The Evolution of Scientific Writing-Was Darwin a Poet?

ibarkas's picture

The poet Marianne Moore once said, "Do the poet and scientist not work analogously?  Both are willing to waste effort.  To be hard on himself is one of the main strengths of each.  Each is attentive to clues, each must narrow the choice, must strive for precision."  There is often perceived to be an invariable boundary between the sciences and the humanities.  This boundary is found in the interdisciplinary space between science and the humanities-a space that is perceived as an ever-widening gap. However, as stated by Moore, this boundary is not as clear as society presents it and if we take a closer look at both science and the humanities, we will observe an intricate network that resembles more of a continuum rather than a classification of two separate entities.  Darwin seems to acknowledge this continuum and himself becomes a scientific poet or a poetic scientist, placing his work more along the middle of this continuum.  By doing so, Darwin introduces a new variety of scientific writing into the pool of scientific texts, making science writing more adaptive to the time period and the rapidly changing societal views.
           Perhaps then, scientists should attribute more than the just the development of the theory of evolution to Darwin. Darwin was a revolutionary not only for his theory, but for his use of literary and poetic elements in an attempt to present scientific information in an approachable and agreeable manner that allowed for the evolution of scientific text writing into what it is today. Before attempting to analyze Darwin's writing and the evolutionary trajectory towards modern scientific writing that it initiated, it is important to first understand the public view of science during the 19th century and the effect this may have had on Darwin's writing. With the 19th century came numerous technological and scientific advances as people began to manipulate the world around them with the inventions such as electricity, the telephone and the railroad. However, a manipulation of the world around us is always preceded by an understanding of that world and position and purpose within it. Darwin's attempt to grapple with this notion of an individual's position within the realm of nature was a scary thought for society.  As people are constantly manipulating the world around them to fit their own needs, it then becomes difficult and scary to comprehend that nature is a more powerful force than was previously thought and perhaps, even more powerful than human intervention itself.  The notion that there may not exist a higher power that all life can be attributed to, but rather, the nature that we so intermittently try to manipulate is the higher power, is a disheartening thought.  We then begin to think that if an entity is strong enough to produce us, than surely is strong enough to lead to our demise.  Perhaps then, creationism was a better acknowledged story during this time because it eradicated this fear.  A Victorian poem written shortly after the publication of Darwin’s book, called Lay of the Trilobite by May Kendall, effectively expresses this public fear: (3)

I wish our brains were not so good,
I wish our skulls were thicker,
I wish that Evolution could
Have stopped a little quicker;
For oh, it was a happy plight,
Of liberty and ease,
To be a simple Trilobite
In the Silurian seas!



Although a satirical poem, May Kendall effectively portrays the anxiety present within society during this time.  Darwin knew that presenting an idea such as his would create such anxiety.  He attempts to present his idea by alleviating this fear and presenting a believable story through the use of metaphors, change in tone, rhetorical questions and imagery. 

The most prevalent literary technique used by Darwin throughout his text is the use of metaphors.  Darwin's entire argument seems to take on the form of one large metaphor as he compares the theory of natural selection to the domestication of animals-something that his readers would be more familiar with.  The most powerful metaphor used by Darwin is the use of a tree to describe the evolution of life throughout time.  On page 176, Darwin states:

“The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree.  The green and budding twigs may represent existing species; and those produced during former years may represent the long succession of extinct species... as buds give rise by growth to fresh buds....which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever-branching and beautiful ramification.” (1).

Such metaphors as this are powerful in that they provide the reader with an image-something tangible to relate Darwin's abstract image to.  Darwin takes an idea as threatening as natural selection and uses his metaphors to present it as beautiful.  Even if the reader is not able to suspend all disbelief and trust in Darwin, his metaphors allow the reader to visualize something that is more familiar to them and in so doing, using that as a comparison to the larger idea that Darwin is explaining.   As stated by Gillian Beer in Darwin's Plot , "metaphors become part of a continuous truth-discovering process...the power of metaphor in all kinds of narrative depends precisely upon the “stretching to a radically new situation” that she associates peculiarly with scientific metaphor"(1).  These metaphors allow the reader to step away from the scientific aspect of the text and read the book for what it simply it-a piece of descriptive literature that is analyzing observations.  By allowing the reader to consider his text a poetic, on-fiction piece, Darwin is allowing his reader to attribute intentional fallacy to his text.  As the metaphors allow the reader to interpret the text as they wish, his text becomes more approachable and agreeable with a reader of the particular time period.  As On the Origin of Species is saturated with metaphors and comparisons very similar to the tree of life, I think that the use of metaphors is the most vital aspect of Darwin's text that contributed to the evolution of scientific writing.
        A number of other poetic elements are used by Darwin throughout his text, making his reading more approachable, including change in footing, tone and use of rhetorical questions.  Linguistic anthropologists find that one manipulation of language that is used by speakers to avoid offending an audience by an idea they are presenting is change in footing between the speaker and the audience.  Darwin usually speaks in the first person plural when analyzing empirical evidence he has collected and only uses the first person singular when he is specifically speaking about his own actions, such as, "..many special facts which i have collected," or when he is speaking about his own qualms, such as "I am well aware that there are on, on this view, many cases of difficulty, some of which I am trying to investigate." However, when analyzing his evidence, he always uses "we", such as "we notice", or "we understand"(2).  Darwin's change in footing when he is explaining his theory places himself and the reader on the same level and makes him a more "humble" presenter, allowing us to suspend disbelief for at least the time being and trust him.
        Darwin also uses change in tone, rhetorical questions and imagery abundantly throughout his text.  His change of tone is particularly apparent due to his abundant use of exclamation marks.  His rhetorical questions are also different than the usual questions asked in scientific texts.  Rather than simply asking questions and providing an answer directly following the question, as is done in many scientific texts, Darwin does not always provide us with the answer. He really wants the reader to consider the questions that he was not able to answer.  In this way, he encourages introspection -what I consider a vital aspect of poetry.  Again, this places Darwin and the reader on the same level and allows for suspension of disbelief.  Furthermore, the use of these poetic elements along with the abundant use of metaphors allows Darwin to become a character of his own story.  We are tempted to enter his story; even if we trust it to be entirely fictional, and just for a second consider the questions he asks us and become a part of the story as well.
       The last poetic element that Darwin uses in his text is detailed imagery.  Although many may consider Darwin's use of detail as the signs of a good empirical scientist, it is also possible to view Darwin's attention to detail as an attempt at imagery.  The abundant amount of detail that Darwin provides his readers with allows us to join him in his thinking -we are able to view these organisms that we may have never thought twice about.  The more detail that Darwin provides us with, the more real the story becomes to us.  Similar to imagery within a poem, the more detailed an image that is provided to us, the more invested we become in the poem and the more we can join the poet in his or her thinking.
          It is evident that Darwin used a number of poetic elements throughout his text; however, it is not possible to yet make a claim about Darwin introducing a new variety of scientific texts which led to the evolution of scientific writing, until we examine a text from one of Darwin's contemporaries and a modern scientific text.  If we observe portions of Alfred Russell Wallace's text, Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection, we notice that Wallace's use of metaphors and imagery is limited.  He provides abundant detail, but when compared to Darwin, it is only enough to prove his argument.  He also uses rhetorical questions throughout the text; however, he only uses them to move his argument along and they are few and scattered (4). 
          However, when comparing Darwin's text to a modern text about evolution, such as the Beak of the Finch by Janathan Weiner, we see that the writing incorporates the numerous poetic elements that are evident in On The Origin of Species.  The use of metaphor is particularly prevalent throughout Weiner's text.  On page 62, when describing natural selection, Weiner states, "Darwinian competition is not only the clash of stag horns, the gore on the jaws of lions, nature red in tooth and claws.  Competition can also be a silent race..."(5).  Weiner also changes his tone a great deal and even incorporates jokes into the text. On page 43 he states, "Only God and Peter Grant can recognize Darwin's finches"(5).  Furthermore, Weiner uses an astonishing amount of imagery, making the reader feel as if they are sitting next to Peter and Rosemary Grant as they are observing the finches.  What is most interesting, however, is that although Weiner's text is sold under the "science" category in bookstores, if one were to read his book with no prior knowledge about evolution, this can very easily be considered a work of fiction.  Similar to Darwin's text, Weiner's use of poetic elements places his book more along the middle of the science-humanities continuum, making it difficult to assign it to either category.
        Thus, it is evident that Darwin does use numerous poetic elements in his text, making his writing unique from any of his contemporaries, such as Wallace.  Although it is true that Darwin's writing was very different, we cannot make a conclusive argument that Darwin's introduction of a new type of writing led to the evolution of scientific writing into what we have today, as we would need to examine multiple scientific texts written after Darwin's work.  However, it is possible to say that Darwin can be considered a poet-after all, his grandfather Erasmus was a poet, himself.  It is also possible to conclude that Darwin's work did contribute to the modern writing of scientific texts.





1)      Beer, Gillian. Darwin's Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Elliot and Nineteenth Century Fiction. N.Y.: Cambridge UP, 2000.

2)      Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. Ed. Joseph Carroll. New York: Broadview P, 2003.

3)      O'Gorman, Francis, ed. Victorian Poetry : An Annotated Anthology. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2004.

4)      Wallace, Alfred R. Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection. New York: Macmillan and Co., 1871.

5)      Weiner, Jonathan. The Beak of the Finch : A Story of Evolution in Our Time. New York: Vintage, 1995.



Paul Grobstein's picture

Darwin: who's responsible and who gets to know?

Lots of interesting ideas is here. Among them is the notion that Darwin was troubling because the story suggests we are ourselves responsible for the the future and the related notion that Darwin was himself interesting in communicating not only with scientists but humans in general. The latter reminds me of troubles that Galileo got into several centures earlier. His story of the earth going around the sun was particularly troubling to the Catholic church because Galileo insisted on telling it in the vernacular rather than confining himself to writing in Latin, where it would be readable only by the highly educated.

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