The Connection Between Body, Soul, and the Gothic Villain

By Elaine Sheehan

Humanities

body-soul

Abstract


During the late 19th century, the theory of evolution, social Darwinism, and gothic literature observed and commented on the connection between the human body and the human soul. In order to understand the human soul, social Darwinists and degenerationists like Ceasare Lombroso linked Darwin’s theory of evolution to human behavior, connecting the empirically observable body to the metaphysical concept of the human soul. While the social Darwinist movement relied on being able to understand the human soul by observing the body, Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray illustrates the complications that arise when humans force the soul into the field of empiricism, creating a false lens for analysis that was also used in the social Darwinist movement. Although the current scientific paradigm seems to reject the social Darwinist movement for the un-ethical actions that arose from it, the real issue with the movement was that it broke down the barrier between the empirical and the metaphysical, therefore breaking the rules of the paradigm in which Lombroso was working and disqualifying it as science.

During the late 19th century, the theory of evolution, social Darwinism, and authors of gothic literature observed and commented on the connection between the human body and the human soul. In order to understand the human soul, social Darwinists and degenerationists like Ceasare Lombroso linked Darwin’s theory of evolution to human behavior, connecting the empirically observable body to the metaphysical concept of the human soul. While the social Darwinist movement relied on being able to understand the human soul by observing the body, Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray illustrates the complications that arise when humans force the soul into the field of empiricism. The act of connecting metaphysical characteristics and empirical observations creates a false lens for analysis that was also used in the social Darwinist movement. Although the current scientific paradigm seems to reject the social Darwinist movement for the un-ethical actions that arose from it, the real issue with the movement was that it broke down the barrier between the empirical and the metaphysical, therefore breaking the rules of the paradigm in which Lombroso was working and disqualifying it as science. The role of ethics in science may therefore be less of a controlling factor than the importance of adhering to the paradigm.

Defining Darwinism

Darwin’s theory on human evolution never specifically discusses the human soul. In his introduction to The Descent of Man, Darwin addresses those who critique the The Origin of Species by noting that he “distinctly stated that great weight must be attributed to the inherited effects of use and disuse, with respect both to the body and mind” (10). In this instance, he ties both of his works together and clearly states that his works only deal with the body and mind. He deals with the observable development of the human brain specifically when he talks about the mind. He does not ever address the more spiritualized side of the soul, as various religious figures pointed out in response to his theories.  Pope Pius XII was the Pope of the Catholic Church at the time Darwin was writing, and acted as the principle authority on the human soul from a religious perspective. In his response to Darwin’s theory, Pope Pius explains that evolutionary theory “inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter” and the church does not oppose it because “the Catholic faith obliges [followers] to hold that souls are immediately created by God”(3). Pope Pius notes that the soul, in a spiritual sense, is not included in Darwin’s theory because it is created not evolved.  Therefore, according to the Pope, and by association the Catholic Church, the doctrine that God created the soul can coincide with Darwin’s theory. The soul is therefore an entity separate from the body that cannot be observed or explained by the theory of evolution.

Understanding how the mind works can be determined through empirical observations; understanding how the soul worked was a project previously reserved for the field of religion and philosophy. To Darwin, the mind can be physically measured and belongs to a category of observable qualities. The mind was simply an attribute to be evolved over time as the species evolved. According to Pius, the soul was not something that could be evolved, and therefore could not be discussed in the same field as the body and mind. When Darwin avoided talking about the soul, he was avoiding talking about that which was not biological. He avoided discussing the metaphysical, spiritual concept that made an individual who they are, determined what made that person think and feel outside of the realm of instinct, and affected how they behave within society. Pope Pius’ argument and definition of the soul as something that cannot evolve supports the idea that Darwin did not go outside of the empirical realm but instead talked only about the body and mind. The mind, in this case, only included the brain and how it functioned, which is something that can be observed.

Darwin’s theory added that, because the body and mind could evolve, they could also devolve in a process called degeneration. Nicole Rafter, current criminologist and critic of the works of Ceasare Lombroso, defines the theory of degeneration to be “the notion that individuals can not only evolve but also devolve or go backward down the evolutionary scale” (17). Rafter claims that the concept of degernationsim greatly influenced the works of Lombroso.

Lombroso's Social Darwinism

Ceasare Lombroso, prominent criminologist of the late 1800s, was prompted by Darwin’s theory of degeneration to search for solutions to the social “disease” that is crime. Lombroso concentrated his studies on the idea that “an etiology can be established for crime just as it can for illness,” comparing crime to a biological disease within society (8). In order to identify a natural born criminal, Lombroso assumed that criminology can be observed empirically. He argued that atavistic features, or in other words, less evolved, or even degenerated features within the human body, were signs of criminal tendencies. Lombroso reasoned that, if society could identify criminals before they committed a crime, society would be able to cure itself of criminal acts.    

Lombroso categorized physical attributes of the criminal by using Darwin’s concept of form and function. Lombroso wrote many descriptions of the criminal form, comparing the criminal to an atavistic, primal being:

An atavistic being whose reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals. Thus were explained anatomically the enormous jaws, high check-bones, prominent superciliary arches, solitary lines in the palms, handle-shaped or sessile ears found in criminals, savages, and apes, insensibility to pain, extremely acute sight, tattooing, excessive idleness, love of orgies, and the irresistible craving for evil for its own sake, the desire not only not extinguish life in the victim, but to mutilate the corpse, tear its flesh, and drink its blood. (12)

He compares the physical attributes of criminals to that of animals, or in other words, less evolved beings. Because a criminal has animalistic features, he must have animalistic behaviors that require those features for survival. By drawing this connection between physical attributes and overall behavior traits, such as the desire to mutilate, tear, and consume people at random, Lombroso bridges the gap between the body and the soul of the criminal using Darwin’s theory that form equals function.

Because Lombroso is motivated by the desire to avoid the overall degeneration of the human species into a more atavistic state, he takes Darwin’s theories and applies them to society.  What Lombroso feared most was “a revival of the primitive savage” (13). While he did focus on the physical body of the criminal in his studies, what he was really interested in was the degeneration of the human soul. Nicole Rafter argued that degenerationism was Lombroso’s way of explaining “the origins of social problems” (17).  Lombroso not only saw the human body degenerating within criminals, he also saw the soul degenerating back to an animalistic state. In Lombroso’s mind, criminal behavior was a result of the degenerating standards of behavior within society, a result of the degenerating of human souls.

Lombroso feared criminal behavior more than he feared the natural born criminal, and was motivated by the desire to stop the social implications of crime. By being able to identify criminals, Lombroso hoped that society could not only stop the degeneration of the body, but also stop the degeneration of the soul that had begun to plague society with things such as crime. In this way, Darwin’s theory of degeneration was applied to solving the social degeneration Lombroso saw in society. This application of Darwin’s theories to criminology makes Lombroso a social Darwinist, and his projects part of the social Darwinist movement.

Lombroso adapted Darwin’s theories to apply to social issues just as he adopted Darwin’s theories to account for both the body and the soul. Stephen J. Gould, late 20th century critic of Lombroso’s methods, noted that the misunderstanding of Darwin’s theory was carried across the physical sciences in order to deal with degeneration. Gould commented that when it came to the theory of evolution, “no idea was ever more widely used, or misused (‘social Darwinism’ as an evolutionary rationale for the inevitability of poverty, for example)” (155).  The social Darwinists inherently went against key aspects of Darwin’s theory. In Lombroso’s case he attributed criminal behavior to a moral degeneration. Gould also applies this argument to Lombroso’s studies later when saying that the Lombrosians “hoped to use modern science as a cleansing broom to sweep away from jurisprudence the outdated philosophical baggage of free will and unmitigated moral responsibility” (155). This idea goes back to the idea that Lombroso wanted to reform society with his theory. Lombroso provides an example of a social Darwinist as he shared the fear of degeneration that prompted many social Darwinists to action.

Degeneration and Gothic Literature

Literary critic Kelly Hurley, who researched the motivating factors of gothic literature and found that the genre was deeply rooted in degeneration theory, observes a parallel between the fears represented in the gothic literature of the 19th century and the science of the 19th century. Hurley explains that “in degeneration theory […] the human body, the human species, human cultures—all are balanced in such tenuous equilibrium that the slightest disturbance will send the whole human enterprise crashing down” (72). The degeneration of the human culture becomes a piece of degeneration theory that was not originally present in Darwin’s theory, raising the stakes for scientists who wished to avoid degeneration. The fear that “what emerges from the ruins [of a degenerated society] would be an abomination” was a common theme reflected in both gothic literature and the descriptions of criminals provided by Lombroso (Hurley 72). Degeneration was not only a gradual slip of the human race into an atavistic state, as Lombroso describes. Degeneration also included the possibility of complete collapse.

Because the stakes were so high for the degenerationists, they saw an extreme need for social reform in order to keep the human soul from degenerating. In order to prevent a degenerative collapse of society, social Darwinists needed to understand the human soul in order to prevent its degeneration. This fear of societal collapse was Lombroso’s driving motivator for his project to connect the criminal body to the criminal soul. This motivation was echoed in gothic literature. By analyzing gothic literature, the motivators behind the social Darwinist movement, as well as the need to connect the body and soul, become clear through example.

Dorian Gray and Darwinism

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray falls into this category of gothic literature and provides an illustration of the motivators, reasons for, and consequences of connecting the body to the soul in science. Just as Lombroso connects the body and soul in his studies, so does Dorian Gray, the main character, make a connection between a visual representation of his soul and the metaphysical concept that is his soul. The picture itself acts as a copy of his body that reflects the degeneration of his soul. While the story itself makes a fantastical connection between the body and the soul, the theory behind the connection and the way the characters react to the connection shed light on how Lombroso’s critics reacted to his project, as well as the larger social Darwinist project.

English society, as it is represented in the novel, has similar fears and concerns as the degenerists and Lombroso. Dorian recognizes that “the soul is a terrible reality that can be bought, and sold, and bartered away” and that “it can be poisoned or made perfect” (Wilde 195). Not only does Dorian view the soul as a sort of object, he also recognizes that the soul can undergo a process of improvement or decay. This realization depresses him greatly, as he realizes that his soul is in a state of degeneration. Lord Henry, a friend and negative influence to Dorian Gray, communicates almost exactly Lombroso’s ideals by noting that, “if a wretched man has a vice, it shows itself in the lines of his mouth, the droop of his eyelids, the molding of his hands even,” correlating moral decay with bodily decay (Wilde 123). Lord Henry does not fear the degeneration of his physical form, however, because he does not fear degeneration of the soul or of the body. Because Lord Henry has already degenerated physically as well as spiritually, he has no reason to fear the collapse that terrified Lombroso. Dorian, on the other hand, fears the decay of the soul, at first because it is linked to physical decay, but later on because he fears the complete and total collapse of his soul. Just as Lombroso and the social Darwinists were motivated to action by the fear of societal collapse, so is Dorian motivated in his final moments to understand the human soul in order to reverse the process of degeneration.

In order to understand the human soul, Dorian Gray recreates the soul as an observable object, choosing to work within the paradigm of empiricism. The paradigm of empiricism, as explained by Francis Bacon, the father of empiricism, is based on the idea that “man, as the minister and interpreter of nature, does and understands as much as his observations on the order of nature, either with regard to things or the mind, permit him, and neither knows nor is capable of more” (1).  Man cannot, therefore, fully understand a concept through any other method than observation. Dorian therefore must take the concept of the soul from the metaphysical realm to the empirical realm in order to understand it.

Dorian, although he tries to understand his own soul through the process of logic, demonstrates that he cannot fully understand the nature of his own soul until he is able to observe it. Dorian notes of the picture that it is “a visible symbol of the degradation of sin” and “an ever-present sign of the ruin men brought upon their souls” (Wilde 83). Dorian creates a symbolism out of the picture that is observable. The picture provides a lens to the soul through which Dorian can understand the soul. While this has many complications, such as the possibility of the lens to distort reality, as is a flaw in the empiricist paradigm, it parallels Lombroso’s method of viewing the soul of the criminal through the body. The body, in both the picture of Dorian Gray and Lombroso’s criminology is therefore used as a lens through which one can observe the human soul. The need for the connection between the human soul and the human body becomes clear. In order to prevent moral degeneration, which is the ultimate motivator, one must understand the soul in an empirical way. Because the body and the soul can both devolve, according to degenerist theory, the parallel between the body and soul is already drawn. The desperation to understand the soul, as motivated by the imminent collapse caused by degeneration, forces Dorian and Lombroso to view the soul empirically through the lens of the human body. Any false connections that are drawn from Lombroso’s practices are due to the false application of a physical lens to a metaphysical concept.    

The consequences of forcing the soul into the field of empiricism are alluded to in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Basil Hallward, the creator of the picture, who is unaware of the picture’s ability to reflect the soul, speaks with Dorian about the state of Dorian’s soul. Basil is concerned that his friend has degenerated into a state of moral decay but that he cannot believe it due to Dorian’s outward appearance. In this way, Basil reinforces the idea that the soul, in order to be understood, must be observed and that it can be connected to the body. In order to know Dorian’s soul, Basil claims that he “should have to see [Dorian’s] soul” (Wilde 125). He quickly adds that it is impossible because “only God can do that” (Wilde 125). Basil assumes that only God is able to truly observe the soul empirically, and that humans are unable to view the soul even if they try to connect the traits of the human body to the traits of the soul. Basil’s comment conforms to the rules of empiricism under which Dorian has decided to operate by acknowledging that the unobservable cannot be made observable by humans. Ironically enough, Dorian proceeds to prove Basil wrong by showing him the picture before stabbing Basil to death. Not only is Dorian breaking the rules of the paradigm he is working under, but he literally kills the man who points out that he is breaking the rules. In a way, the tragic scene mirrors the way in which Lombroso violently breaks the rules of the empirical paradigm as well.

Conclusion

The consequences of Dorian recreating the soul as something empirical are shown in the violent opposition between the paradigm and his practice. Lombroso similarly abuses the structure of the paradigm by attempting to observe the soul. While Lombroso’s theory requires methods of empiricism to understand the soul, empiricism does not support the soul as an observable object. The soul is inherently outside of the field of empiricism. By attempting to apply empirical methods to an un-empirical concept, Lombroso is accepting the paradigm while also breaking the rules of the paradigm. Because Lombroso depends on empiricism for his theories to work but his empirical lens of the body does not apply to the theoretical soul, his lens deforms the concept of the soul entirely. Lombroso has stepped outside of the paradigm and because he breaks the rules of the paradigm, the lens does not fit the subject.

The social Darwinist theories that broke the boundary of the empirical paradigm were excluded from the realm of science because they no longer fit into any of the previously accepted paradigms. The actions of the social Darwinist, while unethical, could not be considered unscientific solely on the grounds that they went against an ethical code of science. Lombroso and many other social Darwinists are currently considered outside of the realm of science because they did not operate under any form of accepted scientific paradigm, but instead warped the practices of empiricism to create a false lens.

While scientists assume that current scientific practices have come a long way when it comes to being ethical, in reality, ethics does not determine whether a certain practice is science or not and therefore has no real hold over science. The current and past paradigms are what truly hold science in line. Once a scientist steps out of the rules of the paradigm, only then can their science be rejected. Ethics, in reality, has very little say in science, regardless of how hard scientists try to incorporate it. The rules and regulations of the accepted paradigms are the true regulating factors of science.

Works Cited

  • Bacon, Francis. Bacon's Novum Organum. Oxford: Clarendon, 1889. Print.
  • Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1998. Print.
  • Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton, 1981. Print.
  • Hurley, Kelly. The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin De Siècle. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.
  • Lombroso, Cesare, Mary Gibson, and Nicole Hahn Rafter. Criminal Man. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2006. Print.
  • Navarette, Susan J. The Shape of Fear: Horror and the Fin De Siècle Culture of Decadence. Lexington: U of Kentucky, 1998. Print.
  • Pope, Pius, XII. "Humani Generis." HUMANI GENERIS. Papal Encyclicals Online, n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2015.

Elaine Sheehan

Author Major

English, Spanish & Honors Student

Author Hometown

Midway, Utah

About the Author

Elaine calls the mountains home and loves camping, hiking, and rock climbing. She loves reading "the classics" but also enjoys bringing them into new social contexts through interdisciplinary readings.  

When told to write about science Elaine wanted to bring her personal interests into the paper and create a truly interdisciplinary study that could keep her engaged. She no longer fears science now realizes how well it intersects with areas of expertise. This is Elaine’s first research project.