Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Following Thoreau's Instincts

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Following Thoreau's Instincts

Article excerpt

Thoreau's confession of two "instincts" at the beginning of "Higher Laws" exaggerates a tension already inherent in the favorite Transcendentalist metaphor of "instinct." On the one hand, the metaphor signifies idealist intuition, a mode of higher knowledge associated with progressive human development; on the other, the metaphor depends on the recognition of a form of nonhuman intelligence. Under the influence of pre-Darwinian evolutionary debates contemporaneous with Walden's composition, Thoreau's two instincts assumed the forms of conflicting notions of "development" circulating at the time. While the "higher" instinct fits with idealist theories of human development, his representation of the "lower" instinct implicitly acknowledges the human kinship with animals that was central to transmutationist theories. Following Thoreau's representation of these instincts through the Walden manuscript's evolution paradoxically reveals both a continuing commitment to transcendental progressionism and an increasing evolutionary awareness of animal kinship and animal intelligence.

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Not many people today would dispute Walden's status as an environmental classic. Yet on the central environmental question of human-animal kinship versus the superiority and privileged separation of human from nonhuman nature, Thoreau's classic must appear extremely limited. Animals are interesting to Thoreau as they "carry some portion of our thoughts." (1) But in themselves, let alone in the coevolutionary history of our relations with them, they appear hardly to exist at all. This historical limitation arises in large part, of course, from Thoreau's having written Walden almost a decade before Darwin published his theory of evolution by natural selection in On the Origin of Species (1859), and two decades before Darwin developed the implications of human-animal kinship in The Descent of Man (1871). These are watershed documents, to which contemporary environmentalism and ecology trace their own intellectual origins, and without which they would be literally inconceivable. But they shaped a watershed Thoreau did not live in.

Yet our own historical horizon is limited as well. To adapt Emerson, the ruin or blank we see when we look at Walden in this respect is in our own eye, too. As far as evolutionary theory is concerned, our vision has been shaped both by earlier positivist historians of science and by the ongoing power of neo-Darwinian explanations. Consequently, when literary historians look for evolution before 1859, they tend to see only the proto-Darwinian "anticipations." But as science historian Evelleen Richards has shown, the path Darwin took to evolution, "along the route that led to natural selection," was not the only one. Rather, "there were a number of paths that ran alongside and sometimes intersected with Darwinism." (2) According to this more recent history of science, the blazing of several such paths was stimulated by a fifteen-year-long controversy over the "development hypothesis" that began in 1844 with the publication of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, anonymously authored by Edinburgh publisher and geologist Robert Chambers. While long recognized as having played a role in delaying publication of Darwin's theory, until recently the Vestiges controversy has been considered as merely a period curiosity in the history of biology, much as the sentimental novel in literary history and for similar reasons. (3) But as James A. Secord's exhaustive study demonstrates, not only did the Vestiges debates acquaint a broad Victorian public on both sides of the Atlantic with competing theoretical paradigms of natural order and the stakes involved in them, they also stimulated the curiosity of naturalists and working researchers in botany, comparative anatomy, and in such new disciplines as embryology and ornithology, leading them down those paths referred to by Richards. (4)

Given Emerson's and Thoreau's keen interest in science, as Laura Dassow Walls and Eric Wilson most recently and most thoroughly have demonstrated, and given that the eruption of the Vestiges controversy in the spring and summer of 1845 coincided exactly with Thoreau's move to Walden Pond, perhaps it was inevitable that some of Chambers' ideas would find their way into Thoreau's own story of "development. …

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