Darwinian Theory and the ‘Life of Pi’

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 21 September 2016

Darwinian Theory and the ‘Life of Pi’

Darwinian Theory may be used to explain Yann Martel’s novel ‘Life of Pi. ’ While the novel is an aesthetic portrayal of spirituality, purity, and practicality, it is nonetheless not immune to the issues of scientific validity, materiality, and determinism. In this paper, the author will explore the relationship of Darwinian Theory with the core concepts in the novel. These core concepts are, in general, assumed to be in conflict with the principles of Darwinian Theory. However, this assumption may be relaxed as the author sees fit. Novel Summary

Piscine ‘Pi’ Molitor Patel lives in Pondicherry, India – a boy described as ‘curious, jolly, and deep-seated with learning. ’ His father is the owner of the Pondicherry Zoo. His mother is an avid reader of various literary works. Much of the protagonist’s learning experience came from school. Hi school is filled with amazing teachers – many of whom became personal mentors of Pi. Although he grew up as a Hindu, he discovered the Catholic faith at the age of 14 from a priest named Father Martin. However, upon meeting Mr. Kumar, a Muslim, he changes his religious orientation by practicing Islam.

Pi openly defies the custom of religious conservatism by advocating liberalism in worship – he regards Catholicism, Islam, and Hinduism as legitimate religions. At the age of 16, Pi’s father decides to abandon Prime Minister’s Gandhi due to some political and ethical issues. The family is forced to move to Toronto, Canada. The animals in the zoo are dispersed to various zoos in the United States. On their way to Canada, the boat unexpectedly sinks. Only Pi survives – stuck with a dying hyena and a zebra. While struggling in the shark-infested water, he saves Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger.

In the boat, predatory animals prey on herbivores and the carcasses of dead animals. For seven months, Pi hides on a raft behind the boat. He is able to tame Parker using a whistle. Parker seems to develop affection with Pi – Parker becomes the close partner of Pi. While at sea, Pi learns to eat from the sea. However, because the nutrition derived from the sea is insufficient to feed the two, both Pi and Parker become ill. As the health of both Pi and Parker deteriorate, the former loses his sight. Then, they come across another blind man – a person stranded in his lifeboat on the Pacific.

The blind man intends to kill and eat Pi. However, the tiger (Parker) attacks and eats the blind man. Pi, however, sheds tears for the blind man, clearing his sight as a consequence. For a long period of time, the two suffered from the scourges of the seas. Then, they come across an island made of algae and populated with the so-called Meerkats. Pi begins to eat algae and gradually regains his strength. Parker also regains his strength by eating Meerkats. For several weeks both Pi and Parker live on the island. Both are very happy and almost optimistic of life.

Eventually, Pi finds several sets of corroded human teeth wrapped in tree leaves. Pi is horrified. Pi realizes that during the night the algae become acidic. The island becomes carnivorous – one indicator of which is the sleeping habit of the Meerkats. Meerkats sleep at night to avoid danger. His discovery sends shivers on his body – a feeling of hopelessness and despair run in his mind. The next day, he leaves the island with Parker. After spending so much time in the ocean, Pi finally lands in Mexico. Parker runs off into the woods. Pi is eventually recovered by villagers who immediately take him to a nearby hospital.

The shipping company which owned the ship interviewed Pi. Pi narrates his story to the representatives of the company – his 227-day journey on the boat and the fantastic tales of his experiences with Parker, the Bengal tiger, and of course, the ‘dangerous’ island. The representatives of the company do not believe Pi’s story and therefore ask Pi to relate another story. Pi narrates a second story. In the story, the cook of the boat kills both his mother and a sailor with a broken leg. Pi kills the cook. The company representatives realize that Pi’s second story parallels the first.

Pi asks the representatives which story they like the most. The representatives agree they like the first story and the one they will use in their report. Darwinian Theory in the Novel In the first part of the novel, Darwinian Theory seems to be contradictory with the core concepts of the story. The story advocates the concepts of spirituality, freedom of conscience, purity, and spiritual origin of humanity as the main determinants of man’s journey in life. In the beginning, Pi’s life is governed by these principles, as evident by his deep-seated commitment to the precepts of spiritual living.

Pi believes that the future of humanity depends on man’s commitment to his spiritual origin. Humanity is above materialism, prejudice, and the natural laws of selection, adaptation, and struggle. Hence, humanity is defined not by the peculiarities of deterministic living but by choice and freedom. If one uses Darwinian Theory, one can clearly see the contradictions. Darwinian Theory suggests: We have seen that man incessantly presents individual differences in all parts of his body and in his mental faculties.

These differences or variations seem to be induced by the same general causes, and to obey the same laws as with the lower animals. In both cases similar laws of inheritance prevail. Man tends to increase at a greater rate than his means of subsistence; consequently he is occasionally subjected to a severe struggle for existence, and natural selection will have effected whatever lies within its scope (On the Origin of Species, 147). In short, the future of humanity is governed by the principles of struggle, variation, and adaptation. To deny the material origin of man is to deny his nature.

The peculiarities of man’s existence, is therefore, clouded by lies which perpetuate in the human psyche. Darwinian Theory presents man in the most material form – man originated from lower forms through a perpetually long periods of time. In his book ‘The Descent of Man,’ Darwin clearly defined the nature of man. According to Darwin, man is an ubiquitous species selected by nature to perpetuate in the world. His main tool for survival is knowledge or technological advancement. However, this ‘advantage’ is not a departure from natural selection, struggle, or adaptation.

Rather, it is part of nature – ungoverned by either choice or freedom – and subservient to the logic of evolution. In short, man is related to other species in one way or another. In the novel, Pi’s ingenuous anticipation of problems and its eventual resolution are presented as natural and instinctual. With this, one is forced to refer again to Darwin’s assertion which states: He who is not content to look, like a savage, at the phenomena of nature as disconnected, cannot any longer believe that man is the work of a separate act of creation.

He will be forced to admit that the close resemblance of the embryo of man to that, for instance, of a dog- the construction of his skull, limbs and whole frame on the same plan with that of other mammals, independently of the uses to which the parts may be put- the occasional re-appearance of various structures, for instance of several muscles, which man does not normally possess, but which are common to the Quadrumana- and a crowd of analogous facts- all point in the plainest manner to the conclusion that man is the co-descendant with other mammals of a common progenitor (The Descent of Man, 74).

Darwinian Theory begins to manifest itself in the second part of the novel. Pi’s struggles in the boat present three concrete principles of Darwinism: struggle, adaptation, and competition. Pi’s struggles are generally linked with the actions of other forms of living organisms – the zebras, hyena, the snake, and the orangutan. The boat represents a small world where the laws of Darwinism govern everything. According to Darwin, it is impossible for a human being to be separated from the discretion of nature, from the actions of other organisms, and the vagrant reality of materialism (On the Origin of Species, 59).

The formal rule of human existence is no more different from the formal rule which governs nature. According to Darwin, struggle is the formal rule of existence: As the missletoe is disseminated by birds, its existence depends on birds; and it may metaphorically be said to struggle with other fruit-bearing plants, in order to tempt birds to devour and disseminate its seeds rather than those of other plants.

In these several sense, which pass into each other, I use for convenience sake the general term of struggle for existence. A struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high rate at which organic beings tend to increase … for only struggle can ensure the survival of every living organism (On the Origin of Species, 32-33). In short, Pi’s struggles in the boat are not an isolated form of adaptation but a real manifestation of the laws of nature (which Darwin established in his book ‘On the Origin of Species’).

Natural selection is likewise manifested in Pi’s adventures in the island. The sleeping habit of the Meerkats is congruent with the environment of the island. Note that during nighttime, the island becomes ‘carnivorous’ and the algae turns into a colony of acidic organisms. In order for the Meerkats to thrive in the island, they must adapt to their environment. Their adaptation will serve as a medium for natural selection – a species capable of reproducing.

As Darwin noted: But in the case of an island, or of a country partly surrounded by barriers, into which new and better adapted forms could not freely enter, we should then have places in the economy of nature which would assuredly be better filled up, if some of the original inhabitants were in some manner modified; for, had the area been open to immigration, these same places would have been seized on by intruders.

In such case, every slight modification, which in the course of ages chanced to arise, and which in any way favoured the individuals of any of the species, by better adapting them to their altered conditions, would tend to be preserved; and natural selection would thus have free scope for the work of improvement (On the Origin of Species, 42). Note the similarity of Darwin’s assertions to the plot of the story. The propensity of survival depends first and foremost on the ability of organisms to adapt to their environment. Adaptation serves as a medium for natural selection (as in the case of the Meerkats in the novel).

Conclusion The novel can be analyzed through the lens of Darwinism. It is clear that the novel contains elements of Darwinism. However, one should note that this form of interpretation is neither deterministic nor perpetual. Other types of interpretation may be used to analyze the novel (such as realism, deconstructionism, structuralism, etc. ) Works Cited Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. London: London Publishing House, 1870/1992. Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1882/2001. Martel, Yann. Life of Pi. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2001.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 21 September 2016

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