The Tangled Bank: Introduction

This is the complete introduction to The Tangled Bank: Love, Wonder, and Evolution.

In the final lines of Origin of Species (1859), Charles Darwin wrote that “it is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank”. One-and-a-half centuries later, the nature of that tangled bank remains a source of contention, with dozens of recent books re-enacting the debates of late Victorian England. This despite the fact that the concept of evolution permeates every facet of modern biology and medicine, from our understanding of swine flu to fruit flies to the fanged bird-eating frog discovered last year in the Mekong delta of Thailand.

Given the significance of Origin of Species to science and the history of ideas, it’s surprising how little fiction writers—as opposed to non-fiction writers—marked the anniversary in 2009. Perhaps evolution just doesn’t sell. The oft-quoted statistic is that less than 40 per cent of Americans accept the scientific theory of evolution. A new film about Darwin’s life reportedly had trouble finding a US distributor. But other English-speaking countries fare little better; only about half of Australians and Britons accept the theory, for example.

And yet, there was an explosion of late nineteenth and early twentieth century novels and stories on the subject of evolution, most famously H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau, but also books by Conrad, Hardy, Stapledon, and others, stories which are still read and enjoyed today for their literary merit, if not their scientific accuracy. And as Brian Stableford and others have noted, the theory of evolution played an important role in the development of science fiction, by uncovering the deep abyss of geological time and thus encouraging thought of the far future.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the three anthologies of evolution-inspired fiction published in the last year—Intelligent Design (DAW Books), Origins: Tales of Human Evolution (HadleyRille Books), and now The Tangled Bank: Love, Wonder, and Evolution—are all speculative fiction.

The Tangled Bank includes work by established writers like Brian Stableford, emerging writers like Christopher Green, and new writers like K.R. Sands, published here for the first time. The genres range from science fiction and fantasy to horror and fairy tales to literary and experimental fiction. True to its name, the anthology is bursting not only with stories, but also poetry and artwork. Sean Williams’s haiku sequence, The Origin of Haiku by Means of Natural Selection, consists of summaries of each of the chapters of Origin of Species using Darwin’s own reshuffled words. As well as serving as the backbone of the book, the haiku sequence also cleverly traces the evolution of the haiku from its oldest to its most recent forms. The haiku are accompanied by the nineteenth century art of the German naturalist and illustrator Ernst Haeckel, who coined the word ’ecology’. Philosopher Russell Blackford contributes an essay, “Science and the Sea of Faith”, on evolution, religion, and story-telling.

The anxieties of the age hover in the background of The Tangled Bank, but, as the book’s subtitle suggests, there is love and wonder in even the darkest places. Darwin agonised over the implications of his ideas for society, and yet his writing is shot through with wonder; it is no coincidence that more than one poet in this anthology uses Darwin’s own words. George Levine, in his book Darwin Loves You, describes Darwin as “one who refuses to minimize the cruelties of nature, but one who never loses a sense of its wonder, who never ceases finding objects of awe and natural reverence amidst its workings”. Even in a detailed, scientific description of the microscopic community living inside a barnacle, Darwin can’t help but exclaim at “the marvellous assemblage of beings seen by me within the sac”.

It is this Darwin that this anthology seeks to celebrate, and more generally a theory which continues to evolve and resonate down to the present day. As Blackford suggests in his essay, a scientific worldview may never provide existential sustenance for the majority of human beings. But, being human, writers and readers can’t help but try to bridge the gap between what is and what ought to be. We are, in the words of one of the stories contained within, “hopeful monsters”, the latest in a long line of survivors.

I hope you enjoy exploring The Tangled Bank: Love, Wonder, and Evolution.



Filed under Excerpts, The Tangled Bank

3 responses to “The Tangled Bank: Introduction

  1. Pingback: The Tangled Bank: Love, Wonder, and Evolution « hydrolith

  2. Pingback: The Tangled Bank: Love, Wonder, and Evolution « The Dispersal of Darwin

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