Design in the Age of Darwin

Design and evolution were topics of great significance during the nineteenth century, and Design in the Age of Darwin examines the interactions between evolutionary theories and design after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859. Although debates about natural history had many nuances, the main division between “intelligent design” and Darwin’s view of evolution shared an emphasis on the importance of the way plants and animals were designed and adapted to function within their environments. A key difference was in the agency of design. “Intelligent design,” especially as articulated by the Reverend William Paley in Natural Theology (1802), argued that such “intelligent design” in nature is ultimately the work of the Creator, God. Darwin, in contrast, saw design as evidence for the struggle for survival, and he proposed that evolution occurred by incorporating the most functional and adaptive designs to meet the challenges of survival.

Design in the Age of Darwin originated in an exhibition held at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University. Stephen F. Eisenman, professor of art history at Northwestern University, conceived and curated the exhibit whose purpose was to explore how British and American architects and designers responded to the challenges presented by Darwin’s theory of evolution. The book accompanies this exhibition. Through five essays, the book explains and probes many facets of this time when “the theory and practice of design were closely tied to the theory of evolution.” Sixty-nine color plates of some of the objects and designs in the exhibition along with additional illustrations allow the reader to view the visual evidence.

One starting point in approaching this topic is the third essay in this volume, “Designing Evolution: Darwin’s Illustrations,” by Jacob W. Lewis. Darwin wrote a number of books on natural history, and many were studies that demonstrated the kind of detailed evidence on which Darwin drew from close examination of natural phenomena to present his theory of evolution in On the Origin of Species. In addition, toward the end of his life, Darwin grappled with the implications of evolution for the human species in The Descent of Man (1871) and The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). Thus, Darwin faced some major design issues himself. First, he needed to find ways to bridge the gap between the close visual observation of the naturalist and the abstract theories that this detailed visual evidence engendered. Second, his theory of evolution and natural selection was “a glacially slow process” over time. Darwin had to devise ways to capture, in effect, a time-lapse process within the confines of the concrete physical and visual presence of a book. To an extent, the designers and architects whose works are presented in this book confronted the same fundamental design challenges.

Lewis’s essay discusses Darwin’s eclectic approach to providing illustrations for his books. On the Origin of the Species had only one illustration, a schematic diagram that Darwin devised to represent a tree of life showing the stages of evolution of various species from extinct ancestors. In other books, Darwin often selected wood engravings from previously published sources, some of which were too abstract and archetypal to capture the sense of change and adaptation so essential to his evolutionary theory. For The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin used some photographic images. However, at this early stage in the development of photography, these staged and altered images fail to illustrate the spontaneity of emotional expressions. While Lewis concludes that Darwin “adapted well” to these visual problems, the evidence in this essay points to a struggle with the limitations of visual presentation of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

In contrast to Darwin, who was using design to illustrate a single theory of evolution, designers and architects drew on multiple sources and concepts to create their works. Eisenman’s introductory essay, “Design in the Age of Darwin: From William Morris to Frank Lloyd Wright,” provides an overview of how these issues varied with the individual designers who are represented in the...

(The entire section is 1795 words.)