A Biologists take on Thomas Hardy

            For my review post, I decided to discuss an article written by my evolution Professor, Kevin Padian, called “Evolution and Deep time in Selected Works of Hardy”.


            I apologize for reviewing an article about an author we haven’t read for this course, but I hope you all can forgive me because I think it connects in an interesting way to a lot of the themes we have been discussing in class, especially now that we have read a bit of Darwin. Also, I thought is was pretty cool that one of my Integrative Biology professors had written an article about Thomas Hardy, and think it offers an interesting complement to our own attempts at examining literature in a more scientific light. If you haven’t read Tess of the D’ubervilles, or Thomas Hardy in general for that matter, the relevance of the article itself to what we have been discussing in class can be seen in the first few pages, so that is what I will focus my review on.

            The article focuses on the function of “deep time” and “evolutionary legacy”, in the works of Thomas Hardy. Padian defines “deep time” saying that “the concept of ‘deep time’ recognizes that the ages of the Earth and the Universe must exceed any scales of human memory or history my many orders of magnitude”. He presents this, alongside “evolutionary legacy”, as the two concepts that “are essential to understanding his(Darwin’s) full argument in Origin and other works”.  An understanding of “evolutionary legacy”, allows us to understand how “everything in the Universe, animate and inanimate alike, bears the mark of its history as it has changed through time”. With these two definitions, Padian presents a possibility for understanding evolution in Thomas Hardy, beyond the “Spencerian incarnation of the ‘survival of the fittest’”, that “Darwin himself was not concerned with”, that tends to dominate popular and literary interpretations of Darwin’s works. Padian asserts that Hardy’s treatment of evolution goes beyond these ideas, saying that they “formed only part of Hardy’s response to evolution in his fiction”.

            I think this is an interesting point, because it can be applied to our function as critics when examining literature in a more scientific light. Padian advocates for caution in one of the footnotes, noting that, “However, there are limits to Darwinian invocation: not every action that favors one individual over another, or results in death or ruin, can simply be labeled Darwinian”. This raised some interesting questions for me; I posted a blog post earlier today discussing Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, in the context of Darwin’s idea of sexual selection, yet the publication of Austen’s novel predates Darwin’s idea. Does this mean that the ideas I discussed are invalid in a literary context? I am not sure, and I think that my uncertainty reflects the importance of exercising caution when analyzing literature alongside science in the way that our class does.

            Padian’s reading of Thomas Hardy goes beyond analyzing it in the context of the social interpretation of Darwinism that we are familiar with, and defines its significance in terms of its faithful treatment of the biological themes it presents. According to Padian, Hardy understood the two ideas of “deep time” and “evolutionary legacy” so well that “he understood the aspects of Darwin’s evolutionary thought, viscerally, and better than any biologist of his time, and possibly since”. This statement reflects the significance of literature to science that to me underlies the focus of this course. The reason I think Padian’s idea is so relevant to our course, is that in my mind it does not dismiss the importance of examining literature in the context of its scientific connections. Rather, it shows how valuable literature can be in understanding science (and vice-versa) , but only through a solid understanding of the science we might connect it to.

PS- I just realized that the footnote I quote is not visible in the googlebooks link I provided for the article, I’ll try and find another link to the article that includes the footnotes.



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