The folklore of evolution in Andrew Lang's writings

Anna McCullough*

*Corresponding author for this work

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Abstract

This article builds upon Bernard Lightman and Peter Bowler’s works on the non-Darwinian nature of Victorian evolution, arguing that while their arguments helpfully reorient our understanding of evolution’s historiography, they underestimate the diversity of evolutionary theory in the Victorian era. Victorian evolution was highly idiosyncratic, as each individual (scientist, author, or reader) interpreted evolution according to his or her own preconceptions, resulting in a myriad of evolutionary theories. To illustrate this diversity, this article examines the work of Andrew Lang, a prolific late-nineteenth-century journalist, anthropologist, and fairy-tale enthusiast. I focus on two of his largely unstudied works to demonstrate how he exposed and critiqued Victorian assumptions about evolution and the origins of the theory. The first work, ‘Higgins, the Inventor of Evolution’ (1897), uses satire to reveal that evolution’s theoretical history was often overlooked in the nineteenth century. The second, The Princess Nobody (1884), is a children’s fairy tale that exemplifies how fairy-tale tropes can help modern readers grasp evolutionary ideas. Significantly, both works recycle older texts that also address evolutionary questions, making Lang a participant in a folkloric tradition of interpreting and critiquing evolutionary theory. Lang viewed evolutionary theory as similar to a mythic story that is told and reinterpreted through the generations. His writing demonstrates that the origins of evolutionary theory are ambiguous, and that traditional fairy tales convey ideas about human origins and kinship with animals that predate Darwin’s studies.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbervcad041
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Victorian Culture
VolumeAdvance Articles
Early online date23 Oct 2023
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 23 Oct 2023

Keywords

  • Andrew Lang
  • Evolution
  • Fairy tales
  • Folklore
  • Recapitulation

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