Date of Award

Summer 2019

Document Type

Open Access Dissertation


Comparative Literature

First Advisor

Judith Kalb


This dissertation is dedicated to the response of nineteenth-century Russian writers to the English naturalist Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. His theory was by no means the next discovery in a series of indistinguishable scientific discoveries; the fact that its implications touched every aspect of human social life was lost on no one, despite the fact that Darwin did not discuss human evolution in any detail. The Origin changed what it meant to be human: what Darwin’s readers took to be their place in the universe and how they ought to act with regard to both other humans and other animals. But when the Origin came to Russia, the moral and cosmological significance of Darwin’s work was grafted onto Russia’s combined historical, social, economic, political, and religious conditions. With their cultural status as near-prophetic, moral authorities, Russian writers became the vehicle through which Russians during this turbulent time accepted, rejected, dissected, rewrote, and grappled with Darwin’s ideas and their ramifications. This dissertation focuses on the understudied responses of three writers in particular: the journalist Nikolai Strakhov, the novelist Lev Tolstoy, and the philosopher Vladimir Solovyov. As I show, despite each writer’s varying background and response to Darwin’s theory, they all shared similar moral concerns. Initially supportive, Strakhov changed his mind, once he realized that Darwin’s theory did not support his own anthropocentric philosophy of organicism. Tolstoy also initially supported Darwin’s theory, but following his conversion to an idiosyncratic Christianity, he became convinced that Darwin’s theory was being used to justify immorality and was incapable of serving as the foundation of an ethical system. Solovyov, on the other hand, was a lifelong supporter of Darwin’s theory, though in order to accommodate his own anthropocentrism, he had to downplay its utilitarian and relativistic nature. Ultimately, Tolstoy and Strakhov share a concern about the implications of concept of the struggle for existence for morality, whereas Tolstoy and Solovyov worried that the implications of morality as an adaptation would undermine the foundation of morality. A concern all three writers nevertheless shared was the use of evolutionary theory to justify moral and social behaviors – what was then called “evolutionary ethics,” or “Social Darwinism.” This study contributes the study of how the response to Darwinism varied by country and the moral concerns that underpin responses to scientific ideas more generally.


© 2019, Brendan G. Mooney