Wouldn’t you have loved to have been there for this conversation? It is 1874 and spiritualism is the rage (you know: calling spirits back from the dead to knock on the pipes and lift tables off the floor). Charles Darwin and George Eliot have been invited to a séance at Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton’s house. Neither the author of such wondrous books as Middlemarch nor the founder of evolution by natural selection can abide such superstitious nonsense and stay outside and chat. Darwin is in the midst of writing his second great work, The Descent of Man, and Eliot is two years into her novel Daniel Deronda, with another two years until its publication. Both works explore identity in beguilingly different ways. Darwin’s, our deep biological identity, and Eliot’s, our personal and social identity. In Eliot’s work the protagonist Daniel explores his Jewish Heritage, something he’s just learned about, and is trying to come to terms with. He wants to understand how that changes who he is—and how that affects the concepts that frame and structure his personal identity. Darwin’s book will do the same, forcing us to confront things about our deep biological history that are surprising and revealing, and which force us to reevaluate and reexamine what it means to be who we are. A frightening task at best.
I suspect their conversation was likely not as interesting as I fantasize. Both were in ill health. Darwin would have been uncomfortable with her flouting Victorian conventions and living openly with a married man. Neither was known for their gregarious nature. So likely after a few harrumphs about the event’s nonsense, the conversation would have turned to the pleasantness of the evening, the condition of the garden, or complaints about the terrible London air. And if I had been there I would have stammered incoherently like child visiting Santa Clause for the first time—intimidated and awed beyond speech. At best I would have bobbed up and down and muttered something awkward and conversation-stopping like, “By golly, you guys are, like, my, you know, like, pretty much, my heroes” (Beside Darwin’s works, I’ve read everything George Eliot has written (many twice), except Felix Holt the Radical, which I refuse to read because I can’t imagine life without there being just one more George Eliot to look forward to. When that is read, it will be time to slip from this mortal coil.)
Both of these two great thinkers, however, explore what our self-conception means. Who we think we are defines us and places us in relation to our lives and the lives of others past and present. What are the implications of a self-identity not grounded in spiritual realities? In biological realities? In psychological realities? In social realities? Galton, at whose house they were playing hooky from the séance, went on to be one of the main proponents of eugenics. This is the idea that some humans are flat-out biologically superior than others and that the lives of those better humans matter more than the less biologically worthy. He considered all other ideas of personal identity inconsequential compared with this biological one—with the horrors of Nazism turning out to be the intellectual offspring of his thought. What happens when our identities are not informed by all the realities that come into play and that make us a complete person? What are the dangers of not recognizing our biological, spiritual, and social heritages? Doesn’t really knowing who we are require engagement with all of these?
In the next life I’m going to try and get Darwin and Eliot together for a chat. Likely, however, I’ll just be able to gush, “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, you guys are . . . umm. . . well . . . you know . . . so cool!” And everyone will just be embarrassed.