Cannon Schmitt, Darwin and the Memory of the Human

Cannon Schmitt, Darwin and the Memory of the Human: Evolution, Savages, and South America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). xii +243pp. £53 hb. ISBN 9780521765602.

Cannon Schmitt’s Darwin and the Memory of the Human is a complex and ambitious study that never entirely convinces but often stimulates and provokes. In outline, the book consists of four single chapter case studies of British naturalists – Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, Charles Kingsley and W.H. Hudson – and their encounters with South America, book-ended by an introduction and a ‘Coda’. But as the conceit of the final chapter title implies, that prosaic description suggests a more straightforward monograph than Schmitt has, in fact, written. At the heart of the author’s ambition is an attempt to explore the connections between the act of remembering and its relation to the nineteenth century’s invention of the human as ‘natural’. According to Schmitt, naturalists, from Darwin on, practiced a ‘savage mnemonics: a form of memory that redefines what it is to be human (as well as modern, civilized, and British) in relation to the past, and specifically those pasts – historical, cultural, personal, and, above all, evolutionary – conceived of as savage’ (3). The ‘savage’ of this remembrance was not an ahistorical noble being, but one located spatially in South America, and temporally in a shared past. South America, therefore, assumes in Schmitt’s argument a key conceptual status as ‘a space encoding the passage of evolutionary time’ (2). Indeed, Schmitt appropriates, and in the process modifies, Pierre Nora’s lieu de mémoire neologism to capture the naturalists’ use of South America as ‘a place that memorialized the past in such a way as to make it available to the present’ (2).

The decision to focus on South America is both a strength and weakness of the book. From the publication of Alexander von Humboldt’s multi-volume Personal Narrative of his 1799-1804 expedition to ‘the New Continent’, South America held a unique fascination in studies of natural history, which fed upon the Continent’s unique landscape, flora and fauna, and, post-Darwin, their connections to their European counterparts. Schmitt is no doubt correct to emphasize the power of the continent and its specimens, especially its human specimens, to shake nineteenth-century naturalists’ sense of themselves, and his focus is on ‘those moments’ in their writings, ‘where the self is overwhelmed by what it comes into contact with’ (11). He is also correct to emphasize the extent to which South America served European writers as a living past, a trope that received its reductio ad absurdum in Arthur Conan Doyle’s location of The Lost World (1912) on a plateau in the Amazon basin, populated by prehistoric creatures and ape-like men.

But Schmitt himself is at risk of succumbing to the affliction of Lord Roxton in The Lost World, a ‘South Americomaniac’. The danger is made all the greater by his determination to pursue simultaneously two studies that are not coterminous: the Victorian engagement with South America, and the role of memory, in particular Victorian naturalists’ remembrances of the savage, in defining the human self. With the exception of Hudson, the naturalists’ studied all had a much wider purview, and did not always give primacy to their South American experiences: Darwin’s Beagle expedition circumnavigated the globe; Wallace spent longer in Asia than in South America; and Kingsley was as preoccupied with the Caribbean. It is doubtful that there is much to be gained by an often lop-sided emphasis on their South American experiences and reflections. For one thing it leaves Schmitt narrowly poring over, and often repeating, the same few passages. ‘Darwin’s corpus’ (35) of savage mnemonics, for example, turns out to be a couple of paragraphs in the eight hundred page Descent, an indeterminate allegory in the Origin, a comment in the Voyage of the Beagle, and Darwin’s claim in his Autobiography that his encounter with the Fuegians was the third most memorable aspect of his voyage. For another, it can distort judgments, particularly in the case of Wallace for whom South East Asia loomed larger than South America in his ‘savage mnemonics’, most notably in his famous inversion of the savage-civilized dichotomy towards the end of his Malay Archipelago (1869). Indeed Schmitt’s treatment of Wallace is probably the weakest part of the book. At one point he becomes chronologically confused, suggesting that Wallace rejected Darwin’s argument from artificial selection ‘in order to give a kind of scientific credibility to his spiritualist conclusions about human evolution’ (68). Given that Wallace first rejected reasoning from artificial selection in his 1858 Ternate paper, before the Origin was published and long before he became a spiritualist, this cannot be correct. In the same chapter Schmitt provides a simplistic (if not tendentious) reading of a passage in Wallace’s My Life (1905), which he cites as evidence for Wallace’s ‘initial sensation’ (66) upon encountering South American savages, despite it having been written more than fifty years after the event, and self-consciously framed around Darwin’s already published account. Such ingénue reading of problematic sources, however, is not characteristic of the book as a whole.

For the most part Schmitt wears his scholarship quite heavily: the 162 pages of text are followed by 72 pages of endnotes and bibliography, and authors’ names, as diverse as Jorge Louis Borges, W. G. Sebald, Andreas Huyssen and Stephen J. Gould are liberally and often gratuitously sprinkled over the main text. But the ostentation cannot conceal some basic weaknesses. On a practical level, too little effort has been made to refine the four case studies into a coherent whole: there is needless repetition; and an important editing stage skipped. The publishers probably also bear some responsibility for presenting this as a ‘Darwin book’; despite the title and the cover-illustration, the Darwin chapter is the shortest of the four studies and is padded with material from Hudson, the real ‘hero’ of Schmitt’s account. On a theoretical level, the book will find admirers among those swept up in the fashion for ‘memory studies’, but historians will wonder why so much space was given, for example, to a discussion of Sebald’s Austerlitz, but only a few passing allusions made to the nineteenth-century Darwinists’ debate concerning individual and species memory. In sum, an intriguing, if rather unbalanced, book.

David Stack, University of Reading