- Up in the Air:Evolution and Victorian Culture
“Everybody nowadays talks about evolution,” observed Grant Allen in 1889. The all-pervasive subject, he opined, “is ‘in the air’.…[I]t infects small-talk with its familiar catchwords and slang phrases” (31). Scholars of Victorian culture who are not paid-up members of the so-called Darwin industry might crack a wry smile and reflect that Allen’s complaints apply to modern academic publishing no less than to the popular culture of the 1880s. There are, after all, three recent books, two in the last couple of years, dedicated to the place of evolution in Victorian culture: Martin Fichman’s Evolutionary Theory and Victorian Culture (2002); Jonathan Conlin’s Evolution and the Victorians: Science, Culture and Politics in Darwin’s Britain (2014); and Bernard V. Lightman and Bennett Zon’s Evolution and Victorian Culture (2014). In addition, many monographs and articles examine specific instances of the topic, from Gillian Beer’s seminal Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (1983), which first drew attention to the significance to his scientific thinking of Darwin’s literary reading and use of language, as well as of the broader cultural embeddedness of evolutionary theorizing in Victorian Britain, to John Glendening’s Science and Religion in Neo-Victorian Novels: Eye of the Ichthyosaur (2014), which examines how specifically Victorian concerns with evolution have persisted and been reappropriated in twenty-first-century fiction. It is now one of the incontrovertible truisms of Victorian studies that evolution played an integral role in the cultural economy of nineteenth-century Britain, with enduring implications for contemporary culture.
This was not always the case, however. In Just Before Darwin, published in 1959 during the centenary of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Milton Millhauser employed the same trope as Allen—although seemingly unknowingly—to argue that, notwithstanding an apparently “entrenched professional conservatism and general lack of information and curiosity,” “evolution in those days … was ‘in the air’” (59). By the curiously quaint “in those days,” Millhauser (a professor of English with a remarkably prescient interdisciplinary interest in evolution) meant the decades immediately preceding the appearance of the Origin. As Adrian Desmond’s The Politics of Evolution (1989) and James A. Secord’s Victorian Sensation (2000) have shown, the 1830s and early 1840s were the period in which evolution became the basis for fiery working-class campaigns for political reform and, from the mid-1840s, the topic of fashionable bourgeois dinner-table discussions. Millhauser’s indistinct sense of there being something evolutionary “in the air” of early Victorian Britain has been validated and vividly fleshed out in subsequent scholarship, which, drawing on a huge array of evidence unavailable to Millhauser, has brought his airy abstraction firmly down to earth. [End Page 9]
Even modern critics and cultural historians, however, often fall back on a Millhauserian model of evolutionary ideas circulating, like imperceptible miasmatic particles, “in the air” of the Victorian period. The once-fashionable New Historicist nostrum of the “Circulation of Social Energy” gave a quasi-Foucaultian license to cognate discussions of how airborne ideas and “free-floating intensities of experience” spread through a society at a given moment, whether in Renaissance England or Victorian Britain (Greenblatt 19). Although, as historians such as Desmond and Secord have so compellingly demonstrated, evolution was a pervasive and hugely significant component of nineteenth-century culture long before the Origin, the loose model of aerial circulation initiated by Millhauser and given a new theoretical incarnation by the New Historicists has led to exaggerated assumptions regarding the ubiquity of evolution in Victorian culture. Indeed, this “in-the-air” approach has sometimes meant that evolutionary concepts and influences have been discerned where they simply do not exist.
The serialized novel is an instructive case in point. In The Victorian Serial (1991), Linda K. Hughes and Michael Lund argued persuasively that serialization as a literary form was in harmony with the fundamental spirit of the age, according with distinctively nineteenth-century conceptions of time, space, and history. Extending this argument in a subsequent essay, they sought to show that “serialization … shares fundamental assumptions of nineteenth-century life...