Thursday, April 8, 2010

4/8: Evolution's influence on other disciplines in the late 19th century

Last Update: 04-10-2010 23:43:46

04-07-2010 23:40:16
We saw that Darwin's ideas created immediate ripples not only in his fields of biology and geology, but also in the physical sciences, anthropology, and other social sciences. Was this interest and influence maintained throughout the rest of the century? Was there also persistent resistance to this line of thought?

04-08-2010 04:39:31
Aside from the broad, diverse, and (ultimately) defining influence of Darwinian evolutionary thinking in all areas of biology, the effect on other sciences would prove to be far-reaching. There were immediate repercussions in the social sciences. Perhaps the most obvious example was anthropology – the study of humanity itself. How did humans evolve? Who/What were our ancestors? How has evolution shaped human existence today? In the latter part of the 19th century (and beyond), there was much in the way of misinterpretation, misuse, and prejudicial application of Darwinian ideas in the views of human evolution and human societal relationships. In addition, there was the rise of social Darwinism. If a society is seen as an “organism” composed of human beings, then such Darwinian precepts as natural selection, survival of the fittest, etc., should apply to the description and understanding of social structure and change. Thus spoke such social scientists and philosophers as Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), one of the founders of social Darwinism. (Spencer coined the expression “survival of the fittest” and also helped to popularize the term “evolution” in the later 19th century.) Karl Marx (1818-1883) also became a fan of evolutionary thinking, adopting Darwinian ideas in his own views of society’s class structure and dialectical materialism. In fact, some historians see “Darwinism” more of a social theory – reflective of (or a reaction to) the views of the industrialized, class-based societies of such nations as Great Britain – than simply a biological construct. Many of the early “social” issues raised by Darwinian thinking invoked great controversy, then and now.

Darwinism also played an important role in the development of the earth sciences (including geology) in the latter part of the 19th century. The emergence of theoretical principles and empirical information relating to the determination of the age of the earth and the forces that define geological/geographical changes in the earth’s structure involved interplay with the biological sciences in this post-Darwin era. “Time” periods in the evolutionary context became linked with “time” periods in the geological sense. Geology and biological evolution were interwoven, both in the pre-Darwin and the post-Darwin periods.
In the realm of the physical sciences in the 19th century, perhaps the greatest interaction with Darwinism was seen in the field of thermodynamics. Like Darwinism, thermodynamics had roots in industrial society. Thermodynamics was born amidst the cauldrons, the furnaces, and the steam engines of the Industrial Revolution. Thermodynamics addressed such utilitarian questions as: How do we understand the concept of “energy” and its transformation into useful modalities? How can we make more powerful, more efficient engines of progress? How can machines make societies more economically competitive and prosperous? The renowned physicist Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906) (whose contributions spanned thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, and atomic theory) was a fervent admirer of Darwin’s work and a keen observer of the development of Darwinism in the late 19th century. He deduced that such evolutionary operative principles as natural selection, struggle for existence, survival of the fittest, etc., were really about the competition for “available energy” (whether we call it “food,” “resources,” or whatever) in the living world – a line of thought which would eventually lead to the field of bioenergetics. As the 19th century came to a close, Boltzmann remarked that this period would be remembered as “Darwin’s century.” Prescient, indeed!

04-08-2010 11:34:57
We should add psychoanalysis to the list of disciplines influenced by evolutionary discourse in the late 19th and early 20th century. Via psychoanalysis, evolutionary discourse structured or informed an immense number of visual productions in painting, sculpture, theater, film and advertising, and many genres and styles, most notably science fiction, modern art, and functionalist design.

In politics, even though the evolutionary idea met some resistance, it exerted a powerful intellectual charm, so powerful that it could be invoked by socialists, anarchists and laissez-faire capitalists.

Sigmund Freud, Three contributions to the sexual theory (1905; NY, 1910). Psychoanalysis, with its close attention to origins, development, and instincts, was deeply influenced by evolutionary discourse.

04-08-2010 11:51:30
To pick up Rick's point about Darwinism and thermodynamics, one of the interesting historical aspects of the popularization and reception of thermodynamics is that the first law (conservation of energy) was viewed with suspicion as potentially anti-Christian--a world in which energy is neither created nor destroyed, but is transformed endlessly, seemed to point to a cyclical worldview. The second law (entropy) was seen as more comfortably linear, and leading to an end of things much more in keeping with Christian notions of time, whatever other anxieties it produced (and however much the entropic whimper seemed in contrast to the apocalyptic bang). In Britain, the major figure in developing and popularizing the second law was William Thomson (Lord Kelvin). A leader of the Scottish or Northern physicists who resisted scientific naturalism--Thomson's collaborator on the influential Treatise on Natural Philosophy (1867), P. G. Tait, co-authored with Balfour Stewart The Unseen Universe (1875), a book that attempted to show that the laws of nature and especially of physics, properly understood, confirmed the Christian revelation--Thomson was also a great intellectual opponent of Darwinism. His calculations of the age of the earth sought to deny Darwin the time frame he needed for natural selection to operate. Thomson's calculations turned out to be wrong, but Darwin had no way to answer them, and Thomson was THE authority on the subject. Darwin's frequently laments this in letters of the 1860s and 70s.

04-08-2010 12:38:44
Let's be careful to avoid the Whiggish tendency to see everything evolutionary as Darwinian.
Spencer and Darwin are conceptual cousins, not father and son. And social Darwinism would be more aptly called "social Spencerism."
"Evolution" had an influence on many people in the 19th century. Darwin was just the most famous.
And just to throw another wrinkle on the fire...
Darwin actually never used the word "evolution" in the Origin. The book famously ends with the word "evolved," but throughout he preferred the term "development" to connote what we call evolution.
Development and evolution both describe change over time, but a) over very different time scales, and b) both originally meant to "unfold" or "unroll."
First, then, I wonder, to what extent was there a general 19th century project of describing, delineating, systematizing, and *containing* time? Somehow that seems like a very Victorian thing to do.
And second, does the notion of unrolling as a metaphor of discovery have wider resonances in late 19th/early 20th century thought?


04-08-2010 17:16:00
Nathan Comfort reminds us, rightfully so, that we should be careful how we contextualize (both past and present) such expressions as "Darwinian" and "Darwinism" - especially regarding the historical influence of Darwin himself. As emphasized by a number of contributors to this online symposium in the previous section, "evolutionary thinking" was in the air long before Darwin published his famous opus in 1859. And "evolutionary thinking" continued to be pursued in many forms after 1859 (even to this day). I take his point that it is not strictly appropriate to label Spencer's ensuing notion as "social Darwinism" (which is a generic label that arose largely in the course of the 20th century.

Darwin's "theory" (actually the Darwin-Wallace theory) was, to be sure, a truly synthetic effort. Perhaps most importantly, it entailed causative mechanisms, such as "natural selection." In fact, it was the "mechanistic" features of Darwin's theory that drew attention from those in the physical sciences (including Botlzmann, whom I mentioned previously). It is one thing to posit that life evolves, it is another thing to suggest how it works. Darwin's theory has morphed considerably over time and continues to do so today. As we look back to the past, we must (as Comfort says) try to avoid the Whiggish trend of seeing a direct, progressive lineage from Darwin to the present.

04-08-2010 17:48:03
In returning to Michael's comment on Freud, Darwin was a founding figure to the now outmoded field of Sexology. He debunked romantic love with his detailed descriptions of sexual selection and continued to upgrade the importance of male rivalry throughout the editions of The Descent. Freud ,who began to study Darwin in the 1870s, was called "the Darwin of mental life" by his original biographer and pupil Ernest Jones. Darwin influenced Freud's theories on humans driven by passion, pleasure, reproduction,and survival. Then there is Havelock Ellis who wrote Man and Woman: A Study of Secondary and Tertiary Sexual Characteristics (borrowing heavily from Darwin) and Studies in the Psychology of Sex. Otto Weininger was influenced by Darwin as well.

04-08-2010 22:48:45
I'm glad to see repeated the point that the symposium is about evolution, not Darwinism. There was direct opposition to Darwin's ideas about evolution, but several people have pointed out that there were many concepts of evolution that were different from but not necessarily opposed to Darwin's. I expect we'll see these differences explored as we trace the concept through the 20th century.

04-09-2010 15:31:01
Four images uploaded here reflect the influence of Haeckel’s theory of recapitulation and arrested development on architecture and the arts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as on criminal anthropology. These two ideas undergirded theories of primitivism, which posited that some groups living at the time were examples of human cultural precedents long left behind by a progressive western civilization. This assumes 1) there is a common order that all human societies go through in their development to maturity (when, in fact, cultures all change, all the time, though perhaps at different rates of change for different reasons), and that 2) some cultural groups (peasants/the “folk,” the “lower” races, even criminals, the insane and children) who are less technologically advanced exhibit what western culture looked like long ago, so that westerner anthropologists and psychologists could study the behavior, art, and beliefs of these groups to understand the history of human civilization. Furthermore, this also assumes that there is an evolutionary aspect to human psychological development, to the extent that comparative social studies of different groups showed that they all existed at a similar level of psychological development. Needless to say, all of these assumptions (in my opinion) are flawed, but nevertheless they exerted a strong pull on artists and architects in late-19th-century Europe.

The first, French artist Paul Gauguin’s Vision after the Sermon (1888), shows a Breton peasant scene, part of his interest in folk cultures as presumably less evolved than modern city dwellers, despite their contemporaneity. He depicts a moment after church, when the peasant women have presumably exited the church but yet together witness a common vision of Jacob wrestling with the angel, presumably also the topic of the day’s sermon. Gauguin paints the vision using the same stylistic techniques as he paints the women; in other words, they vision is as “real” to the women in a representational sense as the women are to us, the viewers. This shows the common belief that so-called lesser evolved folk possessed less intellectual capacity to distinguish “reality” from the “imagination.” A good article on this is Mark Antliff and Pat Leighten’s “Primitive,” in Critical Terms for Art History.

The second image shows Rudolph’s Steiner’s house in Vienna, Austria, designed by architect Adolf Loos in 1910. Loos gave a number of famous talks, condensed as essays, between the early 1900s and late 1920s, the most famous of which is “Ornament and Crime.” At the opening of that essay, he says a number of very interesting things. First, that the ability to see the color violet is a mark of advanced/evolved consciousness and perception; this is perhaps based upon Rudolph Steiner’s own theosophical and anthroposophical beliefs, which took evolutionary ideas writ large (particularly from applications to mental evolution) and applied them to the development of cosmic consciousness. More on this in another post about Kandinsky and synaesthesia, but… Loos also writes that modern architects must eschew ornamentation, because ornamentation is a primitive trait, and if a modern architect uses ornamentation, then he is “either a criminal or a degenerate.” He got this idea from Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso’s book Criminal Man, who argues that hieroglyphics and tattoos are most prominent on primitive human bodies, as well as on criminals, atavistic throwbacks to primitive times. Loos follows his own injunction, creating a plain stucco fa├žade with a complete lack of ornamentation (apart from the rhythm of window placement, etc.). This primary feature of modern architecture in his opinion was based upon an argument drawn from recapitulation theory. He states, “as [culture] progresses, [it] frees one object after another from ornamentation.”

Both of these examples show that a move away from representational figuration toward abstraction in painting and ornamentation in design towards plain facades – two key features of modern art and architecture – stemmed from applications of evolutionary ideas to the arts.

Paul Gauguin, Vision after the Sermon, 1888. Image slightly cropped; from Artstor, accessed through UC Davis.

A criminal and his tattoo, demonstrating Lombroso's recapitulative hypothesis.

Tattooing as a primitive trait...

Lastly, I can't help but post two examples of architectural ornamentation from this period: this side by side comparison of Belgian Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta's Tassel House stairway (1893-94) with the beautiful illustrations from Ernst Haeckel's Art Forms in Nature (1899/1904). While Horta's design comes first, the visual corrollary is striking.

I know of know historical research linking the two, and so I put them together to suggest perhaps a broader visual context at the time. Part of Art Nouveau's visual and spatial discourse -- return to nature in urban interiors, when the nitty-gritty dirt and concrete of the city framed one's outdoor experiences, and a love of moving upwards to the light, epitomized by upper-story greenhouses and atriums -- suggest an architectural corrollary to the argument made by University of Notre Dame art historian Kathleen Pyne. In her book Art and the Higher Life: Painting and Evolutionary Thought in Late-Nineteenth-Century America, she interprets the aesthetics of American painters Thomas Dewing, John LaFarge, James Whistler, and John Twachtman as striving ever upwards, using pursuit of the arts and the ethereal as a route to the evolution of consciousness (the "higher life" of evolved humans), stylistically expressed through elongation of the female form, symbols of the arts and aesthetics (Japanese vases, for example), and pastel coloration.

Louis Sullivan's love of ornamentation is similar to that of Art Nouveau, and for this Sullivan suffered a demotion in the writings of architectural historians, who sided with Loos on the lack of ornamentation as a modern necessity. Sullivan (per David Andrew's work on his evolutionary views in Louis Sullivan and the Polemics of Modern Architecture, 1985) thought ornamentation, like in Darwin's theories, showed sexual vigor, attractiveness and vitality. The image here is from his Carson, Pirie, Scott Department Store in Chicago (1899-1903).

Louis Sullivan's ornamentation, facade of Carson, Pirie, Scott department store, Chicago, IL, 1899-1903. Image from Artstor, accessed through UC Davis.
Adolf Loos, Rudolph Steiner House, Vienna, Austria, 1910. Image from Artstor, accessed through UC Davis.


04-10-2010 08:34:44
In the list the disciplines as well as visual technologies and more broadly popular visual culture not yet addressed in the question of “evolution’s impact on other disciplines…” we should include fingerprinting (dactyloscopy). Henry Faulds first wrote Charles Darwin in 1880 noting that he was “an ardent student” and to inform him of his discovery that the furrows on the hand “form singular and intricate patterns which vary with each individual”. He stated that a comparative study with “lemeroids” might yield insights on the origin of man. Faulds is generally credited as the inventor of fingerprint analysis (or co-inventor with William Herschel), and was the first to elaborate upon it in Nature magazine (1880). Thus Darwin’s writings on evolution clearly inspired Fingerprint analysis and was the driving force behind Fauld’s development of what he otherwise might have dismissed as a curiosity.

Nearly ten years later, Francis Galton (Darwin’s nephew) would appropriate much of Fauld’s work in a major pitch to Scotland Yard and the British public for its use in documenting identity and would soon become the great systematizer and statistician of the growing field. Galton continued to dwell upon its probable connection to heredity, which of course for Galton and the eugenicists of the time was inseparable from evolution. For example Galton thought that the “negro print strikes me as characteristic. The width of the ridges seem more uniform…”, etc. Essentially, he was still hoping to eventually prove how the negro is somehow less evolved.

So the concept of evolution has a huge impact upon technologies of individual identification and subjectification at the end of the 1800s. It also is the force behind the development of its later namesake “DNA Fingerprinting” nearly 100 years later. Alec Jeffreys, an evolutionary biologist, first develops this protocol circa 1985 hoping that it would be possible to trace human heredity only to discover that, like “real” fingerprinting, it would be more useful as a tool of individual identification. Curiously, Jeffries, unlike Faulds chose a clever analogy “DNA Fingerprint” to describe his DNA images so Scotland Yard caught on right away. Jeffreys notes, “If I’d have called it Ideosyncratic Southern Hybrid Blot imaging, nobody would’ve given a blind bit of notice. Call it DNA Fingerprinting and the penny dropped.”

early fingerprint analysis chart
the original "DNA Fingerprint", Alec Jeffrey's et al, Nature magazine, 1985.

04-10-2010 23:43:46
The other area well-known to have been influenced by evolutionary thinking was the novel.

Gillian Beer's classic, Darwin's Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (1983), brought science into the literary field and challenged a great deal of established thinking. Bert Bender explored Darwin's theory of sexual selection in relation to American novels of courtship and romance such as those of Edith Wharton. More recently, James Krasner wrote The Entangled Eye: Visual Perception and the Representation of Nature in Post-Darwinian Narrative (1992), and Joseph Carroll published, Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature and Literature (2004).

Evolutionary thinking also influenced authors working in the field of neo-Gothic literature at the turn of the century: Robert Louis Stevenson (The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) which has already been discussed; Bram Stoker (Dracula, 1897); H.G. Wells (The Time Machine, 1895 & The Island of Doctor Moreau, 1896); Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan of the Apes, 1912). All of the above Gothic novelists have either referred to Darwin's influence on their work or have been known to have studied Darwin at some time. Many late-Gothic novels were adapted to the screen - from the silent period onwards. This in fact is one of the major ways in which evolutionary ideas have come to influence the cinema. It is also interesting to note that Stevenson appears to have been influenced by Darwin's 'Expression of the Emotions in Human and Animal'. In his introduction to Stevenson's novel, Martin Danahay states, in relation to the expression of rage, that 'the similarities between Darwin's descriptions and Mr Hyde's behaviour are striking' - the 'half-playful sneer', the 'heavily frowning brow'. Fredric March certainly reproduces both of these expressions in his film performance in Mamoulian's 1931 version of the now- classic film.

One early film which was directly influenced by evolutionary theory is Robert Florey's 'Murders in the Rue Morgue' 1932, based on Edgar Allen Poe's famous detective story (1842). Florey includes an event (not in the novel) in which the mad scientist, Dr Mirakle, who is trying to prove that human and ape are related, points to a chart which purports to show human evolution. The final three figures (Chimpanzee, Gorilla, Man) have been taken from Waterhouse Hawkin's illustration for the frontispiece to Thomas Huxley's 'Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature' (1863). The impact of the Scopes Trial of 1925 was still being felt throughout the USA - and influenced Hollywood a number of popular films. When Dr Mirakle describes the evolution of ife from its simplest forms, one man in the crowd rises up and cries 'Heresy'. As Edward Larson points out in 'Summer for the Gods', heresy was also raised during the Scopes trial. Horror and science fiction films tend to be analysed from psychoanalytic perspectives, but as Michael and Barbara have mentioned Darwinian theory also influenced psychoanlaytic theory - Freud himself paid tribute to Darwin. Narratives about human/animal protagonists, the emotions and repressed desire make this clear enough.

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