Voigts, Schaff and Pietrzak-Franger (eds.), Reflecting on Darwin (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014)

Eckart Voigts, Barbara Schaff and Monika Pietrzak-Franger (eds.), Reflecting on Darwin (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014) xii + 231 pp. £95 Hb, £90.25 Kindle. ISBN 978-1-4724-1407-6

Scholars on Darwin and Darwinism will be disappointed with how little of Darwin himself there is in this book.  Setting out to discover the significance of Darwin today (5), this book identifies itself as a ‘unique collection of papers that outlines the impact of Darwin and his thought across contemporary (popular) media and in academic debates as well as anchoring these developments in the long history of critical and cultural responses to his work’ (6).  Together they explore the ways Darwin’s ideas have been represented, misrepresented, rewritten, and appropriated in a variety of contexts.  Even as the articles trace the various layers of Darwin’s mediation, so do they themselves take up different positions and proximities to Darwin and his work.  Some mention Darwin hardly at all, a few discuss Darwin directly, and most examine other people engaging Darwin or his ideas.  Falling short of an ‘outline’ of Darwin’s impact, the collection nevertheless indicates key ways in which his ideas still fascinate contemporary theorists, philosophers, scientists, and authors.

The collection is divided into three sections, one on nineteenth-century cultural products, one on twenty-first-century cultural products, and one on contemporary philosophy of science.  The first section, ‘The Cultural Evolution of Darwin’s Thought’, introduces three Darwinian themes that hold the collection together: the nature of the human, human-simian affinity, and the question of inheritance.  The essays explore ramifications of these topics in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain through a variety of texts, including letters, literary fiction, children’s magazines, and Modernist short fiction. Contradicting associations of Darwin with eugenics, Angelique Richardson shows, through the changing - and increasingly divergent - ideas of Darwin and his cousin Francis Galton, that Darwin actually opposed eugenics, which he slurred as utopian, even as Galton turned to utopian fiction to disseminate his eugenic ideas.  Building on Richardson’s essay on Darwin and heredity, the next essay, by Susanne Scholz, is not specifically about Darwin or his ideas at all, but about Thomas Hardy’s response to increasing visuality in the study of evolutionary heredity generally.  Scholz argues that Hardy used visual metaphors, particularly those of the family face, to reflect on and to challenge the scientific visual paradigm that subsumed individual agency under inherited, ancestral determinism.  Another pair of essays concerns human-simian affinity and, by implication, human nature.  Jochen Petzold identifies a ‘Gorilla-Mania’ in the 1850s and 1860s and argues that children’s magazines exploited that fascination to critique Darwin’s theories.  He concludes that these texts, often adventure stories, ridiculed the idea of a link between humans and apes even as they implied that black Africans were an intermediate step between them.  Finally, an article by Julika Griem shifts from Victorian literary gendering of apes as masculine to a gender double standard in Modernist representations of apes in Leonhard Stein’s ‘The Gorilla’, Joseph von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus, and Isak Dinesen’s The Monkey.  She shows that while male simian characters are doomed to self-destruction, female simians are allowed ‘the alternative of subversive appropriation’ (78) through mimicking humans.

Shifting to specifically post-millennial novels and film, the second section, ‘Darwin’s Cultural Resonance Today’, takes on gendered science, contingency, and human nature.  Ann Heilmann explores race and gender in Neo-Victorian fiction by women (Chase-Riboud, Barrett, Padel, Chevalier) about pre-Darwin, early nineteenth-century scientists.  She argues that these feminist novelists implicitly reinforce the genderedness of science (male explorer, female object) even as they condemn a ‘masculine’ model of science and celebrate/construct a ‘feminine’ science emergent in the decades before Darwin which is less confident but more humanitarian and equalitarian.  Discussing the teleological misinterpretation and misrepresentation of Darwin’s theories, Felix C.H. Sprang argues that literary Darwinist novels by Barry and Banville correct this distortion by dramatizing the contingency of life and the directionlessness of evolution, ultimately reflecting a postmodern suspicion of master-narratives.  Taking up a Darwinian theme, Angela Schwarz argues that science fiction blockbusters, rather than other forms of media, have been the main vehicle from the late twentieth century onwards for introducing scientific visions of human enhancement and, crucially, exploring their implications for and impact on what ‘human’ means and what it means to be ‘human’.

The third section, ‘Darwin as “Pop Star” of Contemporary Theory’, engages directly with contemporary science and philosophy of science, particularly with literary Darwinism and sociobiology.  Starting from the question of why Darwin has emerged as a pop star in theoretical inquiry, Virginia Richter explores the then-and-now of anxiety about human-simian similarity, concluding that literary Darwinism misrepresents Darwin by assuming an essentialist human nature rooted in its simian kinship.  Alternatively, Richter offers Darwinian contingency as both better for the humanities and truer to Darwin than such essentialism.  Examining cognitive order, Nils Wilkinson argues that science is inherently metaphysical as it tries to make sense of the world and answer the questions of human nature raised by Darwin.  Systematically dismantling the adequacy of Dawkins’s neo-Darwinian sociobiology, Matthias Gutmann teases out the contradictions internal to Dawkins’s theory, focusing on the logical status of the (analogical) relation between gene and meme.  Finally, Momme von Sydow argues that natural selection by the survival of the fittest is a tautology for most denotations of ‘fitness’ and therefore that it is a metaphysical rather than empirical claim.  He does argue that understanding ‘fitness’ as blind variability and external selection can make natural selection testable and non-tautological, but that this definition also opens the principle to limitation or even falsification.  Covering a huge amount of ground, including a discussion of gene Darwinism and of reinforcement learning in psychology as an analogy to natural selection its status as a tautology, Von Sydow ultimately warns against treating Darwinian natural selection as a testable empirical hypothesis when it is really an assumed metaphysical principle.

Although there are some fascinating essays in this collection, it is difficult to figure out to whom the collection as a whole should be recommended.  The essays accomplish little by being together in one volume.  Their disparate topics and proximities to Darwin do illustrate the variety of Darwinian refractions into the twenty-first century, but as a whole they are too far from each other to have meaningful traction between them.  Instead, each essay, or even a couple of essays, is relevant to different topics: literary Darwinism, sociobiology, neo-Victorian fiction, animal studies (simians, in particular), science fiction, Victorian periodicals, gendered science, Victorian novels, eugenics, human nature.  Framed by these narrower topics, many of these essays are worth tracking down this volume in order to read.

Courtney J. Salvey, University of Kent