MIMICRY AND DISPLAY IN VICTORIAN LITERARY CULTURE: NATURE, SCIENCE, AND THE NINETEENTH-CENTURY LITERARY IMAGINATION by Will Abberley, Reviewed by Laura Dassow Walls
 


MIMICRY AND DISPLAY IN VICTORIAN LITERARY CULTURE: NATURE, SCIENCE, AND THE NINETEENTH-CENTURY LITERARY IMAGINATION
By Will Abberley
(Cambridge, 2020) vii + 293 pp.
Reviewed by Laura Dassow Walls on 2021-02-22.

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Charles Darwin closed his massive book The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) with two memorable images suggesting the breakdown of ancient barriers dividing human and animal. His final image shows man as animal: the wild, naked Fuegians standing on the shore of Tierra del Fuego. But remarkably, his preceding image shows animals as conscious, agential beings such as the marvelous female Argus pheasant, who--by selecting a mate for its beauty in color and form over untold generations--has herself created the exquisite beauty and extraordinary form of the male Argus pheasant's plumage. Darwin's Argus-eyed bird thus presented Victorian audiences with an example of willed, aesthetic expression in nonhuman species. Since their process of self-selection is based on the perception, cognition, and interpretation of signs, individuals of every species have made, and are making still, their own kind by their own choices.

In short, as Abberley opens his fresh and fascinating book, "Appearances matter." Organisms are not just physical beings subject to environmental forces, but clusters of signs whose production and interpretation make signification a central process of all organismic life on Earth. In 1861, the field naturalist Henry Walter Bates told the London Linnean Society that Amazonian insects so closely mimicked the appearances of sticks, leaves, terrain, or other animals that they easily fooled the naturalist himself! He therefore theorized that such resemblances were not mere curiosities but evolutionary adaptations, offering evidence for a new view of nature as dynamic and evolving. Thus, Abberley writes, organisms "were at once physical beings and clusters of signs that prospered and perished depending on other organisms' perceptions of them" (1).

Camouflage, mimicry, conspicuous coloration, sexual display: seen in the light of Darwinian evolution, all are instances of what Abberley calls adaptive appearance, whose ubiquity in nature forced Victorians and Edwardians to rethink, in profoundly unsettling ways, the very boundaries of the human. This may not have been news for the twentieth century, when Charles Sanders Peirce's semiotic theories converged with Jakob von Uexküll's notion of the Umwelt, or perceptual world, of animals to generate the study of zoosemiotics. Nor is it news today, when the burgeoning field of biosemiotics extends across the entirety of organic life from humans to amoebas to plant behavior and communication. For starters Abberley cites the work of Jesper Hoffmeyer, Wendy Wheeler, and Donna Haraway (205-6), to which I would add N. Katherine Hayles's recent work on non-conscious cognition. What is new is Abberley's insistence that such insights are not new, but date at least as far back as the early nineteenth century, when Alexander von Humboldt incorporated subjective and aesthetic responses to nature as part of any robust empirical understanding of it (29-30). Humboldt in turn inspired Darwin, whose friends and followers are the subjects of Abberley's study. This history complicates any narrative of the nineteenth century that stresses, as most do, the divergence of scientific objectivity from humanistic subjectivity, and hence of science from art and literature--a modern re-enactment of the far older Cartesian divide severing mindful and willful humans from mindless and merely mechanical nature. As Abberley shows, once meaning was understood to inhere in the receiver, interpretation became part of the process of life itself, and scientific objectivity came under question. Knowledge could be seen as relational rather than "objective," and human thought, emotion, morality--even aesthetic sensibility--could, as Darwin suggested, be seen as a biological legacy rather than an ontological gift from God.

Yet placing humans and nonhumans on a "semiotic continuum" did not necessarily undermine belief in human exceptionalism or tie humans to nonhumans in ethically progressive ways. When Bates found himself fooled in the field, unable to tell the insect he sought from the leaf it mimicked, his response was to admonish the naturalist to distrust appearances, applying the careful test of human self-consciousness to divide true from false. While animals might be deceived, humans can see beyond appearances; above all, a trained scientist such as Bates knew how to detach his fallible perceptions from his scientific certainties, how to abstract from subjective impressions a factual reality. While hawk moths might look exactly like hummingbirds to credulous, "primitive" humans, Bates knew how to move from close and embodied engagement to distanced, disembodied scientific truth. He also knew how to guide his readers. Using the tools of artistic representation as taught by John Ruskin, "perceptual self-scrutiny and suspended judgment" (28), Bates walked them along the same path, educating them from naïve wonder at nature's mimicry to sophisticated insight into her trickery.

Mimicry in nature thus sets the problem. If nature deceives, how can we ever trust it? If humans deceive, how can we know who is truly human? Investigating the many permutations of this problem across a range of literary works and genres, Abberley shows that appearances, once constructed as biological phenomena, did indeed matter. The authors he discusses all took the biology seriously and worked out the possible consequences in literature, tracing a twisty-turny path full of ambiguities and surprises. Like the studies that George Levine and Jonathan Smith have made of Victorian literature and science, the result is a book that springboards from scientific theories to literary ramifications. This turn from science to representation begins in Chapter 1. After laying out the epistemological puzzle presented by the field naturalists Bates and Alfred Russel Wallace, Abberley takes up the American artist Abbott Thayer to ask the logical next question: How do animals perceive? Thayer's elaborate theories of concealing coloration and countershading resulted in detailed passages of writerly ekphrasis and tour-de-force paintings in which the chosen animal virtually disappears into its environment. But since these verbal and visual depictions did not yield scientific certainty or end controversy, the lack of resolution proved destabilizing. If such natural phenomena were not reducible to scientific objectivity, then science could not settle all scientific questions.

For their part, Abberley's literary writers struggled in various ways to defend human exceptionalism against the inroads of biologized appearances--or, as naturalism emerged, to accept the irreducible ambiguities of the human condition. Taking up the religious implications, Chapter 2 traces Charles Kingsley's attempts to reconcile conventional natural theology with the startling discovery that nature can lie. How could this comport with nature as God's truth embodied, solemnly preaching divine duty and social responsibility? Kingsley's answer was that while nature had fallen with human sin into a degenerate amorality, science offered the moral training needed to transcend nature's fallen state--even, through technology, to redeem a fallen world. But the crack remained: if nature, God's creation, was demonstrably amoral, did not reading that amoral nature through biblical faith as its proper interpreter imply that nature's meaning lay not in objective knowledge but in interpretation?

Yes, exactly so, replied Grant Allen, the friend of Bates and Wallace whose popular detective fiction is the focus of Abberley's engrossing third chapter. Look, said Allen, at the cunning praying mantis who is evolving to resemble his termite prey: the more his prey avoids any mantises that look approximately like termites, the more the mantis evolves to look exactly like termites. Since hidden evil is built into the system of predator and prey, one cannot rely on nature to reveal it. Nor can one rely on human detection. In Allen's words, "The more cunning you get your detectives, the more cunning do the thieves become to outwit them" (qtd. 86). Just like mantises, human criminals reveal the wider structure of social relationships, which--in Allen's social satires--generally follow laws that are quite immoral. Thus ambiguity characterizes Allen's fiction. Even as he hopes for progress, he also punctures that hope. Even as the healthiest and strongest humans in his fiction outgrow such weak and primitive deceptions, other humans mindlessly consume the ruses perpetuated by capitalism, replicating and extending the deceptions and illusions found everywhere in nature. Ironically, even though Allen knew that his own livelihood depended on deploying clever deceits to lure his readers, he wanted to imagine that a dawning socialism might weed out the criminals who parasitize the capitalist system. Otherwise, what more could one look forward to than what Abberley calls "a darker vision of endlessly more complex skullduggery" (115)?

Well, answers Thomas Hardy in Chapter 4, we might look forward to a future bound by utilitarian altruism rather than riven by selfish egoism. Yet as Abberley's thorough examination of Hardy reveals, at no point in his career could Hardy rest on either his pastoral hope for truthfulness and honesty in rural nature, or his naturalistic pessimism that humans are but amoral products of the material influences of heredity and environment. Deception is morally ambiguous, depending on the aim it serves; bodies are unreliable indexes to any truth of ancestry or heredity; we may not even be conscious of the deceits we use, particularly when we are, in the Darwinian way, struggling for self-preservation or being acted on by the forces of sexual selection. Once again, Abberley ends on an equivocal note. Hardy, he writes, could wish that the arc of the moral universe bent "toward truth and altruism," but human thought seemed to bend the other way: "Seeing nature's phenomena accurately involved recognising one's own insignificance, and thus ran against the instincts of self-preservation and reproduction" (147). As for our vaunted human mind, Abberley finds Hardy's conception of it anything but free. "Instead of liberating humans from nature's cycle of deception," Abberley writes, "the development of mind perhaps only internalized it" (148). Thus twists the human in the cords of the cosmos.

But perhaps the heroic individual can cut those cords and free himself? This is the question of Chapter 5, which takes up individualism in fin-de-siècle cultural criticism. Was adaptive appearance a way to express individual autonomy and strength, or a sign of weakness and decadence? Where, given that some degree of imitation was necessary for social life, was the balance? While Leslie Stephen tries to camouflage agnosticism under a theological cover, Theodore Watts-Dunton tries to balance extremes by using self-consciousness to select and promote worthy cultural expressions. Walter Pater presses this approach into an ethic of self-development that uses aesthetic sensitivity to synthesize works of art across the generations, conserving social stability by blending in with a "an imagined eternal 'system' of values" (167). Oscar Wilde takes aesthetic selection in the opposite direction, flouting social mimesis and flaunting individual differences to boldly confront "the subjective, interpretive nature of meaning that adaptive appearance illustrated" (177)--a stance which, Abberley suggests, would soon take the next step into Modernist valorization of obscurity and difficulty.

Darwin advanced theories of group selection as well, which raises the question of Chapter 6: what were the implications of Darwinian adaptive appearance for the survival of marginalized groups? In quest of an answer, Abberley examines the Jewish writer Israel Zangwill and the American feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman. While both struggled to mediate between melting protectively into the mainstream and standing assertively for cultural autonomy and authenticity, Abberley argues that neither escapes the inherent contradictions between these moves. Zangwill was caught "between a Zionist-Territorialist desire for racial distinction and a pacifist, cosmopolitan ideal of human unity" (185), and Gilman took Darwin's theory of sexual selection to mean that women had lost their primal dominance to men: forcing male notions of beauty onto female bodies, men deformed them into caricatures of male sexual desire. But in urging women to regain their autonomy by adopting unisex clothing that would display their "natural," authentic, healthy bodies, Gilman only deferred the real problem. "Gilman," Abberley writes, "rejected essentialism on the sexual level only to revive it on a 'human' one," conflating authentic group identity with "biological progress" (203). By seeking to strip away signs of group identity to reveal racial essence and authentic bodies, both Zangwill and Gilman just added yet another layer of semiosis, leading them "into further chains of substitutive signs and semantic deferral" (204). The play of signs goes all the way down. Biology cannot point to authentic essences available just under the surface of signs, and animal life does not subsist in a state of primal innocence and transparency. Nature, like culture, is always already, and everywhere, semiotic.

The degree to which this insight makes us uncomfortable might reveal the extent to which we are still late Victorians, hankering after a pure and authentic nature, anxiously defending our exceptional humanity, queasy at the specter of biological "levelling." Abberley's important point here needs to be underscored. Collapsing the human/nonhuman binary doesn't necessarily lead to a socially or ecologically progressive ethics. The binaries it loosens can be, and have been, reinscribed: subjecthood might be extended to animals, but humans might instead be animalized--particularly those humans subjected to precarity. Like evolutionary thought, Abberley declares, biosemiotic thought "seems to be ideologically ambiguous and pliable." While one might think of exceptions (Thoreau comes to mind), Abberley warns that the Victorian naturalists he discusses seldom questioned the ethics of hunting, vivisection, or exploitation of nature (207).

Yet the very fact that biosemiotics itself seems open to interpretation suggests that entire ranges of cultural critique should be rethought in its light. Abberley concludes by pointing to a list of topics: fresh possibilities for feminist studies, the "Two Cultures" trajectory, Modernist reflections on art and the human mind, the experiences of racial and sexual minorities, animal studies, computational technologies, and above all (to my mind at least) environmentalist politics and Anthropocene studies. Imagine what it would mean to see Darwin's tangled bank as an ecosemiotic web, connecting the poet-naturalist with pen in hand to the variously displaying and cryptic birds singing amidst the signaling leaves to the mice burrowing beneath to the roots and microbes nourishing the soil and communicating with each other. This may not be the world we know, but it is the world we inhabit. As Abberley concludes, "If we are to be caretakers of the living Earth, we are obliged to try to interpret it on its own terms, and consider how it might interpret us" (214). To this I can only add: exactly. So let's get on with it!

Laura Dassow Walls is Professor of English at Notre Dame.


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