Embracing Change: Darwinism and Evolution in “The Biology of Autumn” by J. Arthur Thomson

© Copyright 2018 Evana Truong, Ryerson University

Autumn landscape with rainbow. 1779 Watercolour and pen, 334 x 415 mm Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The Curve of Autumn

“The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal” is a short series that captures the transition of seasons through the passing of time. As autumn progresses from summer into winter, drastic changes occur within nature. “The Biology of Autumn” by John Arthur Thomson surrounds the theme of change. Located in volume two: Book of Autumn, Thomson argues that all life is rhythmic. His argument connects the occurrence of seasonal changes and curves of natural life. The cycle of annual intervals represent the infinite continuance of nature. Beginning from the renewal of spring, to the crest of life that blooms in summer, autumn slows down in abundance as it embraces winter. Winter, the final season before the revival of earth has been argued by Arthur Thomson in volume four: Book of Winter, to be the elimination of races. Combining “The Evergreen’s” historical background for merging art and science, Thomson uses the portrayal of seasons to spread a new outlook towards change and progression. By relating the theme of death to nature, Thomson acknowledges that all forms of life are harmonious. Thus, life exists for a common goal, the continuance of species. With rising conversation about Darwinism, “The Evergreen” adopts scientific approaches to educate and target discord surrounding change.

Themes of Death

Novemberstimmung | Wilhelm Pramme (1898-1965)


The themes of death, withering and decay are seen throughout “The Biology of Autumn”, yet the portrayal of death is far from frightening,

“Look death in the face, and see that he is kindly and wise” (17). 

Death is an important factor to the cycle of life and autumn due to the similar properties they carry in preparation for renewal. Thomson writes about the leaves changing colours, the plants withering and the birds migrating. “We miss part of the biology of autumn if we do not recognize it as a time of preparation for continued life” (15). “The Biology of Autumn” works to give death a new meaning as it challenges societal views about it. Many traditional views of death remained under religious context. “The Biology of Autumn” does not aim to disrupt religion, it focuses on new meanings and the purpose of death. All forms of life, including humans and plants experience stages of growth and advancement as well as recession. Thomson asserts,

“The organism rises to the crest of the wave, reproduces at its limit of growth, and hurries from the climax of loving to the crisis of dying. So all around us in autumn, we see the little child Love holding the door against stalwart Death” (11).

These periods of life occur naturally, as the seasons change and people age. Autumn brings together the joy of offsprings and the role of death. The thought of dying is often dreaded for its cloud of ambiguity. However, one clear certainty is that death exists to continue the cycle of life. “Tell of the continuance of life in spite of death, of preparation for the future amid the withering of the present” (10). Thomson refers to history as a powerful resource that remains relevant to education. Despite its association to the past, it provides intuition for the present and future. Such insights of the past are only available because of death. In “The Biology of Autumn” Thomson remarks: “we must correct the oppressive vision of a dying world” (16). This statement suggests the need for a new perception on life. Where traditional views surround a depression and cease-existence around death, Thomson advocates for a change. He understands that Death is anticipated with horror, and enlightens readers by illustrating that it also creates an incentive to live.   


The struggle for existence moves onto the topic of Darwinism, a famous theory of evolution by Charles Darwin. Darwinism was a new concept of evolution in the eighteen hundreds that challenged the Bible and other theories of human existence. In 1859, Darwin proposed the idea of natural selection, in his novel “On The Origins of Species”. It concluded that evolution occurred through the ability species possessed to compete among themselves. The desire to survive created competitive genes that were passed down through reproduction. This gene varied from individuals and slowly advanced over time, creating improvements to species, offering them the advantage of life. Weak genes that hindered the ability to survival would be naturally eliminated. “The Biology of Autumn” makes a direct expression to Darwin’s theory of evolution:

“They survive not so much because they are strong as because they are many, and they are many because it is of the nature of simple life to be prolific” (12).

Portret Charles Robert Darwin, Paul Adolphe Rajon, after Walter William Ouless, 1852 – 1888

The drive to survive and reproduce is a scientific fact behind the existence of humanity. The connection behind Thomson’s work and Darwin’s theory is found through autumn’s continuance of life and development of change. Death is an essential component to evolution and Thomson advocates for a new vision surrounding it. Seasonal transitions are environmental factors that affect the life and death of nature, as stated in Thomson’s composition: “the sun’s rays are fewer, the first shock of frost has come, and the leaves must die. But before they die they surrender to the plant all that they have still left that is worth Having” (12).  Here the host plant passes on its genes to the next generation of life, specifically genes that are “worth having”. The cycle of life then becomes renewed, which ensures the continuation of existence. As autumn embraces the final cycle of life, Thomson advocates that death is not a fearful subject, but rather it is essential for progression.

Fin De Siècle

Evolutie van ei tot salamander, anonymous, after Marie Phisalix, c. 1890 – in or before 1900

The Fin De Siècle was a groundbreaking time for accepting change, science and advancement. In “The Triumph of Darwinism” John Fiske explores the success of Darwinism. Fiske states the outstanding acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution: 

“It is not often that the propounder of a new and startling scientific theory has lived to see his daring innovations accepted by the scientific world in general” (Fiske 90).

Harvey and Newton’s scientific theories of blood circulation and gravity laws were introduced in the 17th Century, yet were silenced until the next century. Darwin’s theory of natural selection was also greeted with rejection and opprobrium, but soon gained huge success and acceptance (Fiske 91). Fiske discusses the impacts that Darwin’s theory holds on society, declaring that it is commonly present in all aspects of life and permeates contemporary inquiry. Fiske on the Fin De Siècle: “it takes much less time for a new generalization to make its way into people’s mind” (Fiske 91). As people begin to embrace changes in society, “The Evergreen” contributes to this movement by contributing pieces such as “The Biology of Autumn” that connect humanity to new perspectives.

On The Evergreen

In a review on “The Evergreen” Volume two, “Old Edinburgh and The Evergreen”, V. Branford states the purpose of expression through means of science and literature. “The Evergreen” aims to educate readers and expand their views on certain topics relating to society. He declares: “The endeavor is to organize a system of education based, not on use and wont, but on the organization of knowledge, and in immediate relation to the realities of contemporary life, thought, and action” (Kooistra 1895). “The Evergreen” takes a non-offensive approach and opens conversations regarding knowledge to educate readers. The magazine as a whole worked to introduce different perspectives, such as Darwinism, and have them integrate with society. It sought for further acceptance of science through naturalistic views that support humanity.

“The Darwinian view of evolution is to this new-old one as a telescope is to a binocular; the one tube of the binocular gives the naturalistic and the other the humanistic view, the two together a harmonious whole” (Kooistra 1895).

Nature and science are co-existent in society. “The Evergreen” and “The Biology of Autumn” aim to understand the world and observe the changing world. New attitudes on changes such as evolution or progression bring 19th Century society to a more accepting era than before.

Global Influence

In an American newspaper titled “Scientific American” an opinion piece written by Andrew Van Bibber gives a direct relation to the influx Darwinism in his society. In the September issue of 1871, Bibber gives his correspondence to Darwin in the form a farmer selecting his crops, “The farmer selects his corn and grain not by its oddity, but by its vigor; and I never hear him complain of a difficulty in getting seed from his corn or pumpkins” (Bibber 196). His use of a farmer harvesting autumn crops stood out heavily in relationship to Thomsons passage of crops and seeds. Thomson discusses autumn fruits: “They crown the plant’s work for the year, and form the cradles of next spring’s seedlings; they protect the young lives within the seeds, and also secure their dispersal” (11). His statement mimics what Bibber wrote about fall crops and its abundance in seeds as a way to continue its own species. Bibber’s opinion piece ends off with the applause of Darwin’s work, and the encouragement for discussion and consideration on new theories:

“However, let his work stand upon its merits, and let every objection that can be offered be boldly made and fairly discussed” (Bibber 196).

By advocating for educational conversations, Bibber does exactly what “The Evergreen” seeks to accomplish with its publications.

Ascent of Man

Aside from evolution, advancements made to mankind include industrialism. During the 19th Century, the rise of factories and efficiency in production created a system that brought together society and economy. This attraction physically moved families to the cities to find work. Philosophist, John Clark Murray explores industrial activity as an enemy to society and the philosophical spirit. He argues against the advancement of industrialism as a damaging factor towards human spirit. The struggle for existence drives people away from their personal well-being. Murray argues that people become caught up with the struggle to survive, while industrialism allows individuals to acquire wealth and have more time to spend with their families or engage in reflection as opposed to stressing over income (Murray 534). Furthermore, industrialism allows for great abundances, which Thomson describes as a cheerful event.

engraving from “King’s Hand-book of the United States planned and edited by M. King. Text by M. F. Sweetser … Illustrations, etc”

Drawing upon anthropological studies, in “Discontinuities in Nature’s Methods” Henry H. Bates describes natural actions to be complex and discusses the organic and inorganic kingdom. One of these complexities is the ability of advancement. Bates categorizes militarism as, “a species of evolution” that prepared the way in developing industrialism (Bates 137). Drawing back to Darwinism, Bates connects the evolution of humans through anthropological studies, to the evolution of animals and insects through genetics and survival of the fittest. By comparing the evolution of humans and animals, the topic of evolution is further understood as natural advancement. Bates’ argument complies with J. Arthur Thomson’s statement of life being rhythmic, with the notion of change and evolution as inevitable occurrences.

“And so, on this autumn day, the harvest carts pass heavily laden with sheaves, strong coveys of partridges darken the stubble, the links are crowded with rabbits, the air is full of whirling seeds, the apples fall in showers in the orchard, and we wonder, as men have wondered for thousands of years, at the abundance of life” (12).

For Thomson and “The Evergreen”, industrialism was an example of advancement. “The Evergreen” seeks to mesh ideas of change and acceptance of new concepts to society. This is an interesting view on industrialization in society and how philosophical views tie in with the acceptance of change. Industrialism was a movement that reformed the world and is an advancement to mankind. Murray adopts a holistic view towards change and progression, similarly to the way Thomson interprets and embraces the transformation of autumn.


“The Evergreen” works to provide significance of the seasons and why things occur. Through Volume Two: Book of Autumn, J. Arthur Thomson constructs “The Biology of Autumn” that embraces the changes in the season and encourages readers to reconsider the movement behind change, such as a new perspective on death and rising theories in science. By discussing an alternative view on evolution, Thomson combines science and nature in relation to Darwin’s theory of evolution. He uses the cycle of autumn to incorporate change, death and advancement as common themes in society. “The Evergreen” unites under the shared goal to spread education through naturalistic and humanistic views, merging nature with science. Thomson’s contribution gives a new meaning to the word continuance as he transforms the meaning of life and death into a struggle for existence, a yearning for life itself.

Works cited

  • Henry H. Bates. “Discontinuities in Nature’s Methods.” American Anthropologist, vol. 1, no. 2, 1888, pp. 135–146.
  • Murray, J. Clark. “PHILOSOPHY AND INDUSTRIAL LIFE.” The Monist, vol. 4, no. 4, 1894, pp. 533–544. 533–544.
  • “OLD EDINBURGH AND THE EVERGREEN.” Rev. of The Evergreen 2. The Bookman 9.51, Dec 1895: 88-90. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2016. Web.
  • Smith, Jonathan. “Introduction: Darwin and the Evolution of Victorian Studies.” Victorian Studies, vol. 51, no. 2, 2009, pp. 215–221.
  • Van Bibber, Andrew. “Darwinism.” Scientific American, vol. 25, no. 13, 1871, pp. 196–196.
  • Von Hartmann, Edward, and H. J. D’Arcy. “THE TRUE AND THE FALSE IN DARWINISM.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, vol. 11, no. 3, 1877, pp. 244–251.
  • Thomson, John Arthur, Patrick Geddes and colleagues. “The Biology of Autumn.” The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal, 1895, pp. 9–17.

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