A Cultural History of Causality: Science, Murder Novels, and Systems of Thought

By Stephen Kern | Go to book overview

1
Ancestry

IN THE COURSE of the nineteenth century, as industrialism and urbanism transformed life beyond recognition and beyond conventional explanations, new disciplines emerged that looked increasingly to the past for causal understanding of human origins and the meaning of life. Geologists and paleontologists found evidence of evolution in the earth’s strata and the fossil record; anthropologists and archaeologists dug information out of buried civilizations; philologists charted the emergence of modern languages from ancient ones; biologists looked for the origins of human anatomy in embryological development; and psychologists sought the origins of adult mental life in the mind of the child. The century’s most influential thinkers developed historical approaches to knowledge; Hegel, Comte, Marx, Darwin, Spencer, and Freud interpreted how things came to be as a result of conflict and resolution out of the way things were. The scale of this shift has been forcefully assessed by Carl Schorske: “Never in the history of European culture had Clio enjoyed such preeminence—not to say hegemony—as in the midnineteenth century… . History’s mode of thought and its temporal perspective penetrated most fields of learning, while models of the past inspired the nineteenth century’s arts.”1

Victorian personal lives were rooted in an ancestry of dynastic pedigrees and family genealogies, of portrait galleries and photo albums.2 Expert thinking about the mechanism of ancestral influence diverged widely, but it centered on the erroneous belief that some blending of parents’ sexual fluids transmitted to children a blending of their inherited as well as acquired characteristics. The causal force of ancestry loomed large among Victorians, whose ignorance about the mechanism of hereditary transmission fueled exaggerated fears about how children will inherit their ancestors’ birth defects, diseases, and vices along with their ideas, property, and social standing. A few of the many Victorian fictional characters who inherit plot-turning financial legacies include Jane Eyre, Pip, Dorothea Brooke, and Jude Fawley, while legacies of degeneration pass to Jonas Chuzzlewit, Jean Des Esseintes, Little Father Time,

-27-

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A Cultural History of Causality: Science, Murder Novels, and Systems of Thought
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Ancestry 27
  • 2 - Childhood 64
  • 3 - Language 108
  • 4 - Sexuality 147
  • 5 - Emotion 189
  • 6 - Mind 226
  • 7 - Society 266
  • 8 - Ideas 304
  • Conclusion 359
  • Notes 377
  • Bibliography 419
  • Index 425
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