Giants of the Past: Popular Fictions and the Idea of Evolution

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Giants of the Past: Popular Fictions and the Idea of Evolution by Lisa Hopkins (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2004), ISBN: 0838755763, 201pp., $42.50 hb.

Lisa Hopkins' Giants of the Past is an entertaining and informative account of the chequered history of certain Darwinian ideas in a range of popular narratives from Mary Elizabeth Braddon to Stephen Spielberg. As if to confirm that Darwin was right to be profoundly anxious about the ideological monsters his theory of natural selection might unleash, Hopkins illustrates the versatility of what we might call 'evolutionary theory' in the hands of Braddon, Rider Haggard and John Buchan,Bram Stoker,H.G.Wells,Conan Doyle and Spielberg. The argument in outline is thus relatively familiar: the radically secular, emancipatory potential of Darwinian materialism could soon be transformed into the stuff of reaction, in Social Darwinist versions of class, race and gender. As Adrian Desmond and James Moore have shown,Darwin, in a sense, continued to misrecognise the ideological orientation of his own theories until the end of his life. He could urge Alfred Russell Wallace, his long-term counterpart, not to 'turn renegade to natural history',when faced with Wallace's proposals for the abolition of land property in 1881, yet at the same time advise William Graham not to forget the inevitability of the elimination of the 'lower' by the 'higher civilized races'.Where Hopkins' book is truly distinctive is in mapping the diverse fortunes of Darwin's ideas in a cultural field whose power he might hardly have foreseen - that is, the mass production industry of popular fiction, from the immediate post-Origin era through to Spielberg's appropriations of Michael Crichton and Conan Doyle in his films of the late 1990s.

The key structural feature of Giants of the Past signifies also that this might be two books, held together in a varying tension. Darwinian theory is not viewed in isolation, but as invariably complicated by a network of literary sources held in common by the writers concerned - Milton, Shakespeare, Arthurian legend and various myths of national identity located in Homer and Virgil. In the case of Braddon's fictions, Hopkins shows how an initial determination in the mystery novel Lady Audley's Secret (1862) to exploit a topical fascination with the sensational randomness of evolution, gives way in her later novels to a providentialism fuelled by Tennyson and Shakespeare. Braddon's appropriations are, of course, highly selective: Tennyson's conservative Arthuriana is retained, while the cruel indeterminacies of an evolutionary nature are jettisoned; Shakespeare is recruited for an agenda insisting on nature over nurture. Haggard's novels admit to a fluidity of racial categories, corresponding not only to a Darwinian evolutionary economy but also to a Homeric mythology which 'makes it impossible to set up a simple schema of African savagery and European civilization'. Nevertheless, this same mythology enables the orthodox model of sexual difference characterising Haggard's narratives. By contrast, Buchan's fiction disdains simple sexual stereotyping, yet develops, in reprising Haggard, a racial imperialism buttressed by the language of the Bible. Stoker exploits the 1890s cultural capital of John Milton as a powerful voice against women's emancipation, yet in later fictions such as The Lady of the Shroud the result of inflecting the 'principles and discourses of Social Darwinism' with 'Arthurian, Miltonic and Shakespearean resonances' is only to problematise any form of imperialism which disregards 'the basic principle of the survival of the fittest'. A similar suggestion can unsettle the otherwise orthodox moralism of Spielberg's movies. …


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