Beauty as a Terministic Screen in Charles Darwin's The Descent of Man


  • Kate Holterhoff (Carnegie Mellon University)


This paper analyzes the term beauty in Charles Darwin's The Descent of Man (1871) using Kenneth Burke's rhetorical tool, the terministic screen. I argue that by establishing what meanings, ideologies and prejudices the term beauty alternately reveals and conceals in Darwin's prose, scholars can better understand how Darwin reinforced a number of racial, gender, and colonial stereotypes while subtly shifting Victorian British modernity away from anthropocentrism. Although Descent analyzes a variety of species to argue for the importance of sexual selection and its frequent instrument beauty, and argues that the principal function of beauty is sexual selection; a truth encompassing the animal kingdom and 'savage' races, yet innovatively stretched to include 'civilised' (i.e. European) human beings. Focusing on beauty exposes Descent's radical conclusion that while culture differentiates and ranks species, beauty connects and therefore humanity is neither separate from nor superior to the remainder of the animal kingdom.

I compare the definitions and roles of beauty formulated by nineteenth-century cultural critics John Ruskin, Edmund Burke, William Paley, and evolution critic George Campbell with those of Darwin to illustrate the complexity of this terministic screen. By using an aesthetic concept familiar in Victorian England, then shifting and adding to this convention, Darwin changed beauty into a term that both filters and mediates meaning, resulting in both the alteration and reinforcement of multiple issues in the accepted ontology of nineteenth-century Europeans. Analyzing the intersection between Darwin's rhetoric and his theories regarding aesthetics in evolution and sexual selection is essential because, far from a passive descriptor of physical objects, the aesthetic terminology in Descent, and beauty in particular is both a dynamic and fraught terministic screen.