Colonies, Cults and Evolution: Literature, Science and Culture in Nineteenth-Century Writing

By Holmes, John | The Byron Journal, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Colonies, Cults and Evolution: Literature, Science and Culture in Nineteenth-Century Writing


Holmes, John, The Byron Journal


COLONIES, CULTS AND EVOLUTION: LITERATURE, SCIENCE AND CULTURE IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY WRITING. By David Amigoni. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xi + 237. ISBN 978 0 521 88458 7. £50.00.

In the Dedication to Don Juan, Byron takes both Wordsworth and Coleridge to task for the incomprehensibility of their metaphysics. In Colonies, Cults and Evolution, David Amigoni takes us some steps closer to comprehending the incomprehensible by drawing out a dialogue between the older Romantics and the materialist tradition of natural science. The central theme of his book is how changes in evolutionary theory, anthropology and colonialism transformed the use and understanding of the concept of 'culture' over the course of the nineteenth century. In tracing this theme, Amigoni sets apostles of culture, including Coleridge and Matthew Arnold, alongside prominent biologists such as Charles Darwin, T. H. Huxley and Alfred Russel Wallace, and others such as Samuel Butler and Edmund Gosse who had feet in both camps.

The scope of Amigoni's book is vast, reaching from The Excursion and Aids to Reflection to The Golden Bough and Father and Son. With such a wide chronological range - matched by an equally wide range of material, including neo-classical poetry, satirical fiction, travel narratives, autobiography, journal articles and a number of the classics of Victorian science writing - Colonies, Cults and Evolution tends more to open its subject up for discussion than to argue for a single thesis. One source Amigoni returns to a number of times is John Addington Symonds's Essays Speculative and Suggestive. Amigoni's own book is far from speculative - his research is meticulous and abundant - but it is richly suggestive. It is also essayistic. The threads that link the chapters together are keywords, including 'epitaph' and 'imitation' as well as those that make up the book's title and subtitle. Taking a lead from Raymond Williams, Amigoni inflects his interpretation with subtle etymological as well as textual analysis. While this gives an elegance and consistency to the book as a whole, Colonies, Cults and Evolution remains most compelling as a series of what Amigoni himself calls 'thick descriptions' of moments of intertextuality, as writers from very different disciplines and intellectual backgrounds react to and manipulate each other's legacies in their own attempts to define and realise the processes of 'culture'.

After a suitably suggestive introduction, Colonies, Cults and Evolution falls into two halves. The dividing line comes with the crystallisation of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. The first three chapters take us up to that moment, tracing the interaction between the related concepts of culture, cultivation, colonisation and the religious cult in Coleridge's late prose, Wordsworth's Excursion and Darwin's Journal of Researches (better known as The Voyage of the Beagle). …

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