Academic journal article Utopian Studies

`Administrative Nihilism': Evolution, Ethics and Victorian Utopian Satire *

Academic journal article Utopian Studies

`Administrative Nihilism': Evolution, Ethics and Victorian Utopian Satire *

Article excerpt

What sort of earth or heaven would hold any spiritual wealth in it for souls pauperized by inaction? (Eliot, 387)

[W]e little know what we are doing when we cast adrift from system.... Even superstition is a bracing girdle, which the frame that is trained to it can ill afford to lose. (Froude, 178-79)

WE CAN TRACE A GROWING RECOGNITION of the social and political implications of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution in the ways in which it is coopted in late Victorian utopian satires. Satire, fiercer than comedy in its moral intentions, measures human conduct not against a norm but against an ideal. By seeking either to undermine the social fabric or accommodate the prevailing social order, the intention of satire is reformative. The satirist holds a distorted image up for the reader to see, and the reader is to be shocked into a realization that the image is his or her own. Significantly, satire thrives on moral extremes: and in the nineteenth century, with Darwin at hand to provide a view of humanity which was at once alarmingly possible and entirely opposite to the prevailing one, satire was very much at home. In this essay, after briefly locating some of the ethical issues raised by Darwinian evolutionary epistemologies, I look at Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race (1871), Samuel Butler's Erewhon (1872), H.G. Wells's The Time Machine (1895), and particularly at Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), to examine how notions of civility, social order and progress are affected by Darwin's theories; and how the accompanying fear of devolution (along with a growing mistrust of science itself) informs a growing sense of alienation. In particular, I analyze these works in order to understand how what Thomas Henry Huxley called "administrative nihilism"--"the belief in the efficacy of doing nothing" ("Administrative Nihilism," 69)--was combated and what literary attempts were made to restore an ethical frame to social and scientific discourse.


While eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century utopian thinking still corresponded with Newtonian physical science, Darwin's theory of evolution transformed the nature of the genre. Prior to the publication of On the Origin of Species, it was possible to speculate that humankind might undergo fundamental biological change through the transmission of acquired characteristics or the atrophy of organs or limbs from disuse; Auguste Comte, for example, forecast female self-fertilization--an idea borrowed by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in Herland (1915)--but these changes only assured the greater perfection of humanity and buttressed the prevailing assumption that the greater purpose of humanity was moral. Vulgarized Darwinism made real the prospect of human evolution and degeneration in a universe that was basically amoral. For Marx, Darwinism strengthened his conviction that revolutionary struggle, not gradual reform, was inherent in nature. For Bagehot, Spencer, Froude, and Kingsley it was proof that nature enjoined the powerful (white, Christian, British, male) to dominate and only the fittest of them to survive. For Arnold, Tennyson, Clough, and Hardy it produced an abiding sense of pessimism which was variously overcome by reaffirmation of Faith, Culture, Nature, and Art. For scientists and philosophers it offered the possibility of a new human type with different physical and psychical facilities, ever progressing--but to what end, especially as phrases such as the "struggle for existence" came to imply that conflict was embedded in human nature, while the will and intellect were devalued and debased?

In an attempt to allay fears about the consequences of evolutionary struggle, Darwin assured his readers that natural selection "works solely by and for the good of each being, [as] all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection" (my italics, Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 459). Though optimistic in tone and utopian in impulse, this statement (among other similar statements) is ambiguous. …

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