An interesting discussion recently took place at the “On the Human” forum, hosted by the National Humanities Center, in response to Gillian Beer’s essay “Late Darwin and the Problem of the Human.” The “On the Human” forum is, I think, a really wonderful example of the ways that web technology can allow for thoughtful, engaged, and open scholarly conversations and I encourage you to take a look at it if you haven’t already.

I’d like to pick up on a small point in one of Beer’s comments that I find really provocative, although it is less about Darwin than about the practice of scholarly research itself. Beer writes,

“In working on Darwin it is hard not to become too fond of him, to seek to absolve him from the Victorian prejudices he shared. He is not all sweetness and light, nor does he especially love us. He shares his generation’s assumptions about racial hierarchy even while he persistently reminds himself when studying other life forms not to say higher or lower and even though he was a convinced monogenist, and anti-slavery. He is obdurate in his recognition that humankind is not exempt, or central, or necessary to the universe. But at the same time he is a man (and specifically gendered as such in his historical circumstances), speaking to other people.”

I am interested in Beer’s point that we can, as researchers, become attached to our research subjects, even in the midst of recognizing their problematic ideas about, for instance race or gender. I certainly experience a strange kind of affection for some of the authors I have written about and I wonder, now, how that affection may shape my arguments. How might we guard against this possibility and/or is such caution even necessary?

I wonder, too, whether Darwin-affection is widespread amongst Victorianist scholars and if so, why? Perhaps it is partly related to the parts of his biography that engender sympathy (his illness, his family tragedies, the battles he fought on behalf of his theories)? Readers, do you experience this particular strain of research-subject-fondness? Is Darwin one of your objects of affection?

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3 thoughts on “Honk if you love Darwin: The Problem of the Human (Researcher)

  1. I can tell you exactly when Darwin became an object of my affection: when, while reading Voyage of the Beagle, I came across his description of trying to learn how to use the bolas. He manages to snare his own horse in the process – the horse responds with a kind of weary patience, the Gauchos roar with laughter…I know, I know. I’m easily amused. But something about the playfulness of that short passage inflected the rest of the narrative with an exuberance that I found irresistible.

    So, another [honk]!

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