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The danger of Darwin’s ideas resides in the extraordinary way he used rather traditional conceptions. The usual assumption is that Darwin killed those barren virgins of teleology and of purpose, scorned moral interpretations of nature, and strode into the modern world escorting the stylish concepts of modern materialism and secularism. I believe, on the contrary, that Darwin’s theory preserved nature’s moral purpose and used teleological means of doing so. Darwinian evolution had the goal of reaching a fixed end, namely man as a moral creature. This is something Darwin implied in the peroration at the end of the Origin, when in justifying the death and destruction wrought by natural selection, he contended that “the most exalted object we are capable of conceiving” is “the production of the higher animals” (Darwin, 1859, p. 490). To understand Darwin’s place in history, I think we must first consider what his theory actually entailed.

In the argument that follows, I will assume what might seem like a pedantically obvious principle, namely that Darwin’s theory is embedded in his language. The principle contends that the conceptual import of Darwin’s language—particularly the deployment of tropes, metaphors, and other linguistic and logical devices—constitutes the operative theory advanced in the Origin. Darwin began formulating this language in his early notebooks and essays; and his constructions form the bedrock of the sometimes altered versions in his book. This means that it will occur that the language of Darwin’s theory will at times say more—or less—than he himself might reflectively have wished to say. I will argue this position in the spirit of the 1950s New Criticism—the movement that prized the well-wrought urn as an autonomous aesthetic object.


Most are familiar with the trajectory of Darwin’s career, but to set the context of his work, let me briefly fill in the broad outlines of his early life.

Darwin’s place in human thought could hardly have been predicted from the fortunes of that young boy who went to Edinburgh Medical School at age 16, following in the footsteps of his famous grandfather Erasmus Darwin, his father Robert Waring Darwin, and his older brother Erasmus. However, his prospects were not golden. In his Autobiography, Darwin recounts the attitude of that distant self, and his father’s own estimation of his son’s abilities:

I believe I was considered by my [school] masters and by my Father as a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard in intellect. To my deep mortification my father once said to me, “You care for nothing but

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