Reflection by David Coombs
Bookended by chapters on Erasmus Darwin and his better-known grandson Charles, Devin Griffiths’ The Age of Analogy argues compellingly that Charles Darwin’s account of natural selection completes the work begun but left unfinished by his flamboyant grandfather. In Griffiths’ argument, Charles Darwin’s accomplishment was made possible by literary techniques of comparative description—most crucially the innovative use of analogy in the historical novel—that emerged during the seventy years intervening between Erasmus’ The Botanic Garden (1789-91) and Charles’ On the Origin of Species (1859). Griffiths thus traces a complex network of connections between the two Darwins through chapters on Walter Scott, Alfred Tennyson, and George Eliot.
Charles Darwin is, of course, that most literary of scientists. After one legendary burst of fieldwork during the HMS Beagle’s five-year voyage around the globe from 1831–1836, Darwin spent most of the following twenty years before the publication of the Origin in his private study, working towards the formulation of his theory of natural selection primarily through his voluminous reading and correspondence. The central role of texts in Darwin’s work has made him an attractive figure for literary criticism, and now-classic studies like Gillian Beer’s Darwin’s Plots and George Levine’s Darwin and the Novelists have made the most of Darwin as both reader and writer. Griffiths achieves the impressive feat of giving us a new approach to Darwin by framing his study around the question—increasingly urgent as our field grapples with the anti-literary polemics of speculative realism and the critical turn to description inspired by the social sciences—of whether literature can “generate…real knowledge about the world” (29).
The Age of Analogy contends that Darwin was keenly alive to the way imaginative language gives us access to the world, and in this regard it shows how Darwin provides an instructive contrast to speculative realism’s rejection of figurative language in favor of the formal language of mathematics. One of the key problems Darwin faced in developing the theory of natural selection was that the evolutionary divergence of one natural species from another occurs at timescales that far outstrip our capacity for empirical observation. In other words, we just can’t directly see natural selection at work. Natural selection, in this regard, offers a variation on what the speculative realist philosopher Quentin Meillasoux calls the problem of ancestrality. For Meillasoux, statements about events that precede the existence of human observers—about the age of the earth, for example—defy our current philosophies of science because they remain captive to what he terms correlationism, the dispensation ushered into being when Immanuel Kant’s Copernican Revolution in philosophy made the conditions of our knowledge prior to the objects that we know. In Meillasoux’s telling, philosophy never got over the schism Kant thus introduced between epistemology and ontology, remaining stubbornly on the epistemological side of the divide and ceding any claim to knowledge of things in themselves; when parsing scientific statements about the world, philosophy has ever since had to append a tacit “for us” to the end of the sentence. However, there was no “us” to observe the Earth’s planetary accretion or the longue durée of evolutionary change that preceded humans, and Meillasoux contends that propositions about such unwitnessable processes must be understood on the model of mathematical language, which he believes bypasses us empirical observers altogether to bear on objects in themselves.
Even if we were to accept Meillasoux’s sweeping characterization of post-Kantian philosophy, it’s not clear to me why we should believe that mathematics in particular can help us overcome a schism between epistemology and ontology. It’s hard to imagine a more rigorously mathematical natural science than physics, and that field is now split over whether to interpret quantum mechanics as an ontology (the more popular route that leads to belief in the multiverse) or an epistemology (as in the Quantum Bayesianism of Christopher Fuchs and Rüdiger Schack). The Age of Analogy recuperates Darwin’s solution to this problem, and in doing so arrives at the surprising claim that the historical novel furnishes us with a better model than mathematics for how we might reconcile epistemology and ontology.
The historical novel seems an unlikely candidate in this regard because, as Griffiths notes, it is premised on a certain kind of truthiness. Historical novels promise to give us historical truth in the form of fabricated narrative; they are, in this sense, something like genuine forgeries. The chapter on Walter Scott teases out the complexity of the historical novel’s relationship to knowledge, showing how Scott’s fiction emerged out of his close engagement with linguistic anthropology and material antiquarianism. Griffiths suggests that at the heart of Scott’s fictional innovation was a new way of understanding analogy. Eighteenth century philosophy distinguished analogy from comparison—analogy pointed to similarities, while comparison established contrasts. Scott combined these two rhetorical protocols into what Griffiths calls harmonic analogies. Harmonic analogies bring together past and present in a form of historical rencounter marked by the unpredictable play of identity and difference. Such analogies are epistemological methods of investigation, but they also open up the possibility of intimate and potentially transformative engagement with the vanished past: “in the moment of contact…it is as if we share our being with the past (taking the same ontological status) and so receive knowledge about that past (overcoming the problem of epistemology). Ontology and epistemology are fused” (27). The figurative language of fiction—analogy in particular here—makes the past present by suspending the division between what we know and how we know.
Scott’s historical novels, then, modeled the ways that the imaginative language of analogy “brings us into contact with the world” (30). Thanks in part to Scott’s massive influence in the nineteenth century, analogy became the basis for a comparative method that spread across multiple forms, fields, and contexts—including both the human and the natural sciences—because it promised investigators that kind of intimacy with their objects. Such promises were particularly important in situations where the object of investigation was otherwise inaccessible. In Griffiths’ reading of In Memoriam, for instance, the bereaved Tennyson uses analogy to summon up the deceased Arthur Hallam, effectively collaborating with him on the elegy that commemorates his loss.
Just as analogy helped make the vanished past present in the historical novel or Tennyson’s elegy, it helped Darwin imagine and frame hypotheses about evolutionary processes that couldn’t be directly observed. One of Griffiths’ key insights is that natural selection, with its disquieting echoes of the language of providential design, should itself be understood as an analogy. In this argument, thinking of the adaptive features of species as if they were designed or selected allows Darwin to recognize the purposefulness of such adaptations without committing him to natural theology’s belief in a designing deity, since analogy entails both similarity and difference. The Age of Analogy features a beautiful discussion of another analogy that seems to impute higher-order intentions inappropriately—Darwin’s use of the word “contrivance” in On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilized by Insects. Here too, an comparison of the ways that orchids attract fertilizing insects to human practices of plotting and inventing brings home the strange ways that the natural world organizes itself. If Darwin is speaking only figuratively here, however, we might read him as being almost too careful. When reading The Age of Analogy on Darwin’s orchids, I couldn’t help but think of Peter Wohlleben’s recent, fascinatingly speculative The Hidden Life of Trees, which describes botanical life by using the language of agency, intention, and mind with a startling literalness. As Griffiths points out, Darwin in fact adopts the word “contrivance” from his grandfather Erasmus. If analogies allow Charles Darwin to summon up the evolutionary past, in moments like this they also work to summon up Erasmus, permitting something like collaboration between grandfather and grandson over the gulf of seventy years. The Age of Analogy provides the definitive account of the relationship between the two Darwins. But it also does more than this. Griffiths’ book is a brilliant and boldly ambitious account of how literature can yield us intimate and rigorous knowledge of the world.