Dickens vs. Darwin

Two of the most famous books in the Western canon turned 150 years old in 2009-On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

But these anniversaries were celebrated in vastly different ways. While Darwin’s book was honored around the globe with films and websites and much more, relatively few people took notice that Dickens’s book had reached the same milestone.

Why the difference? My colleague Gina Dalfonzo, in an article on BreakPoint Online, suggests that one reason might be “the difference in worldview.” Gina points out that Origin of Species is built on Darwin’s materialistic principles, while A Tale of Two Cities takes a more traditional and biblical view of things.

It’s easy to see how our educational and media elite would gravitate toward the work that more faithfully reflects their own views, even if they don’t fully realize why they’re doing it.

Both authors lived at a time when Western culture was transitioning from faith in God to faith in humanity and its progress. Darwin went along with the change, embracing materialism and seeing his own scientific studies in its light.

But Dickens resisted. His faith has been called “simple”-he was not openly interested in complex theological questions, and he did not always adhere to church doctrine. But he maintained his belief in a loving Creator to the end of his life.

Isn’t it interesting that it was Darwin who was swept up in some of the uglier trends of his day? Dr. Benjamin Wiker has recently pointed out Darwin’s interest in the theories of Thomas Malthus, who thought that the “surplus population”-the weak and the unfit-were holding humanity back. The influence of this belief can be seen in Origin of Species and in Darwin’s other works.

Personally, Darwin believed in helping the poor and sick, but his personal life did not fit with his actual ideas. His theory boiled down to “might makes right,” and that meant survival was the highest ethical good.

On the other hand, Dickens parodied Malthus in his works, and showed the moral bankruptcy of his theories. In A Tale of Two Cities, a novel about the French Revolution, Dickens shows a struggle for power between two families, a struggle that turns into a cycle of violence and revenge. Madame Defarge, a central figure in the cycle, has no mercy for her victims once she gets them in her power; in fact, you might call her a fully Darwinian figure.

In the end, the cycle of violence can only be broken, and Madame Defarge disarmed, by another character’s self-sacrifice-the kind of act that would have no place in a Darwinian view of the world. But in Dickens’ biblically influenced view, this act of love and selflessness signifies the highest good of which humanity is capable.

Both Darwin and Dickens were optimistic men, but in fundamentally different ways. Darwin’s vision of future perfection would be merely a race of physically and mentally strong beings. Dickens’ hope was for a fundamentally moral society where the sick and weak were cared for, not pushed out of the way.

As the 150th anniversary year comes to an end for these two books, it’s a good time to compare how these radically different worldviews worked out in practice. All you’ve got to do is look at the evidence of the last 150 years for a clear answer to which one was true.

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  • One thing that I am pleased has remained in a good number of the screen adaptations of “A Christmas Carol” is the stinging rebuke that Scrooge gets from the Ghost of Christmas Present, when the spirit introduces him to a pair of children: a girl, Want (or Poverty), and a boy, Ignorance, saying that they are every man’s children. Scrooge asks, “Who will take care of them?” And the spirit replies with some of Scrooge’s own words, offered to men who asked him to contribute to their charity: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”

  • plowshare

    Colson does not do a very good job of distinguishing between the biological evolution which Darwin championed and the social evolution which his famous devotees (Thomas Huxley, Herbert Spencer…) co-opted a lot of his ideas for.

    As far as I know, Darwin only borrowed from Malthus the idea that biological organisms typically produce many more offspring than needed to propagate the species, and so what results is survival of the fittest. As far as I know, he never made recommendations as to what constituted the kind of “fitness” in humans that needed to be promoted.