On Darwin and the Human/Animal

A book is published in Victorian England describing a process in which a country’s inhabitants undergo a significant change. Borders are open, and immigrants—or “intruders”—enter the country and disturb the roles and relationships of the country’s native inhabitants. But, explains the author, this invasion and its associated pressures on the natives can actually lead to improvements on the part of the natives—unless, of course, they are wiped out, in which case it is probably for the best anyway, since they were so weak as to “allow… foreigners to take firm possession of the land.” This book is not the polemic of a xenophobe, nor is it a narrative of conquest and colonialism. It’s Origin of Species, and the “immigrants” are non-native plant and animal species that enter a new environment and place new selective pressures on the native species, forcing them either to adapt or to decline in number and perhaps become extinct. This is not exactly an ethically neutral issue in instances where an invasive species, introduced by humans, disturbs a fragile ecosystem. But it’s also a natural and inevitable process that changes all ecosystems over time. Yet Darwin describes these events with terms borrowed from very recognizable human narratives that had particular currency in the nineteenth century, and I’m curious about what this might mean. Why anthropomorphize non-human species, thereby implying intentionality in processes that Darwin knew perfectly well were not intentional? Maybe it is merely a way of making sense out of complicated and sometimes counter-intuitive events, or maybe it is a way of inciting an emotional response in his readers. Maybe it’s even evidence that Darwin was a closet imperialist attempting to further a particular agenda—certainly a line of imperialist rhetoric made use of Darwin’s work in staking claims about which people were fit for which roles. But I’m more interested in the consequences these terms have for Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and its reception in the public sphere.

Personifying non-human organisms through terms like “natives,” “foreigners,” and “immigrants,” and likening natural boundaries such as mountains or seas to a country’s borders, both anticipate and deflect the sticking point of Darwin’s theory. That is, humanizing other species diminishes the distance between them and us, rendering them more understandable and maybe even cultivating a sense of environmental ethics. But when the argument is put forth the other way—when humans are perceived as just another animal, for whom the laws of evolution and of ecology also apply—it becomes much more difficult for a primarily Christian reading public to accept and understand. Previous animalizing discourses have served as a way for Europeans to assert difference from and superiority to Africans and Native Americans; but if all humans are animals, descended from another kind of animal, with an impermanent lease on the planet, then belief in the perfection of man (or European man) and his dominion over the rest of the world becomes harder to maintain. And maybe until the development of genetics, evolutionary theorists could try to argue that Europeans are more highly evolved than others and will win the “struggle for existence,” keeping the messianic theme alive. But even aside from being socially and biologically indefensible, these theories manage to obfuscate the real point. That is, we were shaped by billions of years of nature’s selective forces, and these forces don’t correspond to the things we value now. The challenge, I think, is to see oneself simultaneously as an ecological and an ethical being.

–Cari Hovanec


~ by Cari Hovanec on January 21, 2009.

One Response to “On Darwin and the Human/Animal”

  1. So Darwin defeats Descartes?

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