David Amigoni, Colonies, Cults and Evolution

David Amigoni, Colonies, Cults and Evolution: Literature, Science and Culture in Nineteenth-Century Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007). 237 pp. £50 hb. ISBN 978-0521884587.

The last decade has witnessed an increasingly acrimonious divide between those scholars who seek to claim Darwinism for literature— to expose the discursive, intertextual, and even deconstructive qualities of nineteenth-century evolutionary writing— and those who would subsume literature within Darwinian theory, presenting it as a unique by-product of cognitive adaptation whose forms and themes might best be studied through the interpretive rubric of biology. As even the most casual of observers will note, the difference between these two camps is as much (if not more) ideological than it is disciplinary, the literary Darwinists invoking the authority of science to bash the poststructuralism which, they allege, has dominated and perverted the course of humanities scholarship since the seventies. David Amigoni’s ambitious and wide-ranging Colonies, Cults and Evolution: Literature, Science and Culture in Nineteenth-Century Writing (2007) is sure to antagonize the latter and provoke new debate about the ontology of Victorian evolutionary writing.

Colonies, Cults and Evolution has two central goals: one to show the crucial role of Victorian scientific discourse in forming emergent definitions of “culture"; two, to argue that, far from being strictly empirical, this discourse actually serves as precursor for contemporary poststructuralist and postcolonial theory through its emphasis on hybridity, mimicry, and defamiliarization. It pursues this aim through a series of dynamic and ingenious if sometimes hectic readings of an incredibly diverse range of texts, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s On the Constitution of Church and State (1830), William Wordsworth’s The Excursion (1814), Charles Darwin’s Journal of Researches (1839; 1845), Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872) and Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907). In its range, complexity, and theoretical engagement, the study makes a rich contribution to both cultural studies and the growing body of science and literature studies that seeks to reconcile rather than oppose the insights of poststructuralism and evolutionary discourse.

Although proceeding in a roughly chronological manner, the book’s structure seems more orchestral than linear. Amigoni pursues a form of thick description, explicating his texts to draw out a series of recurring and complementary thematic refrains on, among other things, mimicry, textual weaving, cultivation, the colony, and supplementation. Chapter One focuses primarily on Coleridge’s On the Constitution of Church and State, demonstrating how the work unintentionally subverts the author’s well-known opposition to scientific materialism through its use of ethnographic and embryological discourse to define culture. “As Coleridge strove to recover a language of reflection and inwardness that would be equal to the mission of culture," writes Amigoni, “that language was always already inscribed with supplements from science and evolutionary speculation which compromised the presumed source and integrity of that inwardness" (48). The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of Coleridge’s engagement with colonialism, a theme that becomes the bridge into the following chapter’s discussion of Wordsworth’s colonial poetics in The Excursion and his influence on scientific materialists such as Charles Darwin and Harriet Martineau. Amigoni’s argument is that the popularity of Wordsworth’s poem among Victorian evolutionists shouldn’t seem surprising to us; after all, he contends, these thinkers were likely responding to The Excursion’s real if long ignored “counter-spiritual transmutationist unconscious" (82). He writes, “If scientific materialists could appropriate Wordsworth’s appeals to spirit, perhaps there had always been a latent and subversive strain of materialism in Wordsworth." (58) As in the Coleridge chapter, the goal here is to show how particular bodies of nineteenth-century texts usher in the very forces they seem designed to resist.

The book’s subsequent four chapters tend to take a wider focus than the first two. Chapter Three links reads Wordsworth, John Herschel, and, particularly, Darwin as the unlikely Victorian forerunners of contemporary theories of colonial mimicry and defamiliarization; Chapter Four surveys a broad prospectus of post-1859 British publications on biology, colonization, and culture, including Huxley’s Lay Sermons (1870), Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (1869), Pater’s “Coleridge’s Writings" (1866), Grant Allen’s “The Origin of Cultivation" (1894), and Leslie Stephen’s Hobbes (1904). As will be reflected in this brief list, one of the major accomplishments of Amigoni’s study is to bring a rich and sometimes startling diversity of both familiar and lesser-known Victorian texts into dialogue with each other for the first time. Chapter Five takes up Samuel Butler’s vexed relationship with both Darwin and Darwinism, demonstrating how his interest in the unstable difference between mechanized instinct and free will surfaces in Erewhon. A final chapter reads Gosse’s Father and Son in light of late Victorian debates about the value (and liabilities) of imitation as a pedagogical strategy and tool for cultural transmission. A brief conclusion points tantalizingly to the book’s implications for contemporary post-colonial theory and socio-biology; I found this to be one of the most fascinating sections of the entire book and wished Amigoni had been able to further expand it. One hopes he will return to this topic in his subsequent scholarship.

Given its challenging theoretical mandate, its thick description technique, and its dizzying abundance of source texts, Colonies, Cults and Evolution can be as daunting a read as it is an exhilarating one. Amigoni’s concern with marginalia and ephemerality sometimes produces an argumentative style that seems itself tangential and arbitrary. In Chapter Three, for example, we are told that Darwin recommended Samuel Hearne’s Journey from Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean (1795) to his publisher John Murray for republication in the ‘Colonial and Home Library’ series. Because Darwin named Wordsworth as a fellow admirer of Hearne’s, a statement presumably based on Wordsworth’s reference to Hearne in the head note to “The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman", Amigoni concludes that there might be a causal connection between the poem’s veiled anti-humanism and Darwin’s materialist definition of culture in the Journal of Researches. “For Darwin,‿ speculates Amigoni, “…the poem . . . may have initiated . . . complex and radically sceptical intimations [my italics]" (90). Further on in the chapter, Amigoni reiterates this tentative claim of descent from Wordsworth to Darwin, stating that Wordsworth’s “subject matter often collects images of destitute, marginal individuals and races. This perhaps provided Darwin with a framework for appreciating the significance of and value of apparently stray, destitute beings encountered during the voyage of the Beagle [my italics]" (98). Well, perhaps and maybe. But it seems to me that Amigoni doesn’t need to prove a direct line of influence from Wordsworth to Darwin in order to show that they shared similar concerns about the nature, whether material or spiritual, of human culture; whether Darwin drew these anxieties from Wordsworth or not seems relatively unimportant. Indeed, one feels that the argument is weakened rather than strengthened through its allusion to these highly speculative connections. The study seems to me far stronger when it offers original and focused readings of the culture question within specific nineteenth-century texts than when it attempts to prove intriguing yet ultimately conjectural links between its panoply of thinkers. Nonetheless, I would far rather read a book that occasionally frustrates in its attempts to do too much than one which bores through its imaginative paucity. Colonies, Cults and Evolution makes a stimulating, controversial, and hence very welcome addition to the growing corpus of Victorian science and literature studies.

Christine Ferguson, University of Glasgow.

  1. Gillian Beer’s avatar

    Darwin read Wordsworth’s *The Excursion* twice through (no light undertaking as it’s about 350 pages long) and refers back to it in his late ‘Autobiography’. That poem intersperses philosophical commentary with narratives of the lives of particular poor, excluded, or lost people. This might seem to strengthen the connection that Amigoni is suggesting.

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