Arguing that aesthetic preference generates the historical forms of human racial and gender difference in The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin offers an alternative account of aesthetic autonomy to the Kantian or idealist account. Darwin understands the aesthetic sense to be constitutive of scientific knowledge insofar as scientific knowledge entails the natural historian’s fine discrimination of formal differences and their dynamic interrelations within a unified system. Natural selection itself works this way, Darwin argues in The Origin of Species; in The Descent of Man he makes the case for the natural basis of the aesthetic while relativizing particular aesthetic judgments. Libidinally charged—in Kantian phrase, “interested”—the aesthetic sense nevertheless comes historically adrift from its functional origin in rites of courtship.
Natural Histories of Form: Charles Darwin’s Aesthetic Science
Ian Duncan is Florence Green Bixby Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the editorial board of Representations. His books include Modern Romance and Transformations of the Novel (Cambridge, 1992); Scott’s Shadow: The Novel in Romantic Edinburgh (Princeton, 2007); and, most recently, Human Forms: The Novel in the Age of Evolution (Princeton, 2019).
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Ian Duncan; Natural Histories of Form: Charles Darwin’s Aesthetic Science. Representations 29 July 2020; 151 (1): 51–73. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/rep.2020.151.3.51
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