The Recurrence of the Evolutionary Epic

in Journal of the Philosophy of History
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In his 1978 On Human Nature, Edward Wilson defined the evolutionary epic as the scientific story of all life, a linear narrative beginning with the big bang and ending with the story of human history. Since that time several popular science writers have attempted to write that story of life producing such titles as The Universe Story (1992)and The Epic of Evolution (2006). Historians have also gotten into the act under the guise of “Big History,” which has resulted in a series of monographs and is taught at several universities and high schools throughout the world. While the evolutionary epic is often presented as a novel way of bringing the historical insights of modern science into a narrative form that transcends the humanities–natural science divide, the genre itself originates in the nineteenth century, just as new geological and cosmic timescales were being established and new sciences such as biology and anthropology were being formalized. Several German Naturphilosophen and Victorian naturalists imagined the history of life as one, as a “Cosmos,” and produced evolutionary epics that bare significant similarities with their more modern counterparts. By considering the various recurrences of the evolutionary epic, from its origins in early German Romanticism and Victorian naturalism to the degeneration narratives of the fin de siècle and on to the Wilsonian and Big History versions of the late twentieth century and beyond, this essay seeks to map out a shared intellectual genealogy while examining the genre’s conceptual commonalities. What is perhaps most compelling about the history of the genre is the striking persistence of non-Darwinian forms of evolution that are utilized to situate the emergence of humanity in these epic narratives of life.

The Recurrence of the Evolutionary Epic

in Journal of the Philosophy of History

Sections

References

1

D. Christian“The Case for ‘Big History,’ ” Journal of World History2 no. 2 (1991) 223–238.

2

This is the argument of D. Christian“The Return of Universal History,” History and Theory 49 (December 2010) 6–27.

4

I. Hesketh“The Story of Big History,” History of the Present 4 no. 2 (Fall 2014) 172–202.

5

E. O. WilsonOn Human Nature (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press1978) 192.

6

B. Swimme and T. BerryThe Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era – A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos (New York: HarperCollins1992); L. Rue Everybody’s Story: Wising Up to the Epic of Evolution (Albany: suny Press 2000); and E. Chaisson Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Cosmos (New York: Columbia University Press 2006).

7

ChristianMaps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (2004; Berkeley: University of California Press2011); C. S. Brown Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present (New York: The New Press 2007); and F. Spier Big History and the Future of Humanity (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell 2011).

9

R. J. RichardsThe Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press2002).

12

Herder quoted in RichardsThe Romantic Conception of Life223.

13

R. J. RichardsThe Meaning of Evolution: The Morphological Construction and Ideological Reconstruction of Darwin’s Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press1992); and P. J. Bowler “The Changing Meaning of Evolution” Journal of the History of Ideas 36 (1975) 95–114.

14

RichardsThe Romantic Conception of Life298.

17

Ibid.79–80.

18

Ibid.55.

19

Ibid.61.

20

Ibid.73.

21

Schelling quoted in HumboldtCosmos55.

22

Ibid.37.

23

Ibid.25.

24

Ibid.24–25.

25

Ibid.80.

26

Ibid.50.

27

[R. Chambers]Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (London: John Churchill1844) 386.

28

Ibid.203–204.

31

In 1860for instance the Origin sold about 5000 copies whereas Vestiges sold roughly 25000 copies. See the comparative chart in Secord Victorian Sensation 526.

34

W. Reade to C. Darwin 19 May 1868Darwin Correspondence Database https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-6186 (accessed 8 October 2013).

35

Darwin to Reade 21 May 1868Darwin Correspondence Database https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-6754 (accessed on 8 October 2013).

36

Reade to Darwin 12 September 1871Charles Darwin Papers University Library Cambridge (hereafter cited as Darwin Papers) 176: 47.

37

Reade to Darwin 15 September 1871Darwin Papers 176: 48.

38

Reade to Darwin 18 September 1871Darwin Papers 176: 49.

39

W. ReadeMartyrdom of Man (London: Trübner, & Co.1872) 521–522.

40

Ibid.523.

41

Ibid.513.

42

Ibid.394.

43

Ibid.513.

44

See for instance G. Myers“Nineteenth-Century Popularizations of Thermodynamics and the Rhetoric of Social Prophecy,” Victorian Studies 29 no. 1 (1985) 36–66.

46

See for instance BowlerThe Non-Darwinian Revolution81.

47

E. R. LankesterDegeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism (London: Macmillan1880) 36.

48

Ibid.45.

49

Ibid.45–46.

50

Ibid.33.

51

Ibid.212.

52

Ibid.59–60.

53

Ibid.60–61.

54

Ibid.61–62.

63

WilsonOn Human Nature169.

64

Ibid.197.

65

RueEverybody’s Story129.

66

Swimme and BerryThe Universe Story242.

67

Ibid.243.

68

Ibid.249.

69

Ibid.2–3.

70

Christian“The Return of Universal History” 23.

72

Christian Brown and BenjaminBig History290.

74

Ibid.302.

75

Ibid.300.

76

E. O. WilsonConsilience (New York: Knopf1998) 40.

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