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Evolutionary Aestheticism: Scientific Optimism and Cultural Progress, 1850-1913


While evolutionary science may appear to have little in common with the Aesthetic Movement—the “art for art’s sake” philosophy of culture that arose in Britain in the late 1860s—this dissertation contends that these schools of thought formed interdependently, through a sustained dialogic exchange between writers whose interests spanned both art and science. Prominent Victorian figures such as the polymath Herbert Spencer, the aesthete Oscar Wilde, and the critic Vernon Lee (Violet Paget) not only accepted the truth of Charles Darwin’s insights, but also converged in their conception of what I term “evolutionary aestheticism”: a rational and yet remarkably optimistic philosophy that looked to the enjoyment of beauty and the cultivation of taste, rather than violent Darwinian competition, for modes of peaceable evolutionary progress.

Each chapter explores the development of evolutionary aestheticism, from the decade leading up to Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) to the publication of Lee’s aesthetic primer The Beautiful (1913). The first chapter traces the tradition to Darwin’s and Spencer’s mid-century evolutionary theories, which exempted aesthetic experience from brutal natural laws of scarcity and struggle. Next, the dissertation considers how the cultural critic Walter Pater and the mathematician W. K. Clifford shaped aestheticism in the 1870s—the movement’s formative years—by postulating a scientifically inflected ideal of the aesthetic temperament. The third chapter juxtaposes Wilde’s criticism with Grant Allen’s popular science writing: in the 1890s, these two writers articulated a radically hedonic aesthetics that equated individual happiness with social progress. The fourth chapter analyzes the “life-enhancing” aesthetics of Lee and the connoisseur Bernard Berenson, both of whom discerned the true value of beauty in its capacity to revitalize the entire species as well as the individual.

A short coda evaluates the legacy of evolutionary aestheticism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Although the scientific claims of evolutionary aestheticism have all but disappeared from modern-day discourse, its central aim of reconciling aesthetic pleasure with social good has reemerged, this study concludes, in recent debates within literary and cultural criticism.

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