Vol. 6, No. 1: Spring/Summer 2010

Evolutionary Fictions

by Amy Cornell

English professor Jennifer Fleissner incorporates science writing into her American literature class in order to explore the influence that evolution science had on fiction from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“Every time I teach this course on 19th-century literature, Darwin and his ideas are always hanging around in the background anyway,” remarked Jennifer Fleissner when discussing the origins of her American literature class Evolutionary Fictions.

When Fleissner, Associate Professor of English at IU Bloomington, heard that the College of Arts and Sciences was proposing a Themester (themed semester) focusing on evolution and diversity, she immediately started thinking about implications for L352 American Literature 1865–1914. Courses devoted to this time period in American literature normally cover naturalism, a movement inspired by French writer Emile Zola and deeply influenced by the scientific writings of Charles Darwin. Naturalism sought to represent people and situations as they existed in real life, in contrast to the romanticized representations that dominated earlier American literature. As such, naturalism represents biological—not rational—underpinnings for a person’s behavior.

Fleissner remarks, “I knew evolution could be a hot-button topic in a literature class. I didn’t know if people wanted to take this class because they wanted to raise a ruckus about creationism, and that’s fine, but I don’t feel it has created any kind of problem. Students seem very willing to discuss the topic on an intellectual plane, not that they don’t see it as having serious consequences.”

Erin Chapman, a junior who is a history and conflict resolution major (through the Individualized Major Program) with an English minor, needed a class to fulfill a minor requirement, but was specifically attracted to Evolutionary Fictions, because she liked the idea of combining science and literature. “I like the theme because it was broad enough to give me a wide range of perspectives and things to explore, but also encouraged students to go into depth with different subjects,” she said.

Fleissner loved the idea of an evolution theme because she felt it gave her and her students an opportunity to focus more directly on evolutionary debates and delve into the scientific background of naturalism. Though she has taught classes like this before where she discusses how the science affects the writing, she has never examined the scientific debates so deeply.

“I spent the summer reading up on reactions to The Origin of Species and natural selection,” she says. “It was very exciting.”

One discovery Fleissner made through her research into Darwin and the late 19th century was that the debates that raged over his ideas at the time were quite different than the debates that currently play out in the media about the evolution of the human species. In Darwin’s day people, even religious people, seemed to go along with his theory of the origin of species and evolution; what they did not embrace was the idea of survival of the fittest. It seemed barbaric to many educated people that only the fit would survive. One hundred fifty years later, the survival of the fittest seems uncontroversial, and it is the notion of evolution that many find troubling.

Another observation Fleissner made about considerations of evolution both then and now concerns the willingness of many, in social science and in popular culture, to take Darwin across disciplinary lines. “In particular what interests me is the way evolutionary explanations for human behavior are generally on the upswing again,” Fleissner says. “There is a lot in common between our moment now and the late 19th century. In the mid-20th century, evolutionary science was kind of dormant. Evolutionists were busy doing their science, and there wasn’t a notion that one could extend those discoveries to evolutionary psychology or economics or an evolutionary range of literature. But now, like then, it’s everywhere.” Her own research is concentrated on bringing the ideas of science and literature closer together and her class is able to explore that synergy with her.

In fact, Erin Chapman reflected that Evolutionary Fictions helped her to bridge gaps between literature, science, and history. “I am also taking a history course on the British Empire,” she said. “Learning what we did about eugenics and racial superiority in L352 really helped me to understand how the idea of empire could be justified at that time.”

The reading list for Evolutionary Fictions includes short stories by Jack London, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Stephen Crane, as well as novels by Edith Wharton, Charles Chesnutt, and Kate Chopin. Fleissner includes reflections on the scientific debates of the era by Paul Boller, Thomas Huxley, and Henry Adams. She did not have her students read complete works by Darwin, but rather presented the ideas of the evolution of species and natural selection in a set of chapters and short excerpts from several of Darwin’s best-known books: The Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

Professor Fleissner brings handouts to class every week with quotations and excerpts from Darwin and other leading scientific thinkers that illustrate concepts from the literature assigned for the week. For example, in Edith Wharton’s novel The House of Mirth, the lead character, Lily Bart, flirts with men to improve her marriage prospects and her station in life. Flirting in this context is seen as a survival strategy, or even a strategy to achieve immunity from the restrictions and rules of the era. Fleissner’s handouts for that week include excerpts from Darwin’s work The Descent of Man, in which he discusses how females use coyness and aesthetic judgments to exert some control over their choice of mates, thus bringing together a thread of evolutionary biology as it was reflected in popular literature of the 19th century.

The class of 30 juniors and seniors, seated in a tight circle, maintains a robust discussion about the books and ideas. Fleissner says, “I think adding the evolutionary dimension has brought the subject to life for the students. I think this is the most successful course I have ever taught at IU. Partly, it is because they have a clearer sense of what they are supposed to be getting out of the material—an in-depth engagement with the historical period.”

Chapman remarks that Professor Fleissner has done an excellent job of forcing students to see from the author’s perspective. “She has helped me to understand how these ideas of evolution could pervade literature of the time by asking us to think about how the author thought about these ideas. It has been fascinating,” Chapman says.

Students are not always accustomed to understanding the historical context for literature, Fleissner believes. When she has presented L352 as a simple survey of the literature of the time, students have not engaged as well with the themes she tries to convey, but with the context of evolutionary science surrounding the class in a more deliberate way, she has met with different results. “I feel like they connect with the material every time we introduce a new book, and even more importantly, they trace the material from book to book—which is absolutely what we want to happen,” she says. “I have seen many, many more connections being made in this course which is very exciting, and as we approach the end and begin to look at some broader philosophical questions on what this means for us as human beings to think of ourselves in evolutionary ways, I anticipate they will get very excited about that.”

While historical context-building in the classroom can be challenging, Fleissner says, a focused theme helps the process along, and prevents students from making generalizations, such as the notion that 19th-century women were simply oppressed. The ideas behind evolution and diversity give her the ability to introduce more nuances to the discussion and to present and examine themes such as 19th-century courtship. She sees that students have the opportunity to experience greater historical richness than she has seen before.

After moving to IU four years ago from UCLA, where she was accustomed to large lectures or small seminars, Fleissner admits that acclimating to teaching the standard 30 person undergraduate course was a challenge for her. “I make my courses hybrid lecture-seminars. I spend some time on one day lecturing and then I pull them into the discussion on the next day. That’s why the handouts are helpful. I don’t want to give them too much extra historical reading; the novels are already long. The handouts are a middle ground so they don’t have to take on this enormous extra reading load.”

Professor Fleissner says that she would certainly consider teaching L352 this way again. She has even thought about creating a version of this class as a combination of British and American 19th-century literature, noting that it would provide an opportunity to add some of the many British works that engage with an evolutionary perspective, such as those of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy.

Erin Chapman thinks that the Themester has brought a really exciting dimension to the college curriculum. Her only regret is that she’ll already have graduated in 2011 when the topic is War and Peace. “My Individualized Major Program is conflict resolution and that would be a great fit with what I am studying.”

Amy Cornell works in the IU Bloomington Department of Communication and Culture and is a freelance writer.

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