Bringing Darwin Into Your Fiction: A Few Things Creative Writers Might Consider

A key element in Charles Darwin’s thought is that survival and the opportunity to reproduce attends the fittest and the sexiest.

Think about this Darwinian insight in relation to your writing: what would a Darwinian reading of your story notice? (If you’re writing nonfiction, the question might be enlightening to reflect on as well.)

Darwin was a reader of Jane Austen’s novels and it is tempting for English professors to think that perhaps his ideas about competition for resources and sexual selection took at least part of their genesis from her books (he was reading, for instance, Austen during his global voyage on the Beagle). Austen’s novels are suffused with smart and ironic people competing for property and mates. Does your story share a similar theme? How do characters cope with the stresses of sexual and property competition?

When Shakespeare wrote the following, he seems to have expressed a Darwinian question before Darwin (Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii, 294-299):

What a piece of work is a man, How noble in

Reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving

how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel!

in apprehension how like a god, the beauty of the

world, the paragon of animals, and yet to me, what is

this quintessence of dust?

In other words, humans seem to be amphibians between the spiritual and material worlds, sharing attributes with things we associate with heavenly realms—godlike powers of language and apprehension, for instance—even as we also share the attributes of animals (having bodies that suffer, lust, hunger, defecate, and will one day die). In your story, in what ways are the characters noble, dignified, and godlike, and in what ways are they animals? Are they ironic about their dual natures or are they oblivious to them? Do they lean more in the direction of the spiritual or the animal? How self-aware do the characters seem to be of their connections to animals and to their evolutionary ancestry?

Here are four other issues to consider when writing your fiction:

  • Modeling the future. A survival technique that appears to be much more developed in human beings than in other higher mammals is the power to imaginatively model in the mind alternative futures and to choose from them. Perhaps you might isolate in your fiction key moments of choice for your story’s characters. What options did they imagine themselves to have? What did they imagine would come of the choices they made? How did they talk to themselves in their heads about these options? Did their choices ultimately lead to greater flourishing and opportunities for reproduction—or to something else?
  • Bonobos vs. chimps. Anthropologists and geneticists agree that our nearest living primate relatives are the bonobo and the chimpanzee, yet these two species have distinct survival and sexual strategies. Bonobos tend to be vegetarian, nonviolent in their interactions with one another, and polymorphously perverse (having a lot of creative and indiscriminate sex)—hippies before there were hippies. Chimpanzees relish meat when available and, unlike bonobos, will actively hunt mammals. They are more characteristically violent than bonobos and the alpha males in their packs regulate and dominate sexual interaction—behaving like patriarchal squares before there were squares. Who are the “bonobos” and who are the “chimps” in your story? In competition, who wins and who loses? What predominates in your story: equality or hierarchy, dominance, and submission?
  • The stories we tell ourselves. Story-telling is a human universal (all human beings from all cultures do it). This suggests, from a Darwinian perspective, that the myths and stories we tell ourselves have survival value (either for particular individuals or groups). So what stories do the characters tell themselves—both about themselves and about others–that contributes to their survival? Alternately, what stories are functioning around them that might undermine their survival? Are there stories that are mesmerizing the characters, clouding their judgment and compelling them forward to certain destructive actions? What if the spell of those stories–whether aiding survival or hindering it–was broken? What would happen? What might replace them?
  • Contingency. One of the insights Freud took from Darwin is the large role that contingency (chance) plays in shaping our lives. What we dream and how we react to things is very specific to our peculiar and particular individual histories (to whom, where, and when we were born and to what we encounter in our environments). Each of us varies from our parents and from others, and those chance variations impact our prospects for survival and getting laid. We may, for instance, be especially good–much better than average–at anticipating the future. But even then, contingencies we did not imagine may be responsible for dooming us, upsetting even our most careful calculations and plans (as when Shakespeare’s Claudius, in an elaborate scheme, seeks to murder his nephew Hamlet with a poisoned chalice of wine, yet finds as the scheme plays out that his wife Gertrude has taken the cup to her lips instead). Likewise, you might ask: what role is contingency playing in my story, and what role should it play? And what contingencies make my characters unique (and therefore interesting)? The devil (and Darwin) is in the details.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett was right when he called Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection a “universal acid.” It really does affect all it comes into contact with (and since the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, that would seem to be just about everything and all of us). So consider consciously bringing Darwin into your fiction and see what happens. 

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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