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Germinating Memory: Hardy and Evolutionary Biology JedMayer Thomas Hardy's passionate interest in Darwin and Darwinism iswell documented.ThepartlyautobiographicalLifeofHardy, ostensibly authored by his second wife Florence Lavinia, records his consistent and developingfascinationwithscientifictheories influenced invarious ways by the paradigms of evolution and natural selection. Critics of Hardyand historians ofthe influence ofDarwinian theories onVictorian culture have sought in Hardy's work some consistent model of evolutionarytheorybywhichwemightplace the novelistandpoetamong his scientifically-inclined contemporaries. This search foran overarching evolutionary narrative within the work may be seen as part ofa larger effort to disentangle thevaried and often antagonistic tendrils ofthought inspired by Darwin from the tangled bank ofVictorian evolutionary hypotheses. Like other Victorian writers, such as Samuel Butler and George Eliot, Hardy looked to evolutionary biology as a means of conceptualizing alternative models ofinheritance. Byturns grim and hopeful, biological narratives ofinheritance in the late nineteenth-century lent themselves to a welter of competing interpretations by cultural critics. In his comprehensive analysis of the influence of evolutionary biology on Victorian literary culture, Peter Morton observes that "during the few decades which elapsed between the publication ofthe Origin and the foundation ofMendelian genetics around the turn ofthe century, evolutionary biology was in a state of extraordinaryconfusion and ambiguity, and awide range ofwriters were able toexploitscience fortheirown aestheticorpolemicends."1 Morton's claim applies not only to writers offiction in a cultural context where volume 26 number I scientific amateurs and autodidacts flourished. Like other lay responses to the evolutionary scientific revolution, Hardy's are inconsistent and often contradictory, reflecting the author's changing attitudes towards Victorian culture andsociety. YetwhileMorton gives admirableattention to the nuances and eccentricities of the many strains of evolutionary biologyprevalentin this period, he renders Hardy's complex and, indeed, evolving response to those strains as an uncharacteristically doctrinaire faith in the severities ofnatural selection, particularly as developed by theViennese biologistAugustWeismann. Morton's use ofWeismann in limitingandcontrollingHardy'seclecticresponseto evolutionarybiology provides a useful example of how even a broad-ranging analysis of competing ideas may founder when applied to a single writer. In this essay I would like to suggest some ways in which we might begin to approach writers as embodiments of contradiction, rather than as spokespersons for unified theories. Hardy seems a uniquely compelling case study for such an approach, poised as he is between the historical categories of Victorian and Modern and the conflicting scientific discourses that inform such historicization. When August Weismann's Essays upon Heredity and Kindred BiologicalProblems was first published in England in 1889, it quickly became partofan already divisive discourseon the relationship between memory and inheritance. Weismann conceived ofan immutable germ plasm bywhichhereditarytraitswerepassedon through the generations, a theory now recognized as the most cogent formulation of such a mechanism before the publication ofMendel's work in 1900.2 In this respectWeismann's theories are closer to those ofcontemporary genetics than the Lamarckian "soft-inheritance" theories ofhis opponents. Such theories, taken up andpromulgatedbyhighly-respectedlatenineteenthcenturyevolutionarybiologistssuch as Ewald Hering,Théodule Ribot, and Ernst Haeckel, developed from the premise that the individual organismacquires newcharacteristics through environmental influence, a notion which continued to appeal to scientists and lay-persons despite its apparent refutation by Darwin's model ofnatural selection. Theories of biological inheritance founded upon Darwinian doctrine, such as Weismann's, made a sharp distinction between environmental influence Victorian Review (2000)83 84 J. Mayer and inheritance. The modern distinction between genotype and phenotype, between germ cell and somatic cell, recalls Weismann's distinction between a germ plasm that carries our hereditary past and ourselves as unconscious bearers of its message. In his later work, Weismann began to bow to pressure from his opponents and allowed for thepossibilityofmutations in the germplasm. In theirearliestform, however, his theories supported an ideology ofbiological determinism that continues to inform popular interpretations ofgenetics. Organic memory theory, which opened models ofbiological inheritance to the realm ofcultural inheritance as an aspect ofenvironmental influence, may be seen as a form ofresistance to such an ideology. Many Victorians experienced modernity as a threat to inherited cultural traditions that had long defined national identity and consciousness. Theincreasingsense ofalienation from thepastfrequendy manifested itselfinspatial aswell as temporal terms. Rapid urbanization had uprooted largesectors ofthe rural population from their traditional environment and the cultural traditions it had...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 82-97
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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