Imagining a Place in Nature: Using Evolution to Explain the Early Evolutionary Imagination in Literature
After Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, Victorian literature overflowed with images of man’s new place in nature. Those images can be explained by modern research that builds on Darwin’s theory: the evolutionary social sciences and evolutionary literary theory. Humans are predisposed to focus on the human life cycle and the threats and rewards that most commonly attend it. Our cosmic stories about ourselves—from world religions to tribal mythologies—tend to depict the universe in terms of human life trajectories and social relationships. Thus, Darwinian evolution is a unique challenge to the human imagination. Unlike the pagans who transitioned to Christianity, the Victorians did not exchange one compelling human story for another. They faced an abstract theory that dwarfs human concerns in an amoral cosmos. Authors responded by engaging evolution in allegorical battle, by drawing heroes and villains from evolutionary history, by personifying the impersonal natural forces, or by taking the imaginative challenge itself as their topic. I argue that the evolutionary myth-making of late-Victorian authors served a purpose rooted in universal psychological needs. According to a prominent hypothesis in evolutionary art theory, humans create art as a way to orient our minds to the world, guiding behavior that is partially detached from instinct. Darwin’s non-mythological origin story replaced illusions of an anthropocentric world with illusions of a hostile world robbed of coherence. Previous literary scholarship has offered purely cultural explanations of the Darwinian influence on literature. One tradition, going back to the middle of the 20th-century, has simply described the influence from one text to another. A more recent tradition has appropriated Darwinism to poststructuralist theories, seeing it as a narrative complicit in or resistant to ideologies. Neither of these traditions registers the unique psychological nature of the influence. This evolutionary interpretation includes case studies from the most widely accessible adventure story to the most stylistically complex existential meditation: from Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Edward Bulwer Lytton to Jack London and Joseph Conrad. Understanding these literary responses of the past can help illuminate our current responses to an imaginative problem that has been passed down to us unsolved.
Doctor of Philosophy
Göteborgs universitet. Humanistiska fakulteten
University of Gothenburg. Faculty of Arts
Department of Languages and Literatures ; Institutionen för språk och litteraturer
Lördag den 18 november 2017, kl. 10.15, T302, Gamla Hovrätten, Olof Wijksgatan 6
Date of defence