Saturday, 21 March 2009

Darwin, Morris, Utopia

In this, the bicentenary year of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin and his evolutionary theory weigh mightily on our collective mind; and one can hardly turn on the radio or television, or open a broadsheet newspaper, without stumbling upon some commemorative programme or article.

One finds no mention of Darwin in Morris’s own voluminous writings, though Darwin was certainly a significant presence in the Marxist intellectual milieu in which Morris immersed himself from 1883 onwards. For the first fullscale impact of Darwin’s thought upon the utopian tradition we have to wait until the publication of H.G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia in 1905, which argues forcefully that ‘the Utopia of a modern dreamer must needs differ in one fundamental aspect from the Nowheres and Utopias men planned before Darwin quickened the thought of the world ... the Modern Utopia must be not static but kinetic’ (ch. 1). Amen to that, surely, which takes us at a stroke decisively beyond the frozen perfectionist geometries of the classical utopian tradition from Plato to Edward Bellamy.

But it may be that, with or without an explicit theoretical encounter with Darwin’s work, Morris in News from Nowhere has in fact taken this kinetic emphasis on board anyway, fifteen years before the publication of Wells’s fine meta-utopia. For such, at any rate, I take to be the impact of Ellen in the last third of Morris’s text. After the genial but perhaps too leisurely and pastoral tour of garden-city London and the lower Thames, Ellen erupts dynamically into the text, ‘troubling’ it as intensely as she has her own earlier lovers.

There are no doubt many interpretative frames in which one could construe Ellen’s extraordinary intervention, but a Wellsian-Darwinian one will do well enough in this bicentenary year. We may then fittingly see her as the pure principle of evolutionary kineticism, who will turn Nowhere upside down and inside out in due course; and thus Morris’s utopia, just as much as the rest of us, pays its respects to the great Victorian biologist.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If you have read any evolutionary psychology, which is based firmly on Darwin's legacy, you will see that the idea of Utopia is ruled out.