Charles Darwin and Visual Culture

Illustrated Covers of On the Origin of Species


  • Sara Schwartz

Ključne riječi:

evolution, icon, imagetext, myth, natural selection, progress


The importance of Charles Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species (1859),
cannot be overstated, both in terms of (the history of) evolutionary biology
and culture-wise. The book and the theory of evolution by natural selection
presented therein eliminates the need for an explanation of a superior power
in all that is related to the diversity of biological species, and thus provides a
scientific and materialistic theory for “creation”. The book and its author have
become pivotal in secular culture, and the focus of attacks by various religious
groups. With about 500 illustrated covers of a book whose importance goes
beyond the scientific field to which it belongs, it is interesting to study how
the ideas appearing in Origin of Species are illustrated in its many editions,
whether there are recurring motifs in the illustrations, and if so, what their
meanings are. The abundance of illustrated covers of Origin provides virtually
controlled conditions for a study of the unique way in which concepts
transfer to the public. Such an investigation must begin by examining the link
between text and cover image. Accordingly, my aim is to map and classify the
Origin motifs that appear on the covers of the various editions, and how they
are brought to bear, toward determining which are being transferred In my
paper, I draw on two related concepts first introduced by W.J.T. Mitchell in his
book Picture Theory: the “imagetext”, defined as a composite of picture and

text that operates as a single unit. When the text and picture do not function
in harmony– when something else intervenes between them – the result is
an image/text. These interactions between words and images (imagetext vs.
image/text) not only help to analyze representations, but trace their relationships
to issues of power, value, and human interests. Herein I present and
discuss recurring motifs among the illustrated covers of the various editions
of Origin of Species, for example: motifs related to the Beagle’s voyage; living
nature; a focus on the author – Charles Darwin – rather than on his ideas;
ascent of man (appears only on commercial editions); and unique metaphors.




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