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Devin Griffiths, The Age of Analogy: Science and Literature Between the Darwins. Reviewed by Kurtis Hessel

Tuesday, May 4, 2021 - 08:42

Griffiths, Devin, The Age of Analogy: Science and Literature Between the Darwins (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016). 339 pp. (Hdbk., $55.00; ISBN 9781421420769)

Kurtis Hessel

University of Colorado Boulder


In 1784, the astronomer William Herschel offered an early indication of how he would revise humanity’s understanding of the cosmos. Herschel famously proposed a cosmology characterized by depth and constant change, quite different from the fixed field of stars so long presumed to fill the heavens uniformly. To clarify his vision, he wrote in his “Account of Some Observations tending to investigate the Construction of the Heavens” that future astronomers would “look upon those regions into which we may now penetrate by means of such large telescopes, as a naturalist regards a rich extent of ground or chain of mountains, containing strata variously inclined and directed, as well as consisting of very different materials” [1]. Here, an analogy with contemporaneous geological theory helps to clarify a celestial conundrum: how to present the depth of the night sky to earthbound observers? Describing a formal analogy between terrestrial and sidereal strata helped to clarify the idea of “deep space.” But how does a formal analogy generate novel scientific theories? Can an observation about similarity give way to a stable and systematic natural understanding? In The Age of Analogy, Devin Griffiths offers a persuasive exploration of how eighteenth- and nineteenth-century theories of analogy informed such scientific speculation. Indeed, he goes further to argue that analogy was central to the development of a new mode of history, one that fundamentally transformed both science and literature, and one that created new opportunities for relating the two pursuits.

Griffiths argues that the nineteenth-century historical novel instantiated a new form of “comparative historicism” with interdisciplinary ramifications (4). This formal-historical innovation drew upon a refurbished theory of analogy that allowed writers in myriad disciplines to seek “the origins of contemporary social and natural order within the patterns of past events” (3). In Griffiths’s view, this version of narrative history, in which discrete events in the present take meaning from the narrative arrangement of historical occurrences separated by spans of time, informed theorizing about the social and the natural worlds, and thus subtended nineteenth-century science as much as fiction. As a common commitment among practitioners including Walter Scott, Alfred Tennyson, George Eliot, and Charles Darwin, comparative historicism brought literature and science into proximity. Griffiths emphasizes that comparative historicism arose in response to a crisis in eighteenth-century forms of history that emphasized unitary progressive narratives. It abandoned “the conceit of a governing system of order in favor of local, comparative explorations of the patterns and differences between individual artifacts and incidents” (13). The comparative method central to this new mode of historicism led to its suitability for representing historical pluralism and alterity because it emphasized “the movement between histories” and framed history as a “tense composite rather than an organic whole” (15). History, and the generation of historical and narrative meaning, became in this moment more dynamic.

Central to understanding this shift is Griffiths’s theory of analogy, which is predicated on a dialectic between static “formal analogies” and dynamic “harmonic analogies” that facilitated authors’ efforts to create meaningful historical connections through language. Griffiths grounds his claims about the novelty of nineteenth-century comparative historicism by analyzing the conceptual history of terms like “analogy” and “comparison” in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century fields such as philology, anatomy, and theology. Earlier discursive traditions assigned discrete functions to these terms—making “comparisons” involved finding distinctions, while seeking “analogies” implied identifying similarities—but by the nineteenth century, such terms had become entangled as part of a complex and interdisciplinary comparative method. According to Griffiths, this method’s broad applicability hinged on the dialectical relation between top-down “formal analogies” and more organically constituted “harmonic analogies.” Creating formal analogies involves “applying a pattern of relationships that are already understood in one domain to a new context,” while exploring harmonic analogies requires working “from the bottom up” to investigate “common features” between the systems being compared, leading to “unpredictable, emergent patterns” (36). This central dialectic, a compelling conceptual innovation on Griffiths’s part, affords to analogy both a role in conferring historical and disciplinary stability and in unsettling the status quo to explore dynamic new connections between moments and bodies of knowledge.

The first two chapters chart the early nineteenth-century shift from a unitary vision of history to a comparative historiography. Chapter one investigates how eighteenth-century poet and scientist Erasmus Darwin structured his writings analogically to frame the relationship between natural and social processes, while still holding to a unitary view of history. Central to Darwin’s oeuvre is an analogy between “sexual fertilization” and “self-organization across natural systems” (82). Griffiths ingeniously interprets the publication history of Darwin’s major poems, explaining how Darwin first set himself the comparatively simple task in The Loves of the Plants of using pastoral conventions to convey the Linnaean system of botanical classification based on plants’ sex organs, only to extend the analogy of sexual fertilization to encompass the genesis of the cosmos in the expanded The Botanic Garden and Zoonomia. For Griffiths, in an inventive reading, this transition comprises a generic shift from pastoral to epic, for which the epic subject is the evolutionary formation of everything in the cosmos from a single seed. Griffiths argues that this attempt to convey historical meaning failed adequately to frame evolution because it missed the insights of later comparative historicist models, relying too much on totalizing models of history as framed around developmental stages or divine providence. Nevertheless, Darwin’s work served as “a turning point in the use of analogy” (52). If Darwin’s view of history as singular and progressive couldn’t survive the fractious 1790s, Sir Walter Scott offered a more complicated view of history, which Griffiths takes up in chapter two. While history for Erasmus Darwin was totalizing, for Scott it was multifarious. Rather than using analogy to gesture towards some external unifying narrative, Scott inaugurated a historical mode based on constructing analogies between various past and present circumstances, a way to create meaning out of history. Griffiths describes the links between past and present in Scott as an “unstable network of filiations” (86). He attributes Scott’s novel perspective on history variously to his antiquarian interests, his engagement with the turn-of-the-century vogue for literary forgery, and his work as a translator. These investments fomented in Scott’s writing a view of history as material, in need of forensic attention and arrangement, and intimately tied to the local and idiomatic peculiarities of particular cultures.

The rest of the book recounts how various authors and scientists tentatively or enthusiastically embraced the conventions of comparative historicism. Chapter three investigates Tennyson’s In Memoriam, exploring how the poem’s formal and metrical features establish it as “a web of interconnected experiences, a mosaic of encounters, a pattern of diffraction” (130). Griffiths describes how Tennyson adopted and adapted poetic conventions embraced by his deceased friend, Arthur Hallam, cementing an analogy between the poet-speaker and the elegy’s lamented subject to construe the poem as “a kind of sounding box, an instrument that allows its dead poetic subject to intervene in the act of poetic composition” (132). In this reading, elegy becomes a kind of historical writing, whereby the arrangement of memories, forms, and lines allows Tennyson to rediscover, connect with, and collaborate with his friend. Ultimately, though, In Memoriam’s complexly interrelated sections are subsumed, in the epilogue, into a totalizing progressive narrative towards a society modeled on Hallam’s “noble type,” a turning away from comparative historicism. By contrast, chapter four recounts how George Eliot’s novels embrace “a mode of historiographic comparison that plays alternative perspectives on the past against each other, emphasizes disjunction, and unsettles the conceit of a more traditional and more coherent history” (178). The chapter explores how Eliot’s editorial work with the multi-disciplinary Westminster Review and her study of the German “Higher Criticism” of David Friedrich Strauss and Ludwig Feuerbach contributed to this historiographical practice. Particularly important for Eliot is the role of what Griffiths calls “disanalogy” within the broader comparative process (another wonderfully useful coinage). Her novels feature characters who must recognize that their assumptions about other characters or events, the analogies structuring their relationships, are false; this realization opens the way to recognizing new harmonic analogies. The perception of difference and error, therefore, fortifies comparison and strengthens the intimacy between subjects. In his final chapter, Griffiths explores the scientific efflorescence of comparative historicism in Charles Darwin’s work, arguing that Darwin’s extensive reading of nineteenth-century historical and realist novels prepared him to draw harmonic analogies between species to frame the concept of “natural selection” in On the Origin of Species. According to Griffiths, natural selection “collects a massive network of comparative observations, gradations of similarity and difference across time and within natural systems, into a unitary figure” (229). Central to the effectiveness of this figure is the carefully-framed rhetoric of “intent” that sustains it: evolutionary narratives became more comprehensible (and also suggestively aligned with a tradition of natural theology) once evolutionary developments could be characterized as purposive.

The Age of Analogy draws upon myriad nineteenth-century intellectual movements and investigates writers working in a variety of disciplines to build its case for the prevalence of comparative historicism. The sheer range of reference is impressive; this book features imaginative scholarship that is grounded by carefully analyzed examples from a breadth of fields. However, occasionally it can be difficult to follow the exact analogical relations across disparate modes of inquiry. For instance, in addition to engaging Middlemarch, Eliot’s work for the Westminster Review, and her writings on form, chapter four seeks to align the theory of narrative realism, nineteenth-century art criticism, nineteenth-century music criticism, and the German higher criticism. While the chapter’s central conceits are clearly conveyed, I found myself yearning for a clearer sense of the exact pathways connecting the intellectual nodes in Eliot’s version of comparative historicism. That said, other chapters, especially the second chapter on Scott, must be commended for the care taken in presenting such varied material in a clearly structured way. Doubtless, Griffiths has assembled an impressive variety of materials and most of the time marshals them expertly to sustain his claims with vigor and imagination.

The book’s greatest achievement, perhaps, is the way it offers scholars of Romanticism and nineteenth-century literature, especially those studying the relationship between literature and science, a way to relate those domasins without collapsing them into one another. Early in the book, Griffiths aligns his theoretical trajectory with scholars who “remind us that the field of science and literature must attend to differences in how scientists and literary authors work” (9). He emphasizes that his study “explores the importance of literary modes to the scientific imagination without insisting on a convergent model of 19th-century British culture” (8). Analogy, here, offers a framework for relating literary and scientific developments while still honoring their distinct rhetorical conventions and cultural and institutional divergences. In The Age of Analogy, Griffiths offers a way out of the trap of “two cultures” incommensurability on the one hand, and on the other, avoids oversimplifying or neglecting the real distinctions between science and literature that existed during the period.

Griffiths’s concept of “disanalogy,” articulated in chapters four and five, is especially useful in this regard, offering as it does a way to recognize that two things (let us say two disciplines) can seem alike, but we must still expose any mistaken judgments undergirding such presumed similitude in the hopes of generating even finer-grained modes of analysis that can propel us to a better analogy and a truer sense of relation. Indeed, thinking back to the start of this review, just such an impulse must have motivated Herschel’s decision to discard his stratified analogy only a year after he had broached it, when in “On the Construction of the Heavens” (1785) he describes the stars forming into clusters, like islands in a vast dark sea of empty space. The geological analogy had been generative, but he rejects it retrospectively as insufficient, arising from “the confined situation in which we are placed” [2]. The very circumstances that had necessitated it, our fixed vantage on planet Earth, ultimately delegitimized it, but not before opening Herschel’s mind to even more appropriate analogies. Griffiths’s careful and erudite study of the historical and comparative work of analogy not only draws our attention to the benefits of an analogical method, but it also models the very process it describes. Scholars of Romanticism and nineteenth-century literature may gain much insight from this method, as we seek to refine our understanding of how the literature of the period drew force and focus from the sciences, arts, and other intellectual preoccupations of the age.


[1] Herschel, William. “Account of Some Observations tending to investigate the Construction of the heavens.” The Scientific Papers of Sir William Herschel, edited by J.L.E. Dreyer, vol. 1, Thoemmes Press, 2003, pp. 157-8.

[2] Herschel, William. “On the Construction of the Heavens.” The Scientific Papers of Sir William Herschel, edited by J.L.E. Dreyer, vol. 1, Thoemmes Press, 2003, p. 226.