John Bruni, Scientific Americans: The Making of Popular Science and Evolution in Early-Twentieth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture

John Bruni, Scientific Americans: The Making of Popular Science and Evolution in Early-Twentieth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2014).


Herbert Spencer’s doctrine of ‘survival of the fittest’ was an undeniable influence on non-specialist conceptions of evolution around the turn of the twentieth century, particularly in America. Social Darwinism, though inaccurately named, shaped much of the political thought of the era. John Bruni, however, challenges the idea that social Darwinism had ‘a complete monopoly on the cultural meanings of evolution’ (2). He begins his book with a chapter surveying articles contesting the meaning and mechanisms of evolution from the popular science magazines Scientific American and Popular Science Monthly. Drawing on Niklas Luhmann’s writings on systems theory, Bruni argues that popular science journalism ‘questions the fantasy of media as first-order observation and troubles the notion of objectivity through its commentary on scientific knowledge production’ (14). Once he has established that science is socially constructed and can be analysed on the same basis as art, Bruni proceeds to interrogate the ways in which evolutionary and thermodynamic theories have been deployed both to support and to challenge the cultural and economic imperialism of the U.S., as well as ideas about race, class, and gender.


The four remaining main chapters take canonical books by Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton, Jack London, and Henry Adams as case studies of the deployment of scientific theories for political ends. In chapter two, Bruni demonstrates the ways in which Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and Wharton’s House of Mirth depict the waste of human lives as the necessary effects of dissipation in the thermodynamic system of global capitalism, constituting a type of narrative which Bruni names ‘dirty naturalism’. Chapter three details the ways in which Jack London counterpoises Spencer’s optimistic progressive model of evolution against Thomas Huxley’s more pessimistic visions of atavism and regression in the novels The Call of the Wild and White Fang. Bruni highlights the ways in which the struggle for survival, as reflected in London’s novels, naturalizes race and gender hierarchies by portraying the necessity of such hierarchies across both human and non-human species. In chapter four Bruni applies performance theory alongside systems theory to create an ecocritical reading of Wharton’s The Custom of the Country; a reading that leads to the pessimistic conclusion that the systems of biopolitical control and nationalism will remain incurably blind to the ecological destruction they bring about. Finally, in chapter five, Bruni argues that Henry Adams ‘misreads science by pushing its meanings beyond disciplinary constraints to claim that thermodynamic degradation is a universal law with moral dimensions’ (153).

One major accomplishment of Bruni’s work is to re-theorize many of the conclusions about the relationships between science, culture, and politics that have already been drawn by earlier studies in literature and science. Earlier proponents of science as a social construct, such as Bruno Latour, George Levine, and many others, have focused on the ‘strong programme’ within the sociology of science as the basis of their assertions. The strong programme—in radically contextualizing science as limited by the blind spots and preoccupations of the culture which produces it, as opposed to providing access to objective truth—brings science and literature into closer contact, but does so by challenging only our perception of science. The application of Luhmann’s systems theory, which is equally relevant in biological, political and literary settings, is a creative way for Bruni to maintain the interdisciplinary dimension of literature and science on the level of structure as well as of content.

Jennifer Cole, Merton College, Oxford University