For the past week and a half, I have been listening to a lecture course on the history surrounding the theory of evolution, and it has left me contemplating how ideas, particularly ways of understanding, spread and change with the amount of information we have. Today, the concept of natural selection acting to produce changes in species over the course of generations strikes most people as logical and obvious, but Darwin spent many years working out that very logic after his famous visit to the Galapagos Islands. We, of course, have knowledge of genetics which had not yet been discovered at that time although experiments on inheritance of various traits were being conducted during Darwin’s lifetime.
Later parts of the lecture series explore how the change of the Christian religion from the purpose of providing a social function within European society to the more serious religiosity of American Protestantism also changed how evolution was viewed. With scientists no longer attending church in order to participate in community with their neighbors, scientific ideas became divided from more philosophical pursuits. The separation became worse when conservative Protestants broke off to form fundamentalist and evangelical sects that wished to interpret the whole of biblical scripture literally rather than metaphorically. This background of religious changes resulted in a hostile view of evolution forming among a significant portion of American Christians where before it had been viewed with acceptance (at least insomuch as it affected plant and animal evolution and the fossil record).
So how does any of this apply to writing and storytelling? Well, the obvious lesson is that if you’re writing historical fiction (or historical fantasy), you may wish to include some research on societal perceptions, mores, and structure while looking into the history of science and technology. Religion during Darwin’s time served a much different purpose than during the Middle Ages or modern times.
But going beyond research for historical settings, another lesson we can take from this exploration of scientific history is how much of an impact missing information can have on a person’s understanding of something. It can seem easy to create conflicts between characters in a story due to miscommunication. But trying to jump into the mind of a character who lacks information which can have a significant impact on their worldview can be more difficult, especially when it’s commonplace knowledge in your own world (like an understanding of genetics to make evolution logical).
I hope this little post encourages you to reconsider how you research for your own stories and perhaps inspires you into exploring storylines you never considered before. Playing with different character perspectives can be fun and intriguing both for the writer as well as the reader. And maybe you’ll take a leap and explore some wildly differing perspectives of a non-fiction nature too!