Darwin's Bulldog and Huxley's Ape

By Johnson, Keith Leslie | Twentieth Century Literature, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Darwin's Bulldog and Huxley's Ape


Johnson, Keith Leslie, Twentieth Century Literature


One of the initial difficulties in assessing the impact of a figure like Darwin on literary history is determining to what extent his influence is a function of the man himself--his actual theories, writings, and so forth--or the cultural fantasies that have cropped up around him. Where these fantasies are not conditioned by outright ignorance and misinformation, they often as not stem from crucial misprisions. For this reason, attempts to unmask the real so-and-so behind the signifier are often mooted from a literary standpoint, though there is, of course, real intellectual value in such retrievals. To sidestep some of these issues, I'd like to take a slightly different tack on the question of Darwin's legacy, which is to think about the availability of such misprisions for literary thought rather than rehabilitate an "authentic" Darwinism or, for that matter, deploy his theories in the course of an interpretation. Literary applications of Darwin's scientific theories in recent years (by Joseph Carroll and Jonathan Gottschall, for example) have been slow to gather supporters, and that may be because, even while humanities types acknowledge the intrigue of empirical approaches, they tend to share a basic intuition: that understanding Darwin's thought (now more than ever, as the cliche goes) is perhaps more important in its ethical and, ultimately, biopolitical dimension than in its scientific or methodological one. (1)

I would contend that this is the upshot of most cultural histories of nineteenth-century Darwinism, like those by Gillian Beer and George Levine. These two critics conclude their works with ethicopolitical ruminations on Hardy and Conrad, respectively--writers who straddle the centennial divide--indicating to my mind a gradual shift away from Victorian formal engagements with Darwinism (for example at the level of plot) toward more modernist philosophical and existential ones. (2) No doubt this distinction between Victorian and modernist is too facile, but maybe less so than we might hope. Certainly biographers of Darwin and T. H. Huxley weary themselves with claims of anachronism: both were modernists before their time, it would seem. One of Huxley's biographers, Adrian Desmond, finds him "so modern that we want to snatch him from his age"; after all, "He coined the word 'agnostic'--and gave the West its existential crisis" (xiii). The point is conceded, though it's hard to shake the niggling sense that Desmond, vivid throughout if a bit swashbuckling in his conclusions, here overstates the case: in many other respects, not least of which is prose style, Huxley remained a consummate Victorian, cracked leather and all. My arguments throughout will therefore reinforce the historical and cultural distinction I find in Beer and Levine, even if the effect is to diminish the modernism of Darwin and Huxley.

What I'd like to do in the following pages is trace a literal genealogy (T. H. Huxley to Aldous Huxley) that involves a conceptual genealogy (Darwinian ethics to Huxleyan biopolitics) and in the process, as part of a wholly personal agenda, commend the importance of Aldous Huxley's 1948 novel Ape and Essence for any articulation of Darwin's literary legacy. That novel, more bracingly and explicitly than any other in Huxley's oeuvre, speaks to the impasse of reception Darwin faces in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as we increasingly contemplate (and realize) the exhilarating and horrifying implications of his thought. Other critics, for their part, have glimpsed the kind of reading of the novel I'll offer here, though without elaboration or coordination with T. H. Huxley's writing. June Deery perceptively notes that in Ape and Essence Huxley "is pointing to the gap between technological and ethical development, to the sophistication of the means and the imbecility of the ends ("Technology and Gender" 110). I agree with Deery enough to want to extend her claim further to include not just the forces of technological development but those of instrumentalist metaphysics, which underwrite technology. …

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