McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts
Boston, Herbert Spencer, John Fiske, Social Darwinism
Broad acceptance of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species emboldened a young William Dean Howells to explore the possibility of a scientific foundation for a new literature combining close observations of the immediate environment with a method of interpreting these observations based on evolutionary science as Howells understood it. Charles Sprague's "The Darwinian Theory," published in the Atlantic in 1866, the year Howells became assistant editor, provided the foundation for this new method, and Alfred Russel Wallace's The Malay Archipelago (1869) prompted Howells to take what he called "a new direction" in fiction based on evolutionary theory and natural selection. He began to explore this new approach in sketches written for the Atlantic (later published as Suburban Sketches) and further developed it in his first novel, Their Wedding Journey. Of special interest is the sketch "Jubilee Days" in which he examines the biological premises upon which Darwin and Wallace base their conclusions about natural selection.
Howells continued to explore evolutionary theory in A Modern Instance in which he examines the locus of human morality and the educational process that shapes the human moral sense. Individual progress, analogous to social progress, requires inheritance of an innate altruistic tendency, which stands in tenuous opposition to the selfish impulses that had directed human behavior for millennia. If unsupported, altruism can revert to savage animalism; therefore, education must shape it. Additionally, a terminus of influence delimits the boundary beyond which the adult moral sense solidifies. Later in his career, however, Howells's attitude toward evolution exhibits a slow but steady shift from measured optimism concerning the future of human society to one of doubt and pessimism. In The Minister's Charge (1886), Howells concludes that adaptation is possible for the individual and that the variation introduced to the existing, relatively closed social structure will strengthen society as a whole. The Landlord at Lion's Head (1897) presents an interpretation close in accord with an integrated evolutionary theory of Mendelian genetics with Darwinian natural selection. Howells eventually concludes that the best one can hope for is survival in the perpetual struggle and adaptation within a shifting social environment.
Wells, S. (2008). William Dean Howells and the New Science: Darwinian Evolution and the Rise of Realism (Doctoral dissertation, Duquesne University). Retrieved from https://dsc.duq.edu/etd/1353