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Disrupting Homogeneity: Geology’s Living Fossils in Nineteenth-Century Literature

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Abstract

This dissertation, “Disrupting Homogeneity: Geology’s Living Fossils in Nineteenth-Century Literature” contends that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, originated in On the Origin of Species (1859), was a culturally disruptive force because it presented all species, including and especially the human, as mutable, unstable, and unfixed. This vision of endless transformation, fluidity, and change was unsettling, especially from a Christian point of view. Within a few decades, however, Darwin’s theories were normalized, if not universally accepted; at this point, his concept of the “living fossil”—an organism that closely resembles its ancestors because it has hardly changed at a genomic level—reemerged in scientific texts. Debates about whether genetically unchanged species really exist have followed us to our present. The living fossil has captured the cultural and scientific imagination precisely because it proposes unchangingness in the face of mutability; in other words, where ongoing transformation had once generated fear and unease, unchangingness instead began to appear monstrous once Darwinian theory permeated Victorian culture.

Worries about the mutability of the human form manifest in nineteenth-century novels; while many Victorian novels grapple with beetles, snakes, or other animals disguised as humans, or consider how immorality manifests as visible beastliness in and on the human body, this project instead focuses on female characters that embody the concerns evinced by living fossils. These women emerge from deeper pasts, speak alternate or buried histories, and evade and disrupt developmental, linear time. Moving from stories of mermaids that transform (into) humans, to an inner-Earth women’s dystopia that promotes eugenics and thereby stunts and alters natural evolution, to reincarnated queens whose historical knowledge endures even if their bodies die, this project tracks the shift from a cultural fear of mutability to an opposite fear of unchangingness.

The search for living fossils was coterminous with geological and paleontological discoveries during the age of empire building. This project therefore not only focuses on living fossils, but also on the codification of geology as a discipline to suggest that geologists, politicians, and novelists aligned to reify a linear historical narrative. And commitment to a linear progressivist teleology accommodates—in fact often demands—another temporality associated with timelessness and stagnation, qualities often assigned to peoples that history writes out of the record. But where science cannot account for geological unconformities—missing time and information in the rock record—authors of speculative fiction and fantasy move in to write stories into these gaps. Thereby, and often inadvertently, the peoples relegated to history’s sidelines reemerge. Excavating living fossils in nineteenth-century literature reveals gaps in the stratigraphic record, gaps that are narrativized in fiction as a queering of the temporalities of civilizational progress.

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This item is under embargo until November 3, 2023.