I’ve been meaning to do this post for a while now. I’m going to be blogging a lot more frequently, I’ve decided, to keep me going through my orals lists. I finished reading Flatland (1884) a few weeks ago, which isn’t on my orals, but hey, it’s c. 100 pages, which is a much more reasonable length than the average Victorian novel on my lists. I’ve recently finished a paper on how Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics actually dominated both scientific and popular discussions on the mechanics of evolution. (In keeping with frequent blogging, I’ll let my prose get as cumbersome as it wants.) Case in point from Flatland.

Flatland is about a two-dimensional society conveniently stratified by geometric phenotype. The narrator is “A. Square,” who is, I hope I’m not spoiling things for you, shaped like a square, the shape corresponding to the middle-class professionals of Victorian England. The more sides a Flatlander has, the higher they are in the social hierarchy, until the Priestly Circles. Descending the social hierarchy, the petty bourgeoisie are equilateral triangles, while the working classes are isosceles triangles, who are in turn ranked by the angle between their two equal sides, the with highly acute triangles being soldiers and rabbles. Women, naturally, are lowest of all, straight lines.

Since it’s a Victorian text, of course there’s progress involved. A. Square informs us, “It is a Law of Nature with us that a male child shall have one more side than his father, so that each generation shall rise (as a rule) one step in the scale of development and nobility.” But here’s the real Lamarckian bit:

With [the isosceles triangles] the Law of Nature does not hold; and the son of an Isosceles… remains Isosceles still. Nevertheless, all hope is not shut out, even from the Isosceles, that his posterity may ulitmately rise above his degraded condition. For, after a long series of military successes, or diligent and skilful labours, it is generally found that the more intelligent among the Artisan and Soldier classes manifest a slight increase of their third side or base, and a shrinkage of the two other sides. Intermarriages… between the sons and daughters of these more intellectual members of the lower classes generally result in an offspring approximating still more to the type of the Equal-Sided Triangle.

Rarely–in proportion to the vast numbers of Isosceles births–is a genuine and certifiable Equal-Sided Triangle produced from Isosceles parents. Such a birth requires, as its antecedents, not only a series of carefully arranged intermarriages, but also a long, continued exercise of frugality and self-control on the part of the would-be ancestors of the coming Equilateral, and a patient, systematic, and continuous development of the Isosceles intellect through many generations.

Probably modern readers would pay the most attention to the organized eugenicism so popular in the late nineteenth century–progress comes from “rational reproduction,” in Angelique Richardson’s words. But less obvious is the emphasis on acquired characteristics. I would argue that Abbott Abbott (gotta love Victorian cousin-marrying) and his readers would have seen “long, continued exercise” and “patient, systematic, and continuous development” as no less important to evolutionary progress. In other words, racial advancement depended upon the efforts of individuals during their lives as much as their choice of a good mate. This post has already taken me more time than planned, so just take my word for it that Lamarckianism wasn’t just a relic from pre-Darwinian science. Or check out Peter J. Bowler‘s work.

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