- AMERICA’S DARWIN: Darwinian Theory and U.S. Literary Culture ed. by Tina Gianquitto and Lydia Fisher
America’s Darwin is a compilation of essays that broadly examines how Darwin’s theories became a dominant cultural narrative influencing literature, ideas, and conversations. Furthermore, as the varied essays suggest, Darwin’s theories could be appropriated and interpreted according to individual perceptions and historical circumstances. The editors of this collection, Tina Gianquitto and Lydia Fisher, successfully chose essays from a wide range of disciplines, yet managed to thread the articles into a strong and coherent text. The book is organized around three key themes: the influence of Darwin’s theories, the meaning behind the concept of evolution, and the interpretation of these ideas and theories in American literature.
In Part I, “American Spiritual, Aesthetic, and Intellectual Currents,” the essays collectively reveal the impact of evolutionary theory, not just in providing the necessary foundation for further scientific development, but the spiritual and cultural implications. The narratives in this section uniquely address the internal conflicts that surfaced in response to Darwin’s ideas. From Edith Wharton’s fiction that oftentimes grappled with nature’s link to culture and Melville’s considerations of temporality, to shifts in religious and pragmatic thinking, the essays all center on individual struggles to apply new meaning to aspects of traditional knowledge.
Building off of the previous section, the essays in Part II, “Progress and Degeneration, Crisis and Reform” illustrate how Darwin’s ideas became tied to feminist and socialist agendas, yet also awakened anxieties that society could regress instead of progress. For American literary novelists and feminists such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Mary Bradley Lane, Darwin’s theory of sexual selection meant that women could be empowered through reproductive choices, and these choices may ultimately lead to a more just society. Yet, at the same time, there was also an undercurrent of trepidation as poets, novelists, and botanists reflected on the dark qualities humans shared with plants and animals, such as competition and murder, and the possibility of atavistic degeneration.
The final section, “The Limits of Species,” focuses on animals and animality with particular emphasis on how Darwin’s ideas challenged the idea of species boundaries. Intelligence and consciousness have often been cited as qualities that differentiated humans from animals, yet Lewis Henry Morgan contested this in his research on beavers where he attempted to understand the mechanics behind instinct and consciousness. Similarly, Jack London challenges the notion of human uniqueness in his dog stories, where animals are conscious actors with self-determination. The last two essays dissect contemporary literature from authors T.C. Boyle, Sara Gruen, and Benjamin Hale. These essays illustrate the overarching theme found throughout the book, that is, how Darwin’s theories have, and continue to provoke a wide range of anxieties and inquiries regarding human nature and humanity’s place in nature.
Overall, by looking at textual responses to Darwin’s work in the United States, America’s Darwin contributes to a deeper understanding of how specific reactions and interpretations were formed in connection to American culture. Yet, one of the short-comings [End Page 153] of the book is that there are only two narratives centering on contemporary writers, making the book feel unbalanced and as though the power of Darwin’s ideas have faded in comparison to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Connected to this is the absence of any discussion or essay from the relatively new field of evolutionary literary analysis, where literary Darwinists apply evolutionary science to understand the function and meaning behind works of literature. Companion pieces to America’s Darwin, therefore, would be The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative (2005) edited by Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson and The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (2013) by Jonathan Gottschall.