Because mine certainly seems to be of late. From the heights of drafting a publishable paper, to the depths of white supremacy, and now back to the heights, as a paper I proposed has been accepted. The best part? The paper is not about blogging. Someone actually wants to hear me talk about my dissertation. Admittedly, it's from the same recently praised chapter, so there's a chance this is the only decent bit I'll ever write—the highlight of my unspectacular career. So be it. If you find yourself at the American Literature Association's Symposium on Literary Naturalism come October, drop by the panel on Darwinism and Evolution in American Literature, where I'll be saying something about this:
Accelerating Evolution: Social Reform and the Baldwin Effect in Jack London’s The Iron Heel and Before Adam
Jack London was branded by association the moment Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought hit the shelves. One of the earliest reviews recounted a session of the American Sociological Society devoted to Social Darwinism. The reviewer notes that “none of [the participants] went in for any such vociferous and belligerent discipleship as did Jack London.” Readers of London’s youthful exchanges with his friend Cloudesley Johns would consider this association appropriate: a twenty-four year-old London declared himself “An Evolutionist, believing in Natural Selection, half believing Mathus’ ‘Law of Population,’ and a myriad of other factors thrown in, [who] cannot but hail as unavoidable, the Black and the Brown going down before the White.” According to William E. Cain, this sentence—first published Joan London’s Jack London and His Times (1939) and a longtime staple of the London industry—is evidence that “London is quick to express his social Darwinism.” Such assessments overestimate the coherence of evolutionary theory during what Stephen Jay Gould has called the “decade of maximal agnosticism and diversity in evolutionary theories.” Strictly speaking, social Darwinism did not exist. The evolutionary zeitgeist is more accurately called “social Spencerianism,” for it is the teleological thought of Herbert Spencer, not the radical randomness of Darwinian natural selection, which informs the politics and literature of the period. Absent from most accounts is the teleology inherent in Spencer’s dictum that development marches from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous.
In “Telic Action and Collective Stupidity” (1902), London describes how “the individual is capable of, and does perform, telic actions—that is, adjusts his acts to remote ends; a thing which society never does.” He laments the stupidity of the crowd, here functioning metonymically for society at large, which despite being composed of individuals capable of telic action, en masse behave as if such feats of foresight are impossible. Although he posits no solution to this problem, he strikes one optimistic note: it is possible for “two or three individuals, or a score, [to] organize a company or corporation and collectively perform telic actions.” Telic actions cannot be performed by acephalous organizations; democracy is hamstrung by “by the arrant idiocy of political organization.” Such actions can only be undertaken by undemocratic organizations whose leaders are chosen not because they represent society at large, but because they do not. They are superior, and will influence society by means of what is called “the Baldwin Effect,” according to which Lamarckian inheritance works alongside natural selection in the human population. Great leaders accelerate the teleological process London believed was already at work: namely, that “from the facts of [human] history…the trend of [social] development is toward greater and greater collective wisdom.” For him, the amelioration of suffering via socialism could not happen soon enough. During this talk, I will demonstrate how London’s impatience with the pace of evolution compels him to advocate Baldwinian logic in the two novels he wrote during 1906, The Iron Heel and Before Adam.