- Darwin and the Memory of the Human: Evolution, Savages, and South America
This monograph contributes significantly to the body of scholarship on the relationship between South America and Britain, a field that has grown considerably since Mary Louise Pratt's Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (1992) was published. As the theoretical concerns of cosmopolitanism and globalization have foregrounded questions about the powers of diplomacy, culture, and capital in shaping nation and empire, scholars have begun to compare Britain's economic penetration of South America with the overt militarism of Britain's colonization of Asia and Africa. The work of Nigel Leask, Jennifer Hayward, Robert Aguirre, Luz Elena Ramírez, Ross Forman, Rebecca Cole Heinowitz, and others continues to engage with the travel narratives, poems, plays, histories, and essays about South America that abounded in Georgian and Victorian Britain. From the 1790s to 1830s, the governments of William Pitt and George Canning unofficially facilitated military and financial assistance to revolutionary leaders Francisco de Miranda and Simón Bolívar throughout the Wars of Independence (1810-1824) and encouraged often-unregulated investment in the region. Notably, South America became an axis of the speculative "manias and panics" that Mary Poovey identifies as central to the development of Victorian fiction (18-19).
Schmitt's elegant and rigorous analyses of the works of Charles Darwin, Alfred Wallace, Charles Kingsley, and W.H. Hudson build on the work of Pierre Nora to demonstrate how South America became a lieu de mémoire (place of memory) that shaped scientific theories, national narratives, and individual identities. He writes, "For these writers, understanding themselves as subjects of evolution means being capable of repeating and, more staggeringly, revisiting in memory a range of pasts: their own, that of the travelers who have come before them, that of Britain as an imperial nation-state, and that of humans conceived as a species" (26). To access these various registers of memory, writers deploy what Schmitt calls "savage mnemonics," a double movement that on the one hand necessitates "turning to savages in remembrance of the origins of the civilized" and on the other requires a disavowal of that origin through strategies of displacement and forgetting (40-41, 53).
Darwin's meeting of the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego after months of travelling with Fuegia Basket, Jemmy Button, and York Minster—the Fuegians [End Page 143] whom Captain Fitzroy had taken to England after the Beagle's first voyage—becomes a primal scene that imprints Darwin, the theory of evolution, and Victorian scientific discourse with the spectral memory of the "savage" Fuegians. Schmitt deftly argues that the Fuegians, as savages, become an exceptional category for Darwin, between human and non-human animal life, throughout the long trajectory of Voyage of the Beagle (1839), Origin of Species (1859), and Descent of Man (1881). The "savage" is, in relation to the non-human and the "human[,] ... a term of convenience, a name for a difference that may not actually exist," and occupies a "borderland" that "serves to forestall one of the most disagreeable consequences of evolution, the loss of human distinctness" (55-56). Schmitt's careful reading recovers the subtleties of this triangulation in Darwin's thought, and provocatively argues that "At a moment when other humans have been completely assimilated to the natural world, when the line between human and nonhuman has been revealed to be a consolatory fiction, Fuegians preserve human separateness" (56). In light of Schmitt's analysis, a line for further inquiry is why this Darwinian distinction did not survive in the interpretations of evolutionary theory that colonialists used to authorize war on the Fuegians and other indigenous peoples, as Patrick Brantlinger has shown in Dark Vanishings: Discourse on the Extinction of Primitive Races, 1800-1930 (2003) and Ernesto Livon-Grosman has illustrated in Geografías imaginarias (2003).
For Alfred Russell Wallace, contemporaneous discoverer of the theory of evolution, an encounter with the Uanano peoples in the Amazon ("uncontaminated savages," in his words) was no less...