Willing progress: The literary Lamarckism of Olive Schreiner, George Bernard Shaw, and William Butler Yeats
Tracy, Hannah R.
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Tracy, Hannah R.
While the impact of Darwin's theory of evolution on Victorian and modernist literature has been well-documented, very little critical attention has been paid to the influence of Lamarckian evolutionary theory on literary portrayals of human progress during this same period. Lamarck's theory of inherited acquired characteristics provided an attractive alternative to the mechanism and materialism of Darwin's theory of natural selection for many writers in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, particularly those who refused to relinquish the role of the individual will in the evolutionary process. Lamarckian rhetoric permeated an ideologically diverse range of discourses related to progress, including reproduction, degeneration, race, class, eugenics, education, and even art. By analyzing the literary texts of Olive Schreiner, G.B. Shaw, and W.B. Yeats alongside their polemical writing, I demonstrate how Lamarckism inflected these writers' perceptions of the mechanism of human evolution and their ideas about human progress, and I argue that their work helped to sustain Lamarck's cultural influence beyond his scientific relevance. In the dissertation's introduction, I place the work of these three writers in the context of the Neo-Darwinian and Neo-Lamarckian evolutionary debates in order to establish the scientific credibility and cultural attractiveness of Lamarckism during this period. Chapter II argues that Schreiner creates her own evolutionary theory that rejects the cold, competitive materialism inherent in Darwinism and builds upon Lamarck's mechanism, modifying Lamarckism to include a uniquely feminist emphasis on the importance of community, motherhood, and self-sacrifice for the betterment of the human race. In Chapter III, I demonstrate that Shaw's "metabiological" religion of Creative Evolution, as portrayed in Man and Superman and Back to Methuselah , is not simply Bergsonian vitalism repackaged as a Neo-Lamarckian evolutionary theory but, rather, a uniquely Shavian theory of human progress that combines religious, philosophical, and political elements and is thoroughly steeped in contemporary evolutionary science. Finally, Chapter IV examines the interplay between Yeats's aesthetics and his anxieties about class in both his poetry and his 1939 essay collection On the Boiler to show how Lamarckian modes of thought inflected his understanding of degeneration and reproduction and eventually led him to embrace eugenics.