anthropocentric optimism

The author is reflecting on society’s secondary reaction to Charles Darwin (following denial), which rushed to adopt the workings of evolution as proof of man’s supremacy in the universe. Henry Adams, in thought and repose, abstained from this belief and went further to criticize nature’s workings.

Despite their epistemic shift, however, many evolutionist treatises were characterized by the same anthropocentric optimism that typified their predecessors. . . . the most prominent evolutionist discourses from 1870 to 1900, especially in America, triumphantly announced the naturalization of the “Supremacy of Mankind over the Earth.”

As Adams himself notes in The Tendency, America added to evolution “the cheerful optimism which gave to Darwin’s conclusions the charm of possible human perfectibility” (130). “Society naturally and instinctively adopted the view that Evolution must be upward” (153) . . . though humanity’s exceptionality was no longer assured by divine ordination, its position atop creation was yet secured by the workings of natural law.

Adams, however, while citing evolution as crucial to his own materialist historiography and aware of its aesthetic appeal (it was, he claimed, “the best substitute for religion”), unconditionally refuses the optimistic terms of its popular representations (Education, 225). Rejecting any belief in a “doctrine of development”—whether biologically or socially engineered—he offers instead an alternative, pessimistic account of humanity’s past, present, and future.

Perhaps most important for Adams is his conviction that evolution could offer only “pure inference,” not evidence, of progressive “selection”: “All he could prove was change,” not improvement (Education, 230, 228, 230). Indeed, if evolution has a direction, The Education suggests, it is downward.

Taylor, Matthew A. Universes without Us: Posthuman Cosmologies in American Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. 63, 64. Print.


The Education of Henry Adams

Perhaps the most unabashed case for rejecting Adams’ “inhuman” theories, however, comes from someone who actually takes them seriously. In his 1919 review of The Education, Robert Shafer criticizes what he understands to be the human costs of Adams’ “suicidal doctrines”:

“Everything recognizable as distinctly human is swept away, swallowed up in the anarchy of mechanical energies into whose presence the modern scientist proudly ushers us . . . a waste place inhuman and desolate beyond words to cry our woe. . . . Let us by all means admit that the universe is real . . . but let us not therefore deny our own humanity, distorting ourselves into mere helpless mechanisms. . . .

Every man is aware of a different world within himself which is his sole possession, by virtue of which he is an individual. . . . And only the man who is conscious that there is a portion of his being which thus differs from, and even opposes itself to, his mortal constitution and its surrounding world of nature and society — only that man has become in the full sense of the word human.”

Taylor, Matthew A. Universes without Us: Posthuman Cosmologies in American Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. 68. Print.