Day 9: The Plasticity of Man

In the aftermath of Darwin’s Origin of Species and Descent of Man, the debate over the nature of man heated up.  If man is just another animal, what difference is there between man and the animals.  HG Wells addressed this question with his book The Island of Doctor Moreau.  If the flesh, mind, and lineage of animals can all be manipulated, can they be artificially evolved into humans.

Wells also used the book to weigh in on vivisection and the experimental medicine of Claude Bernard.  While it would be hard to take a positive message about vivisection from the book, Wells was personally ambivalent on the subject and the book reiterates much of his non-fiction defense of the practice.

After our group presentation and discussion of the book, we will turn our attention to so-called Social Darwinism.  Sociocultural evolution was a product of exploration and eighteenth-century rationalization. The appropriation of evolutionary theory to social, cultural, and economic issues provided a rich vein of metaphor and rhetoric.  Sociocultural evolution, a narrative of unilineal social progress, used both Darwinian and Lamarckian ideas to justify a ladder of social types.  Imperially minded Europeans used this narrative to brush aside indigenous people during a period of rapid colonization.  Our lecture for the day will present Social Darwinism from its Enlightenment roots through to the eugenics of World War II.

Homework

  • Study for the first test
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