Faculty Scholarly Dissemination Grants


The Darwinian Uncanny


Art & Design


College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Date Range



This essay will cross-pollinate the ideas of Darwin and Freud to propose that non-human animals are perceived by their human counterparts as uncanny. The most basic definition of the term is that which is simultaneously strange and familiar, and the classic model, stemming from Freud's 1919 essay on the uncanny is that of the automaton. The latter s uncanny nature stems from the fact that it possesses a recognizable, familiar form, yet remains inorganic and lifeless. Non-human animals are precisely the corollary: they are living, organic beings, but their form is not human. And yet, it is strangely familiar. Indeed countless other mammals, birds, and reptiles also have bilaterally symmetrical faces and bodies, with two eyes, four limbs, a heart and two lungs, as do humans. This, for Darwin, was evidence of common ancestry. These animals, then, are not our grandparents, but they are our cousins, and the family resemblance is strong, despite the many adaptations that separate one species from another. Freud understood the cognitive dissonance that arises from the experience of the uncanny as one generating anxiety, fear, and dread. This, then, might account for the antipathy with which the theory of evolution was met, as it was experienced, in Freud's words, as a blow to human narcissism. Upon further elaboration of these ideas, including a discussion of the role of language in the experience of the uncanny, this paper will apply the notion of the animal as uncanny to encounters with animals described by Derrida, Buñuel, and Magritte.

Conference Name

American Comparative Literature Association Annual Conference

Conference Location

Brown University, Providence, RI

This document is currently not available here.