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Biological Discourses

The Language of Science and Literature Around 1900


Robert Craig and Ina Linge

The relationship between biological thought and literature, and between science and culture, has long been an area of interest by no means confined to literary studies. The Darwin Anniversary celebrations of 2009 added to this tradition, inspiring a variety of new publications on the cultural reception of Darwin and Darwinism. With a fresh scope that includes but also reaches beyond the «Darwinian» legacy, the essays in this volume explore the range and diversity of interactions between biological thought and literary writing in the period around 1900.

How did literature uniquely shape the constitution and communication of scientific ideas in the decades after Darwin? Did literary genres dangerously distort, or shed critical light upon, the biological theories with which they worked? And what were the ethical and social implications of those relationships? With these broad questions in mind, the contributors consider the biological embeddedness of human nature, perspectives on sexual desire, developments in racial thinking and its political exploitation, and poetic engagements with experimental psychology and zoology. They also range across different literary traditions, from Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands, to Britain and the USA. Biological Discourses provides a rich cross-section of the contested relationship between literature and biological thought in fin-de-siècle and modernist cultures.

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5 Darwin’s Imperialist Canvas: Dolf Sternberger’s Panorama oder Ansichten vom 19. Jahrhundert (1938) as Cultural History in the Shadow of National Socialism (William J. Dodd)


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5    Darwin’s Imperialist Canvas: Dolf Sternberger’s Panorama oder Ansichten vom 19. Jahrhundert (1938) as Cultural History in the Shadow of National Socialism


This chapter presents a reading of Dolf Sternberger’s Panorama, and specifically the discussion of Darwin in Chapter 5 of that work. My reading seeks to adopt the position of Sternberger’s implied reader, a fellow inner exile in Germany in 1938, to explore the contemporary resonances of his critique. I argue that this attack on the historical Darwin, as an apologist for empire, monopoly capitalism, and racial superiority, is also guided by the impulse to critique the regime, leading to some perhaps wilful misreadings of Darwin’s ethical position. In critiquing the overlaps between biological, political, and everyday discourses, Sternberger re-instumentalizes these same overlaps to argue for the primacy of the ethical in our understanding of what it is to be human. This counter-critique is made possible by the fluidity of the boundaries between science, literature, and everyday discourse as discursive sources of information and knowledge.

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