HUMAN FORMS: THE NOVEL IN THE AGE OF EVOLUTION by Ian Duncan, Reviewed by Lauren Cameron

By Ian Duncan
(Princeton, 2019) xiii 290 pp.
Reviewed by Lauren Cameron on 2020-03-24.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

This book begins by intriguingly promising to explore "a commonplace that has largely escaped critical attention." While novels are grounded in "human nature" during the age of European realism (circa 1750-1880), the human species itself is redefined by a "natural history of man" that is "[d]ensely entangled with the rise of evolutionary science," so the supposed formlessness of the novel "now marked its fitness to model the changing nature of man" (1).

The idea that evolution influenced nineteenth-century literature is hardly new. It has informed scholarship on science and literature as early as Lionel Stevenson's Darwin among the Poets (1963), but most notably in Gillian Beer's Darwin's Plots (1983) and George Levine's Darwin and the Novelists (1988). More recently, books such as James Secord's Victorian Sensation (2000) have challenged the dominance of Darwin studies by considering the cultural impact of various evolutionary theories and theorists and showing how literature and science conversed, particularly in the nineteenth century. None of these studies has neglected the issues of genre, mode, or anthropology that Duncan considers.

Nonetheless, while the "commonplace" that Duncan identifies has shaped a considerable body of research, he contends that this conceptual link between novels and evolutionary science must be investigated in its own right. He also aims to highlight the disruptions and complexities of the age of European realism. Yet once he describes the chapters to follow, some fault lines in the project begin to emerge. Rather than reaching beyond the canon of figures typically studied under the rubric of literature and science, he cites familiar groups of scientists (Buffon, Lamarck, Cuvier, Lyell, Chambers, Darwin), philosophers (Hume, Kant, Herder, Hegel), and novelists (Goethe, Scott, Shelley, de Staël, Hugo, Dickens, Eliot). Also, since he admits that he cannot comprehensively cover "the interaction between the novel and the sciences of man" from 1750-1880 (what single book could?), he rests its argument on "a selective succession of crisis-points" (5). But the principle of selection remains unclear.

The book also fails to grapple effectively with past studies of its topic. Though Duncan indicates that other scholars have "reduc[ed novelists] to a unified aesthetic, or flattening one into the other's false or failed shadow" (5), he cites not a single example of scholarship that commits such sins. Similarly, he gives no support for the claim that "normative status [is] still granted to a mimetic version of realism and its techniques in critical discourse on the novel," which treats realism's formation as "necessary" rather than "contingent" (6). I personally cannot think of a single example of modern, peer-reviewed scholarship that takes such a progressivist, teleological view of literary development, arguing that realism emerged by necessity rather than through a complicated and culturally bound fashion from specific places and times.

Furthermore, throughout the introduction and most of the subsequent chapters, Duncan probes foundational theorists more deeply than recent critics, including New Historicists whose work is so consistent with his own methodology. Lukács, Foucault, Leavis, and Derrida certainly still have much to offer modern scholars, but in giving them such prominence in a study of this length, Duncan overlooks the bulk of scholarship on literature and science and slights the very substantial contributions of recent scholars he cites but does not adequately discuss, such as Giorgio Agamben, Lauren Goodlad, and Julián Jiménez Heffernan--not to mention Beer and Levine. Duncan also uses terms such as "sociology" to categorize writing and thinking that predated the emergence of the terms themselves (see 55, for example).

Chapter 1 considers the interactions between eighteenth-century French, British, and German philosophers and scientists who contributed to the development of evolutionary anthropology. According to Duncan, the key question at this early stage is whether "a conjectural history of the human species" could be philosophical or scientific, whether it was wholly fictional or in fact a hybrid akin to science fiction (32). Interweaving science and philosophy with literature, Chapter 2 considers what the novels of Goethe, de Staël, and Scott contributed to the understanding of humanity in an age of evolutionary science. Drawing, however, on the combined anthropological developments of literature, science, and philosophy in the early nineteenth century, Duncan sensitively and extensively shows how "man's" history was made to exclude women. While previous scholarship has recognized the Bildung as masculinist and exclusionary, Duncan sheds the light of evolutionary science on this development and complicates our understanding of how and why it came to be.

Chapter 3 brackets Scott's final novel, Count Robert of Paris (1832) with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Victor Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris as "anthropological science fiction" (88). Mining the cultural and scientific debates between Etienne Geoffroy St. Hilaire (and his son, Isadore) and Georges Cuvier, this fascinating study of the relation between politics and science tracks the influence of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck on Scottish and English thought. Powerfully and ambitiously, Duncan synthesizes this line of argument with a reading of Scott's work in terms of rational and national histories.

More focused but no less ambitious, chapter 4 poses the intriguing question, "What if, indeed, Dickens's characters are not human, according to the canons of (mainstream, mimetic) Victorian realism?" (126). Duncan thus generates a stream of productive connections between Dickens and Robert Chambers, Austen, Wordsworth, and Melville. Besides offering the best reading of the Megalosaurus described in Bleak House that I have seen, this chapter provides an extremely helpful consideration of free indirect discourse.

Chapter 5, the longest chapter, concludes the book by showing how the "Science Fiction" of George Eliot exemplifies the simultaneous rise of evolutionary theory and the realist novel. Given Duncan's challenge to the idea that evolution is essentially Darwinian and his claim that Eliot's fiction is not Darwinian, this chapter gives inordinate space to explaining and contextualizing Darwin's intellectual development and influence. Nonetheless, Duncan shows that many of Eliot's major novels can be viewed as science fiction even as they embody "the triumphant achievement of [realism] in English" in their historicized portrayal of human nature (167). While topics such as the impact of Comte on Eliot's thinking are not new, Duncan's synthesis of the scientific manifestations in her novels is succinct and clear, and he effectively treats her novels as experiments with realism based on an evolutionary schema.

The overall argument of this book, however, can be quite difficult to follow. After digressing from an announced topic, Duncan sometimes returns to it pages later with no real signal that it has been taken up again. Most sections within chapters plunge into the heart of a new topic with no transition into it or out of the previous section. To readers who can immerse themselves entirely in a new topic without much concern for how they were brought to it or what is coming next, the book offers many gems of insight. But most readers may find this method of exposition disorienting. While advanced graduate students and specialists in the field of literature and science may gain much from the scattered arguments of this book, it will be difficult for undergraduates or even early graduate students who are looking for resources on this fascinating subject. Fortunately, the chapters get better organized as the book proceeds, with the concluding chapter on Eliot far and away the most coherent.

Overall, this book does not quite keep its opening promise, which is deeply disappointing for those of us working in the field of literature and science. Nevertheless, chapter 1 synthesizes the eighteenth century histories of European philosophy and science that many of us have had to piece together from separate disciplinary traditions. It would have been invaluable a decade ago when I was working on my dissertation in this field. Also, the chapters on Dickens and Eliot substantially enhance our understanding of their fiction and of Victorian realism more generally. Finally, the book's recurrent focus on gender is a welcome addition to the nexus of topics around literature, evolution, science, and culture. While Duncan tends to treat Darwin as the epitome of evolutionary thinking and thus to adopt the very stance that his introduction critiques, Human Forms has much to offer for the dedicated and focused reader.

Lauren Cameron is Assistant Teaching Professor of English at the Pennsylvania State University.

Leave a comment on Lauren Cameron's review.


 Subscribe to RSS feed