"Negotiating Darwin"

Francis Steen


Literary and cultural studies are grounded in the intellectual revolutionaries of the 19th century: Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. They historicized morals, the social structure, and the individual mind. What happened to Darwin's move to historicize the species? While contemporary literary criticism relies heavily on the mental vocabulary developed by Freud and the sociohistorical models developed by Marx, the cultural debate has so far been unable to digest the significance of Darwin, quarantining him like a leper in the sciences. Yet he belongs to modernity.

To begin to negotiate the cultural significance of Darwin's work, we need to clarify what it is not, since its historical reception presents a series of blatant if illuminating misconstruals. Most obviously, the theory of the origin of species through natural variation and selection is staunchly historicist and anti-essentialist: the forms and talents of living organisms do not spring from immutable and everlasting essences, but are acquired in historically contingent situations--a bricoleur's rag-bag of tricks rather than a special creation with a special destiny. In the same vein, Darwinism is a historical and not a normative account. A much sharper break with pre-Darwinian notions of nature is needed to appreciate this otherwise obvious point: a description of the historical origin of natural forms does not add up to a moral imperative. A Darwinian approach to life does not marginalize human agency, or obviate the necessity deliberately to design society to achieve our goals.

So what is Darwinism? In the context of cultural studies, it is a claim about human nature, specifically formulated as a claim about the psychic unity of humankind. As recently as 35,000 years ago, this claim would have been untrue--Neanderthals still thrived in post-glacial Europe, and their natures were surely significantly different from our ancestors'. The psychic unity of mankind is a historical accident--it could have been otherwise. Its precise content is an empirical matter--is human nature, as Locke, Durkheim, Boas, and Foucault claim, for all intents and purposes a white piece of paper for culture to inscribe itself on? The battle against the essentialism in traditional concepts of human nature is not without merit, but it picks its enemies badly: Darwin is the perfect ally in deconstructing the old way of thinking. His new way, however, comes at the price of a conceptual shift: developmental and evolutionary psychologists have gathered a large body of evidence indicating that the bases for the human capacity to speak, to understand and feel with each other, to form families, and to cooperate in groups were laid in contingent historical events tens of thousands of years ago.

Cognitive Cultural Studies takes the biological and cultural meaning-making of mankind's extended history into account in its descriptions of the dynamics of culture. Its central claim is that the radical innovations of culture are made possibly by enlisting our evolved cognitive and emotive capacities: we create cues that dispose people to cooperate, we create intentional communities, we reward with honor and punish with shame. What are the implications of this account for our conceptions of our individual and collective selves? In this talk I will address the question of what it means to situate ourselves in the extended history of nature as Darwin proposes. It is a centrally important cultural issue that should not be left to the scientists and their popularizers.


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