Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Introduction: Darwin and Literary Studies

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Introduction: Darwin and Literary Studies

Article excerpt

Roughly a decade ago, it could be said that Charles Darwin's thought was notably absent from the discipline of literary studies. Although Darwin had long been seen as an important influence on specific writers or movements--Conrad and Hardy in England, for example, or American naturalism--this influence seemed to amount to little more than a fatalist recognition of the cruel logic of a godless cosmos. A major thinker of the nineteenth century, Darwin appeared to have almost no place in the various discourses that informed twentieth-century literary analysis, from Russian formalism and New Criticism through cultural materialism and queer theory. It is true that a few important works had been written in the 1980s that explicitly brought the insights and methods of contemporary theory to bear on Darwin and his cultural and intellectual legacies: here Gillian Beer's Darwin's Plots, Margot Norris's Beasts of the Modern Imagination, and George Levine's Darwin and the Novelists still stand out as vibrant works of scholarship. Yet while these books are cited and praised even today, they never launched entire research programs in the manner of contemporaneous works such as Stephen Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Between Men, or Slavoj Zizek's The Sublime Object of Ideology.

This relative absence of Darwin from literary discussion was understandable, if regrettable. After all, applications of Darwin's thought to the social, the political, and the cultural have a notorious track record, having justified both eugenicists' interventions into human reproductive rights and Social Darwinists' justifications of social and economic inequalities. Humanists could be excused for expecting that renewed efforts at Darwinian cultural analysis would only reach intellectually predictable or politically repugnant conclusions. But wariness of such reductive ideas or reactionary agendas seemed to have quietly given way to outright avoidance of Darwin and even biology itself. An epistemological skepticism or methodological rigor regarding specific lines of argument had calcified into an unchallenged assumption that any gesture toward the biological would inevitably revive the kind of false universalisms that literary studies had spent much of the 1980s and 90s unmasking.

At the same time, outside of literary studies, just the opposite trend seemed to be happening: Darwin was assuming an ever-greater prominence in scholarly and other public discourses. During the 1990s several disciplines beyond the hard sciences, such as philosophy, anthropology, and psychology, were taking up Darwinian theory while journalists and popularizers pumped out one best seller after another claiming to explain all manner of phenomena in terms of evolution by natural selection. In the public sphere, the most visible of these disciplines was the field of evolutionary psychology. Building on the sociobiology worked out in the 1970s by E. O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Robert Trivers, and others, evolutionary psychology explicitly sought, under the banner of Wilson's "consilience," (1) to apply theoretical models from evolutionary biology to human behavior. And while its claims remain highly controversial, the discipline itself, as Dana Carluccio points out in her contribution to this issue, "has become astonishingly popular over the last twenty-five years, both as a research program and as a pop culture phenomenon" (510). Carluccio observes:

  Its proliferating publishing venues, academic societies, and
  textbooks are echoed by journalism, novels, and movies that have
  trumpeted the field's hypotheses, making them as ubiquitous in US
  culture today as psychoanalytic notions, such as Freudian slips.
  Someone who has never heard of evolutionary psychology is nonetheless
  likely to believe that men find physical cues of female fertility
  (like youth) attractive because it helps them pass on their
  genes. (510-11)

Of course, if evolutionary psychological reasoning has passed over into pop culture or common sense--or, maybe more precisely, into what John Guillory has called "spontaneous philosophy" (2) ("Sokal" 476)--it might be suspected that this transition has been effortless for the simple reason that the gap was so narrow to begin with. …

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