The Cultural Dimensions Of Darwinism

Andre Yeung, 10th Grader || 11.12.18


        Since the late 1800’s, the debate on the differently interpreted dichotomy and attributes of the civilized and the savage has been widely discussed. Many prominent figures in the debate retained to essentialist perspectives, categorizing certain organisms by specific characteristics without consideration of individual variation. Although the concepts of civilization and savagery differed, multiple failed attempts to categorize them based on culture maintained decent popularity amongst the scientific society and public. Throughout the transition from the 19th to 20th century, Charles Darwin presented his ideology to the scientific society that civilized men were far superior to savages. He believed that savage peoples naturally and biologically evolved to a state inferior and not as advanced as the civilized, as stated through text in his publication in 1971 of Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. His beliefs on civilization and savagery closely coordinated with his judgment on race and human sub-species; they worked hand in hand to ultimately produce his beliefs on civilization and savagery. The concept of human evolution shifted over the 19th and 21st centuries, taking on a different approach from the traditional methods and ideas. It became more visible in more recent works in the 21th century like The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

      By depicting a wasteland dystopia in which an omnipotent Capitol dictated twelve districts, Collins also suggested that overcivilization was the culprit of unethical behaviors and incompetence in survival. From the transitional phase between Darwin and Collins, much leeway allowed the concepts of civilization and savagery to evolve through other renowned persons. Charles Darwin provided a significant perspective to the late 19th century scientific society on the dichotomy of essentialist classifications. Published in 1871, he differentiated between the physique and intellectual ability of the civilized and savage through his written transcripts on Descent of Man and Selection in Relationship to Sex. He categorized the civilized with more ideal characteristics, praising their advance in evolution. According to Chapter II, “Manner of Development”, Darwin asserted, He manifestly owes this immense superiority to his intellectual faculties… He has invented and is able to use various weapons, tools, traps, etc., with which he defends himself, kills or catches prey, and otherwise obtains food…The belief that there exists in man some close relation between the size of the brain and the development of the intellectual faculties is supported by the comparison of the skulls of savage and civilized races. (48-54) Through the passage,

      Darwin argued that the civilized rose above the “savage” human races by maximizing their mental prowess, mentioning the civilized “immense superiority, owed to his intellectual faculties.” Thus Darwin’s arguments incorporated Man the Toolmaker’s concepts, arguing that the civilized advanced through mentally adapting to the environment to create tools to accommodate for Nature’s relentless beatings. On the other hand, Darwin also addressed his own ideas from another perspective by inferring that savages solely rely on brute strength to accomplish tasks necessary for the elongation of the population’s survival. Therefore, they did not progress further to the more advanced level of the civilized. He also differed in opinion from the more conventional definition on the term of “development,” in which he did not agree with polygenesis or monogenesis. He believed that the human species progressed instead of regressed from a single, common ancestor or multiple ancestors, and that the civilized advanced even further than the savage on the “spectrum” of beings, between the civilized and animals. Darwin’s publications on civilization and savagery represented his beliefs on the dichotomy of their classifications, providing a sensible rationale to his reasoning of why the civilized were prevalent to the savage. While supporting his principle that civilized men had the upper hand in survivability due to their enhanced intuition, Charles Darwin additionally denounced savages’ attributes. By punctuating this idea, he produced a mechanism to the dichotomy and differentiation of the two “categories.” In Chapter V, “Civilized Nation” states: With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination… It is surprising how soon a want of care… leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed (133-134).

      Charles Darwin particularly emphasized on the term “those” and “on the other hand” when referencing the savage, speaking from a 3rd person point of view as if savages were a separate sub-species of man. Likewise, he showed how adamantly he was convinced that the civilized were superior to savages and the dominant classification of man was conveyed through the usage of “we,” and his detailed description of man’s achievements and prevailing traits. When stated “his [man’s] worst animals,” Darwin was stigmatizing savages, excoriating their “want of care” as the culprit of their evolutionary demise. According to him, “With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated.” Thus he infered that only the mightiest of savages were able to survive as the helpless deceased, while the civilized had the ability to keep their less competent alive. Therefore, civilized populations would most certainly be greater than savage populations, and reproduce accordingly to continue the vicious cycle of “civilized superiority.” Through this text, he primarily attempted to accentuate the main distinction of technology between the two failed attempts at categorization. Charles Darwin’s notions on savages’ place in nature mirrored Victorian anthropology, and proved revolutionary in the debate of civilization versus savagery. Many of his ideas were established as the basis of the dichotomy of civilization and savagery, carrying further into the 20th century.

      Through his book Tarzan of the Apes, published in 1912, Edgar Rice Burroughs represents his beliefs on the lowest of lowest of individuals of the human species through Esmeralda, a side character in the story, greatly impacting society’s beliefs on the matter. Chapter XIII, “His Own Kind,” states: When Jane Porter and Esmeralda found themselves safely behind the cabin door the negress’s first thought was to barricade the portal from the inside. With this idea in mind she turned to search for some means of putting it into execution; but her first view of the interior of the cabin brought a shriek of terror to her lips, and like a frightened child the huge black ran to bury her face on her mistress’ shoulder...She ended lamely, a little quiver in her own voice as she thought of the three men, upon whom she depended on for protection, wandering in the depth of that awful forest (95). In the passage, Burroughs’s depiction of Esmeralda’s temperament through her actions and thoughts created an impression of her as an overcivilized, enslaved, and black woman, what he pictured as the complete opposite of the optimal pinnacle of human evolution and societal status.

      His ideals were complementary to Charles Darwin’s works a few decades earlier, which also chastised these reductionist stereotypes. Darwin’s depiction of man’s superior characteristics consisted of male sex, European, and civilized, and reprimanded those who were black and womanly. Through the excerpt, Burroughs utilized his word choice, including “lamely” and “shriek of terror,” to manipulate his impression which exposed Esmeralda’s faint-heartedness and decrepitude. Burroughs clearly portrayed her inferiority to Ms. Jane Porter when she instinctively leaped into her mistress’ arms in a state of fear, which signified her atrocious black and slavery origins. Although Ms. Jane Porter, as a female, was also seen as more feeble-bodied than the men, Burroughs ensured emphasis on the point that Esmeralda was an even lesser being through this statement. By showing “the frightened child’s” incompetence in controlling her own emotions, he further reinstated the stereotypes enlisted upon her. His depiction of the “negress’s” secondary womanly characteristics underrated her stature even further. While the audacious, valiant men ventured out in the uncharted wilderness of the jungle,

      Esmeralda was depicted as protecting Ms. Porter by isolating themselves in a protective bubble, and worrying for the valiant men with a maternal instinct. Burroughs presented the readers with a figure of the lowliest of mankind through Esmeralda, agreeable with societal ideology at that time. His beliefs conveyed through his writing had a major impact on society, greatly influencing their perspective on minorities. Edgar Rice Burroughs played a major contributing factor in the emboldening of the borderline of savagery to civilization through his book. He specifically targeted the Mbonga village people, characters in his story, disfiguring their appearance into gruesome monstrosities to accustom the degraded definition of savages. Chapter XI, “King of Apes,” states: In a larger circle squatted the women, yelling and beating upon drums. It reminded Tarzan of the Dum-Dum, and so he knew what to expect. The Apes did not do such things as that.

      The women and children shrieked their delight. The warriors… vied with one another in the savagery and loathsomeness of their cruel indignities with which they tortured the still conscious prisoner (72). Burroughs emphasized his position on the matters of savagery through the gruesome slaughter and horrendous actions taken by the Mbonga village people such that he enforced the title of “bad guys” upon them. He blatantly pointed out the peculiarity that the women and children were ruthless oafs, thirsty for blood. From the perspective of a civilized society, this would be disgraceful and repulsive to have the lesser individuals amongst the human species [women and children] to take upon such behavior. While he contrasted the ceremonial feasts, the “Dum-Dums,” of the Apes to the Mbonga village people, Burroughs categorized the “uncivilized” underneath the status of the Apes, of which were already considered the lowest of the lowest. This ideology mirrored the “war on terror,” depicting confrontations between so-called civilized and “savage” people. (Bowden 2007) It clashed with the more traditional Darwinian beliefs, in which the savage were categorized as between the civilized man and beast. Burroughs’s ideology on the conduct of savages greatly influenced society’s perspective on it, carrying well into the early 20th century.

      By challenging ideologies in the 19th-20th century transition, arguing that too much civilization made man incompetent and weak, Edgar Rice Burroughs confronted savagery in a critical manner. He supported his claims by differentiating the actions of the civilized and savage, clearly defining both. In Chapter 9, But, be as it may, Tarzan would not ruin good meat in any such foolish manner, so he gobbled down a great quantity of the raw flesh… and then Lord Greystroke wiped his greasy fingers upon his naked thighs… while in far-off London another Lord Greystroke… sent back his chops to the club’s chef because they were undone, and when he had finished his repast he dipped his finger-ends into a scented bowl of water and dried them upon a piece of snowy damask. (61-62) In this excerpt, Burroughs portrayed Tarzan and the other Lord Greystroke as polar opposites through their formalities and etiquette. He stated that Tarzan “gobbled” down his meal while Lord Greystroke “finished” his repast.

      Both of the terms indicated the same definition of the action of eating, but consisted of differing implications. From the reader’s perspective, Tarzan’s manners were depicted as repugnant and vulgar, while the other Lord Greystroke “dipped his finger-ends into a scented bowl of water and dried them upon a snowy piece of damask.” Tarzan behaved like a savage because of his “savage” ape origins in the “savage” wilderness, remaining headstrong, European/white, intuitive, and robust. On the contrary, Greystroke’s necessity to tolerate civilization’s restrictions to conventionalism and “proper” civilities branded him with a setback which made him appear inferior to Tarzan.

      By presenting the other Lord Greystroke character’s weaknesses, Burroughs castigated overcivilization and suggested its deficiencies. His arguments clashed with Darwin’s beliefs that civilization was always positive, and provided 20th century scholars with a healthy skepticism to previous beliefs on the benefits of civilization. James Whale, the director of the film Frankstein, appealed to the perspective of the audience of the time period and previous Darwinian beliefs through his film with the ideology that the savage were physically and morally inferior to the civilized. In the scene set at the Goldstadt Medical College, Fritz, Frankenstein’s assistant, was a thieving scoundrel depicted as heisting a brain to supplement materials for the reanimation of a corpse in Frankenstein’s project. In the process of entering the facility after dark, Fritz was startled by an unknown sound and accidentally dropped the jar containing the “normal brain.” To compensate for his mistake, Fritz snatched up the jar including the “abnormal brain” and swiftly left the crime site, after which the scene ended. In the ensuing scenes in which the monster was reborn, it was seen as the most vile, savage animal to be exiled and discontinued. Whale emphasized on the differentiation between the “normal brain” and “abnormal brain” to convey his beliefs on savagery.

      By clearly showing the audience Fritz’s defined decision to select the “abnormal brain,” he categorized the monster with the so-believed physical attribute of a savage: an uncivilized, war-like, and lame-brained mind. Fritz’s act symbolized the monster’s turn to savagery, exceptional to the debate of nature vs. nurture as displayed by Fritz’s abusive behavior. The manner in which Whale distinguished the civilized from savage expressed similar ideas to Darwin’s publication of Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, both noting that the civilized possessed greater physical and moral attributes than the savage. Although Whale also presented a sympathetic side to the monster, he acutely focused down upon the monster’s savage aspect, of which repeated previous Darwinian concepts. Like Burroughs, Whale discerned civilized men and savages by describing their contrasting impressions in vivid detail. Through his film, he presented stereotypical representations of civilization and savagery, establishing a fortified ideology from Darwin’s opinions for subsequent figures to follow. Suzanne Collins denounced overcivilization through the Capitol citizen characters in The Hunger Games, published in 2008. She represented them as the true embodiment of the worst human attributes possible: incapable of survival, lacking worldly comprehension and narrow-minded, and immature.

      Chapter 5 states: … To remove any last bits of hair. I know I should be embarrassed, but they’re so unlike people that I’m no more self-conscious than if a trio of oddly colored birds were pecking around my feet. The three step back and admire their work. ‘Excellent, you almost look like a human being now!’ says Flavius, and they all laugh. (62) Suzanne Collins made the overcivilized appear foolish by critiquing savagery from their perspective. Flavius, one of the overcivilized Capitol freaks, jokingly stated “Excellent, you almost look like a human being now!” Thus Collins inferred the “trio’s of oddly colored birds” so-believed superiority over underling savages. Furthermore, through the stylists’ action of ripping hair from Katniss’s body, Collins symbolized the separation from her savage side. Similarly, the Europeans conquered the savagery and horrendousness of the New World. (Sharp 2007) Darwin, too, essentially categorized savages as hairy creatures, as echoed by this excerpt. Edgar Rice Burroughs’s side minority character Esmeralda in Tarzan of the Apes also shared similar qualities with the Capitol citizens. From both the civilized and civilized/overcivilized they were ignored, whether it be Tarzan and the Apes and the Europeans, or the Capitol and “savage” district citizens. Collins fortified the beliefs of the overcivilized, and strengthened the stereotypes established upon them, reinforcing previous Darwinian ideologies from the 19th century and addressing societal controversies of the time period she faced. Darwin’s influence on the comparison of civilization and savagery trail blazed a path for scholars to approach the concepts from different intuitive perspectives.

      He implied that the civilized were a distinguished race from the inferior savages. By referring to man’s intellect, the concepts of Man the Toolmaker proved exceptionally influential in his arguments. Burroughs paralleled Darwinian doctrine in some aspects, but added his own twist to his views on overcivilization and the ideal combination of civilization and savagery. He inferred that man’s suppression by civilization’s ideals and overly protective etiquette would lead to the evolutionary raze of mankind. Whale provided yet another mechanism for dichotomy between the civilized and savage through Frankenstein. Instead of taking a position in the debate between civilization and savagery, he replicated savage and civilized characteristics through representations within his film. Collins developed Burroughs’s and Whale’s views on overcivilization, suggesting that it directly influenced the detrimental traits of survival ineptitude and feebleness. Agreeing with Burroughs’s ideology, she pictured those who embraced their savage side more superior than the ideal individuals of the civilized society. The concepts of civilization and savagery diversified greatly. Primarily originating from Darwin, the relationship between the two failed attempts of categorization expanded through significant figures like Burroughs, Whale, and Collins from the 19th to the 21st centuries.

      Works cited: Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. 2nd ed. 1874. New York: D. Appleton, 1896. 5-13, 45-55, 127-134, 173-183, 561-566, 617-619. Print Burroughs, Edgar Rice. Tarzan of the Apes. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1997. Print. Sharp, Patrick B. "The Triumph of Civilization; Race and American Exceptionalism before Darwin." Savage Perils: Racial Frontiers and Nuclear Apocalypse in American Culture. Norman: U of Oklahoma, 2007. 1-13. Print. Bowden, Brett. Civilization and Savagery in the Crucible of War 1. 2007. Print. Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. Print. Frankenstein. 1931. Film.