The Recurrence of the Evolutionary Epic

In: Journal of the Philosophy of History
Ian Hesketh The University of Queensland

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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.

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