Friday, March 24, 2006
How Novels Think & Why This Critic Can’t: Evolution (Sorta) in C19th England
In “The Polygenetic Imagination,” Armstrong addresses the effect of Darwinian monogenetic thought on the British novel. I say “address” instead of “argue” for the reasons John
Armstrong identifies a conflict between monogenetic thinkers, who believe all humans are descended from a single ancestral stock, and polygenetic thinkers, who believe different species of humans developed independently of one another. A monogenetic thinker would consider “savages” an underdeveloped and uncivilized but still human population, whereas a polygenetic thinker would consider “savages” another species altogether. Armstrong initially aligns the monogenetic thinkers with Biblical literalists and the polygenetic thinkers with, well, she never identifies quite who the polygenetic thinkers of the time were. The difference is crucial, though, because
if monogenesis defined Western man as culturally improved in relation to members of degraded culture, polygenesis understood this difference as natural. In so doing, it eliminated any basis for sympathetic identification with members of subordinated groups. As for the purity of the modern middle-classes, the advocates of polygenesis counted on civilized man’s natural aversion to other races and the failure of most hybrids to reproduce themselves. In much the same way, the novels I am going to discuss ultimately colluded with mainstream Victorian fiction to create a difference within humanity between savage and civilized man that imaginatively subordinated the world ot Western civilization. (108)
Reading this passage, one would assume the majority of Victorians favored polygenesis over monogenesis for reasons of ideological convenience. One problem: Armstrong bases her account first on Robert Knox’s The Races of Men (1850)—i.e. nine years before the publication of On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859)—then on H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). I hate to sound the typical historicist complaint that things have run afoul, but they have. The reference to Darwinism via Knox is a clear case of premature apotheosis. Armstrong fails to note the vehemence with which the polygenetic thinkers were denounced by all involved in the Origin debates. Polygenetic accounts either failed to pass Biblical muster—references to “the children of Ham” notwithstanding—or were undermined by the sudden taxonomic fluidity of species. No longer could a polygenetic thinker deny the importance of ancestry from a common stock. Even if, as some argued, savages were branches of the family tree with long, independent histories, they couldn’t argue that the branching represented a definitive genealogical break. There weren’t any anymore.
Of course it is all infinitely more complicated than this. Were it not I would’ve finished my dissertation twice over already. My point is simply that despite a few initial gestures at this complexity, Armstrong structures her account of individualism around monogenesis and polygenesis. Why would she do that? Her sources.
All both of them.
Her account of evolutionary thought comes exclusively from George Stocking’s Victorian Anthropology and Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Both are excellent books which, combined, don’t even begin to describe the mess of C19th evolutionary thinking. Neither have I. But I want to point to one more example of the consequences of her decision to rely exclusively on Stocking and Dennett. She claims that
Darwin himself embraced this theory [of the recapitulation of species-level evolution in the development of a child], despite the fact that it still required a moment of ontological transformation when apes suddenly stopped being apes and became human beings. (106-7)
Even if Darwin did buy this notion of cultural evolution, there is no reason to believe, as Armstrong suggests, that such a recapitulation necessitated he believe in a singular “moment of ontological transformation.” Darwin had Lyellian uniformitarianism and its unfathomable temporal expanses as his benchmark, not Kelvin’s truncation or some creationist guesstimate. No instant transformation necessary. (Armstrong should know this, too, since she draws from the notoriously antipunctualist Dennett.) I’ve discussed this before:
Darwin had natural selection. Chambers had monstrous birth.
He discusses the power of monstrous birth in Chapter 14 of the Vestiges. He first grants that the natural laws of reproduction demand that a mother of a given species give birth to a child of the same species. But what if man in his inability to be everywhere all the time has missed the occasional monstrous birth? Is it possible that every once in a while a goose gives birth to a mouse? According to Chambers, who cites as proof the work of Charles Babbage, we cannot disprove that no geese has ever given birth to a mouse.
Babbage posited that what one person infers to be a natural law may be the result of an inadequate but effectively infinite set of evidence. Chambers sat his readers behind Babbage’s "calculating machine" as it ticks 1, 2, 3, 4, all the way to 100,000,000. Reasoning inductively, he argued, a rational
person would assume 100,000,0001 would follow 100,000,000. Instead, the calculating machine ticks
100,010,002. The only conclusion, according to Babbage, is thatthe law that each number presented by the engine is greater by unity than the preceding number, which law the observer had deduced from an induction of a hundred million instances, was not the true law
that regulated its action, and that the occurrence of the number 100,010,002 at the 100,000,002nd term was as necessary a consequence of the original adjustment, and might have been as fully foreknown at the commencement, as was the regular succession of any one of the intermediate numbers to its immediate antecedent.
Chambers analogized the inability to deduce the engine’s actual programming by induction without a calculation of daunting complexity with the sheer expanse of time within which the natural laws of reproduction have worked. And if one can no more deduce the absoluteness of these laws than the engine’s original programming, it is possible that, at some divinely predetermined time, a goose gave birth to a rat. Chambers noted the occasional retrogression of one species into another, as when the heart of a human fetus "goes no farther than the three-chambered form, so that it is the heart of a reptile."
If the heart of a human fetus can retrogress via an "under-adequacy" into that of a reptile, why should it be beyond the bounds of reason "to imagine an access of favourable conditions to reverse the phenomenon," which is only to say
it is no great boldness to surmise that a super-adequacy in the measure of this under-adequacy (and the one thing seems as natural an occurrence as the other) would suffice in a goose to give its progeny the body of a rat, and produce the ornithorynchus [duck-billed platypus], or might give the progeny of an ornithorynchus the mouth and feet of a true rodent, and thus complete at two stages the passages from the aves [birds] to mammalia. (emphasis mine)
Chambers has naturalized the idea of monstrous births via his appeal to Babbage; now it is as natural for a goose to give birth to a mouse as a gander. But that’s not all. According to this logic, birds can "evolve" into mammals in "two stages." (Granted, there’s a real logical problem with Chambers logic: if one goose gives birth to one mouse, with whom with that mouse reproduce? A goose? But monstrous births are rare by Chambers’ own admission, so the likelihood of two geese giving birth to one male and one female mouse is extremely slim.) The problems with Sulloway’s claim should be obvious now:
He pits Chambers’ two monstrous births against the imperceptible variations of billions of organisms reproducing over billions and billions of years. To put it another way:
2 vs. 1,000,000,0001,000,000,000
All of this poses a problem for the polygenetic thought Armstrong hopes to recuperate. According to her, Haggard and Stoker “used polygenetic thinking to expose the implicit conflict between a subject compelled to pursue his or her desires and a social order that demanded conformity to moral and social norms” (108). They do so by featuring polygenetic figures—the immortal Others Ayesha and Dracula—who create communities not through reproduction with humans but by inhuman repetition. Dracula strips people of their individuality, enters their minds at will and controls their actions. He becomes them, thus invoking the worst nightmare of a society Armstrong contends values the cultivation of the individual above all else. He flouts the conventions of Victorian England designed to keep a dangerously Malthusian population in check, foremost among them the nuclear family and the liberal individual:
Where such a novel as Jane Eyre allowed the family to eclipse civil society as the symbolic means of resolving social contradictions, Dracula turns the tables and allows a radically inclusive society to render the family obsolete, ending the regime of the liberal individual. (150)
This line of thought seems oddly familiar. Ironic, ain’t it?
I can hear the complaints already: “But Scott, um, you spend a lot of time on her historicist shortcomings and precious little on her actual argument. Doesn’t that violate your advisor’s sternly delivered advice to always address the strong form of another critic’s argument?”
Yes, anonymous interlocutor, it certainly does . . . only this isn’t my final evaluation of Armstrong’s argument. I need to establish from the get-go that her reading of the cultural scene runs contrary to mine. That takes actual time and virtual space. Tomorrow I’ll address the consequences of her approach to evolutionary theory in a post I’ve preemptively titled “Why Armstrong’s Argument Works Better When It Addresses Those Things It Doesn’t Address” (like what I’ve linked to above).