In the sesquicentennials of Darwinís The Origin of Species and Millís On Liberty, determinism and freedom returned to grand and popular narrative. NeoDarwinian books like The Literary Animal (2005) and Madame Bovaryís Ovaries (2005) returned us via evolutionary psychology or E. O. Wilsonís socio-biology to a universal human nature based in genes and reproduction. Whereas Habermasians grounded freedom and constraint solely in community and communication, NeoDarwinians reduced human decisions to reproductive instincts. Then 2010 saw the tenth anniversary of the completed human genome sequence, and reductive conceptions of the genome were rife. Confronted with such reductionisms, we are challenged to maintain a more complex understanding of the interworkings of nature and culture in species self-formation.
This essay does so by reconsidering the methods of the philosophical anthropologists who valued the human capacities for freedom and choice, self-creation, and self-formation, within natural limits and constraints. In the complex workings of nature and culture, humans cannot be reduced to genes or reproductive strategies, nor can they be reduced to mere cultural constructs. The philosophical anthropologists studied the way culture and technology mediated biological nature, and vice versa, the way nature mediated culture and technology. When they wanted to know what humankind was, they looked at the history of its interactions with nature. Through that history, they saw its capabilities and limits. There was no essence of humankind outside its historical existence, and the ability to reflect on that history opened the world to ideal goals.
This empirical or historical ontology that asked what kinds of creatures humans were at home in both nature and their diverse cultures was at its height in the mid-nineteenth century and is only now returning after a century and a half of reductions to either nature or culture. From geneticists to meteorologists, scientists are looking at the ways in which culture interacts with the environment at both molecular and global levels. They write of onto-genetic or developmental niches in which nature is nurtured as the product of mutually influencing genes and environment. The terms they use are Emergence, post-genomics, and the new epigenesis.
My contention is that cutting-edge science today is much closer to the pre-disciplinary sciences of the mid-nineteenth century than we have seen for 150 years and that when reading the Victorians we should celebrate their epistemic pluralism and diversity. We should celebrate the uneasy pleasures of knowing that we are both nature and culture, free, but only within limits. Dickens was characteristically knowledgeable of the science of his time, and his work shows the scope and limits of the human animal as conceived in the 1850s. I use Little Dorrit to demonstrate this because it is a novel about limits and constraints. I present my argument in the form of four theses on Nature, culture, technology, and hope, and I claim that these not only reflect the science of Dickensís time but also of our own.