On the Origin of Species

The drawings of Charles Darwin's children

It is a troubling feature of our new Dark Age that Darwinian and Neo-Darwinian ideas are accepted so pervasively and uncritically. Naïve notions of natural selection and survival of the fittest are used to endorse neoliberal ideas of the individual as an isolated unit of production, battling with rivals for goods and services in a fierce marketplace. In the university, bioprediction theories that claim to anticipate criminality or antisocial behaviour are now embraced as both scientific and as cash cows for external funding. The student and academic protests that once greeted such projects have vanished.

The recent online publication of the original manuscript of On the Origin of Species (1859) might enable us to better understand this enduring popularity. The margins and back leaves are covered with drawings by Charles Darwin’s children, a delightful series of vignettes depicting flora and fauna transcending their ‘natural’ state. Pumpkins, turnips and carrots sprout limbs, a fish sports an umbrella, and vegetables and fruit are made to form a cavalry with human riders.

The smiling faces and sheer energy of these charming scenes, however, cannot conceal their violence. The characters who ride on apples and pears are all, in fact, hunting: a rider shoots a stag and another hacks at a corpse. A pencil sketch shows a man hanging. This is a brutal world of killers and victims, winners and losers. Another cartoon shows a confrontation between a turbaned fighter and a British dragoon. And, in one exemplary image, a man’s flag unfurls to show an ‘R’ as he rides on the back of a vast, open-jawed sea creature: the lettering continues in the sky to spell out ‘Rule Britannia’.

Drawing from the draft manuscript of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, 1859. Courtesy: Cambridge University Library and American Museum of Natural History, New York

Drawing from the draft manuscript of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, 1859. Courtesy: Cambridge University Library and American Museum of Natural History, New York

Already, in 1948, Jacques Lacan had observed that the success of Darwin’s theories was due to their projection of the predations of Victorian society.  The ‘economic euphoria’ that resulted from British overseas expansion, sanctioned ‘social devastation [...] on a planetary scale’, justified by the doctrine of survival of the fittest. The idea of selection, Lacan thought, revolved around how animals were perceived to conquer territory, reinforcing once again the barbaric imperialism that characterized Darwin’s century.

It is this repressed truth that appears so clearly in the children’s drawings. Man dominates over beast. Imperial predator kills colonial prey. There is even a strange ground force of insectoid creatures in many of the pictures, like foot soldiers, as if to indicate a stratification of species between hunters and hunted. Although there are a few straight vignettes of animals, we then find a series of human portraits: a grenadier guard, a lancer, a horse guard, a Scots fusilier, an Enniskillen dragoon etc. Each one is neatly labelled, like a specimen. And we realize that the single most documented species in the drawings is … the British army.

Darian Leader is a psychoanalyst based in London, UK. His latest book, Hands (2016), is published by Hamish Hamilton.

Issue 180

First published in Issue 180

Jun - Aug 2016

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