The Modern and the Postmodern: Coursera 3rd writing assignment

Darwin wrote that: “Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.” Compare Darwin’s view of the persistent effects of the past with at least one other writer covered so far in the course (please try to write about someone you haven’t written about in the previous assignments). 


Primal instincts and the seek for pleasure in the works of Darwin and Baudelaire


ImageDarwin’s theory of evolution strongly indicates the presence of a common ancestor of all living creatures – man himself included – , who over time and within the process of “natural selection” came to be modified in order to adapt each to their own surroundings. Thus Darwin boldly claims “Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin”,  (Darwin 1871) suggesting that we are indeed nothing more than a successful mutation of a primal. As it was expected, his views raised controversy especially among the men of faith.

Darwin’s views about our genealogical past were not a result of painless efforts; Darwin was notably a meticulous scientist, who spent years of research in order to complete his work on the species that inhabit our planet and the origins of humans. He was more so diligent in writing about his endeavors not in a scholarly manner – as one might have expected from a man of letters – but in layman’s terms. By doing so he passed on precious scientific knowledge to people that were hardly accustomed to terminology of the sort, provoking mixed emotions to a huge populous even to this day.

In his work “the Descent of Man” the final Chapter digresses towards the moral differences between man and beasts, claiming that “…the first foundation or origin of the moral sense lies in the social instincts, including sympathy; and these instincts no doubt were primarily gained, as in the case of the lower animals, through natural selection.” (Darwin 1871) According to his reasoning, our relationship with God and the vast power of social habit were hugely responsible to maintain those primary instincts and develop them to a more decent humane conduct. He concurs “ultimately man does not accept the praise or blame of his fellows as his sole guide, though few escape this influence, but his habitual convictions, controlled by reason, afford him the safest rule. His conscience then becomes the supreme judge and monitor.” (Darwin 1871) As one observes, it is well within our nature to commune with each other, to sympathize even from the early stages of evolution. Darwin (1871) elaborates upon the matter:  “The motive to give aid is likewise much modified in man: it no longer consists solely of a blind instinctive impulse, but is much influenced by the praise or blame of his fellows. The appreciation and the bestowal of praise and blame both rest on sympathy; and this emotion, as we have seen, is one of the most important elements of the social instincts”. However our beliefs and higher principles such as faith in God were under no circumstances “innate or instinctive”. They were byproducts of social grouping.

Darwin provoked public opinion with his work in the mid-19th century yet his views about human basic instincts and our dormant past were actually supported in a completely different  field namely art. Baudelaire, the infamous French poet, shares the belief that intense emotions that even violate social standards and etiquette are indeed equal parts of human nature and goes on a step further; perhaps our bestial origins are actually better than the reformed social ones.

In the “Eyes of the Poor” (Baudelaire 1869), the Darwinian sympathy emerges as he observes that the glasses were too small to satisfy the upper middle class’ thirst for luxury; the eyes of the impoverished family outside the café haunt him. Yet, as social surroundings indicate, his companion doesn’t share the same thoughts. She is rather taken aback and irritated by their presence.

The themes unraveled in “Le Spleen de Paris” bear testimony of how man has become a social beast and if let outside the social grid he will eventually fall prey to his inner primal instincts. Pleasure for one is the ultimate medium, with which one seeks to express himself. Other motifs include narcotics and sexuality, both marginalized by the “comme – il – faut” society of the time.  It seems as if Baudelaire is biased against the prejudiced conformity and considers bourgeoisie a hypocritical hybrid; “the Rope” (Baudelaire 1869) is an excellent portrayal of how motherhood and innate motherly feelings are denominated in exchange for profit.

To sum up, Darwin theory of evolution is backed by considerable scientific data; it is in Baudelaire however that we find empirically how much we can change  – both positively and negatively – as humans based on the social surroundings we choose to abide by. It should have made one wonder: Is our hairy ancestor the true monstrosity?


Works cited:

1. Baudelaire, Charls: Le Spleen de Paris. 1869

2. Darwin, Charles: The Descent of Man. 1871