Maria Zarimis, Darwin’s Footprint: Cultural Perspectives on Evolution in Greece (1880-1930s)

Maria Zarimis, Darwin’s Footprint: Cultural Perspectives on Evolution in Greece (1880-1930s) (Budapest and New York: Central European University Press 2015) 333 pp. £38 Hb, £22 Pb. ISBN: 978-963-386-077-9

Although Darwin’s name will conjure up in most readers’ minds a familiar assortment of venerable historic figures, Zarimis immediately indicates in Darwin’s Footprint that her subjects will not be any of these old friends. Indeed, her translated titles and quotations appear to be, in almost all cases, the only existing access, for those lacking Greek language skills, to this fascinating area of Greek scientific and literary culture. Her goal is ‘to unveil how Darwinism formed a part of the Greek intellectual and cultural life during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’ (1). Zarimis convincingly develops what she sees as  the previously uneven analyses of Darwinian and eugenic perspectives on Greek literary culture in this period. The book progressively narrows in scope, first situating Darwin and evolutionary theory as debated by Greek literati at the turn of the century, before moving on to Zarimis’s primary focus, the prolific author Grigorios Xenopoulos, and his complex deployment of evolutionary and eugenic themes.

In the history of science, a great number of highly successful studies have tracked the diverse conceptions of evolution present in different locations and socio-political climates. Ronald L. Numbers and John Stenhouse’s admirable collection, Disseminating Darwinism (1999), for instance, or David N. Livingstone’s more recent Dealing with Darwin (2014), have identified the often unexpected factors that attracted communities to evolution, or repelled them, as they formed localised conceptions of what Darwinism meant. Here, Zarimis wisely does not distinguish between an authentic ‘Darwinism’ and one formulated more indirectly, although she does draw attention to instances of clear engagement with Darwin’s texts, as opposed to more generalised evolutionary discourses. Greece presents an interesting example of a culture in which translation of these texts took place comparatively late: The Origin of Species was only translated in 1915.

Zarimis’s first chapter succinctly summarises late nineteenth-century evolutionary thought and its literary forms, perhaps slightly exaggerating the contemporary influence of natural selection over other perceived mechanisms of evolution, before introducing this thought’s impact on the racial elements of the ‘Great Idea’ and its dream of expanded Greek territory. Zarimis finds George Skliros’s article, ‘Skepticism and our Race’ (1913), in the periodical Grammata, to have instigated a ‘new discourse put forward by a number of Greek intellectuals’ adopting ‘post-Darwinian ideas’ which were ‘situated within a national rhetoric on the progress of the nation’ (48). The chapter demonstrates that Skliros’s article and its subsequent discussion fused Greek nationalism with racialist hereditarianism, whilst ongoing debates pitted the purity of the Greek language against progressivist support for the demotic. These polarised intellectual conversations revealed the nation’s underlying ‘key concept’ of the ‘theme of continuity’ (65).  Despite the late translation of The Origin of Species, Greek intellectual interest in Darwinism is shown in the second chapter to have proliferated from the 1880s onwards, although the application of science to literature was not ‘a common trend among Greek writers’ (68). In addition to anonymous writers, the chapter is divided into discussions of Emmanuel Roidis, Kostis Palamas, Nikos Kazantzakis, and Alexandros Papadiamantis. Zarimis provides convincing accounts of various schools of thought which produced utterly diverse interpretations of evolution, ranging from scoffing satire to Weismannian, Bergsonian, or Nietzschean ideological syntheses.

The third chapter focusses on the weekly magazine Children’s Guidance (1879-1947), which ‘played a significant role in the dissemination in Greece of Darwin’s theories and other evolutionary ideas’ (118). Zarimis believes that Xenopoulos, its editor, ‘has tended not be taken very seriously by literary historians’ (118), but her astute readings show how this influential figure’s ‘Athenian Letters’ encouraged youthful interest in Darwin specifically, whilst making sure to assert the compatibility of Darwinism and religion. She attributes the magazine’s sometimes diametrically opposed stance on Darwinism to Xenopoulos’s own fluctuating beliefs as well as his need to conform to the paper’s traditional function as a conservative organ.

The remaining chapters elaborate close readings of some of Xenopoulos’s interwar novels that depict turn-of-the-century Darwinian debates. Chapter Four sees Rich and Poor (1919) as ‘parodying’ its protagonist’s  convoluted hereditarian theory of the ‘lambs’ eyes’ of the poor and ‘hawks’ eyes’ of the rich, as well as the socialist ‘pipe dream’ which would see these two ‘races’ united (163, 197). Chapter Five places Tereza Varma-Dacosta (1926) in its ‘true light - that is, as a post-Darwinian reading’ (205), there being ‘no study which examines [Xenopoulos’s] female representations in a post-Darwinian spirit’ (207). Zarimis characterises the titular Tereza as a New Woman whose increasing ferocity and sexual nature Xeonopoulos depicts as inherent in degenerative aristocratic society, and as exacerbated by environmental factors. The final chapter continues the analysis of gendered degeneration by looking at The Three-Sided Woman (1922) and The Night of Degeneration (1926). It concludes that these novels were ‘part of a broad international literary discourse’ that used a ‘Post-Darwinian approach’ in order to ‘promote a regenerate society’ (285).

Due to both its novelty as an English-language book-length study of Darwinism in Greek literature, and its aim of significantly furthering a small area of Greek scholarship, Darwin’s Footprint addresses a great deal of material. The focus on Xenopoulos means that the reader is left primarily with intriguing case-studies, albeit wide-ranging ones, rather than a comprehensive understanding of these issues in Greek literary culture - let alone Greek society more generally. Furthermore, and in a way to which Zarimis herself draws attention, the primary scientific influences often appear to be Ernst Haeckel, August Weismann, Francis Galton, and E. Ray Lankester, making the recurring focus on Darwin and his texts not necessarily always a useful one.  The book is, nonetheless, a highly valuable one for students of literature and science, both with and without Greek language skills. Studies of Darwinian culture are dominated by Anglo-American subjects, and so alternative approaches, made possible by critics, like Zarimis, with the multilinguistic abilities to tap underutilised areas, can only be of benefit to the current literature. Works such as this provide an eye-opening view to unique and captivating material that scholars have barely yet touched.

Richard Fallon, University of Leicester