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  • Twenty-First-Century and Victorian Ecosystems:Nature and Culture in the Developmental Niche
  • Regenia Gagnier (bio)

In a passage that resonated across every area of life in the period, the psychologist Havelock Ellis defined decadence in 1889 as the individuation of parts leading to the disintegration of the whole and defined a decadent style in literature as an anarchistic style in which everything was sacrificed to the development of the individual parts. His language was biological and functional, arguing that the individual constituted a social cell; if it became independent, the whole would suffer. A decadent style, he wrote, was one in which the unity of the book was decomposed to give place to the independence of the page, in which the page was decomposed to give place to the independence of the phrase, and the phrase to give place to the independence of the word. A few years earlier, Herbert Spencer had argued that all progress represented progress toward individuation and that humanity would necessarily become, through inevitable individuation, perfectly fit for its purpose in an organic social state. Whereas for Ellis, the decadent style expressed pessimism, Spencer's analysis represented a classic statement of Victorian optimism, in which a perfectly functioning division of labour evolves with social consciousness and symbiosis. Progress, Spencer wrote, was not accidental but inevitable. The cart-horse would differ from the race-horse according to its labour's demands of strength or speed; the blacksmith's arm would grow large, and the skin of a labourer's hand thick. The sailor's eye would become long-sighted and the student's short-sighted. As our consciences were exercised over time, he argued, evil and immorality would disappear (I: 58). Spencer's cultural model of progress provided the guiding light of the New Liberalism at the end of the century. Today, biologists would call this model phenotypic adaptative plasticity. (Phenotype—that which changes or develops—has been historically distinguished from genotype. It comes from the same root as "phenomenon," pheno, meaning "appearance".)

With their oscillation between biology and economics, the two positions show the interface between natural and human science. In Individualism, Decadence and Globalization: On the Relationship of Part to Whole, I argue that the Victorians' pre-disciplinary thought is much closer to the contemporary dialogue between science and culture than it is to that of the last hundred years, when scientists tended to explain the world exclusively in terms of nature and culturalists explained it exclusively in terms of nurture, or cultural construction. Particularly in the new fields of emergence, systems biology, epigenetics (or post-genomics), and bioculturalism, many scholars are showing that the interface between nature and culture goes all the way down to the development of the gene itself and that only human and natural science together can answer the most pressing [End Page 15] problems of our day (see, for example, Clayton et al.). Here, the theory of co-production is useful; it says that scientific models inevitably use the categories of the social world, and, mutatis mutandis, social theories always use those of science. Knowledge, like nature and culture, is co-produced.

In his essays of 1886-94, Darwin's "bulldog," Thomas Huxley, argued that individualism reflected an anti-social and anarchic state of war in nature and that any attempt to equalize society would subvert relations of asymmetric mutuality as natural as those between mother and infant. Although the Victorians themselves often used evolutionary theory, natural selection, competition, and so forth to explain their social institutions, and Victorian liberalism typically understood relationships in terms of the tensions between individual cells and larger social units, the pluralistic and co-operative models of the Victorians that ran alongside the deterministic and competitive models were actually closer to current science. Our current philosophies of science, especially of genomics and integrative systems biology, offer alternatives to methodological individualism and competition that the Victorians imagined but could not prove. While twentieth-century models tended to reduce nature and culture to the smallest fixed units of DNA or memes, contemporary science suggests the symbiotic and emergent nature of both nature and culture. Both develop within mutually influencing interdependencies of nature, culture, and technology.



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