- Human Forms: The Novel in the Age of Evolution by Ian Duncan
Ian Duncan's Human Forms is built around a large central claim: that "the novel reorganizes itself as the literary form of the modern scientific conception of a developmental, that is, mutable rather than fixed human nature" (8). The novel, Duncan argues, evolved during a period both when Western power was growing into unprecedented supremacy and while scientific discourse was reorganizing understandings of humanity's position in the universe and its relationship with other species of life. In the context of the massive shifts – economic, imperial, intellectual – occurring during the late Enlightenment and on into the nineteenth century and as a fluid, malleable genre unconstrained by classical precedent, European realistic fiction was uniquely suited "to model the changing form of man" (1) and become "the form without forms that likewise assimilates all forms: the literary form of the human" (9). Extending a scholarly conversation that he traces from the work of Gillian Beer and George Levine in the 1980s through to recent books by, among others, Lauren Goodlad, Devin Griffiths, Jon Klancher, and Allen MacDuffie, Duncan's study is a wide ranging, superbly researched and brilliantly written account of the ways in which the history of the novel is interwoven with the emergence of the new discourse of "natural history, and its logic of an organic transformation of forms and kinds" (1).
To make this case and to highlight the ways in which realistic fiction in Britain differentiated itself from its counterparts across Europe, Duncan arranges his argument in five parts. Chapters 1 and 2 explore the formation of human natural history and examine how the emergence of both the bildungsroman and the historical novel reshaped the genre to make use of the potential of this new discourse. Chapter 3 considers the impact of Jean-Baptist Lamarck and his protégé Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and their "influential systematization of transformist ideas" (90) that became widely influential in both France and Britain during the 1820s and 1830s and that furthered the debate over whether human nature was unitary or multiple. This debate would itself be recast during the 1860s into the contrast between monogenesis versus polygenesis and, framed in these terms, would play a major role in not only the abolitionist and anti-abolitionist movements but also in discussions of colonialism and the treatment of indigenous populations. Chapters 4 and 5 conclude the book by turning, respectively, to Dickens and George Eliot as complementary embodiments of the discourse of natural history and the debates it engendered, with Chapter 4 focused on Bleak House and Chapter 5 ranging more broadly across Eliot's career but paying particular attention to Middlemarch. [End Page 204]
In exploring the formation of human natural history during the latter half of the eighteenth century, Chapters 1 and 2 show how this new discourse replaced the antecedent science of man by situating humanity as just one biological entity among all the others. Using the dispute that broke out between Kant and Herder in the 1780s to illustrate the emergence of conjectural history, Duncan explores territory also discussed by Devin Griffiths in his examination of the rise of analogical reasoning, its place in the work of thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment such as Dugald Stewart, and its enabling "fictionality" to find a role "within the scientific project of a human natural history" (36). The "key development," he argues, was "Herder's figurative mobilization of concepts emerging from the new life sciences for a naturalization of the history of man," since this would allow not only for cultural anthropology to emerge as a discipline but also for "the full immersion of the human in a natural history of infinite formal variability" (40). The developmental model of epigenesis thus replaces preformation theory in understandings of humanity and, while Herder followed the Comte de Buffon in seeking to maintain a clear divide between man and the other species, the barrier could no longer be seen as absolute and "the vaunted permanence...