Biological Discourses conference

Biological Discourses: The Language of Science and Literature around 1900

A two-day conference at the University of Cambridge, 10-11 April 2015

The decades around 1900 are a crucial period for the impact of biological thought on the intellectual cultures of the western world. The impulses of Darwinism were taken up by intellectuals, writers and artists from the 1860s onwards, and both Darwinian and anti-Darwinian currents of thinking exercised a powerful influence on the intellectual climate of the early decades of the twentieth century. It was a period that saw major developments in cell biology and the establishment of genetics as we know it, the movement of medical science and psychiatry beyond mechanistic conceptions of illness, and the emergence of psychoanalysis and sexology as new disciplines. “Biological Discourses”, a student-led conference to be held in Cambridge on 10-11 April 2015, is part of a collaborative venture between the Cambridge Department of German & Dutch and the Institute for Modern Languages Research, London, investigating the interplay and the forms of mediation between literary and biological discourses in that period.

The conference builds on the substantial body of research literature that has evolved in the last few decades both in English and other languages on the ‘hermeneutic potential’ of Darwin’s thought (Gillian Beer) and the interrelationship between biological thought and literature and the visual arts more broadly. Recent work has also brought out the senses in which the historical emergence of such biological terminology as ‘heredity’ and ‘genealogy’ should be seen as part of European cultural history (e.g. Sigrid Weigel, Genea-Logik (2006); Staffan Müller-Wille and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, A Cultural History of Heredity (2012)). Key issues relating to these and other strands of inquiry were reviewed at an initial workshop hosted by the collaboration partners in London in March 2014. The conference in April 2015 is intended to provide an opportunity to explore certain of those issues more closely, homing in particularly on the processes and potentials of mediation between biological science and literature, and to extend the inquiry to countries beyond the German-speaking world. The themes on which the organisers particularly wish to invite contributions are these:

  • What kinds of relationship do we see between the discourses of biological science and literature in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? Are there senses in which we find them sharing models, metaphors, and elements of each other’s discourse?
  • How are developments in biological and medical thinking reflected in the print media of the time, both verbally and visually?
  • How are the emerging discourses of sexology and psychopathology reflected in the literary writing of this period, and what insights arise from comparisons between writings of the early 20th century and the critical perspectives of the present day (e.g. gender theory)?
  • How do the developments in biological thinking inform the world-views and ethical values of western societies in the period, and what evidence of this do we find in literary and other writings?
  • To what extent do we find the discourse of German writings on biological issues taken up and developed in other European languages, and with what implications?

Proposals (no more than 500 words please) should be sent to by 30 November 2014.