Jeanette Eileen Jones and Patrick B. Sharp (eds), Darwin in Atlantic Cultures

Jeanette Eileen Jones and Patrick B. Sharp (eds), Darwin in Atlantic Cultures: Evolutionary Visions of Race, Gender, and Sexuality (New York and London: Routledge, 2010), 305 pp. £85 hb. ISBN 978-0-415-87234-8.

Darwin in Atlantic Cultures offers a collection of essays valuable to the reader interested in “the reach of the Darwinist episteme” (1) generally and to those seeking to understand the interaction of Darwinism with aspects of literature, eugenics, historical determinism, cartooning, the ‘negro question,’ and, in part three of the collection, “Colonization, Nation, and ‘Progress.’” The scope of the collection makes it suitable for scholars working to understand the effects across a spectrum of cultural activity of what Daniel Dennett termed the “universal acid” of Darwinism, which, he writes, “eats through just about every traditional concept” (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea 63). The introductory essay proffers the “epistemological break in how westerners conceived their world” (1) caused by Darwin’s major works as a shared basis for the considerations of “race, gender, sexuality, and the sociopolitical order” (1) of individual essays.

Jeanette Eileen Jones and Patrick Sharp demonstrate “the importance of the interconnected Atlantic world for the development of Darwin’s work and the dissemination of his ideas” (2) and the need, addressed by the book, to address gaps in the scholarship in the wake of efforts over the last fifteen years. Their interest in Darwinian thought and its interaction with issues beyond “religion, ‘scientific racism,’ and ‘the woman’s question’” (3) results in a collection that opens new paths for the exploration of Darwin’s influence on historical rationales underlying systems of “inequality, colonization, and oppression” (3) and the role of Darwin’s research in conceiving of ways to “overturn the limitations of the past” (3) in regard to conceptions of race, gender, and sexuality.

In addition to the introduction, the volume contains fourteen essays divided among three sections. Each section’s contributions vary in terms of the perspectives from which they consider the impact of Darwin in the Atlantic sphere. Section one, “Gender and Sexualities,” presents five accomplished essays, including Robert Azzarello’s “Strange Birds: Friedrich Nietzsche, Djuna Barnes, and Queer Evolution.” The section leads with Azzarello’s piece, which argues against “a heteronormative ontology grounded in an objectivist epistemology” that “coincides very clearly with a certain tendency in contemporary Darwinian thinking” (12). To discover what this means demands reckoning with a discussion grounded in the works of philosophers and critics familiar to scholars in the humanities. Azzarello submits the “tendency” under examination to works by Nietzsche and Barnes in order to consider Barnes’s “queerly Nietzschean notion of life” (13). The main claim, that for Nietzsche and Barnes “ontology, or ‘first philosophy,’ is always already implicated in epistemology” (13), emerges rewardingly in the essay’s readings of Beyond Good and Evil and Nightwood. This occurs only after Azzarello’s establishment of the tendencies of Darwinian thinking to foster a false belief that it is exempt from the “fact that aesthetics guides human thought—whether that thought is scientific, philosophical, or literary” (26). Readers will encounter statements that assume knowledge of nineteenth-century continental philosophy and contemporary literary theory, which may make the essay somewhat inaccessible to non-specialists, but this does not significantly diminish Azzarello’s important discussion of the conditions surrounding what we take to be our knowledge of Darwin’s work.

The second section of the book consists of four essays on aspects of “Race and Difference” including Christy A. Cannariato’s perceptive “Rise and Fall: Degeneration, Historical Determinism, and William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!” and G. Bruce Retallack’s “The Mocking Meme: Popular Darwinism, Illustrative Graphics, and Editorial Cartooning”. Cannariato’s essay begins by discussing the inability of the eugenics movement in Britain to gain any support in law for its views, contrasting this with “prescriptions for ‘race improvement’ […] fervently embraced by the American eugenics movement” that resulted in legislated “compulsory sterilization of America’s undesirables—so called imbeciles and degenerates” (111) by the 1920s. Turning to the degeneration discourse central to race improvement movements, Cannariato finds in it a “literariness”, “the compelling drama” of a struggle with “the determining narrative of rise and fall” that proceeds without awareness of its genesis in “[t]he interrelated evolutionary discourses of eugenics, degeneration, and extinction” (111). Such discourses “were driven more by narrative impulse” (111) the author suggests, than empiricism. Cannariato finds that Faulkner’s novel foregrounds the intertwining of “inherited narratives—rise and fall, struggle for existence, and white supremacy” (112), and she addresses Faulkner’s revelation of “the power and compelling nature of inherited narratives” (113) through a careful and original reading of the novel. In “The Mocking Meme”, Retallack addresses the question, “How [. . .] did popular Darwinism become not only the standard referent in Western visual culture but also, more specifically, a ‘mocking meme’ in the cartoonists toolbox?” (143). Retallack acknowledges the limits of the analogy between the meme as a unit of cultural transmission and the gene as a unit of genetic transmission, asserting that what is important about a meme is that it “be memorable and appealing, and that it ‘map’ to a particular mental concept” (144). This is an important move for an exploration of the use of specific images that “have come to convey the idea of Darwinism” (145), even if they are flawed by “conceptual imprecision (145). Retallack presents a series of fascinating images that, in a variety of ways, illustrate “‘the missing link’ and the simianized racial ‘other’” to narrate “the graphic articulation of […] standard images [that] incorporated a variety of evaluative codes that gave them the potential to become potent, evaluative memes in their own right” (165). Retallack’s contribution is distinctive not only for its exploration of images as memes, but for the distinctions he makes between the way humans “process visual images” (146) and linguistic information and the impact of this difference on the “negative coding” (148) created by studies in anthropometry that contributed to a “‘natural’ racial hierarchy” (149).

Section three, “Colonization, Nation, and Progress” fulfills the collection’s promise of a broad geographical scope. Two of the five essays in the section deal with Darwin’s influence in the context of South American intellectual history. One is Gildo Magalhães Santos’s informative “Evolution in the Backlands: Brazilian Intellectuals and the Development of a Nation”. Magalhães addresses the issue of perceived race degeneration in Brazil “induced by countrywide miscegenation, a legacy of long-accepted sexual contact between slaves and their masters” (209) and examines the influence of Darwinism on Brazilian intellectuals hoping to “address, explain, and critique the racial dimensions of national social and economic development” (209). Another notable contribution to this section is Patrick B. Sharp’s “The Evolution of the West: Darwinist Visions of Race and Progress in Roosevelt and Turner”. Sharp spotlights claims made in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex regarding the evolutionary advantages that accrued to humans as a result of their tool-making capacity. He argues that, “instead of challenging the established order, Descent of Man actually reinforced industrial–age notions of progress and Victorian beliefs about civilization” (226). The essay makes a series of acute observations that lead to the author’s assertion that Darwin’s synthesis in Descent of Man of “prevailing perceptions of racial superiority, technological sophistication, and the stages of civilization” (226) supplied a “direct biological justification for colonialism” (227). This justification influenced American historians such as Theodore Roosevelt, who “showed the progression of technologically superior whites over the forces of savagery” (227). The essay proceeds to assess Roosevelt’s Winning of the West (1899) and Frederick Jackson Turner’s “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1920) in light of the contextualizing discussion of Darwin. Sharp carefully supports his presentation of Turner’s position with the scholarship of Richard Slotkin and Allan G. Bogue and demonstrates similarities between Turner and Roosevelt’s evolutionary attitudes in averring that, for Turner, “American society had evolved in the way an organism does, with the physical environment playing a crucial role in the development of American institutions and character” (231). Two key Gilded-Age historians, we discover, remade the study of American history and “popularized and institutionalized the Darwinist vision of frontier conquest and racial progress as the central aspect of American identity and history” (233). “The Evolution of the West”, it should be added, is a model of methodological integrity, for it approaches the difficult task of assessing the uses of variously configured Darwinian frameworks in prior historical analysis with sensitivity to the nuances of Darwin’s ideas and attention to their warping in works by those who sought fulfillment of social ideals in biological precedent.

Darwin in Atlantic Cultures has its flaws. Frequent typos and a few misquotes suggest a lack of editorial support for the authors and editors. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a collection, its assumed audience varies significantly from essay to essay. Given that advanced students and professional researchers are the primary audience of the volume, one wishes that numerous paragraphs dealing with basic elements of Darwinian and Spencerian thought had been excised. Nevertheless, the wide scope provided by Darwin in Atlantic Cultures, the overall quality of the essays, and the sustained attention to what Jones and Sharp consider Darwin’s contributions to “the very discourses that we employ to explain our lived realities” (6) makes it required reading for those in the history of science, cultural studies and other fields engaged in understanding Darwin’s cultural impact.

Paul Ohler, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, British Columbia