Superficial Notions of Evolution: Eliot's Bergsonian Critique of Darwinian Historiography
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
While T. S. Eliot never made any comments critical of Darwin or his theory of evolution, he was critical of versions of Darwin's theory that extrapolated from it into metaphysical, moral, historical, and socio-political spheres where, in his view, it had no authority. Eliot once remarked that Herbert Spencer's generalized theory of evolution was in my childhood environment regarded as the key to the mystery of the universe, and a critique of Spencer's extension of evolutionary theory into the sociological realm was central to Eliot's thought. In Eliot's early poetry we find him satirizing the world view advanced by Spencer and other mechanistic Darwinists, and in Four Quartets he explicitly challenges the progressivist view of human history that derives from that world view. Three years before Eliot sat in on his lectures in Paris, Henri Bergson had published Creative Evolution, a work which argues against mechanistic evolutionary theory. Bergson especially takes Herbert Spencer to task. For instance, Bergson says he avoids the false evolutionism of Spencer. In Four Quartets, Eliot contemplates the superficial notions of evolution promulgated by Spencer and the progressivism that those notions have supported. Eliot is thinking about a historian who extrapolated ideas of evolution into cultural interpretation: H. G. Wells. Wells's Outline of History (1919) to offered a scientific account of human history, beginning with the evolution of primitive organisms. For Eliot, history is not an evolutionary movement away from the past but a return to the timeless moments that have made us who we are.
T. S. Eliot Society Conference
Lockerd, Benjamin, "Superficial Notions of Evolution: Eliot's Bergsonian Critique of Darwinian Historiography" (2011). Faculty Scholarly Dissemination Grants. 364.