“The Darwinian Student’s After-Dinner Dream”

December 23, 1871

artist unknown

“The Darwinian Student’s After-Dinner Dream”

Education, College; Science, Evolution;

Darwin, Charles;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

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Charles Darwin applied his theory of evolution through natural selection, first articulated in his Origin of Species (1859), to humans with the publication of The Descent of Man in 1871.  In addition to generating much discussion and debate over its scientific merits, as well as its social and religious ramifications, Darwin’s theory of human evolution sparked a great deal of literary and pictorial satire.  In the featured cartoon, musing on the scientific theory after a heavy meal is proving too much for the young student, who daydreams that items from the dinner evolve into humans and animals.  Flying from the table to the upper-left and then swirling clockwise around him, the oyster gradually transforms into a young woman, the fork into a young man (perhaps the daydreamer himself), and the wine bottle into a clergyman.  The evolution continues as the couple meets the cleric, is wedded, and has a child.  The cycle of life is completed as the child, family cat, lamp, and other figures slowly change back into the dinner items.  In the separate scene below the main illustration, a male hunter evolves into a goose, and a woman into a duck, which fly toward each other.

Born in 1809, Charles Robert Darwin was the son of a prosperous London physician and the grandson of physician-scientist Erasmus Darwin.  Young Darwin exhibited a keen interest in science at an early age, and, at the age of 16, entered the University of Edinburgh to study medicine.  Repulsed by surgery, he became interested in zoology, but his father enrolled him in the divinity program at the University of Cambridge in 1827.  Darwin participated in discussions with a group of Cambridge scientists, and left the university in the spring of 1831 to read scientific texts and join a geologic expedition in Wales.  That August, he was asked to accompany the HMS Beagle as an unpaid naturalist while the ship surveyed the coasts of South America (including the Galapagos Islands) and Pacific islands.  The five-year voyage began in late December 1831 and allowed Darwin to make detailed observations and collect biologic and geologic specimens, upon which he later based three books about the geology of South America.  His reports back to England made him well known within the scientific community. 

In 1836, Darwin returned to England and was awarded membership in several prestigious organizations, including the Geological Society, the Athenaeum, and the Royal Society.  Over the next few years he published the books based on his voyage aboard the Beagle.  As he collected data to bolster his theory of organic evolution, he secretly began collecting scientific information related to “the species problem,” to which he gave considerable thought.  Based upon the accumulated evidence, Darwin concluded that the various species of animals had evolved over time (many millennia) and space (their distinct geographic habitat), rather than having been the result of the special creation of each.  In October 1838, he read Thomas Malthus’s thesis that population growth outpaced food production, and that the resulting food shortages reduced the population to a sustainable level.   Darwin adopted this “survival of the fittest” idea to explain the theory of natural selection.  Others had observed the struggle between species, but Darwin applied it to individual animals within species.  Several thinkers, including his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, had proposed the idea of organic evolution previously, but Charles Darwin was able to provide evidence to support the theory.

Fearing a negative reaction, Darwin withheld his theory of natural selection from public scrutiny for over a decade, even as scientific discussions of evolution multiplied.  In June 1858, Alfred Russel Wallace, a British naturalist who had gathered data in the Malay Archipelago, sent him a scientific paper summarizing the points of natural selection.  Through the intervention of friends, Darwin and Wallace presented their findings jointly to a scientific meeting in London in July 1858.  The next year, Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, which quickly sold out and went through six editions over the next dozen years.  Most in the scientific community readily accepted the theory, but there were prominent critics, including Richard Owen of the British Museum and Louis Agassiz of Harvard.  Many Christian clergy were aghast, but some religious leaders, both orthodox and evangelical, did not view the theory as inherently hostile to a traditional religious worldview.  Darwin applied his theory of evolution through natural selection to humans in The Descent of Man, published in 1871, shortly before the featured cartoon appeared.

The general response of the American (secular) press to Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859) was skeptical or hostile, although his theory did not at the time make a significant impact on public consciousness in the United States.  In 1859, The New York Times warned its readers that the theory of evolution could “threaten war” on traditional religion.  However, attitudes among American journalists shifted over the decades, so that when Darwin died in 1882, his contributions to scientific knowledge and human understanding were praised by such newspapers as The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Louisville Courier-Journal, and the Atlanta Constitution.  By the time of the Scopes trial in 1925, the press lined up solidly behind schoolteacher John Scopes, who was accused of violating Tennessee law by teaching the theory of natural selection.  Outside of scientific journals, press coverage of Darwin and evolution tended to peak around certain events:  the publication of Origin of the Species in 1860 (in the United States); publication of The Descent of Man in 1871; the American tour of Thomas Huxley, a leading Darwin defender, in 1876; Darwin’s death in 1882; the centenary of his birth and the 50th anniversary of Origin in 1909; the passage of state laws against teaching evolution in the early 1920s; and the Scopes trial in 1925.

Initially, there was only slight reference to Darwin and his theory of evolution in the pages of Harper’s Weekly, but the publication of The Descent of Man in 1871 forced the newspaper to take notice.  That April, it ran a portrait and biographical sketch of Darwin, referring to his Origin of the Species as a “bold and ingenious essay,” and matter-of-factly delineating the thesis of his new application of natural selection to humans.  While praising Darwin’s skillful scientific work and imaginative theorizing, the reviewer did express concern about the lack of direct evidence for natural selection.  The piece concluded on an ambiguous note:  “We must leave the subject to thoughtful readers. Species is a mystery; life is a great mystery; the conscious rational soul is a greater mystery still. There are such problems in the universe as physical science will never be able to solve.” 

Besides the featured cartoon, Darwin’s theory entered into the “Humors of the Day” column of Harper’s Weekly in May 1871, and into a fictional short story (“A Woman’s Vengeance”) the following May, in which author James Payn describes a young woman’s rise in society as “triumphant corroboration” of “Darwinian theory.”  In March 1872, the journal’s “Scientific Intelligence” column reported possible substantiation of Darwin’s theory through evidence from ducks in New Zealand.  In December 1876, a large advertisement appeared for Alfred Russel Wallace’s book, Wallace’s Geographical Distribution of Animals, written by “the joint inventor with Mr. Darwin of the theory of ‘Natural Selection’” and published by Harper & Brothers.  In April 1882, Harper’s Weekly reprinted the previous biographical sketch as an obituary for Darwin, the “renowned naturalist, whose theory respecting the origin of man has been the occasion of so much animated controversy …”

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Darwinian Student’s After-Dinner Dream”
July 14, 2024

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