Chris Danta, Animal Fables After Darwin: Literature, Speciesism, and Metaphor

Chris Danta, Animal Fables After Darwin: Literature, Speciesism, and Metaphor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018) x + 216 pp. £75.00 Hb $80.00 pdf ISBN: 9781108428200.

Chris Danta’s engaging study of post-Darwinian fables represents the culmination of over a decade’s research into the relationship between human and nonhuman animals. It synthesises and develops ideas put forward in some of his earlier published works, and overall his book comes across as cohesive, persuasive, and refreshingly original. He considers the form of the traditional fable and selects ‘new Aesops’ (193) for their biocentric challenge to anthropocentrism, interrogating how they manipulate the perspective of supposedly lower animals to challenge the concept of human uniqueness, and how their fantastic stories expose a creaturely kinship between human and animal that is both ‘biological and existential’ (193). Danta’s argument is that to read a post-Darwinian fable is to encounter a tale told by an ape about another ape, or to speak more generally it is to encounter a tale told by a primate about a fellow member of the animal kingdom. He takes as case studies predominantly late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century texts by well-known authors such as Robert Louis Stevenson, H. G. Wells, and Franz Kafka, as well as the less familiar T. F. Powys and David Garnett. Along the way he introduces George Orwell and Angela Carter for comparative analysis, and finally stretches – if slightly overstretches – the timeframe to include twenty-first century J. M. Coetze. 

Danta opens with a prologue on uplifting animals, the process of artificially raising them closer to humans, and his first chapter continues with a critique of the vertical metaphor of species hierarchy which imagines humankind to be in an elevated and erect Godlike position where bipedalism is associated with superiority and morality. Danta’s contention throughout the book is that earthbound oriented fables written in the aftermath of Darwin tilt the vertical axis and eventually flatten it. He identifies in the fable a disruption of the spatial organization in which humans are positioned as up and animals as down, and this causes him to classify it ‘a subversive and ultimately antitheological literary genre’ (10). He envisages Darwinian thought and the fable as aligned in a shared orientation away from the heavens - or away from God in Heaven - towards earthly inhabitants and their bodily functions. Danta shows the fable resembling the Bakhtinian grotesque, where what is high is degraded and what is spiritual is made corporeal. He develops the concept in his second chapter when he turns his attention to the grotesque mouth, the sovereign vehicle of verbalisation and philosophising, yet also the animalistic site of ingesting and devouring. These activities, he claims, become complicated in fable when the nonhuman is endowed with articulacy, when animals get eaten or eat, are spoken about, and themselves also speak. 

Danta's contention is that ‘Ovid’s Metamorphoses continues to vie with The Origin of Species in the post-Darwinian literary imaginary’ (25). The fabular trope of an individual’s magical change in state is informed by and competes with scientific knowledge and the long, slow species transformation of evolution. In his third and fourth chapters on Stevenson and Wells respectively, Danta offers several examples of them playing with transformational timescales. Alongside Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he refers to Stevenson’s letters and notebooks, and he brings in Stevenson’s little-known fables including ‘The Scientific Ape’ and ‘The Clockmaker’, only rescued from oblivion in 2005. He identifies Stevenson as one of the first to realise that stories about apes written after Darwin affect the reader in a fundamentally different way to those written before. Danta positions Stevenson’s ‘The Scientific Ape’ as a proto-modernist precursor to Kafka’s ‘A Report to an Academy’ since both apes experience uplifting as an accidental biproduct of violent human interaction. He notes that the production of the Beast People in Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau is a feat of deliberate animal enhancement preceded by years of sustained experimental vivisection. According to Danta, Wells’ innovation is to ‘biologize the folktale’ (119), to express the mythological in modern terms and in so doing prefigure the future. Danta finds both Stevenson and Wells to be heavily influenced by Darwinian beliefs on evolution and extinction. ‘Evolution’, Danta comments, ‘lends scientific credibility to the idea of fabulous metamorphoses’ (120). ‘The Clockmaker’ presents the lengthy process of evolution from the perspective of a microscopic community existing in a temporarily abandoned carafe of water, which over many generations and without human intervention achieves philosophical and theological sophistication only to meet an apocalyptic end when the Clockmaker gets thirsty. The evolution and extinction scenario of Wells’ The Time Machine is also used by Danta to demonstrate transformation, expiration, and to highlight the finiteness of life. For individuals and species, for human and nonhuman animals alike, the inevitability of death is an equalising fate.

Danta presents the post-Darwinian fable as a literary form that combines discourses of anthropology, evolutionary biology, philosophy, and theology with the aim of critiquing the human animal. He considers instances where human and animal elements are constructed as physically separate such as the bifurcation into Jekyll and Hyde or the aesthetic Eloi and bestial Morlock of The Time Machine, and he contrasts them with the ‘ontological claustrophobia’ (113) of stories where the proximity of human to nonhuman is so close as to be located within the same body. In his fifth chapter Danta contemplates the human as perforated, a hybridised entity. He cites as evidence the overnight transformation of still rational Gregor Samsa into a verminous insect in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and Mrs. Tebrick’s spontaneous physiological change into wifely vixen in Garnett’s Lady into Fox. In his sixth chapter the main focus is on Kafka and Coetze, and he moves via the holocaust, scapegoats, and scapegraces to consider the author as performative animal, a zoographer who is simultaneously a zoological specimen. He ends with a coda featuring Garnett’s A Man in the Zoo in which the human narrator exhibits himself in a cage adjacent to a chimpanzee and an orangutan. 

Danta is successful in showing that while traditional fables analogise the human condition through emblematizing nonhuman specimens, what is peculiar to post Darwinian fables is that they illuminate what it is to be animal per se. He proves that post-Darwinian fabulists are effectively ethologists who study animal behaviour in full knowledge that they are likewise animal. They write not like animal, but as animal for other animals. Danta summarises it succinctly: ‘Darwinism is a new Aesopism. The moral of the post-Darwinian fable is that humans belong in the Ape-house’ (189).   

Janette Leaf, Birkbeck, University of London

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