Megill - Paradoxes, Presuppositions and Proposed Uses of the Evolutionary Epic

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Category Lecture
Speakers Megill, Allan
Year 2014

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Although E. O. Wilson seems to have invented the phrase “evolutionary epic,” Lightman and others have shown how pervasive the evolutionary epic (EE) was in Victorian England, long before Wilson appeared. The 19th-century EE was hybrid: it was rooted in the implicitly unifying religious idealism of Linnaean natural history (although proponents of the EE denied that species are immutable), and it flourished under the impact of “Darwinism” (although Darwin’s 1859 theory assumed a completely materialist natural universe, devoid of unifying purpose). It is thus not surprising that 19th-century proponents of the EE added an idealist surplus to Darwin, either through a quasi-divinization of nature, as in Herbert Spencer and Winwood Reade, or through out-and-out providentialism (A. R. Wallace). Notions of embedded rationality that were all but endemic in the 19th century helped to obscure from our forebears the gap, even the gulf, between material process and purposive aspiration that we post-Nietzscheans so easily see in such writers as Spencer, Reade, and Wallace. Present-day proponents of the EE are much more knowing. Wilson, readily admitting that his EE exceeds what genetics can justify, declares it to be a useful myth. Chaisson, Brown, and Christian emphasize that their essential concern is to tell good stories, which they likewise do not hesitate to characterize as myth. And the fact that Dowd’s Thank God for Evolution is prefaced by five closely-packed pages of supporting blurbs, fifty-seven in all, shows that he lacks Wallace’s implicit confidence that the material world is suffused by divine purpose.

ALLAN MEGILL (BA Sask., MA Toronto, Ph.D. Columbia University) is a professor of history at the University of Virginia. He previously worked at the University of Iowa and the Australian National University. His research fields are modern European intellectual history and theory and philosophy of history. He is the author of Prophets of Extremity (University of California Press, 1985), Karl Marx: The Burden of Reason (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), and Historical Knowledge, Historical Error (University of Chicago Press, 2008). He also edited a collection, Rethinking Objectivity (Duke University Press, 1994). Recent publications include “History, Theoreticism, and the Limits of ‘the Postsecular’” (on Dominick LaCapra, History and Its Limits), History and Theory 52: 1 (February 2013): 110-29; (with Xupeng Zhang), “Questions on the History of Ideas and Its Neighbours,” Rethinking History 17: 3 (Sept. 2013): 333-53); and “Introdução: Teorias da História ca. 1870-1940: Objetividade e antinomias em um tempo de crise existencial,” trans. Sérgio Campos Gonçalvos, in Jurandir Malerba, ed., Lições de história: Da história científica à crise da razão metódica no limiar do século XX (Porto Alegre: EDIPUCRS, 2013), 11-37. He is working on a short biography of Karl Marx and on a set of lectures on theory of history.