Indicative of my current juvenile acuity: while reading a discussion of male homosexuality in Victorian culture I laughed aloud when I encountered the name of the person whose work had been cited: Dr. Harry Cocks. I initially thought it a prank of some sort, but as you can see from the link, that's the man's name. His work seems high quality, but when I read his name, I snorted like a seventh grader. (For which I apologize.) Needless to say, I'm not in an intellectual place today. So, I'm borrowing a page from my friend Wally's book and begin this post by saying:
No idea where this is going.
Edith Wharton's "The Descent of Man" (from the collection of the same name) compels us to consider it in light of the other book entitled The Descent of Man, written by Charles Darwin. It won't surprise you to learn that there's no shortage of irony in the title. Parsing that irony is no mean task, but such is my aim. (The page numbers refer to those found on the page linked above. Haven't checked whether they actually match those in Scribner's.)
The story opens with Professor Linyard returning from a holiday on which he has "eloped with an idea" (313). Eloping is a most grievous sins in a society in which matches are made with an eye toward improvement. It suggests something illicit has occurred, and Wharton's language backs this up:
As the express train whirled him away from the somewhat inelastic circle of Mrs. Linyard's affections, his idea seemed to be sitting opposite him, and their eyes met every moment or two in a glance of joyous complicity; yet when a friend of the family presently joined him and began to talk about college matters, the idea slipped out of sight in a flash, and the Professor would have had no difficulty in proving that he was alone. (313)
The playfulness aside, metaphorical eloping stirs similar feelings of impropriety in Dr. Linyard as actual, otherwise he wouldn't air his anxious little fantasy—not even or, perhaps, especially to himself. The time he vacationed alone (but for his idea) he describes in explicitly romantic language:
There, during the long cool August days, lying full length on the pine-needles and gazing up into the sky, he would meet the eyes of his companion bending over him like a nearer heaven. (313)
Does the story's title reflect upon the intersection of Darwin's theories of sexual selection (discussed at length in The Descent of Man) and the society in which such romantic narratives play out? Linyard, after all, is discussing the desirability of his idea as a companion. His interest in his own domestic affairs is similarly informed by the evolutionarily-influenced sociological theory:
He took as it were a sociological view of his case, and modestly regarded himself as a brick in that foundation on which the state is supposed to rest. Perhaps if Mrs. Linyard had cared about entomology, or had taken sides in the war over the transmission of acquired characteristics, he might have had a less impersonal notion of marriage; but he was unconscious of any deficiency in their relation, and if consulted would probably have declared that he didn't want any woman bothering with his beetles. His real life had always lain in the universe of thought, in that enchanted region which, to those who have lingered there, comes to have so much more color and substance than the painted curtain hanging before it. (313)
If only Mrs. Linyard were more interested in his ideas—if only marital congress could happen in his "universe of thought" in which ideas about sexual desire replace the desires themselves—then he would feel guilty about cheating on her with them. Had she only "taken sides in the war over the transmission of acquired characteristics," he would be in a position to feel humanizing guilt. The irony will become apparent when the nature of the idea is (shortly) revealed.
This idea will differ from those which had previously paid the bills. But the synthetic nature of those works is revealing. Just as Darwin tried to cross the bridge between intellection and evolution in humans, Linyard invests his time writing of "The Ethical Reactions of the Infusoria" and "The Unconscious Cerebration of the Amoeba." Both fictional monographs place human-defining rationality not merely in lower species, but in the lowest, as amoeba are unicellular. Linyard's work is an exaggeration of actual attempts to place humanity in the evolutionary taxonomy by demonstrating that the traits which had historically set him above it can be found within it.
More shortly, since if anyone even wants to read it, the odds of them reading it straight through run from slim to none.