Walter Pater and non-Darwinian science

Kistler, Jordan (2023) Walter Pater and non-Darwinian science. Journal of Victorian Culture, 28 (2). pp. 163-177. ISSN 1750-0133 (

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Walter Pater’s engagement with nineteenth-century science has long been acknowledged, but critics have often characterized it in negative terms. This essay demonstrates that while Pater viewed Darwinian evolutionary theory negatively, insisting that it ‘stealthily withdraws the apparently solid earth itself from beneath one’s feet’ (Plato and Platonism, 1893), he embraced non-Darwinian theories of development. Peter J. Bowler has argued that an ‘eclipse of Darwinism’ or ‘non-Darwinian revolution’ took place in the second half of the nineteenth century, in which there was widespread public acceptance of the transmutation of species but not of the mechanism of adaptation and natural selection proposed by Darwin. Instead, as Bowler demonstrates, the prevailing understanding of evolution was of a non-Darwinian variety that emphasized form over function and design over random chance. I suggest that within these theories, such as the transcendental morphology propounded by Richard Owen, Pater finds a physical manifestation of his own particular philosophic blend of materialism and idealism. Viewed through this lens, many of Pater’s theories in art and philosophy become clearer, such as his belief in the ‘limitations’ of sculpture, discussed in Studies in the History of the Renaissance. Instead of viewing this as a denigration of sculpture as the art form furthest from the ideal, this essay demonstrates that Pater viewed sculpture in terms of the archetype of transcendental morphology: something both material and immaterial, simple and yet also ideal. Far from retreating from the spectre of contemporary science, as many critics suggest Pater does, Pater views science and the humanities as complementary disciplines, or homologues, sharing an underlying structure.