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Biological Discourses

The Language of Science and Literature Around 1900


Edited By 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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Introduction: Can Science and Literature Share a Language? (Robert Craig / Ina Linge)


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Introduction: Can Science and Literature Share a Language?

Perceptions of the relation between literature and biology in the English-speaking world tend to be dominated by associations with Charles Darwin. A little more than a week after the Darwin Year of 2009 had drawn to a close, the historian of science Steven Shapin took stock of what it had (or hadn’t) added to our understanding of the Victorian gentleman naturalist. History’s ‘biggest birthday party’, as he called it in the London Review of Books, was both Darwin’s 200th and the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species. The anniversary was marked by an unprecedented array of smaller parties across the globe, from conferences, through theatre performances, exhibitions, and pilgrimages to the Galápagos Islands, to banknote re-issues and even folksy bumper stickers. Darwin’s latent importance to countless aspects of modern self-understanding – our crumbling sense of human uniqueness, our ethics, our politics, our culture, our religion – found recognition in myriad quarters, whether scientific, literary or even ecclesiastical. From Richard Dawkins to the Vatican, authorities of all kinds paid homage.1 But in spite of their focus on the ‘dangerous idea’ of evolution by natural selection, to quote Daniel Dennett’s famous title from 1995,2 Shapin had his doubts about the curiously de-historicized character of the celebrations: the sense that the Darwin mythos had transcended any attempt to relate it back to the cultural context of Victorian Britain. ← 1 | 2...

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