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Darwin Correspondence Project

4.24 'Daily Graphic', Nast satire

In 1874 the Harvard philosopher John Fiske published his magnum opus, Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy, in which he set out to explain the far-reaching significance of Darwin’s and Herbert Spencer’s evolutionary theories. He believed that, beyond their scientific importance, they had provided new insights into humanity’s capacity for social and moral development. However, the human mind, being reliant on subjective impressions and on comparisons between known entities, was incapable of comprehending the ‘Absolute’ of God. Fiske’s ‘cosmic philosophy’ embodied ‘a phase of Theism which is higher and purer, because relatively truer, than the anthropomorphic phase defended by theologians’. His theory did not require a problematic belief in God’s interventions in the material world, and thus ‘science and religion are reconciled’. Despite this rejection of atheism, Fiske’s all-encompassing philosophy incurred the derision of the satirists. A Daily Graphic cartoon by the famous Thomas Nast, entitled ‘Professor John Fisk [sic] flys the evolution kite in America’, gives a very convincing caricature of his bespectacled face and mop of tousled curly hair. A spoof quotation from the book parodies Fiske’s longwinded exegesis of evolution by natural selection, which allegedly put ‘Christians and cabbages’ on a par. The caption also explains Nast’s pictorial symbolism. Darwin is shown holding the end of a kite string, and Fiske prepares to toss the kite itself skyward – it is inscribed ‘The doctrine of evolution’. There is deliberate confusion when the caption adds that ‘The unknowable is the kite, the string of the ball is evolution, the rolls of paper are the cells, and man, in the maturity of his powers, is the tassel at the end’. The kite tail in fact displays an evolutionary progression from insects through amphibians and reptiles to monkeys and finally an ape reading Herbert Spencer’s First Principles. Another ape nearby is reading Descent of Man, while a third in the distance is hanging onto Darwin’s (coat) tail. 

Fiske made several visits to Europe in connection with his researches; he met Darwin himself in London in 1873 and was invited to Down in 1879 and 1880. When Cosmic Philosophy appeared in 1874, Fiske sent Darwin a copy, but ploughing through nearly a thousand pages of philosophical theorising and polemic was clearly an ordeal to the recipient. Darwin’s letter of thanks to Fiske was characteristically kind and humble, but could not hide his aversion. ‘I find that my mind is so fixed by the inductive method, that I cannot appreciate deductive reasoning: I must begin with a good body of facts & not from a principle, (in which I always suspect some fallacy) & then as much deduction as you please . . . such parts of H. Spencer, as I have read with care impress my mind with the idea of his inexhaustible wealth of suggestion, but never convince me’. However, this very qualified appreciation of Fiske’s book seemingly did not disappoint the author. ‘Indeed I consider the mere fact that you have found it worth while, amid your many occupations, to read my big book through, to be the very highest praise the book has received from any quarter,  – praise that is worth more than reams of eulogy from the most critical of reviews’.  

Fiske’s boundless admiration for Darwin – but also his sense of humour  – conditioned his reaction to the Daily Graphic satire on Cosmic Philosophy. According to his biographer, he ‘was greatly impressed by this cartoon, and he had it framed and gave it a conspicuous place in his library. It remains with his library still. To his friends, who objected to its vulgarity in so degrading Spencer and Darwin, Fiske’s ready response was: “Yes, but remember it is a faithful presentation of the attitude of the religious mind generally towards the doctrine of Evolution in 1874-1875. I like to keep this design before me as a sort of theological barometer – objections to it show how rapidly the religious mind is moving towards the great truths of Cosmic Evolution.”’ 

  • physical location collection of Professor William Friedman 

  • copyright holder Professor Friedman 

  • originator of image Thomas Nast (signed bottom right) 

  • date of creation September 1874 

  • computer-readable date 1874-09-01 to 1874-09-11 

  • medium and material wood engraving from a drawing by Nast 

  • references and bibliography The Daily Graphic 5: 474 (12 Sept. 1874), front page. John Fiske, Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy based on the Doctrine of Evolution, with Criticisms on the Positive Philosophy, 2 vols, (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, and London: Macmillan, 1874); there were many subsequent editions. Fiske’s letter to Darwin, introducing himself and explaining his indebtedness to Darwin’s ideas: DCP-LETT-8030 (23 Oct. 1871). Fiske to Darwin, asking to meet him while in London: DCP-LETT-9120 (31 Oct. 1873), and Darwin’s response: DCP-LETT-9127 (3 Nov. [1873]). Darwin’s letters to Fiske about Outlines: DCP-LETT- 9706 (3 Nov. [1874]) and DCP-LETT- 9749 (8 Dec. [1874]). Fiske’s response to these letters: DCP-LETT-9888 (15 March 1875). Darwin’s letters inviting Fiske to Down House: DCP-LETT-12098 (10 June 1879) and DCP-LETT-12606 (14 May [1880]). John Spencer Clark, The Life and Letters of John Fiske, 2 vols (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1917), vol. 2, pp. 56-7. Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin (London: Michael Joseph, 1991), pp. 603-4. 


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