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Colonies, Cults and Evolution - Extracts

Par David Amigoni : Professeur de Littérature Victorienne - Keele University
Publié par Clifford Armion le 13/06/2008

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In his book "Colonies, Cults and Evolution", David Amigoni shows how the modern concept of "culture" developed out of the interdisciplinary interactions between literature, philosophy, anthropology, colonialism, and, in particular, Darwin's theories of evolution. These two extracts are reproduced with the consent of the author.

AMIGONI, David, Colonies, cults and evolution, 2007, Cambridge University Press.

The concept of culture, now such an important term within both the arts and the sciences, is a legacy of the nineteenth century. By closely analysing writings by evolutionary scienctists as Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and Herbert Spencer, alongside those of literary figures including Wordsworth, Coleridge, Arnold, Butler and Gosse, David Amigoni shows how the modern concept of "culture" developed out of the interdisciplinary interactions between literature, philosophy, anthropology, colonialism, and, in particular, Darwin's theories of evolution. He goes on to explore the relationship between literature and evolutionary science by arguing that culture was seen less as a singular idea or concept, and more as a field  of debate and conflict. This timely and highly original book includes much new material on the history of evolutionary thought and its cultural impact, and will be of interest to scholars of intellectual and scientific history as well as of literature.

Extract 1 (pp.85-87)

At the conclusion of the first edition of his work, unchanged in the second, Charles Darwin reflected on travel and the observation of nature as sources of cultivation and selfimprovement: [admiring beauty] depends chiefly on an acquaintance with the individual parts of each view:

I am strongly induced to believe that, as in music, the person who understands every note will, if he also possesses a proper taste, more thoroughly enjoy the whole, so he who examines each part of a fine view, may also thoroughly comprehend the full and combined effect. Hence, a traveller should be a botanist, for in all views plants form the chief embellishment. Group masses of naked rock even in the wildest forms, and they may for a time afford a sublime spectacle, but they will soon grow monotonous. Paint them with bright and varied colours, as in northern Chile, they will become fantastic; clothe them with vegetation, they must form a decent, if not a beautiful picture.... Nothing can be more improving to a young naturalist, than a journey to distant countries. It both sharpens, and partly allays that want and craving, which, as Sir J. Herschel remarks, a man experiences although every corporeal sense be fully satisfied. The excitement from the novelty of objects, and the chance of success, stimulate him to increased activity. Moreover, as a number of isolated facts soon become uninteresting, the habit of comparison leads to generalisation. On the other hand, as the traveller stays but a short time in each place, his descriptions must generally consist of mere sketches, instead of detailed observations. Hence arises, as I have found to my cost, a constant tendency to fill up the wide gaps of knowledge, by inaccurate and superficial hypotheses. (Journal 1845, 476, 479-80)

Darwin draws on the language of taste and cultivation in music to guide the reader in the appreciation of nature. The reading of cultural inscriptions serves as a powerful analogy here in the sense that Darwin stresses the importance of an aesthetic understanding that strives to unify part and whole: it is important for the botanist to understand the whole picture created by coloured floras and entangled vegetation. Darwin also reflects on the desire for self-improving knowledge in ways that directly appeal to science as an intellectual pursuit. For Darwin, self-improvement is founded upon sensation and desire: seeing nature in ‘distant countries’ is a means of allaying a ‘craving’ for mental satisfaction, even though the bodily senses be satiated. But the excitement and novelty of nature also sharpen the desire for mental satisfaction, which looks beyond ‘the fact’ and towards the speculative building of generalised theories. ‘The chance of success’, or ambition in constructing new knowledge, is an important motivator in travelling to distant countries to discover the secrets of nature.

Darwin cites Sir John Herschel as the authoritative theorist of controlled intellectual desire. Herschel made this connection between knowledge and desire in his influential Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1830), which Darwin later described as having stirred in him ‘a burning zeal to add even the most humble contribution to the noble structure of Natural Science’. Herschel’s account of ‘the mind of man’ held that ‘his views enlarge, and his desires and wants increase, in the full proportion of the faculties afforded to their gratification’. Herschel’s view of the mind cultivated by science continued to uphold mind as a divine gift. Herschel’s discourse indeed warned of the dangers of atheism attendant on materialism that might ‘foster in its cultivators an overweaning self-conceit’ which might lead them ‘to doubt the immortality of the soul and to scoff at revealed religion’. Such warnings were issued especially in connection with the question of the transmutation of species, where the ambitious, over-reaching mind might deny its dependence on its divine origins – though as we have seen, Herschel himself was utterly transfixed by this ‘mystery of mysteries’.

For Herschel, mind was the only faculty which gave humanity an advantage in, as Foucault put it in his formulation of the anthropological turn in western thought, ‘that perilous region where life is in confrontation with death’. For Herschel opens his account of the principles of natural philosophy by stressing the maladapted nature of man: physically, man is ‘remarkable only for the absence of those powers and qualities which obtain for other animals a degree of security and respect’. Without mind man

would be disregarded by some, and hunted down by others, till after a few generations his species would become altogether extinct, or, at best, would be restricted to a few islands in tropical regions, where the warmth of the climate, the paucity of enemies, and the abundance of vegetable food, might permit it to linger.

Herschel’s nature is an arena of limits, scarcity and threats from competitors; the extinction of the human species lurks as the ultimate expression of finitude. Without mind, the limited capacities of the human body might allow the species to ‘linger’ as, at best, isolated inhabitants upon tropical islands. It was a capacity for imitation, reflectiveness and aesthetic appreciation that enabled humans to become colonists who cultivated more than ‘the crude productions of the soil’. Man ‘approves and feels the highest admiration for the harmony of… [nature’s] parts, the skill and efficiency of its contrivances. Some of these which he can best trace and understand he attempts to imitate, and finds that to a certain extent, though rudely and imperfectly, he can succeed’. In one sense, Darwin’s Journal of Researches validates this narrative. But Darwin’s writing also supplements it, turning Herschel’s narrative on its head, and finds unfamiliar sources of meaning in images of mimicry, as well as lingering, stray colonists. And it locates new ways of explaining the laws of life through encounters with some very differently constituted, yet in their way highly effective, inhabitants of tropical islands. 

Extract 2 (pp.93-97)

Darwin consistently writes the landscapes of his Beagle narratives in the epitaphic mode, from the plains of Patagonia to coral atolls. This mode draws on the Wordsworthian store represented by The Excursion, in particular the poem’s preoccupation with ‘a subterraneous magazine of bones’ (vii, 345); and it has the effect of bringing new relations of causation to bear on William Whewell’s palaetiological science. From August 1833, the district around the Rio de Plata had started to deliver up to Darwin, its secrets of extinct mammalia including the remains of the toxodon, a giant quadruped. In his 1837 paper for the Geological Society of London, written two years before the first edition of the Journal of Researches, Darwin adhered to Lyell’s framework, looking for laws and processes working in the present and then applying them retrospectively to evidence from the past embedded in the ground, and palliated it by appealing to epitaphic language: ‘the author... supposed that the ancient rivers, like those of the present day, carried down the carcasses of land animals, which thus became entombed in the accumulating sediment. Since that period . . . the gradual rising of the land . . . [has] exposed, in many places, the skeletons of those ancient inhabitants.’ In describing the secrets yielded by land movement, Darwin uses the language of entombment.

Later, in the Journal of Researches, at another discovery of mass destruction, Darwin concludes that ‘the whole area of the pampas is one wide sepulchre of these extinct, gigantic quadrupeds’ (Journal 1845, 149). Extinction is afforded the kind of reverential language of mortality associated with Wordsworth and, latterly, Adam Sedgwick. And Darwin, in common with Sedgwick, finds ‘strange . . . forms and fashions of organic life’ in the extinct toxodon, described in the Journal as ‘perhaps one of the strangest animals ever discovered’. Darwin, however, celebrates the strangeness of an animal which blends features of the rodent with the dimensions and structural plan of an elephant: ‘how wonderfully are the different orders, at the present time so well separated, blended together in different points of the structure of the toxodon’ (Journal 1845, 80). Darwin’s point was to explain palaeontologically the means by which the strange blend of characteristics evident from the entombed remains of this dead being could be reconciled with the spread and separation of branched orders which characterised the existing plan of nature.

Darwin observed the materials of palaetiological science accumulating before him in Patagonia as he described the patterns of life and death of the guanaco, the ‘South American representative of the camel of the East’ (Journal 1845, 158). The living guanaco confronts Darwin with precisely the rather contradictory, entangled set of dispositions that a living species could manifest. Though ‘generally wild and extremely wary’ they are also ‘very easily domesticated’. If the boundary between the wild and the domesticated is blurred in the case of the guanaco, its actual behaviour under domesticity is ‘very bold’, so that they ‘readily attack a man by striking him behind with both knees’. The guanaco in the wild, by contrast, displays ‘no idea of defence’ (Journal 1845, 158-9). Darwin notes that ‘the guanacos appear to have favourite spots for lying down to di e’, and spots on the banks of the St Cruz river are ‘white with bones’. Darwin draws attention to these mass graves ‘because in certain cases they might explain the occurrence of a number of uninjured bones ... buried under alluvial accumulations; and likewise the cause of why certain animals are more commonly embedded than others in sedimentary deposits’ (Journal 1845, 160). Epitaphic writing needs to proceed carefully in the conclusions that it draws about the contents of graves, and the natural processes that have filled them. In fact, at this point Darwin moves from the language of the epitaph to the language of the romantic sublime. Recounting the expedition of a yawl to find water, Darwin recounts a scene of isolation, seclusion and desolation, punctuated only by a guanaco upon a hill as ‘watchful sentinel’, and, in descriptive language redolent of The Excursion, ‘a trickling rill. . . of brackish water’. Darwin ‘asks how many ages the plain had thus lasted, and how many more it was doomed thus to continue’; in answer, in the second edition of his narrative, he inserts Shelley’s ‘Lines on Mont Blanc’:

None can reply—all seems eternal now. The wilderness has a mysterious tongue, Which teaches awful doubt. (Journal 1845, 161)

Strikingly, Darwin cuts the final line off before the alternative that Shelley’s actual line offers – ‘or a faith so mild’. Darwin’s speculations and observations, palliated though they may be in a sympathetic epitaphic language, conclude in awful doubt’.

Darwin discovered a curious blend of life and death in one unique structure, coral. Coral colonies present a strange image of the relationship between the individual living elements of the reef and the dead, hard structure that predominates. Indeed, Howard E. Gruber has argued that Darwin’s theory of coral formations was an early ‘model theory’ of natural selection, even to the extent that it contains a Malthusian principle of population growth and limits, for coral cannot grow beyond some limiting distance from the surface of the sea. In the Journal of Researches Darwin records exploring the lagoons of Keeling Island: he wades out first ‘as far as the living mounds of coral, on which the swell of the open sea breaks’, and later finds himself amidst a forest of delicately branching coral that is all ‘dead and rotten’ (Journal 1845, 435-7). The contrast between the living and dead corals, and their branching tree-like form, come to function suggestively for Darwin, helping him to explain and reconceptualise radically the relationship between extinction and transmutation. As he states in his first notebook, ‘The tree of life should perhaps be called the coral of life, base of branches dead, so that passages cannot be seen.’

Darwin explained coral within a Lyellian geological frame, though in this case, Darwin was more Lyellian than Lyell, who had thought that coral formations grew by encrusting rising volcanic rims. Darwin turned Lyell’s theory on its head, arguing that the landmasses forming the islands in the Pacific were gradually subsiding. As the land sinks, the coral accumulates, rising to compensate and keeping itself at optimum depth. The theory of land subsidence fundamentally alters the relationship between the land and the coral, as Darwin registers in his choice of metaphor in his paper on coral formations for the Geological Society of London (May 1837); these formations are now seen as ‘monuments over subsided land’ — the land now buried from view beneath the waves, restored to memory. The coral takes on an epitaphic function.

Darwin’s description, in the Journal, of the view of a coral island presents a challenge to observation and theorising:

A long and brilliantly white beach is capped by a margin of green vegetation; and the strip, looking either way, rapidly narrows away in the distance, and sinks beneath the horizon. From the mast-head a wide expanse of smooth water can be seen within the ring. These low coral islands bear no proportion to the vast ocean out of which they abruptly rise; and it seems wonderful, that such weak invaders are not overwhelmed, by the all-powerful and never-tiring waves of that great sea, miscalled the Pacific. (Journal 1845, 282)

Coral atolls present a remarkable aesthetic effect created by nature: surrounded by a mighty and moving force of the sea, the atoll constitutes a sharp frame of white and green, which holds within it a smooth and calm expanse of water. It is a picture, but one that is brought about seemingly by great force, and unequal power relations; the Pacific has been misnamed because of the violence that it metes out upon corals, which are seen as ‘weak invaders’, and ‘great fragments scattered over the reef... plainly bespeak the unrelenting power of the waves’ (Journal 1845, 436). And yet, ‘wonderfully’ for Darwin, the coral formations hold steady, even though they can only continue to form their base in relatively shallow waters. Darwin explores this contest of power further:

It is impossible to behold these waves without feeling a conviction that an island, though built of the hardest rock, let it be porphyry, granite or quartz, would ultimately yield and be demolished by such an irresistible power. Yet these low, insignificant coral-islets stand and are victorious: for here another power, as an antagonist, takes part in the contest. The organic forces separate the atoms of carbonate of lime, one by one, from the foaming breakers, and unite them into a symmetrical structure. Let the hurricane tear up its thousand huge fragments; yet what will that tell against the accumulated labour of myriads of architects at work night and day, month after month? Thus do we see the soft and gelatinous body of a polypus, through the agency of the vital laws, conquering the great mechanical power of the waves of an ocean which neither the arts of man nor the inanimate works of nature could successfully resist. (Journal 1845, 436-7)

Darwin perceives a striking chemical agency at work in the interaction between the waves and the small, ‘soft and gelatinous body of a polypus’, which contributes to a theory of life expressed in the metaphor of accumulated labour. A higher ‘vital power’ is served by this agency, so Darwin works with a familiar romantic opposition, between the mechanism of forceful water and the vitality of the ‘soft’ body. Significantly, Darwin’s vitalism resists established hierarchies and rhetorics of power: the small, soft body is contrasted with the relentlessness of the machinelike sea, and it is the small soft body which is victorious, and the materiality of mechanical force that is overcome.

Yet this was not an opposition that could remain un-entangled and without supplements for Darwin as he was confronted by new natural relations and objects for which to account. In a remarkable passage on the kelp off Tierra del Fuego, Darwin constructs the sea not as a machine, but as a kind of reverse image of barren coastal landscape in its capacity to sustain ‘great aquatic forests’ supporting ‘new and curious structures’ (Journal 1845, 228-9). And as Darwin contemplates the natural sandstone spit that forms the harbour at Pernambuco, Brazil, he doubts ‘whether in the whole world any other natural structure has so artificial an appearance’. Several miles long, the spit is perfectly straight. At its centre is a few inches’ thickness of calcareous matter, including shells, barnacles and nulliporae, which are ‘hard, very simply-organised sea-plants’. Darwin’s opposition between organic, vital coral-polyp and inert machinate water has been deconstructed; the tissue from which this natural, yet to all appearances artificial, structure is built is explained through myth, a language of primitive culture that points to nature as a process of labour. Darwin sees it as ‘a breakwater erected by Cyclopean workmen (Journal 1845, 472-3). Darwin had referred to the South American continent as ‘the great workshop of nature’ in his first edition, but later removed the reference (Journal 1839, 158). But in the ‘Essay of 1844’, Darwin was beginning to articulate the implications of the forces at play in this workshop: ‘Nature may be compared to a surface, on which rest ten thousand sharp wedges touching each other and driven inwards by incessant blows’. 

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Pour citer cette ressource :

David Amigoni, "Colonies, Cults and Evolution - Extracts", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), juin 2008. Consulté le 12/06/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-britannique/epoque-victorienne/colonies-cults-and-evolution-extracts