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Acquired Characters: Cultural vs. Biological Determinism in The Way of All Flesh DAVID GUEST Vanderbilt University WHEN THE POSTHUMOUS publication of The Way of All Flesh propelled Samuel Butler into prominence as a champion of anti-Victorian sentiment, critics were quick to "re-discover" the other works of this previously rather obscure figure. While many of these critics pointed out that The Way of All Flesh seemed closely related to Butler's Lamarckianinfluenced evolutionary theory, and much subsequent work on the novel has concerned this relationship, there has been a surprising amount of disagreement over exactly how Butler's evolutionary ideas are reflected in the history of the Pontifex family. Some have read the novel as a direct illustration of Butlerian evolution at work, while others see The Way of All Flesh as a sort of negative example portraying the devolution of an English family. Both approaches require that a portion of the novel be ignored, and many of these studies are characterized by attempts to force the novel to conform to a structure developed from Butler's scientific writings. While parts of The Way of All Flesh are best understood in relation to Butler's evolutionary theories, a careful reading of the novel reveals a system that is far more satisfactory in explaining the overall course of Pontifex family history. Charting this system should help settle the critical dispute, but more importantly such a study sheds light on Butler's position as an important transitional figure between the age of Victoria and the age of modernism. The story of the Pontifex family suggests that Butler's understanding of the relationship between evolution, society, and the individual anticipates twentieth-century theories of cultural determinism. If there is a dispute over the applicability of Butler's evolutionary writings to the novel, it is not because of any paucity or disparity in the 283 ELT: VOLUME 34:3, 1991 evolutionary writings themselves. Butler's Lamarckian-influenced theory is well documented, as is his feud with Charles Darwin. It is important to note that Butler was initially an ardent supporter of Darwin, and that even after the feud began (if it can be called a feud, since Darwin paid little attention to Butler's attacks), Butler maintained belief in many of the chief tenets of Darwinian evolution. Butler's theory, like Darwin's, presents a picture of evolution of mutable species by survival of the fittest. Both men portrayed a process in which variations within a species produced some individuals more aptly suited for survival in a given environment than others. These favored individuals were more likely to survive and reproduce, passing on the favored characteristics. Butler disagreed with Darwin when it came to explaining the source of the variations within a species. Darwin's original theory left the source of these variations to chance, and Butler was quick to point out that this explanation was unsatisfactory. Darwin himself soon realized that this was indeed the weak link in the theory, and the issue remained a problem until the rediscovery of Mendel's experiments in heredity. Butler was never able to accept the idea that Man represented the accumulation of chance variations, and he found an explanation more to his liking in Lamarckian and neo-Lamarckian theories of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Butler adapted Lamarck to his own ends and eventually produced a theory, best articulated in Life and Habit, that gave important roles in the production of intra-species variation to both the relative use of individual organs and the individual's innate desire to improve. One approach to applying Butlerian evolution to The Way of All Flesh has been to read the novel as a tale of devolution. This reading is supported by the unabashedly positive portrait Butler draws of John Pontifex. Since John is the first of the Pontifex line that we see in any detail, and since no other characters in the family represent a clear improvement over him, it is admittedly difficult to see the novel as a story of evolution. Butler's portraits of the hateful George Pontifex and his brutal, priggish son Theobald also support a devolutionary reading. Ernest's character is perhaps more difficult...


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pp. 283-292
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Will Be Archived 2021
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