Darwin and John Milton – evolution as “Paradise Lost”

By Jeremy Manier

I sat down yesterday with Robert Richards, author of “The Meaning of Evolution,” to talk about Darwin’s cultural influences and his place in history. Richards gave a very nice explanation of how deeply Darwin was influenced by John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”

When [Darwin] was on The Beagle, he carried Milton’s “Paradise Lost” with him everywhere. He read the poem incessantly. And of course it’s the story of death and suffering – man’s fall. But man’s fall is a necessary prerequisite for the coming of the savior, and the production of life more abundantly, a new kind of life. And if you read those last paragraphs [in “The Origin of Species”], it looks as though Darwin is trying to justify suffering and death. How do you do it? Death and suffering are justified because of the production of the higher animals, life more abundantly. A life leading to the production of the highest animal, namely us, with our moral sentiments.

Darwin’s theory has been so successful that we sometimes overlook the extent to which it was a product of his time, and his distinct way of seeing the world. This link to “Paradise Lost” casts the evolutionary process as something tragic, yet containing the seed of great beauty.

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