Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library

Breeding: A Partial History of the Eighteenth Century

Jenny Davidson
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 312
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    The Enlightenment commitment to reason naturally gave rise to a belief in the perfectibility of man. Influenced by John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, many eighteenth-century writers argued that the proper education and upbringing-breeding-could make any man a member of the cultural elite.

    Yet even in this egalitarian environment, the concept of breeding remained tied to theories of blood lineage, caste distinction, and biological difference. Turning to the works of Locke, Rousseau, Swift, Defoe, and other giants of the British Enlightenment, Jenny Davidson revives the debates that raged over the husbandry of human nature and highlights their critical impact on the development of eugenics, the emergence of fears about biological determinism, and the history of the language itself. Combining rich historical research with a keen sense of story, she links explanations for the physical resemblance between parents and children to larger arguments about culture and society and shows how the threads of this compelling conversation reveal the character of a century. A remarkable intellectual history, Breeding not only recasts the fundamental concerns of the Enlightenment but also uncovers the seeds of thought that bloomed into contemporary notions of human perfectibility.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51111-7
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xx)
  4. INTRODUCTION. Breeding Before Biology
    (pp. 1-13)

    The word breeding sets a place for nature at culture’s table.

    Eighteenth-century British writers often use breeding as a synonym for education, as in Johnson’s Dictionary (1755), but the word’s connotations include blood as well as upbringing. Breeding folds nature into culture in a way that might save one from having to choose between two competing and (it is possible) largely incompatible accounts of human nature: the first, a hereditarian model in which birth determines one’s character and one’s place in the world; the second, a model that emphasizes the power of education and other environmental influences to shape essentially...

  5. 1 The Rules of Resemblance
    (pp. 14-38)

    In this first foray into breeding’s thickets, I want to take advantage of what might be called literary criticism’s neutrality with respect to scale. This is a fancy way of saying that, as practitioners in a discipline whose twentieth-century history encompasses both so-called close reading (itself the object of recent consideration by critics as various as John Guillory, Franco Moretti, and Wai-Chee Dimock) and the kind of long view associated with books like Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden (1964) and Raymond Williams’ The Country and the City (1973), we are allowed or even encouraged to unite the examination...

  6. 2 Bent
    (pp. 39-57)

    Addressing the age-old question of whether it is nature or nurture that has a more profound effect on character, Steven Pinker asserts in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002) that the debate is mostly over: in the face of recent developments in the life sciences, he argues, opponents of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology can fall back only on massively outdated concepts of human nature—the Blank Slate, the Noble Savage—invented by the writers of the European Enlightenment.¹ In retrospect, the seesaw probably tipped in nature’s favor (at least in the United States) roughly forty years...

  7. 3 Cultures of Improvement
    (pp. 58-111)

    The notion of habit or culture as second nature may seem on the face of things to offer human beings more control over their identities and fortunes than if they adhered instead to a belief in a capacious but largely inflexible inborn nature, whether conceived in eighteenth-century terms like blood or birth or in the twenty-first-century language of genetic coding. But culture, defined in these terms, is not necessarily any more amenable to human interference than nature; it may end up simply representing a kind of nature by other means. The fantasy of improvement—improvement of children in the form...

  8. 4 A Natural History of Inequality
    (pp. 112-148)

    Meanwhile, the consensus in favor of improvement was being split apart by one of the most explicitly anticulturalist works in the Western tradition. . . .

    Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and the Foundations of Inequality Among Men, hereafter referred to as the Second Discourse, adopts the tropes and tactics of georgic even as it rejects that mode’s driving assumption that improvement is man’s highest duty.¹ Written in 1753–1754 in response to the Dijon Academy’s question “What is the Origin of Inequality among Men, and is it Authorized by the Natural Law?,” the Second Discourse treats “the various contingencies...

  9. 5 Blots on the Landscape
    (pp. 149-188)

    What do blots on the landscape have to do with blotted copybooks and educational processes gone awry? My way into the next bit involves a backward approach to writings on population and development by Thomas Jefferson and William Godwin, through Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818).

    Victor Frankenstein’s mind runs on reproduction, but it is a form of reproduction remote from the ordinary forces of sexual generation.¹ Having discovered “the cause of generation and life,” Victor becomes himself (and with no female assistance) “capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter” (36). He performs his experiments—preparing a frame...

  10. 6 Shibboleths
    (pp. 189-198)

    One lesson of the twentieth century is that linguistic difference within communities of all sizes often provides a cover story for discrimination and violence, a topic explored with great subtlety in the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat’s novel The Farming of Bones (1998). Taking the “shibboleth” passage from Judges 12:4–6 as its epigraph, Danticat’s novel about the 1937 massacre of Haitians at the prompting of a Dominican general, Rafael Trujillo, foregrounds the dictator’s use of a verbal test to detect an ethnic difference not always visible on the skin, a test earlier memorialized in Rita Dove’s poem “Parsley” (1983). One...

  11. CONCLUSION. The Promise of Perfection
    (pp. 199-206)

    In a series of letters exchanged during the summer and fall of 1813, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson fell to debating the relative merits of aristocracy and democracy. Adams maintained that a genuinely republican government “over five and twenty millions people, when four and twenty millions and five hundred thousands of them could neither write nor read” should be considered “as unnatural irrational and impracticable; as it would be over the Elephants Lions Tigers Panthers Wolves and Bears in the Royal Menagerie, at Versailles”:

    Inequalities of Mind and Body are so established by God Almighty in his constitution of Human...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 207-252)
    (pp. 253-280)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 281-292)