English | Science and Literature
L769 | 24788 | Sterrenburg

5:45p – 8:30p W

Offered with VICT V711

Our seminar will have two general topics.  The first topic has to do
with Charles Darwin and the sexual selection debates, ranging from
his time to ours.  We will look at the development of Darwin’s
sexual selection theory and his premise that females do the
selecting of males in most of the animal world.  We’ll consider his
theories and evidences on female “taste” for the “beautiful,” and on
female agency in both humans and non-human animals. Also relevant
here will be arguments against sexual selection theory, from the
nineteenth-century to the present.  We will make some forays into
sexual selection and courtship plots in Victorian fiction.
Texts for the sexual selection part of the course will include
Darwin’s _Autobiography_, parts of _On the Origins of Species of
1859_, and selections from _The Descent of Man and Selection in
Relation to Sex of 1871_.  We’ll also take a look at a few passages
on sexual selection from Darwin’s transmutation NOTEBOOKS of the
later 1830s and early 1840s.

Readings from criticism, the history of science, and more recent cog-
sci include parts of the following: Gillian Beer’s _Darwin’s Plots_,
Marlene Zuk’s _Sexual Selections_, Geoffrey Miller’s _The Mating
Mind_, and the chapter on Darwin’s illustrations and sexual
selection from Jonathan Smith’s forthcoming book _Seeing Things:
Darwin, Ruskin, and Visual Culture_.  We’ll also read parts of
Helena Cronin’s _The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual
Selection from Darwin to Today_ (1993).  Cronin’s book has been
going in and out of print; and it may not be in print as a paperback
at present.  There are lots of used copies available at Amazon.com
and other used book search sites.  Cronin’s book is far and away the
best work on the history of the sexual selection debates, and I
recommend that students get hold of a copy.  We’ll decide when the
class meets which works of Victorian fiction and courtship narrative
to put on the table.

Our other topic for course is the larger historical and cultural
backgrounds for sexual selection theory, particularly the landscape
and animal aesthetics of the beautiful and the sublime found in
traveling natural history.  Relevant readings here will include
parts of Darwin’s private _Diary_ from the Beagle Voyage, his Voyage
of the Beagle, and Alexander von Humboldt’s _Personal Narrative of
Travels to the Equinoctical Regions of the New Continent, During the
Years 1799-1804_.  Darwin was especially immersed in reading
Humboldt and his landscape aesthetics just before departing of the
Beagle expedition (1831-36).  We’ll also dip back briefly into the
eighteenth century and look at some of the backgrounds from the
South Seas and ocean island encounters from the voyages of Captain
Cook and the writings Joseph Banks and the Forsters.

Student writing in the course will be a seminar length paper,
presumably about 18-20 pages; a short 5 page paper; paper proposals;
and a series of short one paragraph to one page informal response
papers on current readings.  Class meetings will be mainly
discussion.  There are many possibilities for research, including
Darwin and his works, and numerous connections with fiction and
poetry, travel writing, imperialism, natural history, evolutionary
debates, and also some recent trends in cognitive science.  Another
set of possibilities arises from the “naturalizing” or evolutionary
appropriation of the conventional aesthetics of the beautiful and
the sublime.  As it were, Darwinian sexual selection theory will be
the “figure” and earlier travel narratives and traveling aesthetics
will be the larger “ground” from which it arose.