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Darwinism : The Most Important Contribution of the Victorian Era

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Charles Darwin’s revolutionary idea of evolution sparked dramatic debate in the scientific and, most especially, religious communities, as well as inspiring a new wave of thought in the minds of the world. There was also plenty of controversy, particularly from the many believers of creationism during the Victorian era. But by denying creationism with his own theories, Darwin “made room for strictly scientific explanations of all natural phenomena,” and as a result, initiated a “powerful intellectual and spiritual revolution” whose effects last to this day. Its profound impact meant that “nearly every field of social and cultural life was affected by the idea of evolution.”

Charles Darwin is best known as the father of evolutionary biology and the theory of evolution by natural selection. In 1859, he published his most important and most influential work, On the Origin of Species, which was an immediate success, selling most of its 1,250 copies on the first day. In it, Darwin described the theory of evolution and natural selection. Through natural selection, the organisms that are most suited to their environment will be more likely to survive over their competition, improving the species over time. It can also be called the “survival of the fittest,” as only the most capable will ultimately survive. Darwin was not the first to introduce the idea of evolution, which had been around long before his birth and was first presented to the public by Robert Chambers in “Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation”. However, Darwin was the first to carry out extensive research to back up the theory, as well as expanded upon other theories by suggesting the idea of evolution through random natural selection.

In this time of the Victorian era, almost all leading scientists and philosophers were Christian men who believed in creationism and that God had designed creatures to fit their environment perfectly. These Victorians, especially conservative theologians, strongly opposed his theories and continued to uphold the Bible’s creationist teachings. Even some of the greatest minds of the era scoffed at evolution, including Albert Einstein, who, at the idea that randomness plays a vital role in natural selection, expressed his disapproval in his statement, “God does not play dice.” Darwin pointed out that every aspect of these perfect designs could be explained through natural selection and that creation was contradicted by every part of the natural world. Evolution “dispelled any belief in the Christian dogma of creation” as it eliminated the need for some supernatural force as a creator or designer.

Darwin’s idea of natural selection also helped to explain social evolution and development. More organized social groups would be stronger than less organized ones, and through natural selection be more likely to survive through wars or disasters. Inferior organization would thus be eliminated from the human ancestry, allowing the more developed groups to pass on their skills to the next generation.

In Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson explains to the reader through Jekyll that man has a basic dual nature with both a calm, civilized side and a troglodytic, primitive being. In a way, his novel is a comment on Darwin’s evolutionary theories. As Petri Liukkonen puts it, when attempting (and failing) to separate the two basic sides of himself, Dr. Jekyll “turns in his experiment the evolution backwards,” revealing the “primitive background of a cultured human being.” It is no coincidence that the book, published 27 years after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, inherits a corollary of evolution as the core of its plot. Stevenson turns the idea that we are animals into a man’s struggle to separate that ancestry, only to find out that he can isolate it but cannot eliminate it.

“Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory shocked Victorians with the idea that humans are basically animals. Hyde represents the primitive, animal side of human nature, which is closer than Victorians liked to think.” Aside from the effects on religion and science, the theory of evolution itself brought up another point – we humans are simply animals that evolved in the same way as every other animal. Charles Darwin once said: “Animals, whom we have made our slaves, we do not like to consider our equal.” We want to think of us as superior to the animals surrounding us, but evolution shows that we really are animals ourselves.

What was then a rebellious thought, Darwinism has now become nearly unanimously accepted by science. It has also become the basis of the modern philosophy of biology. But the most important contribution to both science and to society is that it, in a way, offers an explanation of the world around us. “The living world, through evolution, can be explained without recourse to supernaturalism.” Darwin shows us a new way of thinking that in essence changes the world from God’s playing field into a game of chance. No longer does the difference in religious beliefs tie up an effort to rationalize what seems to be an irrational universe, as natural selection allows us to simplify life, the universe, and everything into time, location, and a little bit of luck.

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