Darwin’s Screens: Evolutionary Aesthetics, Time and Sexual Display in the Cinema by Barbara Creed (Melbourne University Press, 2009). 232 pages. AU $49.99, US $143, Kindle $29.
We were a bit confused when we first came across Barbara Creed’s new book, Darwin’s Screens. We expected the book to redress a new and growing imbalance between literature and film in the academy. For the past twenty years, most of the humanities projects informed by evolutionary ideas have addressed literature. These projects, driven in part by the popular interest in evolutionary psychology and the ongoing exploration of the human genome, have been a welcome addition to the humanities landscape, offering a way out of a reductive species of culturalism that so frequently presents genres, texts, and authors as “social constructions” only. Unfortunately, film scholars have largely been on the sidelines of this phenomenon, a trend visible even in Evolution, Literature and Film (2010)—the new volume edited by Brian Boyd, Joseph Carroll, and Jonathan Gottschall that, despite its merits, is still dominated by literature.[open endnotes in new window]
But in Darwin’s Screens, Creed focuses her analysis on cinema, and a quick survey is sufficient to reveal that the book casts a very wide net, looking across genres, periods, and class distinctions in pursuing Darwin’s influence on this twentieth-century medium. So at first glance, not only did the book seem to have the potential to redress the literature-film imbalance, it also seemed to offer a far more expansive approach than that of “Darwinian literary criticism,” which often appears intent on nothing more ambitious than offering yet another form of literary theory—and yet another gristmill through which to grind up Great Books.
But first impressions can be misleading. As we quickly realized on sitting down to read the book, Darwin’s Screens does not redress the aforementioned imbalance because that was never its intention. Creed does want to extend evolutionary theory to film studies, a field that she thinks could profit from biological approaches like those applied by Gillian Beer to literature in Darwin’s Plots (1983). But Creed seems unaware of the specific literature-film imbalance that troubles us, largely because she omits significant mention of evolutionary psychology, cultural evolution, and all their progeny in the humanities, from Carroll’s Darwinian literary criticism to Denis Dutton’s “evolutionary aesthetics.” These omissions surprised us, to say the least, but they did not mean that Creed’s actual intentions were unworthy or that she hadn’t accomplished those intentions. So, with our minds still open, we decided to figure out what Creed was actually up to and whether she had accomplished her aims in a consistent and substantive way.
Creed’s main goal is that of the cultural historian: she wants to demonstrate that Darwin’s ideas, which overturned “the anthropocentric view of life,” exerted a vast influence on the cinema during its formation at the end of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth—and that those theories continue to influence “film narrative, form and aesthetics” today (xii). The book also draws on Creed’s strengths as a psychoanalytic theorist, for Darwin’s Screens speculates about
The author’s most sustained argument involves narrative and the genre forms that have coalesced around it. Drawing on Beer, Creed argues that Darwinian ideas influenced “the adaptation of popular Gothic narratives,” particularly those that fall under the rubric of “the human-beast cycle,” including the King Kong movies, the Tarzan movies, various adaptations of H.G. Wells’ novels, and the like (xiii). Under the fin de siècle influence of Darwinian ideas, “the arts began to assume a strange, uncanny dimension” as reflected in stories and films in which “human and animal merged through ritual, desire and death, and where the primitive exerted a greater allure than the civilized.”
Ergo, Creed draws on Freud to develop her idea of “the Darwinian uncanny,” combining this approach with a close reading of several Darwin texts (3; see 3-6). The author sees in this notion of the uncanny the key to discerning Darwin’s profound cultural influence as it relates to narrative forms and the formation of cinematic genres.
Creed’s second major argument is that “Darwinian theory resulted in new ways of conceptualizing time” and that the cinema was unique in its ability to visualize “change and transformation” across time (xix). The early cinema responded
Her argument here intersects with her emphasis on narrative and genre, for Creed is clear that particular narrative forms and particular genres such as science fiction and horror are especially suited to the creation of these visual effects. The author is most persuasive on this point in her discussion of Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (24-27, 29), a film in which the director contrives interesting technical devices that visualize the nuances of transformation and devolution.
Creed also makes a sustained argument about the influence of Darwin’s theory of sexual selection on cinema. For instance, in her fourth chapter, she argues that in “response to Darwin’s theory of aesthetics and sexual display, early films also explored new ways of representing sexual display as a form of spectacle” (xxi). Indeed, the Hollywood musical of the 1930s was “designed to explore the mating rituals of the human species” (75):
A major variation on this use of sexual selection arrives in the fifth chapter, where Creed argues that film noir represents the femme fatale as a particularly strong sexual agent. The genre creates a “‘Darwinian gaze’ … in which male and female both acknowledge their mutual desire in scenarios of sexual display” (xxi). But according to Creed it is the female who selects
Through these psychoanalytically inflected insights, the author fleshes out her notion of “entanglement,” which is crucial to her idea of Darwin as a kind of early poststructuralist. In his idea of life as “an entangled bank”—a phrase lifted from the final paragraph of On The Origin of Species (1859)—Creed perceives the blurring of traditional distinctions and fixed boundaries that would later become the signature of the poststructuralist ethos. According to Creed, Darwin’s metaphor of “entanglement” is central to his sense of the uncanny in nature and to his ideas of transformation, including birth, death, and future growth. She also thinks that this sense of entanglement is related to the emergence of a post-Darwinian spectator, who was attuned to the narratives of genres like noir, with its vision of characters entangled in an “urban jungle,” and horror, which offered scenes of devolution and transformation that matched the post-Darwinian sense of an indeterminate universe, lifted from its anthropocentric moorings.
There is much that is ambitious and admirable here. We like the way in which the author traverses many genres and texts without regard for high-low distinctions or for industrial boundaries. This is an apt way of discerning the pan-cinematic patterns necessary to prove the author’s sprawling thesis. We also like what Creed has to say about visual techniques as they relate to time. While the exact relation between these techniques and Darwin (and the post-Darwinian consciousness that Creed links to him) is often left quite fuzzy, the way in which the author relates distinct special effects to the goal of depicting transformation and devolution is quite distinguished.
And we should commend the author for taking this interdisciplinary approach at all. It is always difficult to grapple with a new field so as to make better sense of one’s own—but these experiments are necessary if the humanities are to achieve a defensible understanding of their underpinnings in human biology. One interesting fusion that results from Creed’s forays into biology is her idea that Darwin’s idea of common descent—which held that all other earth-bound species share a common ancestor—necessitated a modern notion of the monstrous, a need the cinema satisfied through genres like science fiction, which was replete with a new kind of monster, the alien being (39-46).
Regrettably, as scientists know, experiments can also go awry. Ideally, we would say nothing but positive things of Darwin’s Screens, for we would like to encourage other film scholars to adopt similar approaches in their own work. After all, literary scholars have for some years now been interpreting literary classics such as Much Ado About Nothing (1600), Othello (1603), Wuthering Heights (1847), Madame Bovary (1857), and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) through the prism of evolutionary psychology, and they have lately pushed into subcultural areas of literature as well, e.g., into “slash fiction” and graphic novels. We hope that film scholars will follow their lead—and at some point even take that lead. But we cannot endorse this development at any cost. In Creed’s case, there are too many problems to ignore, involving everything from intellectual clarity, idea development, and frequent overstatement to defects in the scholarly framework through which the author attempts to prove her historical thesis. Perhaps the most telling problem is Creed’s inability to make basic distinctions and to absorb and deploy the rudiments of evolutionary science as handed down by Darwin—including his ideas of sexual selection, which Creed garbles to the point of unrecognizability.
Consider the problems of clarity and development that mar the writing throughout. We get a taste of what is in store for us in the introduction. In what seems like an important passage, Creed notes that we can “distinguish two major structures or influences at work in the cinema that arise from Darwin’s evolutionary theory: evolutionary narrative forms, and the formation or development of film genres” (xvi). Her point is not clear, but it bears following, for it places the development of genres within an evolutionary framework that could be fruitful. Creed then notes that genre formation depends on “Darwinian motifs of change—such as struggle, chance and process,” a fact that highlights that genres, like species, “are not static, changeless forms.” While it is correct to say that genres are not static and do depend on change, we do not believe that any clarity is added by saying that genres depend on Darwinian motifs of change—unless the author stipulates how these processes of struggle and chance are at least roughly analogous to natural selection. This would require the author to stipulate how something so obviously “cultural” as a genre relates to something so “natural” as a species—which would in turn compel the author to create distinctions between natural selection and other kinds of selection more or less directed by people (thus necessitating further explorations of artificial selection, cultural evolution and “memetics,” or even niche construction). But Creed does nothing of the kind. Instead, she sums up her point on the next page by asserting that
Her ideas in this regard never develop, so she never says anything substantive about genre formation in relation to Darwin.
What happens in this passage recurs throughout Darwin’s Screens. Almost everything becomes “Darwinian”—a term that in Creed’s usage means everything from “sexual” to “biological” to “chaotic” to “modern” to “postmodern”—because Creed chooses to prove Darwin’s influence on cinema not through a restricted historicist framework that parses the transmission of his ideas through cultural, industrial, and authorial mechanisms but instead through speculations about an all-encompassing, post-Darwinian zeitgeist backed up by appeals to authority and close readings of texts. But while a controlled historicist approach might not have seemed as sexy as the method Creed adopts, if done well, it would have made Darwin’s Screens a more successful study. Without it, no clear picture emerges of the chain-of-influence through which Darwin became part of cinema. Instead, we must rely on Creed’s word (and that of the authorities she cites) that this influence existed and was responsible for the increasing stress on “Darwinian” themes of bestiality, transformation, devolution, and horror in cinematic genres.