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  • Victorian Savages
  • Kathy Alexis Psomiades (bio)
Darwin and the Memory of the Human: Evolution, Savages, and South America by Cannon Schmitt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. 260, 5 illustrations. $90.00 cloth.

Darwin and the Memory of the Human: Evolution, Savages, and South America is a beautifully written, elegantly conceived contribution to the study of nineteenth-century evolutionary theory's cultural implications. Taking as its object four writers—the evolutionary thinkers Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, the writer and clergyman Charles Kingsley, and the early-twentieth-century botanist and adventure novel writer W. H. Hudson—three of whom worked in biology and natural history, two of whom ventured into fiction, and all of whom wrote about or around South America, Cannon Schmitt's volume focuses on moments in these texts when savagery, South America, and memory converge. Although the texts he examines all detail experiences of South America (or in Kingsley's case, not quite getting to South America), and all fall loosely under the category of natural history, what interests Schmitt are the moments when natural history becomes memoir, when writing about life as defined by evolutionary biology intersects with what we call life-writing: autobiographical accounts of significant personal experiences. Personal memory of a personal past here intersects with communal historical and evolutionary memories of the vast pasts of the planet, of life, of humanity, of England. This intersection between individual and collective [End Page 135] pasts allows Schmitt to argue that evolutionary theory necessitated the invention of a new human subject with a new relation to memory, "a form of memory that redefines what it is to be human (as well as modern, civilized, and British) in relation to the past, and specifically those pasts—historical, cultural, personal, and, above all, evolutionary—conceived of as savage" (3). This form of memory, Schmitt calls "savage mnemonics." And he sees it as part of the general modern crisis of memory described by Richard Terdiman in Present Past: Modernity and the Memory Crisis, which Schmitt describes thus:

Modernity came into being as a self-consciously distinct historical period by way of the distanciation of the present from the past as well as from its inability to recall or make sense of that past. Modernity, on this representation, resembles an amnesiac who can remember only the necessity of recalling that which it might never have known or experienced in the first place.


Whereas Terdiman, like other contemporary memory theorists, tends to focus on poets, novelists, and other practitioners of the arts, Schmitt asks about the role scientific ideas play in this crisis of memory.

In the first chapter, Schmitt's focus is on the memory of Darwin's encounter with the Fuegians in South America in 1832, a memory that reoccurs at key moments in his work from The Voyage of the Beagle (1839) to the Autobiography (1887, written in 1876). In the 1830s, Darwin writes, "Of individual objects, perhaps no one is more certain to create astonishment than the first sight in his native haunt of a real barbarian, of man in his lowest and most savage state."2 In the 1870s, he writes again, "The sight of a naked savage in his native land is an event which can never be forgotten." 3 These words of Darwin's, quoted and requoted by Schmitt, resonate and gather meaning as the chapter progresses. They reappear, differently arranged, in other Darwin texts, as well—in particular the famous passage from the end of Descent of Man:

The astonishment I felt upon first seeing a party of Fuegians on a wild and broken shore will never be forgotten by me, for the reflection at once rushed into my mind—such were our ancestors. . . . He who has seen a savage in his native land will not feel much shame, if forced to acknowledge that the blood of some more humble creature flows in his veins.4

Schmitt contrasts the unforgettable memory of the savage in his native land with forgetting of the death and destruction behind "the [End Page 136] face of nature bright with gladness" that Darwin claims in Origin human beings are prone to.5 People forget or...


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