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SHAW The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 21 (2001) 107-132



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Cavemen in Eden? Bernard Shaw and Mark Twain Offer Radical Revisions of Genesis

Julie A. Sparks


When the Kansas Board of Education startled mainstream America in the summer of 1999 by dropping Darwin's theory of evolution from the required state science curricula, the prospect of a new Scopes trial began to seem possible in the twenty-first century. This apparent resurgence of "Creation Science" has inspired fundamentalists with the hope of a return to Genesis as the official story of humanity's origin, even as Darwin's defenders redouble their efforts to keep evolution in the classrooms. 1 In 1923, two years before the original Scopes trial, Shaw depicted a similar ideological struggle between Genesis and evolution in The Gospel of the Brothers Barnabas, the second play of his "metabiological pentateuch," Back to Methuselah. In the play, a scheming Liberal politician exultantly describes his plan to pull in both conservative and nonconformist voters with an explanation of evolution that seems effortlessly to reconcile the religious and the scientific factions by treating their stories as essentially equivalent, as simply different ways of explaining the same facts: "You take your school children, your Bible class . . . into the museum. You shew the kids the Piltdown skull; and you say, 'That's Adam. That's Eve's husband.' You take the spectacled science student from the laboratory in Owens College; and when he asks you for a truly scientific history of Evolution, you put into his hand The Pilgrim's Progress." 2 Although it sounds like a silly, shallow subterfuge in the mouth of the politician, the effort to reconcile the scientific explanation of humanity's origin with the religious myth has provided an irresistible temptation ever since those disturbing fossils from prehistory were first unearthed, not only for public figures seeking too look both orthodox and modern, but also for writers seeking to understand and express the zeitgeist of their time. [End Page 107]

Shaw himself appropriates and freely modifies the story of Eden, both in the lengthy preface and in the play cycle itself, to illustrate his favored Lamarkian version of evolution, which emphasizes the role of Will as the driving force of change, both in the individual and the species. By replacing a divine Creator with a creative force, called the Life Force, Shaw seeks to counter the depressingly mechanistic version of evolutionary theory that he calls "Neo-Darwinism," which emphasizes the role of accidental mutation as the force for change in "circumstantial selection." Similarly, by depicting Adam, Eve, and the first generations of their descendants as "cavemen," Shaw challenges religious fundamentalists to accept the fact that the human soul, like the human body and human civilization, is on a developmental trajectory: nothing was created in its perfect, finished state in Eden.

Shaw's use of the Eden motif may seem quaint and old-fashioned at the dawn of the twenty-first century, but the originality of his reinterpretation becomes more impressive when compared to similar attempts by his contemporaries who also tried to forge some sort of synthesis of Genesis and Darwin that would preserve a basically Judeo-Christian teleology while acknowledging the scientific discoveries which suggested that humankind did not spring fully formed from the fertile mud of Eden. Here I would like to discuss Shaw's pentateuch in relation to some relevant works of one such writer--Mark Twain--who wrestled with this problem just as Shaw did, and who produced heretical visions of a post-Darwinian Eden that may have influenced Shaw's work. Although neither Shaw nor Twain has ever been taken seriously as a popularizer of science or as a theologian, both were influential heresiarchs whose unorthodox revisions of the Genesis myth stake out opposing poles on the heresy spectrum. Although both took an iconoclastic view of conventional Christianity, and both incorporated elements of Darwinism into their versions of the ancient biblical creation story, the two writers arrive at radically different philosophical conclusions about human...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1480
Print ISSN
0741-5842
Pages
pp. 107-132
Launched on MUSE
2001-09-01
Open Access
No
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