Virginia Richter, Literature After Darwin

Virginia Richter, Literature After Darwin: Human Beasts in Western Fiction, 1859-1939 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2011), 272pp, £50 hb, ISBN: 9780230273405

Darwin’s evolutionary theories shattered traditional ideas of human identity. Common origins with the brutes reduced the human from fallen angel to rising ape; and even this image of progressive development was undermined by random mutation and potential degeneration. Since the pioneering work of Gillian Beer and George Levine in the 1980s, literary scholars have extensively explored anxiety over humanity’s bestial nature. Richter’s book nonetheless makes a valuable contribution to the field, tracing some surprising responses to the collapse of old boundaries between human and animal.

In spite of the title’s emphasis on representations of humanity ‘after Darwin’, the work traces the indeterminacy of human-animal relations in Western culture to long before him. Humans and animals shaded into each other through the classical Great Chain of Being. Yet, while the chain was essentially stable, Darwin’s tree of life was in constant flux with no permanent barriers between species. Richter draws on cultural theory, such as Jacques Lacan’s ‘mirror-stage’ and Julia Kristeva’s concept of ‘the abject’, to examine texts’ complex negotiations of human and animal identity post-Darwin. This makes for some thought-provoking insights into tropes like the ‘missing link’ between man and beast in fin de siècle fiction. H. G. Wells and Stanley Waterloo’s imaginings of the Paleolithic past bolster the privileged position of humans by bestializing their Neanderthal cousins. Amoral, antisocial and unspeaking, these troglodyte ‘others’ are ‘made to carry the whole burden of an animal heredity’ (p.166). Occupying the borderland between humans and animals, they act as buffers, partially repairing the boundaries which Darwin had toppled. Neanderthals must be either assimilated by their ethical, social and linguistic cousins or exterminated, as happens in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. The ‘first men’ in such late-Victorian and Edwardian visions of the evolutionary past are, Richter concludes, ‘always already human’, purifying ‘human genealogy from the taint of apehood’ (p.168). Categorical differences between human civilisation and animal nature were often too useful to be discarded, justifying colonialism and anthropocentricity.

Richter convincingly extends Robert J. C. Young’s concept of ‘colonial desire’ to the bestial ‘other’ of humans’ evolutionary past. Young claimed that the separation of colonizers from colonized in racial discourse produced opposing Western desires for sexual and ontological intermixture. Equally, Richter argues, anthropological discourse which divided humans from animals begot the converse desire to reconnect with the beast within. Like the Neanderthals of prehistoric fiction, natives in Henry Rider Haggard’s African adventures often occupy a liminal position between human and animal, which both repels and attracts the white explorers. In his romance of an ancient ‘lost race’ King Solomon’s Mines the witch woman Gagool embodies the disgust and humiliation of an animal heritage. Yet, Gagool derives her power from this same liminality; and it is by fighting such beasts tooth-and-nail in the colonial contact zone that Haggard’s heroes prove their manhood. Unlike the emaciated specimens of England’s cities, Allan Quatermain and his comrades are in touch with their vigorous, bestial roots. As well as symbolizing humanity’s aggressive, bestial past, apes can also be ‘figures of plenitude’ for humans to emulate. Texts such as Franz Kafka’s ‘Report for an Academy’ treat apes as ‘beings that are at one with themselves and nature while humans are split subjects, forever divorced from the natural world’ (pp.116-7). By learning to speak, Kafka’s ape loses his animal freedom, constrained by the ‘yoke’ of social control. Similarly, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan series locates maternal care in animal instincts rather than human culture through a female ape protecting and raising the child-protagonist. Tarzan’s preference for the jungle over effete, hypocritical civilisation points to nostalgia for a quasi-pastoral, animal past before symbolic consciousness divided humans from nature.

Richter marshals an impressive range of texts to discuss negotiations of human/animal identity. From Goethe and Edgar Alan Poe to Freud and Giorgio Agamben, the study makes original and suggestive links between literature, science and philosophy, past and present. As Richter observes, debates over both the extension of ‘human rights’ to Great Apes and the ‘relativisation’ of these rights ‘as a “Western” concept’ are symptomatic of wider uncertainties. Cloning and genetic experimentation ‘raise the question of the specificity and uniqueness of “the human”’ (p.7). ‘Man’s Place in Nature’ is no more clearly defined in the twenty-first century than it was in Darwin’s time. Richter’s wideness of scope, though, occasionally results in the omission of potentially relevant material. Given that the study returns so often to language as the (apparent) Rubicon between humans and animals, it is odd to see no mention of Christine Ferguson’s work on this subject The Brutal Tongue (2006). Greg Raddick’s research, also, would have been useful to place Richter’s arguments about language on a more historicist footing.

However, the broadness of Richter’s study has more benefits than drawbacks. By stretching her discussion from the publication of On the Origin of Species to the beginning of the Second World War, she is able to trace continuities and developments of ‘anthropological anxiety’ previously classified as uniquely Victorian or Modernist. Close readings of Robert Louis Stevenson and Kipling alongside Kafka and Karel Čapek challenge the simplistic opposition of Victorian horrors of ‘the beast within’ against Modernist yearnings for the primitive. They also show how responses to human evolution were shaped by national perspectives, reflecting different geopolitical contexts. Richter’s reading of Čapek’s Válka s Mloky (The War with the Newts) is particularly fascinating, offering a Central European view on the (mis)use of Darwin to define human nature. Written in 1936 under the rising spectre of Nazism, Čapek’s tale depicts a race of gigantic, intelligent newts. First the specimens and slaves of humans, they rebel, decimating their captors before, finally, turning on each other. Mythologizing a master-race of ‘Adriatic’ newts, these creatures plunge into a war of self-destruction similar to that which Hitler would soon unleash on Europe. As Čapek’s satire realises, the beast to be feared lay less in Darwin’s common origins than the nationalist wish to construct exclusive ones.

Will Abberley, University of Exeter