continent. maps a topology of unstable confluences and ranges across new thinking, traversing interstices and alternate directions in culture, theory, biopolitics and art.
Issue 4.2 / 2015: 49-55

Darwin's cicadas and lines of life

Anders Kølle

Included here, a reflection excerpted from Anders Kølle's 2014 book Beyond Reflection, released by Atropos Press.

 (image credit)


This time she came upon a large flower-bed, with a border of daisies, and a willow-tree growing in the middle. “O Tiger-lily!” said Alice, addressing herself to one that was waving gracefully about in the wind, “I wish you could talk!”

“We can talk,” said the Tiger-lily, “when there´s anybody worth talking to.”

- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass


Things lived in him for many years. They populated him, they carpeted the furthest recesses of his memory. They were present within him…

- Sartre on Francis Ponge, L´Homme et les Choses


What Sartre once said about the essayist and poet Francis Ponge would be equally true about Darwin. Things lived in him, were present within him, for many years: memories of the majestic trees of Kensington Gardens, his first meeting with the Fuegians, with Jemmy Button, York Minster, and Fuegia Basket, the great tortoises and black lava of Chatham Island, Galapageian swallows and finches, the vast aquatic forests of the southern hemisphere, the green valleys of Quillota and purple rocks of the Andes, Lyell´s theories and writings on geological time and changes, the works on flora by Sprengel and De Candolle, his readings of Malthus, Milton, Byron, Browne and many others. So many experiences, thoughts and ideas that populated him, carpeted the furthest recesses of his memory. Or rather: Slowly and gradually grew together in his mind, got interwoven and intertwined, became threads in a larger lacework and constellation bringing all elements into connection and mutual affinity. A grand theory of common descent, links of life, lines of evolution leading to the all-encompassing idea that “we are all netted together”, all the products of natural selection. For twenty years he pursued this idea, drew together more materials from a wide range of sources and intellectual domains - for twenty years he kept it to himself, kept quiet about it, tormented by doubts on how it would be received, until finally he gathered it all into his seminal work, On the Origin of Species. And surely many of his doubts and fears proved justified. While a few of his close friends and colleagues were quick to congratulate him and acknowledge the importance of his work, many, as we know, objected strongly, dismissed it completely or were downright shocked and appalled and gave free rein to their feelings of disgust in mocking as well as ridiculing letters and reviews. For example, Darwin´s old geological mentor, Adam Sedgwick, wrote him the following comment:

I have read your book with more pain than pleasure. Parts of it I admired greatly; parts I laughed at till my sides were almost sore; other parts I read with absolute sorrow; because I think them utterly false and grievously mischievous – You have deserted – after a start in that tram-road of all solid physical truth – the true method of induction - & started up a machine as wild I think as Bishop Wilkin´s locomotive that was to sail with us to the Moon.1 

Or the lay commentator, John Leifchild, who in a review of a novel by Disraeli for the Athenaeum sets Darwin´s work first alongside this fiction and says:

Lady Constance Rawleigh, in Disraeli´s brilliant tale, inclines to a belief that man descends from monkeys. This pleasant idea, hinted in the 'Vestiges', is wrought into something like a creed by Mr. Darwin. Man, in his view, was born yesterday – he will perish tomorrow. In place of being immortal, we are only temporary, and, as it were, incidental.2 

Indeed these attacks and mockery ring quite familiar, they seem rather akin to the strong reactions and harsh reviews that would befall Manet and his Olympia only a few years later, in 1865, on the other side of the English Channel. Though one might reasonably argue that any coincidences in the reception expresses nothing more than the predictable resistance and ridicule that in all places at all times have met thinkers and artists alike trying to offer an alternative regard, follow different, unconventional paths, and introduce a new and upending perspective, there is something more at stake, something that in our own modest lacework and small constellation bring Darwin´s and Manet´s efforts and work into proximity, into a zone of affinity, evoking a number of intersections. Not simply because both men on a most general level “drew a new picture of man,” placed him under a – to their contemporaries – foreign and alienating light, but more specifically because they did so by challenging the human form itself, by rendering it plastic and transmutable, blurring its hitherto unquestioned outline, replacing a determinate, eternal, even God-given shape with a seemingly incidental, apparently indefinite form. No less than Manet´s Olympia, Darwin´s On the Origin certainly “altered and played with identities the culture wished to keep still,”3 and to no lesser degree was man´s distinctiveness and lofty solitude challenged by extensions and acts of lines connecting instead of separating, animating instead of stabilizing – lines of movement that to Darwin would lead beyond the static taxonomy of immutable and independently created species to the changes produced by nature itself. As an early impressionist at work Darwin commits the following observations to paper in his discussion of variations in the free:

Certainly no clear line of demarcation has as yet been drawn between species and sub-species – that is, the forms which in the opinion of some naturalists come very near to, but do not quite arrive at the rank of species; or, again, between sub-species and well-marked varieties, or between lesser varieties and individual differences. These differences blend into each other in an insensible series; and a series impresses the mind with the idea of an actual passage.

Or as Darwin declares at the very beginning of On the Origin:

 Although much remains obscure, and will long remain obscure, I can entertain no doubt, after the most deliberate study and dispassionate judgment of which I am capable, that the view which most naturalists entertain, and which I formerly entertained – namely, that each species has been independently created – is erroneous. I am fully convinced that species are not immutable; but that those belonging to what are called the same genera are lineal descendants of some other and generally extinct species; in the same manner as the acknowledged varieties of any one species are the descendants of that species. Furthermore, I am convinced that Natural Selection has been the main but not exclusive means of modification.5

 Like “most naturalists,” as Darwin confirms, he too used to believe in the immutability of species but “deliberate study” and “dispassionate judgment” have led him to the realization of the erroneous character of this long held regard. We know however from his early writings, from his notebooks of the late 1830´s, that the insight of common descent, of the mutability and plasticity of species, was reached already during his voyage on board the Beagle and that this five year long journey around the southern hemisphere was anything but dispassionate. Powerful were his emotions in many regards: Not solely his feelings of joy, of awe, and astonishment in his encounters with the splendors, diversity and beauty of the tropic regions he saw, whose “glory & luxuriance, exceeds even the language of Humboldt to describe,”6 but also, as Gillian Beer has emphasized in her writings on Darwin´s voyage, feelings of disorientation, of disequilibrium, returning crises of Heimweh, nostalgia, and not least profound loneliness. Far away from his father, his sisters, his friends, as the only natural historian on board the ship, gentleman companion to captain Fitzroy with whom he hardly had much in common, how acute must not his feeling of isolation have been? How many hours, days and weeks would he not have been on his own? So much time to speculate and theorize, meditate on questions far exceeding the tolerated boundaries at home: “Do oysters have a free-will? Have plants any notions of cause and effect?” So many reasons to fantasize and to dream, to animate his surroundings, seek new and other friends among the fictitious characters of his beloved books, find companionship in the sceneries, among the plants and the animals he met on his way. Not much to hold him back from dreaming further and dreaming still deeper, not much to interrupt his trains of thought or discourage the audacity of his questioning. On the contrary, would not the marvels and wonders he encountered when off the ship encourage him to risk still more when back on board? To prolong the endless lines of sea-coast, of the jungle pathways he had walked, even further? “It is good to wander along lines of sea-coast, when formed of moderately hard rocks, and mark the process of degradation.”7 In his eyes, in his theories and reveries, things no longer opposed each other but shaped each other, exhibited their temporality, mutability, plasticity. And if even hard rocks were malleable and rocky coasts slowly formed by waves then why should living beings not be equally susceptible to change? Shape and transform each other like the waves transform the rocks and the rocks bend back the waves?

Let it be borne in mind how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life. Can it, then, be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should sometimes occur in the course of thousands of generations?8 

But however probable the impact of nature´s complex and close-fitting mutual relations would have been to the organization of each singular species, however obvious it by then must have seemed to Darwin, the problem remained how to prove it - that nowhere could such infinitely slow alterations be rendered anything but probable, for obvious reasons not be observed directly, not subjected to direct experiment, but only inferred, only made intelligible, plausible, and, in fact, only imagined. With no geological record to unequivocally support his theory, illustrations of the action of natural selection must necessarily be brought in the form of a narration: “In order to make it clear how, as I believe, natural selection acts, I must beg permission to give one or two imaginary illustrations.”9 Thus he invites his readers to imagine a wolf hunting in an area where changes in the environment has left only the fleetest animals, deer for instance, and other preys have disappeared or decreased significantly in number.

 I can under such circumstances see no reason to doubt that the swiftest and slimmest wolves would have the best chance of surviving, and so be preserved or selected… I can see no more reason to doubt this, than that man can improve the fleetness of his greyhounds by careful and methodical selection, or by that unconscious selection which results from each man trying to keep the best dogs without any thought of modifying the breed.10 

Thus he incites his readers to think of a flower and specifically the tubes of the corollas of the common red and incarnate clover – tubes that do not on a hasty glance appear to differ in length;

 yet the hive-bee can easily suck the nectar out of the incarnate clover, but not out of the common red clover, which is visited by humble-bees alone; so that whole fields of the red clover offer in vain an abundant supply of precious nectar to the hive-bee. Thus it might be a great advantage to the hive-bee to have a slightly longer or differently constructed proboscis. On the other hand, I have found by experiment that the fertility of clover depends on bees visiting and moving parts of the corolla, so as to push the pollen on to the stigmatic surface. Hence, again, if humble-bees were to become rare in any country, it might be a great advantage to the red clover to have a shorter or more deeply divided tube to its corolla, so that the hive-bee could visit its flowers. Thus I can understand how a flower and a bee might slowly become, either simultaneously or one after the other, modified and adapted in the most perfect manner to each other, by the continued preservation of individuals presenting mutual and slightly favourable deviations of structure.11 

Although Darwin, by these examples, undoubtedly speaks to his readers´ sound judgment, to their “good” sense, to “common” sense, he can however only do so by first appealing to their imagination, by initially “begging permission to give one or two imaginary illustrations.” But here, a simple “permission” is hardly enough. What he truly needs, what, we might say, Darwin really asks for, is for his readers to dream together with him, imagine what he imagines, envision what he sees, and come to join him where he is at. “Good” sense alone will not bring them there, “common” sense is not (yet) exactly common, not a shared terra firma, since Darwin has precisely left all commonplaces behind to follow profounder dreams. Dreams in which, as Gaston Bachelard says of poetic reveries, connections and passages have come to replace hard oppositions and strict divisions, dreams by which he has moved beyond the rigid taxonomy of independent species to the vibrant lines of life “netting us all together.” What he seeks to communicate is thus no longer expressible through ordinary names and objects, by reference to genera, families, orders and classes of which the naturalists before him spoke so confidently and settled the world. As through a Carrollean or Manetian mirror, Darwin has already passed to the other side, which as Deleuze reminds us in The Logic of Sense, is “to pass from the relation of denotation to the relation of expression – without pausing at the intermediaries, namely, at manifestation and signification. It is to reach a region where language no longer has any relation to that which it denotes, but only to that which it expresses, that is, to sense.”12 It is from the other side of this mirror, already from within this refraction, that Darwin now reaches out and tries to reach over the abyss separating his perspective from that of his contemporaries. It is from here he solicits his readers - as clovers, bees and finches once had solicited him - “to think of it, to dream near it, to help it raise itself to the rank of companion to man.”13 But the gap is not easily bridged, the reluctance not swiftly overcome in people who have not seen what he has seen, not experienced what he has experienced, not travelled where he has travelled on both his inner and outer journeys. The problems facing Darwin in his work On the Origin are therefore problems that far from being new, are very similar to problems he had already encountered in his travel descriptions twenty years earlier, when trying to communicate to his fellow countrymen the astonishing, tumultuous colour and life beyond the well-known English shores. In a beautiful passage towards the end of The Voyage of the Beagle Darwin addresses this problem, addresses this gap with following words:

Who… from seeing a plant in an herbarium can imagine its appearance when growing in its native soil? Who from seeing choice plants in a hothouse, can magnify some into the dimensions of forest trees, and crowd others into an entangled jungle? Who when examining in the cabinet of the entomologist the gay exotic butterflies, and singular cicadas, will associate with these lifeless objects, the ceaseless harsh music of the latter, and the lazy flight of the former – the sure accompaniments of the still, glowing noonday of the tropics? It is when the sun has attained its greatest height, that such scenes should be viewed: then the dense splendid foliage of the mango hides the ground with its darkest shade, whilst the upper branches are rendered from the profusion of light of the most brilliant green… When quietly walking along the shady pathways, and admiring each successive view, I wished to find language to express my ideas. Epithet after epithet was found too weak to convey to those who have not visited the intertropical regions, the sensation of delight which the mind experiences…. In my last walk I stopped again and again to gaze on these beauties, and endeavoured to fix in my mind forever, an impression, which at the time I knew sooner or later must fail. The form of the orange tree, the coconut, the palm, the mango, the tree-fern, the banana, will remain clear and separate; but the thousand beauties which unite these into one perfect scene must fade away; yet they will leave, like a tale heard in childhood, a picture full of indistinct, but most beautiful figures.14

 In time the thousand beauties connecting and uniting all forms into a perfect whole will fade away. What time will erase are all the nameless beauties linking the separate and well-known species into an astonishing and complete scene just like, as Darwin much later will argue, the passing of time has left no record of all the transitional links leading to the species we know today. Yet, as Darwin concludes, something does remain, something does persist, something like a tale heard in childhood, or, as we may think, something like an impressionistic painting of indistinct, beautiful forms. And if we, despite Darwin´s declared difficulties (“epithet after epithet was found too weak”), nevertheless do feel that he truly did succeed in evoking at least some of the splendors and marvels of the tropics he saw, in conveying his feelings of awe and delight with the colours, shapes and sounds surrounding him, it is solely due to the grace and almost poetic force of his expressive language: the way in which the darkest shades and most brilliant green of the mango are recalled, the way his own words almost begin to sing when thinking of the ceaseless music of the cicadas. But this is also where a rigorous and non-negotiable line of demarcation separates his travel descriptions from his scientific writings, his Voyage of the Beagle from his On the Origin of Species. Whereas an expressive language was not only permissible but even expected of a travel narrative in which readers took pleasure in detailed sensory accounts, in dramas and dramatizations of the foreign and unknown, even accepted and found joy in playful exaggerations – all of the above was (and is) absolutely inadmissible for a text with scientific claims and ambitions. The scientific paper and discourse with its invariant procedures of description, its rigid and ritualized order and succession of sections, its ideally stable locking of single signification, accepts no literary language, no indistinct forms or scenes, no multivocality, and certainly no imaginary or narratological excursions. What Peter Medawar claimed in the 20th Century, “that when literature arrives, it expels science,” would also have been the general opinion a century before. In writing On the Origin, Darwin thus found himself facing a seemingly impossible choice imposed on him by cultural expectations and limitations: Either to keep an expressive language but lose his credibility as a scientist or comply to the conventional demands but lose the true depths and full range and complexity of his thinking. In the first edition of On the Origin, Darwin chose neither. But as Gillian Beer explains in Darwin´s Plots,

Once The Origin was published Darwin became far more aware of the range of implications carried by this generous semantic practice. It was brought home to him that many of his terms could mean more and other than he could control. He defended his theory in succeeding editions by parking away multiple significations, trying at points of difficulty to make his key terms mean one thing and one thing only, as in the case of Natural Selection. Such labour came hard to him. The exuberantly metaphorical drive of the language of The Origin was proper to its topic. The need to establish more parsimonious definitions and to combat misunderstandings may help to account for that dimming of his imaginative powers which he so deeply regretted.15 

The conflict between a transmutable, dilatational, expressive language and a stable, denotational, fixating language hence describes and indeed repeats a fundamental conflict and gap between “movement” and “stasis,” “plasticity” and “immutability,” and indeed “life” and “knowledge” in the eyes of Beer. And Darwin´s discourse was undoubtedly on the side of “life,” “of the kind that George Eliot characterized as expressing 'life.'”16 But his efforts to eradicate all grounds for misunderstandings, to forestall all possible misinterpretations, forces him into the arms of the inert instead of the living, and, in a certain sense, back in front of the entomologist´s cabinet, that he described in his Voyage, of disparate, lifeless objects where “the lazy flight of the butterfly” and “the harsh music of the cicadas” ceases, dies away, and becomes once again unimaginable. The problem facing Darwin could thus also be brought forth in the following way: It is the difficulty of bringing the polymorph into the uniform, the multivocal into the univocal, the open into a closure, and force reveries and refractions into stable, apprehensible objects of reflection.



1 Correspondence, 7, 396-8, 24 November 1859

2 Athenaeum, 19 November 1859

3 T.J. Clark: The Painting of Modern Life, 100

4 Darwin: On the Origin of Species, 42

5 Ibid, 8

6 Correspondence, 396-7

7 Darwin: On the Origin of Species, 208

8 Ibid, 63

9 Ibid, 70

10 Ibid, 70

11 Ibid, 73-74

12 Deleuze: The Logic of Sense, 31

13 Bachelard: “The 'Cogito' of the Dreamer” in The Poetics of Reverie, 156

14 Darwin: The Voyage of the Beagle, 470-471

15 Gillian Beer: Darwin´s Plots, 33-34

16 Ibid, 34