists as true, but his investment in religion is lifelong and personal where Adamson’s is not. Adamson may observe the subject from afar, and almost objectively (ie. dispassionately) question whether God and nature are at strife. Harald’s attempts to rectify God and nature, on the other hand, become so desperately obsessive that he begins to rehash old arguments “some of which [he] had already, in conversation, rejected as untenable” (96). He despises theologians who argue unconvincingly for the existence of God and yet when he is unable to argue convincingly for God himself, he cannot objectively surrender to God’s implausibility; his attachment is too personal. It may be presumed that William’s father, who was less educated in the matter, continued to believe blindly because Harald’s struggle arises from his refusal to do so. He recognizes the tension between ethics and evolution, and logically tries, like Adamson, to resolve it, but his efforts presume the existence of a benevolent God—which in itself contrasts nature’s profligacy; he is therefore largely unsuccessful.

Lesser thinkers present in Morpho, Edgar Alabaster and to some extent his sister Eugenia, confuse the implications of Origin and thereby commit the naturalistic fallacy: “the problem of deriving norms from nature” (De Waal 513). These characterizations are surely harder to devise; where William and Harald are educated and Byatt can base their philosophies off of published thinkers of the time, Edgar and Eugenia are not – so their ideologies must come from somewhere else. Herein I find Morpho Eugenia to benefit largely from its twentieth-century hindsight: while parallel thought processes certainly existed in the Victorian era, the term naturalistic fallacy was not coined until 1903 by G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica. And while I doubt that any two Victorians were as representative of the fallacy as Edgar and Eugenia and the characters may thereby be seen as authorially exaggerated, if William and Harald are quintessential intellectuals, Edgar and Eugenia should be quintessentially fallible. The two sets must be prototypical in order for Byatt to set up the dichotomy that drives the incestuous climax of the story.

And indeed, they are prototypical. Edgar wholly follows his appetites (122) and corporeal pleasures because he mistakes the implications survival of the fittest as meaning that he should work solely for his own benefit. He is first introduced by Robin Swinnteron as “a veritable centaur, or do I mean a satyr?” —whichever Swinnerton meant, he clearly indicates that Edgar is half man, half animal; he lets instinct rule his intellect because he perceives the former to be more natural. The problem with Edgar and Eugenia’s approach then is that “there is no logical connection between the typical form and frequency of a behavior (a statistical measure of what is ‘normal’) and the value we attach to it (a moral decision)” (De Waal 513). Natural does not equate to ethical, although it may seem to if our ethics derive from their natural utility.

The thoughtful William Adamson recognizes the difference; he sees Edgar get drunk and take impractical and dangerous bets, such as jumping his horse through a window, and “judge[s] Edgar Alabaster in the eye of the God he no longer believed in, and found him wanting” (71). Adamson’s distinction here is important: William and Edgar both recognize themselves as ruled by survival of the fittest, but Edgar takes it to the extreme of the naturalistic fallacy where William reflects again as an objective observer. Adamson does not believe that God exists, but rather that a universal ethical code exists in opposition to unhindered action. He understands the natural utility of ethics in the creation of societies and through reflection judges Edgar’s actions as immoral. Even Swinnerton can draw a distinction between William and Edgar, calling the former a civilized man and the latter an anachronism (73). Indeed, Edgar accepts the natural struggle, as primeval man did, but he accepts the struggle only on faith of Darwin’s veracity. He does not understand the implications of the natural struggle, and sees only the surface tension between ethics and evolution, which appears, understandably, as a dichotomy; he’ll have to reject one of the two. He is unable to rectify ethics with evolution because he lacks an understanding of their natural utility or even their social utility (as the first son of a large inheritance his social standing is implicit in Victorian culture). Indeed Edgar appears so confused by Darwin’s concepts that it would appear he never even read Origin. The film version, Angels and Insects, thus makes a clever choice to show Edgar learning about Darwin through a conversation between William and Sir Harald.

Eugenia also commits the naturalistic fallacy, and it is therefore interesting to note that she mimics the ants that Adamson says “Natural Selection appears to have favoured in […] the development of those skills which guarantee success in the nuptial dance, at the expense of others” (Byatt 46). While these ants are male, Matty Crompton notes that “this appears to be the opposite to human societies, when it is the woman whose success in that kind of performance determine their lives” (46), and certainly this is the case for Eugenia. This point is most evident in the film version; in the opening ballroom scene the dresses are not classically Victorian, but are more brightly colored to mimic the colors of the Morpho Eugenia butterflies that Adamson delivers to Sir Harald. The colors of the gowns call to mind Adamson’s argument in the novella that “perhaps there is some advantage to the male, in flaunting his scarlets and golds, which might make the female select him as a mate” (22). Adamson indeed is drawn to Eugenia in this way – he repeatedly sees an image of “her white bust rising from the lacy sea of her ballgown like Aphrodite from the foam” (20). Through this visual metaphor, Adamson distracts his intellect from the work he wants to return to by engaging his instinct in a vision of the Greek god of sexuality. When Harald then asks him if he would like to stay on at Bredely Hall, Adamson is so ruled by his instinct to stay with Eugenia that he cannot refuse the offer.

Eugenia’s naturalistic fallacy is thus one of extreme passivity: she, like the ants, exists only to attract a mate and reproduce; her other skills remain undeveloped, most importantly any determining intellect. Early on, we get a glimpse of this underdeveloped intellect, which is also evident in Edgar, when Eugenia finds herself attracted to the white satin of the male butterfly and deems her attraction natural because “she [is] female” (23). This is the first verbal appearance of Eugenia’s naturalistic fallacy – she confuses the word natural with the word good, where natural should be an objective word. In this opening case it is a humorous error, one that may even be seen as a dramatic joke between Byatt and her readers, but this error ultimately precludes Eugenia’s incestuous relationship with Edgar. It is also plausible that Lady Alabaster, the grotesquely fat queen ant, serves as the ultimate ends of Eugenia’s naturalistic fallacy; if Eugenia continues her path it is quite likely that Lady Alabaster is the portrait of her future.

With these distinct character types driving morality, it should be little surprising that at the center of Morpho Eugenia is an ethical dilemma. After parsing out Edgar and Eugenia’s naturalistic fallacies, the reader should almost expect to find the siblings entwined – and recognize their actions as their answers to the tension between ethics and evolution. By this point, we have already seen Edgar’s primeval lust and possible rape of Amy (and surely other girls if Swinnerton is to be believed) which are guided by his naturalistic fallacy. While William chastises Edgar that Amy is only a child, Edgar says “Nonsense. She is a nice little packet of flesh, and her heart beats faster when I feel for it, and her little mouth opens sweetly and eagerly” (124). Edgar’s argument, essentially that a code of ethics cannot dictate an age at which sex is natural (or moral to use Edgar’s idea) appears to hold the sway of a logical argument (though we have already seen it to be a fallacy), and thus leads Edgar to declare that Adamson knows nothing. It is therefore a logical progression for Edgar’s character when we discover his incestuous relationship with Eugenia.

And yet, Eugenia is the one who parses it out for us: “I know it was bad, but you must understand it didn’t feel bad […]  [Edgar] made me believe it was all perfectly natural, and so it was, it was natural, nothing in us rose up and said it was unnatural” (181). Here is where it Eugenia’s naturalistic fallacy finally causes her downfall, and we as readers cannot feel remorse for her as she has already caused it once before. Eugenia must be seen as a static character throughout the work, since she has previously declared that she should be dead for what happened with Captain Hunt (54). Captain Hunt likewise found the knowledge of Eugenia’s incest to be too much, but Eugenia has not stopped her relationship with Edgar even into her second marriage. While Edgar is vaguely pitiable because his naturalistic fallacy is so strong that he does not even understand the error of his ways, Eugenia is downright despicable; she does understand the consequences of her actions and still cannot resolve ethics into evolution. Even as William tells her that he is leaving, Eugenia’s only thought is of herself (“And—shall you speak to anyone—shall you—tell?) (181). Eugenia’s naturalistic fallacy leads her to be wholly self-serving and to deny ethics outright.

William, on the other hand, proves himself deserving of the title protagonist. Upon his discovery of the affair, his feeling of “revulsion, but no primeval awe” speaks to his scientific understanding of the tension and the same reflection upon a universal code of ethics that caused him to previously find Edgar Alabaster wanting. His lack of primeval awe recognizes that the act is natural, but in conflict “ideology of romantic love and the system of traditional marriage that it supports [monogamy] dominate Christian sexual ethics” (Hobgood 118). Yet William is not swayed by either side of what appears to be a dichotomy; he judges neither from nature nor from God, but from himself. William is the only character capable of deciding whether or not this is a universal ethic as Edgar and Eugenia’s naturalistic fallacies clearly impair their judgment. William’s development throughout the novella leads him to conclusively declare Eugenia “horrible to see,” (171) before he chooses to leave her for his expedition. This final act resolves his tension between ethics and evolution—recalling a journal entry from the novel’s opening in which he paradoxically claimed that he had originally gone to the forest because he felt no need for a wife, but also that he should die if he could not have Eugenia. Where in this opening journal entry William struggled with ethics and evolution as a dichotomy almost as Edgar did, by leaving Eugenia in the end with Matty Crompton for another expedition, William is the only character able to resolve ethics into evolution; he leaves with both his work and (presumably) a new wife.

Byatt’s novella seeks quite possibly to answer Tennyson’s question: are God and nature then at strife? They certainly seem to be; the paradox introduced at the beginning of “proudly naked and wholly untouchable,” seems to be “an impassible gulf between matters of fact (for example, evolution) and matters of morality (disinterested help of others)” (Ruse, 508).  The labyrinth that leads to the resolution of this paradox proves filled with wrong approaches and fallible judgments, but is there really a dichotomy? William Adamson proves the entire tension to be a smoke and mirrors act; he finds ethics to have evolved from their evolutionary necessity and is thus left with the difficult task of judging from the eyes of a God in which he no longer believes. Then that God is made in man’s image is an interesting point—man must devise his own ethics, must be his own God. And now I ask a question I previously posed rhetorically, but I hope will now be asked in earnest: if ethics derive from natural utility, and not from some divine sphere, then morality becomes anxiously ambiguous: when is altruism in a man’s best interest? And when is egoism?

Works Cited

Angels and Insects. Dir. Philip Haas. Perf. Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Patsy Kensit. 1995. Videocassette.

Blake, William. “William Blake.” William Wordsworth, Charles Darwin, and Others (Romantic Natural Histories). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. Print.

Bowler, Peter J. “Darwin on Man in the ‘Origin of Species’: A Reply to Carl Bajema.” Journal of the History of Biology 22.3 (1989): 497-500. Print.

Byatt, A. S. Angels & insects two novellas. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. Print.

Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995. 69-90. Print.

Darwin, Charles. “The Descent of Man.” Darwin (Norton Critical Editions) (3rd Edition). New York: W. W. Norton, 1871. Print.

Darwin, Charles. “The Origin of Species.” Darwin (Norton Critical Editions) (3rd Edition). New York: W. W. Norton, 1859. Print.

De Waal, Frans. “Good Natured: The Origin of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals.” Darwin (Norton Critical Editions) (3rd Edition). New York: W. W. Norton, 1996. Print.

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: HaperCollins, 1974. Print.

Hull, David. “Darwin and His Critics.” Darwin (Norton Critical Editions) (3rd Edition). New York: W. W. Norton, 1983. Print.

Huxley, Julian. “Evolutionary Ethics.” Darwin (Norton Critical Editions) (3rd Edition). New York: W. W. Norton, 1943. Print.

Huxley, Thomas Henry. “Evolution and Ethics.” Darwin (Norton Critical Editions) (3rd Edition). New York: W. W. Norton, 1893. Print.

Lamarck, Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine De Monet. “Zoological Philosophy.” Darwin (Norton Critical Editions) (3rd Edition). New York: W. W. Norton, 1809. Print.

Moore, G. E. Principia Ethica. Cambridge UP, 2008. Print.

Paley, William. “Natural Theology.” Darwin (Norton Critical Editions) (3rd Edition). New York: W. W. Norton, 1802. Print.

Tennyson, Alfred. “Alfred, Lord Tennyson.” William Wordsworth, Charles Darwin, and Others (Romantic Natural Histories). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. Print.

Wilkins, Walter J. Science and religious thought a Darwinism case study. Ann Arbor, Mich: UMI Research, 1987. Print.

Wilson, Edward O. “The Evolution of Ethics.” Darwin (Norton Critical Editions) (3rd Edition). By Michael Ruse. New York: W. W. Norton, 1985. Print.

Witham, Larry A. Where Darwin Meets the Bible Creationists and Evolutionists in America. New York: Oxford UP, USA, 2002. Print.

Wolff, Robert L. Gains and Losses Novels of Faith and Doubt in Victorian England. New York: Garland, Inc., 1977. Print.

Want more criticism on nature writing? Try my piece on Michael Hulme’s Why We Disagree About Climate Change!

About Brett Shollenberger

Brett Shollenberger is an sustainability consultant, writer, improviser, and editor specializing in the design of higher ed. programs and holistic communications strategies. He has a B.A. in English from Dickinson College, where he was named Ruth Sellers Maxwell Scholar of Literature for 2011. Brett Shollenberger is currently a sustainability programs analyst for GreenerU and an improv comic with Improv Asylum.
This entry was posted in 19th century, A.S. Byatt, Angels and Insects, Byatt, Charles Darwin, critical debate, Darwin, Environment, evolution, Great Chain of Being, Literature, Morpho Eugenia, paradigm shift, Romantic Natural History, Romantic science, Romanticism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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