Egyptology and Darwinian Evolution in Conan Doyle and H. Rider Haggard: The Scientific Imagination
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Egyptology and Darwinian Evolution in Conan Doyle and H. Rider Haggard:
The Scientific Imagination

ALTHOUGH FEW SCIENCES seem to threaten dominant ideas about human identity and spiritual existence as intensely as Darwinian evolution, the theory of natural selection itself actually promotes an extremely nonmaterialistic and imaginative form of scientific inquiry. Charles Darwin's claims in the Origin of Species (1859) extended well beyond empirical confirmation because natural selection requires extreme complexity and it occurs over millions of years. Up until the middle of the twentieth century, evolutionary science's scope remained simply too grand and encompassing to be subject to laboratory experimentation.1 Therefore, among the various acts of mind used in science (hypothesis, theory, induction), Darwin's thought shifted away from the empirical and entered the realm of speculation. John Tyndall noted in his popular science essay "On the Scientific Use of the Imagination" (1870) that in "the case of Mr. Darwin, observation, imagination, and reason combined," and this made the naturalist a "soaring speculator."2 The epistemological implications of Darwinism, which promoted intellectual creativity when responsibly balanced with reason, tend to receive less attention from literary and cultural critics than ontological issues relating to questions of how and why evolution destabilized the place of human beings in the world.3 Yet Darwin's use of theorizing, speculating, imagination, and even what he termed "mental rioting" in an 1847 letter to Joseph Dalton Hooker,4 significantly shifted the manner in which Victorians interpreted their own culture, artifacts, experiences, and identity.

This article examines two late-Victorian and Edwardian romance fictions that demonstrate not only the importance of indemonstrable and often creative intellectual acts, but also their deep embedding in evolutionary thought. While the nineteenth century "March of Intellect," [End Page 314] which advanced the primacy of facts and evidence to science, certainly aligns with the aspirations of the literary mode of realism to convey a truthful picture of reality, this discussion contributes to the growing body of research indicating that in many respects romance can reveal more than realism about science's role in culture.5 More specifically, here the focus is on the human science of archaeology, a field concerned with the study of human history and prehistory by way of the recovery and the analysis of artifacts and remains. By examining prose romances by Arthur Conan Doyle and H. Rider Haggard concerned with the epistemological significance of evolutionism and archaeology we see not only that this profession adopted evolutionary ideas and appealed particularly to authors of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century romance; these fictions also demonstrate the importance of imagination to scientific ways of thinking.6


The study of human antiquity has long absorbed empirically minded comparative ethnologists and less scientifically rigorous armchair antiquarians alike. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries this fledgling discipline was categorized as a portion of the field of history and often subsumed by Oriental and classical languages departments,7 and yet the methods employed by archaeologists set this profession apart from other sciences of culture. Even more than fields like anthropology and philology, archaeology requires material artifacts. Archaeologists assess the typological composition and shape of ancient objects, as well as the stratigraphic environment from which they are unearthed. Object typology, which classified artifacts according to similarity of use, form, and function, was particularly redolent with assumptions established by mid-Victorian evolutionism. British archaeologist Augustus Pitt-Rivers theorized in his lecture "On the Evolution of Culture," delivered at the Royal Institution in 1875, that "[e]very new tool or weapon formed by the hand of man retains the same form as long as it continues to exist."8 Human relics, like human beings, inherit and express the residue of their own history. Methods for artifact interpretation were central to making scientific claims about the evolution of human civilization; at the same time they systematized the archaeological discipline. For this reason, historians of this discipline sometimes use the term "material anthropology" to describe the archaeologist's methodological reliance upon concrete objects to reveal an ancient civilization's progress and identity.9 Yet, despite [End Page 315] the materiality of this field's objects of study, archaeologists must apply some...