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Victorian Literature and Darwin's Origin of Species

4. Degeneration and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

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About this Lecture


In this final module, Will picks up on the concept of degeneration, the idea that evolution could sometimes go 'backwards' and give rise to changes which are actually disadvantageous to the species in the question. One example of this is the horse's hoof, which appears to have evolved from a more sophisticated 'hand' (with three fingers) into the form we see it today. For the Victorians, degeneration (or atavism) was thought to present itself in one-off cases only. In Robert Louis Stevenson's novella 'Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde', however, which grapples with the idea, we are presented with a world in which degeneration is something that is present in all of us, not just particular individuals.


In this course, Dr Will Abberley (University of Oxford) explores the influence of Charles Darwin's 'Origin of Species' on contemporary works of Victorian literature: 'Great Expectations' by Charles Dickens, 'The Coming Race' by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and 'The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' by Robert Louis Stephenson. The course also includes an introduction to the study of science alongside literature.


Will read English at Pembroke College, Oxford, then worked as a print and broadcast journalist before returning to academia and attaining his PhD at the University of Exeter in 2012.

His thesis was entitled Language under the Microscope: Science and Philology in English Fiction, 1850-1914. It explored how popular fiction acted as a testing-ground for nineteenth-century theories of the evolution of language, imagining linguistic pasts and futures. His thesis suggested that such speculative thought experiments in fiction prefigured contemporary interest in instinctive signification and biosemiotics. This research is the subject of a forthcoming book.

He returned to Oxford in 2013 on a three-year research fellowship at Oxford’s English faculty funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The project is entitled Tricks of Nature: Biology, Mimicry and Disguise in Victorian Culture. The project explores concepts of natural deception in the period as natural historians such as Henry Walter Bates and Alfred Russel Wallace reconceptualised nature as a stage of tricks and impostures. He is interested in how literary genre engaged with the development of this scientific theory, such as in the naturalist's journal or scientific travel narrative. He is also examining how theories of natural mimicry influenced popular fiction by writers such as Grant Allen and H. G. Wells.

Cite this Lecture

APA style

Abberley, W. (2018, August 15). Victorian Literature and Darwin's Origin of Species - Degeneration and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Abberley, W. "Victorian Literature and Darwin's Origin of Species – Degeneration and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 15 Aug 2018,