Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

"Looking into Their Inmost Nature": The Speculum and Sexual Selection in "Rappaccini's Daughter"

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

"Looking into Their Inmost Nature": The Speculum and Sexual Selection in "Rappaccini's Daughter"

Article excerpt

"He does not meddle with Truth & it lays upon him like the blessed sunshine, full & broad. No microscopes nor burning glasses, nor any of those impertinent little dividers & dissectors nor large magnifiers disturb its serene wholeness."

(Sophia Hawthorne on Nathaniel, in their Common Journal, 1843).

In 1893 Thomas Henry Huxley delivered the G.J. Romanes Lecture at Oxford University on the subject of ethics and evolution. Described as a startling break from Herbert Spencer, specifically Spencer's austere application of evolutionary principles to human populations, Huxley's lecture denounced this burgeoning Social Darwinism and asserted that the "cosmic processes" of competition, selection, and progress represented only half of the picture of humanity's existence on the planet. The other half, as Huxley described it, was the "ethical process," or the development and survival of human societies according to bonds of sympathy and conventions of justice. "What would become of the garden," he asked, "if the gardener treated all the weeds and slugs and birds and trespassers as he would like to be treated, if he were in their place?" (439). Refuting the smooth ideological correspondences that proponents of evolutionary fitness forged among the practices of horticulture, husbandry and human governance, Huxley proposed an urgent answer to his rhetorical question: that only a tyrant characterized by "preternatural ruthlessness" could cast himself as a gardener committed to eliminating the untamed elements of his realm (450).

For Huxley, it made little sense to view what he called the State of Nature, with its laws of struggle and adaptation, as prevailing within the State of Art, with its organizing principles; rather, the two states opposed each other, the former "bringing forth ceaseless change," the latter sustaining the contours of social and aesthetic order. Moreover, organic processes did not follow a route toward perfection, Huxley stressed, and those who envisioned a parallel tendency in the social world endorsed "as misleading an illusion as ever was dangled before the eyes of poor humanity" (442). Behind this illusion lay an unspoken and pitiless scheme of manipulated bloodlines necessarily sustained over countless generations. "I sometimes wonder," he ominously noted near the end of his lecture, "about people who talk so freely of extirpating the unfit" (441).

Although it was late in the nineteenth century when Huxley began to critique such theories of evolutionary perfection, the concept of human husbandry or horticultural regulation had surfaced at least a century earlier, well before Francis Galton coined the term eugenics in 1883. Because a vigorous print culture attended the development of natural history in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, elaborate and scientific definitions of human origins had been in circulation long enough to give rise to popular pseudo-scientific hypotheses about cultivated organic correspondences by the turn of the nineteenth. As early as 1784, for instance, celebrated health reformer Dr. James Graham drew on a kind of proto-eugenic thinking in the publication of his Lecture on Health and Beauty. Subtitled "A Lecture on the Generation, Increase, and Improvement of the Human Species," Dr. Graham's findings maintained, quite straightforwardly, that "Gentlemen take care to have a fine breed of horses, but neglect what is more essential, to have a fine breed of children" (11).

By 1800, ideas about plant and animal cross-breeding interconnected with seemingly sophisticated rankings of human races. From theories of racial hierarchy came theories of racial perfection, as well as notions of degeneracy as perfection in dangerous reverse. Thus, in 1818, "A Friend to Mankind" published his Investigation of the Causes which diminish the moral and physical perfection of human society in order to expose the evil of slavery not only as a terrible injustice to innocent people but also as the origin of "moral and physical degeneracy" in them (28). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.