Séminaire “Charles Darwin: Aesthetics, Morals and Human History”, Ian Duncan

Mardi 11 octobre 2022, Salle Panathénées, St-Charles 2.

Séminaire organisé dans le cadre de l’axe « Matérialités » d’EMMA. Intervention du Professeur Ian Duncan (University of California, Berkeley, USA et PMU à l’Université Paul-Valery Montpelllier3). Séminaire organisé par Christine Reynier.

Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) provides comprehensive, rigorous and enduring theoretical framework for a materially determined history of life on earth. In The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) Darwin extended his evolutionary thesis to the human species. The seminar will address a central tension in Darwin’s argument: between the abolition of traditional distinctions between human beings and other animals, on the one hand, and the retention of a quality of human exceptionalism, on the other. The technological ability to shape their material environments makes humans self-domesticating, exerting a (limited) power of artificial selection that determines the subsequent development of the species, the motive principle of which is sexual choice according to aesthetic criteria. Sexual selection, common to all creatures but amplified to quasi-autonomous power in humans, generates not only the semiotics of gender difference but of racial difference too. Darwin’s account of sexual selection begs the question, however, of human evolutionary emergence – of human difference from pre-human ancestors, and humans’ subsequent global ecological dominance. Elsewhere in The Descent of Man, Darwin identifies the moral sense or conscience as the principle that sets humans apart even from the higher animals. A development of the pre-human “social instinct,” the moral sense is constituted by humans’ cognitive capacity for “mental time-travel,” through which they can compare recollected past states with present impulses, imagine hypothetical alternatives, and hence make ethical and political choices about the future. In the seminar I wish to explore two, linked topics. 1.) The relation between a cultural and moral perfection of “humanity,” achieved via a progressive expansion of sympathy beyond local social groups to include all human beings and (ultimately) all sentient life – and the biopolitical imperative of natural selection, governing the genocidal expansion of European empire in Darwin’s own time (the topic of my essay “Darwin’s Human History”). 2.) The relation of that to the evolutionary role of the aesthetic sense in Darwin’s account of sexual selection (the topic of my essay “Natural Histories of Form”). Can a disinterested appreciation of human differences, founded on a rational understanding of their aesthetic basis, overcome the racialized aversion that (supposedly) motivates human violence against other populations?

Ian Duncan, “Natural Histories of Form: Charles Darwin’s Aesthetic Science.” Representations 151 (2020), 51-73.
Ian Duncan, “Darwin’s Human History.” After Darwin: Literature, Theory, and Criticism in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Devin Griffiths and Deanna Kreisel (Cambridge University Press, 2022), 577-50.


OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
Constance Pompié (29 septembre 2022). Séminaire “Charles Darwin: Aesthetics, Morals and Human History”, Ian Duncan. Études Montpelliéraines du Monde Anglophone. Consulté le 20 juillet 2024 à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/o802


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