- Animal Subjects: Literature, Zoology and British Modernism by Caroline Hovanec
In his 2012 study Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, the American philosopher Thomas Nagel asks: “What kind of explanation . . . even one that includes evolutionary theory, could account for the appearance of organisms that are not only physically adapted to the environment but also conscious subjects?”1 For Nagel, who famously wondered what it might be like to be a bat, modern science alone cannot explain the existence of “subjective individual points of view”: there must be other ways of looking at and understanding the evolution of consciousness in humans and animals (Mind and Cosmos, 44).2 In order to develop alternatives to the dominant materialist conception of mind, he concludes, it is necessary to embrace the possibilities of speculation, imagination, and even erroneous thinking.
Nagel is looking to the future, but as Caroline Hovanec shows in her new book, the kind of explanation, or rather the “species of thought” he seeks, may already exist in an earlier form (Animal Subjects, 5). Animal Subjects explores the productive intersection of scientific and literary ways of knowing and describing animal consciousness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Britain. Bringing together the work of four modernists (H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, D. H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf) with that of contemporary zoological thinkers (including Charles Elton, Henry Eliot Howard, Julian Huxley, and C. Lloyd Morgan) Hovanec identifies a breed of scientific writing on animal subjectivity that looks a lot like modernist fiction, as well as a strain of literary experimentation that bears a striking resemblance to observational science. In doing so, she builds a compelling case for the evolution of a new way of thinking about animals in the modernist period—one that apprehends them as subjects in their own right rather than Cartesian machines, and which recognizes the possibilities as well as the limitations of language in representing nonhuman subjectivity.
Hovanec defines her terms clearly from the outset, sidestepping the vexed philosophical question of what constitutes a subject by identifying a shared conception in the writing of this period of “a subject as any being capable of subjective experience” (6). Her introduction traces this more inclusive definition, which encompasses both human and nonhumans, back to Darwin, specifically his account of the mental powers of humans and animals in The Descent of Man (1871), [End Page 673] in which he argues that so-called lower animals display a capacity for emotion, contemplation, and aesthetic appreciation (6–7). The impact of Darwinian thought on modernism’s engagement with animal life has already been well documented, most notably in Margot Norris’s Beasts of the Modern Imagination (1985) and Carrie Rohman’s Stalking the Subject: Modernism and the Animal (2008). Yet as Hovanec rightly points out, while Darwin’s ideas have served to illuminate modernism’s preoccupation with humankind’s animal ancestry, its challenging of anthropocentrism, as well as its displacement of animality onto marginalized human groups, writers’ interest in animal subjectivity in its own right has tended to be overlooked.
The four chapters that follow seek to address this oversight, drawing together examples from modernist literature and science writing that seek to observe and describe animal behaviors, and in some cases their subjective experiences, “accurately and fully” (30). Wells’s beast fables are paired with Elton’s early ecological writing to explore the ways in which animal subjects challenged human sovereignty, while Aldous Huxley’s zoological fiction and Howard’s ornithological writing are read in terms of their “respect for animals as conscious subjects whose experience is only partly knowable” (33). Lawrence’s animal poetry and Julian Huxley’s writing on avian sexual selection are considered in terms of their shared investment in empathetic forms of knowing, and Woolf’s experiments with nonhuman subjectivity are brought into conversation with the comparative psychology of Bertrand Russell, J. B. S Haldane, and C. Lloyd Morgan. Although many of these writers were familiar with one another’s work (Elton quotes Wells...