THE AGE OF ANALOGY: SCIENCE AND LITERATURE BETWEEN THE DARWINS by Devin Griffiths, Reviewed by Tina Young Choi
 

THE AGE OF ANALOGY: SCIENCE AND LITERATURE BETWEEN THE DARWINS
By Devin Griffiths
(Johns Hopkins, 2016) x + 339 pp.
Reviewed by Tina Young Choi on 2017-04-09.

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In a chapter entitled "Difficulties on Theory," which appears about midway through his On the Origin of Species (1859), Charles Darwin waxes speculative. "In North America," he writes, "the black bear was seen by Hearne swimming for hours with widely open mouth, thus catching, like a whale, insects in the water." Darwin then continues, "I can see no difficulty in a race of bears being rendered, by natural selection, more and more aquatic in their structure and habits, with larger and larger mouths, till a creature was produced as monstrous as a whale." Darwin's language slips easily in this sequence from observation ("was seen") to analogy ("like a whale") to evolutionary hypothesis. But readers of this first edition objected that he had pressed his analogy too far. In his second edition (1860), he qualified his claim, venturing only that the bear looked "almost like a whale" and omitting the rest. In this sense, the chapter title comes in retrospect to look less like a heading for the elaborations of argument contained within, than an ironic commentary on the riskiness of the book's methods: difficulties on theory indeed.

The 1859 passage -- and its 1860 revision -- demonstrate the power of analogy as well as some of its limits. Devin Griffiths does not discuss this particular analogy, but as the agency that enables Darwin to advance his theory in the earlier version, as the imaginative force that transforms a recognition of likeness into argument, it exemplifies the claims that Griffiths' book makes about the productiveness of analogy for a range of Romantic and Victorian intellectuals, and about the ways in which they used analogy as a critical tool. Further, Darwin's elaboration and later retraction highlight the daring and experimental quality of argument by analogy, an act of suspension that bridges the two entities being compared and the demands that comparison places on both author and readers.

In tracing the history of such comparative operations, Griffiths' book opens with a question about a more literal form of relation: how might we understand the influence of Erasmus Darwin's work on that of his grandson, Charles? To answer this question, Griffiths might have taken a biographical turn, or perhaps a narrowly focused textual approach. Instead, he leads us through a wide-ranging and deeply researched literary, scientific, and cultural history of the late 1700s and the early decades of the 1800s. In doing so, he shows how both Darwins -- as well as writers like Alfred Tennyson, Sir Walter Scott, and George Eliot -- deployed analogy as "a new mode of historical description... a new technology for writing about past events and thinking about their complex relations to present experience" (2).

Griffiths does more than recover Erasmus Darwin from the dustheap of scientific history. He recasts him both as a key figure in the developing relationship between scientific and literary experiment -- a relationship that his more famous descendant would advance as well -- and as a quasi-visionary in the Romantic mold, a canny, far-seeing thinker. In examining the two-year interval separating the publication of each of the two volumes of The Botanic Garden (The Loves of the Plants in 1789 and The Economy of Vegetation in 1791), Griffiths argues that the elder Darwin harnessed the more traditional, static, and "didactic" poetry of his first volume to the power of epic, and thus created a dynamic, early articulation of a "theory of evolution" (74, 62). The narrative qualities of epic gave Darwin an engine of sorts, a plot that could mobilize the synchronic elements described in The Loves of the Plants into a story: a diachronic sequence of analogous processes from germination to the formation of the earth, unfolding over time.

Calling Erasmus Darwin an "architect" of the period's "natural and political philosophy," Griffiths positions him not only at the opening of the book but also at the core of its ambitious argument. But Erasmus shares the spotlight with Sir Walter Scott (53), who likewise argued by analogy, as Griffiths argues. Now known primarily as an author of historical fictions, Scott was a polymath deeply interested in a range of historicizing investigations. As an antiquarian who was also a student of languages, dialects, translations, and the English tradition of minstrelsy, he probed the subtle differences between counterfeit and real, and distinguished artifacts of one period from those of another. Understanding what Griffiths calls Scott's "relational sense of social history" (86) in these multiple realms allows us to make new sense of a historical novel like Waverley (1814). The protagonist's apparent passivity, for example, necessarily springs from Scott's emphasis on "a comparative history" rather than a singular, "unitary" one (94), and the construction of the novel as a whole prompts readers to compare English and Scottish, modernity and history, the 1740s and the 1810s.

The first and second chapters, which respectively highlight Erasmus Darwin and Scott, are the most ambitious and also arguably the most compelling sections of the book. As Griffiths makes clear in a long preamble called "Thinking Through Analogy," his own project is itself a form of comparative historicism, and these opening chapters accomplish at the level of criticism what Scott set out to do in his fiction: by studying the intersections of different narratives, moments, agencies, and places, they "enrich[ ] and mak[e] more complex the network of things and people that could be said to figure in the past" (102). Griffiths hardly claims to have invented a new critical tool, for at one point he asks us to count how often we find terms of likeness or comparison in critical work of all sorts. But he reinvests a commonly used tool with greater significance and new potential. Beyond offering a "unitary" history of authors and texts, Griffiths' first two chapters furnish an expansive, richly textured sense of two intervals in time.

The second half of the book focuses more squarely on three individual texts: Tennyson's In Memoriam, Eliot's Middlemarch, and Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. First, Griffiths reads Tennyson's poem as a deeply comparativist undertaking. Besides trying to align scientific, historic, and religious discourses as well as life and death, Tennyson is also said to have collaborated with his subject, Arthur Henry Hallam. Analyzing the dead poet's poetic and personal influence on the work of his living friend, Griffiths contends that Hallam's earlier experiments with rhyme and form gain new life in the poetic forays of In Memoriam. Analogy is likewise shown to permeate the fiction of George Eliot. Griffiths treats not only the parallels between Eliot's characters (Adam and Seth Bede, Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate, Gwendolen and Daniel), but also the way analogical thinking animates the representation of their psychologies. Dorothea's attempts to make sense of persons and relationships, for instance, are said to exemplify "what happens when 'good comparison' goes bad" (169), when the longed-for alignments of ideal with real, historical precedents with lived present, fail to happen. Finally, chapter five returns to the Darwin lineage. According to Griffiths, the composition of On the Origin of Species reveals the influence of the earlier Darwin as well as of Scott, for Charles Darwin likewise used analogy not as a static principle but as a fundamental method of analysis. He invited his readers, for example, to grasp the principles of natural selection by imagining outcomes "as if" they resulted from intentional actions (214).

Yet even though likeness can reveal and illuminate relations, Charles Darwin knew -- perhaps only too well from his bear-into-whale episode -- that it can also mislead. In the penultimate chapter of Origin he concedes that "[n]o one regards the external similarity of a mouse to a shrew, of a dugong to a whale, of a whale to a fish, as of any importance"; such "resemblances," he asserted, ought to be considered "merely... analogical." In juxtaposing different forms of writing and different modes of representation, Griffiths must realize that he runs some of the same risks as Darwin himself did. Analyzing influences on Tennyson, for example, he finds that his poetry seems to evoke elements of John Stuart Mill's philosophy and William Whewell's astronomy before suggesting that it "looks more like" Charles Saunders Peirce's theory of logic (153). As an illuminating experiment that continues for nearly a full page, the Peirce analogy almost works, but it also disrupts the pattern of assiduous historicizing that has just been applied to the other two: Whewell's major work appeared (Griffiths is careful to inform us) "soon after Tennyson left Cambridge" and "on a topic that had fascinated him since childhood" (152), and Mill published his System of Logic (1843) in critical response to Whewell. Unlike those two, Peirce was not a contemporary of the younger Tennyson, the man who wrote In Memoriam. So how much work can we -- as critics, historians, and readers -- expect analogy to do? While it serves a strategic narrative purpose in argument, as this book amply illustrates, the degrees of likeness that Griffiths considers suggest that some likenesses are, in Charles Darwin's phrase, "merely . . . analogical."

Nevertheless, thanks in part to the risks Griffiths takes as well as to his extensive research and graceful, assured prose, this volume is consistently thought-provoking. In showing how literary and scientific authors stretching from Erasmus Darwin to his grandson Charles drew new meaning and forms from each other's work, Griffiths joins the collective effort spearheaded by scholars like Gillian Beer, George Levine, and Sally Shuttleworth, and his contribution to this body of work is one of the most convincing to appear in recent years. Moreover, by mapping common ground between figures both likely (Scott and Eliot) and less likely (Erasmus Darwin and Tennyson), it also invites readers to revisit the history of the novel as we know it. For those interested in either of the intertwined histories of literature and science -- or in what we might more generously call the intellectual culture of the 1780s through the 1850s -- Griffiths' book is both readable and richly rewarding.

Tina Young Choi is Associate Professor of English at York University, Toronto, Canada.


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