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“Moving Things into Certain Places”: Nature, Culture and Art as Practice in Victorian Writing



The essay takes the debate over Darwin’s method of reasoning, by analogy, from ‘artificial selection’ to ‘natural selection’ as a sample case to explore some of the epistemological issues that this method raised. It, moreover, explicates the relevance of these issues for the study of Victorian literature. Darwin, I argue, uses the arts of breeding and gardening as a model to study the nature of life, but this broached the question of whether a modelled version of nature can be sufficiently similar to nature ‘as it really is’ to warrant the logical step from the one to the other. Indeed, while many other naturalists maintained that human practices of domestication interfere with the laws of nature in an irregular way, making a difference between the ‘cultivated’ and ‘the wild’ that rules out the possibility of claiming them to be alike, Darwin’s argument is premised on the assumption of a continuity between the natural and the cultural according to which these domains have – in the medium of human practice – always already been crossed. As the essay shows, this assumption, encapsulated in the metaphor of ‘natural selection’, implies an integrative concept of ‘nature’ converging with the one that has been spelled out by J.S. Mill, who was involved in a fierce debate with W. Whewell about these matters. For ‘nature’, in Mill’s sense, does not exclude but include the many ways in which it is realised by human culture or art. Science, as a cultural practice, can therefore never fully grasp or domesticate nature from the outside but only – by “moving things into certain places” (Mill) – draw out its potentialities from the inside. The essay concludes by making a case for an approach to Victorian writing which does not cling to a theoretical distinction between ‘literature’ and ‘science’ but analyses how this distinction is, in practice, constantly drawn afresh.