This essay follows the question of variation—why are no two natural beings the same?—from its subordinate role in Darwin’s early theory of natural selection to a dominant but carefully restricted role as a positive incentive to reproduction in his later theory of sexual selection. The author wants to see Darwin’s career-long fascination with the coevolution of orchids and their insect pollinators as the emergence within his theory of an alternative to natural selection—a positive force of attraction that works both on and through variation. The currency of the orchid-wasp relationship in contemporary critical theory suggests that such an alternative motor for history is beginning to surface there as well.
In writing On the Origin of Species (1859), Charles Darwin found it necessary to sandwich chapters 3 and 4—where he famously unveiled his theory of natural selection—between two other chapters that sought to account for the minute variations that distinguish each living organism from every other. Obviously finding the individual’s relative biological fitness in a universal struggle for survival inadequate to the task of explaining all of nature’s dubiously functional and even disadvantageous differences, Darwin devoted The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) to formulating a second basis for selection: the female’s preference for certain mates over others for purposes of reproduction, all having proved themselves equally fit. In thus accounting for many of the more flamboyant biological markers of species difference, Darwin also opened up the possibility that this alternative basis for selection had a role to play in the story of speciation. Were the variations that put their mark on future species able to do so because their distinctive traits gave them some advantage over their competitors? Or did they survive because that trait, and perhaps others bundled with it, happened to be attractive to the female of the species? During courtship, Darwin suggested, such preferential attraction would be temporarily activated to override the pervasive force of male-male competition. But by restricting the arena of attraction to the mating game, he nevertheless ensured that the attraction of biological likeness to likeness, the infertility of hybrids, and the limits of geographical proximity would limit the choice of a mate.
Keeping in mind that Darwin’s Descent of Man coincided with the rise of British feminism as well as with anthropological theories of “mother right,” it is reasonable, I think, to see Darwin’s feminization of this alternative mode of selection as a way of maintaining the dominance of the competitive imperative over the force of attraction that he attached to biological reproduction.1 In doing so, I want to consider what might happen to the recessive principle of selection if freed conceptually from the courtship conventions that saw physical attraction solely as enhancing reproductive success. My immediate objective is to argue that the attraction of one living thing to another is more basic than the reproductive imperative. What if we were to extend this principle beyond the business of reproduction and understand the play of attraction in courtship in a far more generic sense, namely, as the basis of all social interaction? Darwin suggested as much in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). When one grants it primary impact on the differentiation of species—as Darwin sometimes did in his career-long study of orchids—the sheer power of sensual attraction tends to displace the competitive principle and directly challenge the privilege accorded the explanatory logic of natural selection.2 What is at stake in thus undermining the dominance of natural selection is nothing less than a basis on which to question an assumption that has endured since Hobbes’s Leviathan: that in a state of nature, each of us is necessarily at war against all others and requires some form of top-down control in order to secure the inviolability of ourselves as property.
Which Comes First, Variation or Natural Selection
A century and a half has passed since the publication of The Origin of Species, and readers—expert as well as popular—still regard the principle of “natural selection” as the mainspring of Darwin’s theory. Writing on the nineteenth-century side of the historical fault line that Foucault explains in The Order of Things, Darwin believed that a natural history that depended exclusively on what human beings observed in the world around them could neither account for the resemblances among existing species nor fill in the gaps between living species and the fossil evidence.3 To overcome these limitations, Darwin abandoned the traditional questions of what life is and where and when it originated. Instead, he asked how biological life had come to be the wildly heterogeneous phenomenon he had observed on his journey around South America.
A mere three years after the publication of his Journal of the Voyage of the Beagle (1839), Darwin drew on his observations in that account to sketch—in all of thirty-four pages—the process he would later call “natural selection” (“First”). According to this sketch, the scramble for limited resources among species effectively eliminated the less competitive members of each species, allowing the ablest to thrive and multiply. As the survivors reproduced their kind over many generations and under conditions of increasing scarcity, he reasoned, their attrition exaggerated whatever deviations from the parent form gave them a competitive advantage over their brethren. The process repeated itself until those variants that survived over countless generations had replaced the parent type.
To create conditions under which natural selection could operate in this early account and eventually in The Origin of Species, Darwin thought of these natural variations in two quite different ways: first, as “monstrosities,” which he described as “some considerable deviation in one part, either injurious or not useful to the species” (Origin 477, my emphasis). As debilitating variations were progressively weeded out, however, the variations that remained would emerge and define a new normal on the basis of a corresponding cluster of variations. Once he could think of “variation” not as monstrosity but as differences that have proved useful in the struggle for survival, Darwin was in a position to propose: “[T]he forms of life throughout the universe become divided into groups subordinate to groups” (Origin 487). When he sat down to write The Origin of Species, in other words, Darwin could account for successful variations—they were, after all, survivors—but he could not account for the successive crops of losers that would subsequently fail to survive. Whence came all the useless variations that species must produce in order to continue to evolve?
An example from The Origin of Species shows Darwin finding it difficult, in precisely this respect, to credit natural selection alone for the extraordinary variety of biological life. Read straightforwardly, this passage reminds us of what it costs in terms of biological life to produce the apparent plenitude of an English garden: “We behold the face of nature bright with gladness, we often see a superabundance of food; we do not see, or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects or seed, and are thus constantly destroying life; or we forget how largely these songsters, or their eggs, or their nestlings, are destroyed by birds or beasts of prey” (489–90). This passage begins conventionally enough as a personification of domesticated nature and turns ugly the instant that Darwin calls attention to the life that must be sacrificed in order to provide a “superabundance of food” for species who appear to coexist so amicably in this nineteenth-century garden. His prose takes a sharp downturn as it moves past the limits of human perception, or what “we behold,” to the process of elimination that has choreographed this enthralling moment of forgetfulness.
Thomas Malthus’s “principle of population” obviously casts a long shadow over this garden as the “face of nature bright with gladness” blends into that of human observers so fascinated with the apparent “superabundance” of food that they forget that this sense of plenty inevitably leads to more mouths to feed and so to scarcity.4 This is one of those moments in The Origin where Darwin uses natural beauty to remind his readers that the natural abundance they find so pleasing is actually a snapshot wrested from a long process of elimination that tells the true story behind this little commonwealth of natural diversity.
To explain his theory of natural selection, Darwin was obliged to keep his own fascination with variation in check, but it sometimes proved too much of an effort for him to do so. Of his many commentators, Stephen Jay Gould offers the most concise description of the conceptual tightrope Darwin had to walk in coming up with a source of variation: “First and foremost, variation must exist in sufficient amounts, for natural selection can make nothing, and must rely on the bounty thus provided; but variation must not be too florid or showy either, lest it become the creative agent of change all by itself” (Structure 141). Had Darwin erred in either direction, Gould suggests, he would have left his theory open to the possibility of a cause external to life itself, whether pure chance or supernatural intelligence.
With these constraints in mind, Darwin followed his explanation of natural selection in the third and fourth chapters of The Origin with the generally ignored fifth chapter titled “Laws of Variation.” Here, he proposed a second source of potential novelty that not only preexisted natural selection but also resulted paradoxically from it. In the process of eliminating the less fit forms, he argued, natural selection also conserved their unused parts. As he put it, “Natural selection will always succeed in the long run in reducing and saving every part of the organisation, as soon as it is rendered superfluous” (545). If natural selection produces a surplus of residual traits, he reasoned further, then it follows that each member of every species was actually an assemblage of parts, each capable of independently entering into new combinations. Such parts could combine with other features to their mutual advantage and, in this way, ensure that new variations prospered.5 In solving this problem, however, Darwin raised a still more basic one. If natural selection were geared toward distinguishing the winners from the losers in a competition to the death, why did such spectacularly nonadvantageous features as the peacock’s tail often come to mark a species (Origin 546)?
Paradoxically, the survival of residual features was, in Darwin’s words, “owing to their uselessness, and therefore to natural selection having no power to check deviations in their structure” (Origin 546). Unable to explain each biological variant in utilitarian terms, Darwin seized on these useless traits as apparently superfluous features that would seem to make certain variations more fascinating than others to the females of their respective species. To do so, he refigured each member of a species as a little archive or holding environment in which “rudimentary parts are left to the free play of the various laws of growth, to the effects of long-continued disuse, and to the tendency of reversion” (Origin 546). Here we see him inserting a space of play, or true plasticity, between the logic of selective elimination and the emergence of the new variations known as phenotypes, or the various expressions of their genetic heritage by individual organisms within a species. This would allow Darwin to explain how countless new variations materialized, any number of which could trigger lines of development and eventually different species.
If We Grant Priority to Sexual Selection . . .
Throughout The Origin of Species, Darwin’s fascination with his superabundant evidence so regularly overwhelmed his attempt to systematize it that he may well have sensed that the principle of natural selection needed some help before it could explain how the variability of biological life he had encountered in South America came into being—much less account for human difference. Or so it would seem: to conclude his next big book, The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868), Darwin initially intended to write a chapter on the animal ancestry of human beings. But when he found that chapter growing overlong, he turned it into a separate essay that eventually became a book. Published in 1871, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, a book half again as long as The Origin of Species, took up the challenge to natural selection that Darwin had raised in The Origin: if natural selection systematically eliminated variations comparatively less fit to survive, why is it (1) that no two individuals turned out to be the same, and (2) that those who survived were sometimes disadvantaged by their differences? The notion of sexual selection may have put these questions to rest, but they nevertheless continued to trouble the concept of natural selection. This becomes especially apparent in Darwin’s use of counterexamples as exceptions that attempt to prove the rule.
Consider an account related by a man who tried to mate a female zebra with a donkey. The zebra rejected “the addresses of the ass until he was painted so as to resemble a zebra,” Darwin observes, and only then did she welcome those addresses (Descent 1187). He characterizes the female’s behavior as an instance of “instinct excited by mere colour, which had so strong an effect as to get the better of everything else” (1187). As for the ass, he continues, the zebra’s being “an animal somewhat similar to himself, was sufficient to arouse him.” All well and good, but why include this example of thwarted hybridity among his many examples of intraspecies courtship? And having done so, why turn frustration into success—unless he wanted to think of sexual selection as nature’s hybridizing mechanism? Darwin obviously finds the zebra’s stripes insufficient to demonstrate how an ornamental feature could elude natural selection and then nonetheless become the means of inducing the female to reproduce her kind. If one intends to subordinate the feminine principle of preferential attraction to the masculine force of natural selection, it is easy to see the zebra is attracted to sameness rather than to difference. But if it should prove more than a momentary distraction that allows some lucky variations to reproduce themselves over time, the feminine principle would seem to be a force in its own right.
In order for a variation to become a species, The Descent suggests, there have to be two distinct and interdependent mechanisms of selection, one of which eliminates the losers by means of a struggle for survival but inadvertently conserves their rudimentary features in those who do survive. The other mechanism selects—by what seem like chance encounters—the traces of such once useless traits, recombines those traces in new forms that give them an opportunity to survive, and in time magnifies their distinctive forms. While it is true, as the donkey’s initial unsuccessful attempt at mating with a female zebra suggests, that sexual selection also eliminates some losers, what is important here is that it does so on an entirely different basis than natural selection. That is to say, sexual selection works on the basis of what might be called positive attraction rather than by means of hostility generated by competition for both resources and females. If in The Descent of Man, as in The Origin of Species, the principle responsible for selecting the showy features of any new species seems loose and whimsical in comparison to the efficiency of the principle that eliminates useless variations, then that is due to Darwin’s habit of characterizing sexual selection as feminine over and against the masculine practicality of natural selection. To grasp the implications of sexual selection, we must put aside the gender inflection that identifies Darwin’s thinking as Victorian. Rather than limit the consequences of sensual attraction to those ensuing when females are distracted in choosing a mate by superficial differences, I want to consider the zebra’s comparatively warm reception of the striped donkey as the same force that connects one organism to another.
For the sake of argument, let us assume that the selective process that gave the zebra his dashing stripes or the peacock his extravagant tail is no more arbitrary than the force that made the bear’s claw and tiger’s tooth. Where the tooth and claw rank high in utilitarian terms, the feathered tail and flashy stripe seem of a more ornamental character. But we should also keep in mind that they do so only if we insist on opposing sensual appeal to usefulness and then value the agency exercised in the competitive struggle for survival, or war, over the agency of sensual attraction, or what nineteenth-century novelists regarded as the disruptive force of love, as the means of maintaining the balance of life over death. Elizabeth Grosz is the only Darwin scholar I know to provide a convincing case for reversing these priorities. Had certain variations not been selected on the basis of their sensual appeal, according to her argument, Darwin’s garden would obviously have turned out to be as dull as it was efficient. Grosz pushes this logic further, claiming that “if species reproduced only themselves or [if they did so] in ever-diminishing numbers, natural selection would be unable to weed out the less fit and provide space for the selection and proliferation of the more fit, effectively preventing selection” (4). Were natural selection the only game in town, in other words, Darwin’s entire system would eventually wind down.
Once we have granted sexual selection priority over the masculine principle of natural selection, however, we have yet to explain how some variations and not others become the means of differentiating a new species by helping it to take off. When we subject physical attraction to the reproductive imperative, we may understand why the features distinguishing the males of certain species seem outlandishly ornamental, but we have also limited the force that attracts one organism to another to the arena of the mating game. To see what preferential attraction—when extended beyond those limits—might allow us to think about, let us return to The Origin of Species and consider an aspect of variation that Darwin occludes by means of the chiaroscuro that organizes his description of an English garden. In stressing the biological cost of producing the “superabundance of food” that makes up “the face of nature bright with gladness,” he overlooks a point suggested by his own figural language. His description of the garden’s appeal holds something like aesthetic selection responsible for its pleasing diversity. Here, my use of the term aesthetic refers neither to the gardener’s taste nor even to his possible experiments with hybridization. I use the term only to untether our definition of sexual selection from Darwin’s supposition that, in contrast to the donkey, who didn’t need to be attracted at all, the zebra was attracted by sameness; she wanted nothing more than to reproduce her kind and, for reasons of his difference, shunned the donkey until he was painted to resemble her kind.
Were we to think of the zebra’s eventual attraction to the donkey as something more like an attraction to the singularity of his painted courting regalia, we would have to admit the likelihood that this experiment in hybridization did not fool her at all; she surely knew the difference between a painted donkey and a zebra. In this case, the success of the donkey’s second attempt at mating with a female zebra would inadvertently expose the limitations of Darwin’s explanation of her preference for the painted donkey. According to Jakob von Uexküll, in such an encounter “[e]verything happens as if the external carrier of significance and its receiver in the human body constituted two elements in a single musical score [. . .] though it is impossible to say how two such heterogeneous elements could ever have been so intimately connected” (qtd. in Agamben 41). Heidegger appropriately calls this same relationship “captivation” (Agamben 52). According to this logic, “beauty,” and virtually any other form of sensual appeal, becomes no more nor less than the donkey’s capacity to captivate another creature. As in his treatment of so many of the little romances from animal life that make up the bulk of his examples in The Descent of Man, Darwin wants this particular courtship story to demonstrate that the female has the capacity to select a mate (the male being “generally willing to accept any female”); he needs to show that she can do so on a whim, inadvertently creating variations through an act that remains nonetheless fixed on reproducing the same (Descent 1010). But his choice of this anomalous example suggests that, quite the contrary, the attraction to difference is primary. Insofar as they, too, are triggered by some captivating variation, Darwin’s many examples of intraspecies mating can be read as parodies of the hybrid union of painted donkey and female zebra.
Darwin frequently compared sexual selection with domestic breeding practices in order to familiarize his readers with the abstract principles he saw at work in nature, and The Descent is no exception. To explain the excessive adornment of the male of the species relative to the drabness of the female, early on in The Descent, Darwin asks us “to suppose [as a general principle] that the females do the choosing and generally prefer or are most excited by the more brilliant males” (1007). Further along in this same chapter, Darwin invites us to consider the domestic breeder as “loosely analogous” to the female zebra in that he, too, “continues for a long time choosing the most pleasing or useful individuals, without any wish to modify the breed” (1244). This, despite the fact that such modification is exactly what the breeder accomplishes. The analogy between female zebra and breeder suggests that her attraction to uselessly ornamental differences may well be true of the breeder as well—and so perhaps of the males of any species. Hence the curious variations of dogs and pigeons created by domestic breeders. As I’ve suggested, the analogy between breeder and female zebra opens up the possibility that the zebra was not duped so much as attracted by the novelty of a painted donkey. Thus if we consider the male breeder similar to the female zebra in that he, too, was captivated by such a peculiar variation, we must also question whether the male donkey, simply by virtue of being male, was so bent on the business of sexual reproduction as Darwin infers from this pairing. Are we really to assume that she needs an inducement to sex while he does not?
I have belabored the question of whether sexual selection is based on attraction to sameness or to difference in order to suggest that once we think of the breeder as “loosely analogous” to the zebra in this respect, we find that difference—and not sameness—is in logical terms the more likely inducement to sexual selection. As we pursue the implications of sensual attraction to their logical conclusion, we may well find that sexual selection ceases to be a diversion from the systematic working out of natural selection and in fact steers the process of speciation; some combinations of features lead to variations that eventually identify new species while other variations evidently lack such appeal. Or did the “losing” variations lack the desire to respond to such appeal?
Puzzled by the relative speed with which certain variations achieved success in establishing themselves, early twentieth-century biologist R. A. Fisher formulated an explanation for the success of ornamental variants that brought it into line with the logic of natural selection. The argument for “Fisherian runaway,” as it was called (see Bartley), held that certain variations spread exponentially because the females who preferred them passed this preference along to their daughters. The preference, say, for striped courting attire would consequently be reproduced along with the stripes themselves. Intuiting that such attraction had to be more of a mutual affair than the one responsible for Darwin’s zebra-donkey pairing, Fisher speculated, further, that males who were reproductively rewarded as the bearers of this trait were likely to have sexier male offspring predisposed to attract and enjoy female attention. By building such attraction genes into the species along with the corresponding ornamental variants, Fisher accounted both for relatively sudden changes in the appearance of a species and for the continuity of the new variants over many generations.6 More to the point, he could do so without overturning the principle of natural selection.
The Intelligence of Flowers
Throughout The Descent of Man, as I have pointed out, Darwin carefully restricted the freedom to choose a mate to the framework of male-male competition so that decisions made on the basis of feminine whimsy would entirely depend on what variations had been made available through natural selection. Reflecting back on his model of the English garden, one can nevertheless read Darwin’s aggressive disfiguration of the “face of nature bright with gladness,” which appears to be triggered by his very act of describing an English garden, as his inadvertent acknowledgment of the power of superabundant variations—with their potential to disrupt, subsume, and subordinate the logic of competitive elimination to a quite different account of speciation. This potential was, culturally speaking, in the air.
Victorian novelists were among those obsessed with the socially disruptive power of the attraction to difference and the question of how to manage it. They showed that when expressed through impulsive gestures, sounds, or facial expressions, human feelings could easily defeat the best efforts of the individual caught up in them to meet the norms of race, class, or gender as reproduced by the traditional family. Hugely popular during the 1860s and 1870s, sensation novels used such biologically based impulses to launch an assault on the norms that repressed wayward attractions likely to disrupt the continuity of family and property. As if to argue that such norms must change to accommodate these biological impulses or lose the authority to regulate reproduction, the novels we now consider canonical went even farther in this direction: Emily Brontë licensed Catherine Earnshaw’s perverse attraction to Heathcliff, and George Eliot indulged not only Maggie Tulliver’s irresistible attraction to Stephen Guest but Gwendolen Harleth’s equally intense aversion to Henleigh Grandcourt as well. None of these relationships—positive or negative—leads to a fruitful marriage. In order for social attachments to materialize that accommodated this power of attraction and yet seemed somewhat durable, novelists found it necessary to break up the traditional family and establish intimate relations on an entirely different basis. To this end, virtually all the prominent novelists of the period organized their novels around irresistible but prohibited attractions that cancel out a heroine’s preference for any man considered an appropriate match. As a result, her attraction for him soon becomes indistinguishable from the force that tears apart her family. The power of attraction set in motion by Brontë’s Heathcliff is one and the same as the annihilating aversion he directs at those family members who block his access to Catherine Earnshaw. As it takes over the narrative, this attraction transforms the entire ensemble of characters into a constellation of variations that can be drawn into short-lived and often lethal combinations. Concern for physical and legal boundaries of person and property vanishes in the face of the affect that drives this process.
In the world so reorganized, one can watch Heathcliff reduce the competition among men to a subplot of the narrative propelled by the irresistible attraction—negative as well as positive—that makes him part of a single character with Catherine. In Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, Middlemarch, and Daniel Deronda, this attraction operates as an extension of male-male competition that peters out as soon as one competitor triumphs. In E. M. Forster’s major novels, by contrast, the conflicting forces of attraction and competition, as manifest in homosexual attraction and class aversion, arrive at a homosocial synthesis, where sexual attraction collapses into the aversion that pits male against male so that each affect neutralizes the other. These novels proceed to disembody what were all-consuming physical attractions and produce aberrant versions of romantic love and humdrum practices capable of sustaining a household. Because they are shaped and held together by a single force operating at very different intensities, the household that emerges at the end of these novels cannot provide a space apart from the competitive world of men so much as a mechanism for repressing the very attraction that produces the novelistic equivalent of Darwin’s garden.
Darwin’s last major work, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), argues that a similar continuum of affective responses provides the biological foundation of our social impulses. To prove that we involuntarily produce and respond to expressions of emotion inherited from lower animals, Darwin relies chiefly on the body language and facial expressions of domestic animals, mad people, actors, and his own children, who would seem to have little or no choice in the matter. Both actor and child automatically turned the corners of the mouth up when joyful and down when sad, indicating to Darwin that those expressions communicated by virtue of their opposition—that is to say, by virtue of their being different expressions of the same affect. He carries the same principle over into dog-dog and human-dog interactions. When, for example, a dog “approaches a strange dog or man, [. . .] he walks upright and very stiffly,” with tail “held erect,” his hair bristling “along the neck and back.” But let us suppose “that the dog discovers that the man he is approaching is not a stranger, but his master; and let it be observed how completely and instantaneously his whole bearing is reversed” (1290). Darwin thus confirms that the same biosocial machinery that made this dog so menacing also put him in an “excited condition from joy; and nerve-force will be generated in excess, which naturally leads to action of some kind.
Not one of the[se] above movements, so clearly expressive of affection, are of the least service to the animal. They are explicable,” he continues, “solely from being in complete opposition [. . .] to the attitude and movements which, from intelligible causes, are assumed when a dog intends to fight” (1290–91). If the same impulse that attracted the dog to a familiar person also aroused his antagonism to a stranger, and given that human beings exhibit similar patterns of behavior, then the aversion that pits one individual against others of his species in a struggle to survive can be understood as a negative expression of the positive attraction that consolidates both men and animals in social groups. With this move, the power of attraction subsumes the competitive impulse that engages males in a struggle for survival.
In the February 1888 issue of the Nineteenth Century, Thomas Henry Huxley contended that the point of human civilization was to mitigate the Hobbesian condition of man in a natural state of warfare. Pyotr Kropotkin disagreed and wrote a series of articles published in that same journal (1890–96), which were subsequently collected under the title Mutual Aid (1902). Kropotkin would be the last to deny that life was a struggle, but he did strenuously contest the idea that a “bitter struggle among animals of the same species” was “the dominant characteristic of struggle for life, and the main factor of evolution” (qtd. in Gould, “Kropotkin” 338). Under conditions of overpopulation, one individual may well compete with every other for limited resources, but certainly within a given species, Kropotkin argued, “there is as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defense” (336). Darwin himself provided so much anecdotal evidence in his later work to suggest that any variation that put its mark on a species must have done so collectively rather than alone that we have to wonder why the competitive principle associated with natural selection still prevails to the degree it does in popular accounts of evolution.
Considering biological nature from a position on an island that seemed increasingly overcrowded under the pressures of modernization, Darwin could easily have reasoned that the survival of a species was owing to the honing of competitively advantageous features.7 In this light, his description of an English garden stands out as but one of several such passages that asks us to see natural abundance as paradoxically resulting from and leading to a condition of scarcity. Is this sense of impending overpopulation an expression of Darwin’s island mentality? Even to ask this question is to acknowledge that his view is no less inflected ideologically than Kropotkin’s view, fostered in Siberia, that the survival of any one variation depends on the social cooperation not only within that group but also with other groups, rather than on their relative competitive prowess.8
To imagine mutuality as the ruling principle of nature, a number of twentieth-century authors and intellectuals seized on the example of coevolution to which Darwin returned throughout his career. His book-length analysis of the relationship between the orchid and its insect pollinators was anthropomorphically embellished by Maurice Maeterlinck in The Intelligence of Flowers (1907), which insisted that although the orchid “knows and exploits the passion of insects,” the flower is not moved by a “distant ideal of reproduction” to do so (48). To the contrary, the flower is moved simply “to be beautiful, to please, to delight, and to show its joy,” in a word, to be attractive “as we would do were we endowed with its treasures” (55). As for Proust’s use of this image in Sodom and Gomorrah (1922), Eve Sedgwick has explained how it exposes the dependency of any two-sided eros on “a third figure who both is and isn’t a transactor in it” (221). Prompted by Félix Guattari’s gleeful observation in a letter to Gilles Deleuze to the effect that “wasps just want to have fun,” Deleuze and Guattari famously use the orchid-wasp relationship to free sensual attraction from the reproductive imperative.
They argue that the same radically impersonal force that transformed both orchid and wasp into a new interactive and yet still heterogeneous wasp-orchid/orchid-wasp was responsible for extending life in further variations. Sexual reproduction was no more than the incidental by-product of their unique combination.9 But while all these readings strip the orchid of gender, they do nothing to challenge the masculine character and behavior of the pollinator. This implicitly puts the flower right back in the feminine position within a parody of the mating game; the reproductive imperative still choreographs their relationship through the wasp. In his work on orchids, we find Darwin considering an alternative with the capacity to call the reproductive imperative into question.
Soon after publishing The Origin of Species, he turned away from the level of abstraction required to figure out a system that could account for all of biological life and allowed himself to be caught up in the physical intricacies of the relationship that each variety of orchid had forged with a specific pollinator. This example of collaborative evolution raises the question that influenced his work on variation from 1859 to the end of his career: how do some variations and not others attract one living thing to another, not only to certain variations of its own kind but also to those of other species? As he gave himself over to the details of the “various contrivances” by which orchids made themselves attractive to specific pollinators, the principle of natural selection seems to have relaxed its grip on his thinking, causing him to caution readers, in the opening to The Various Contrivances by Which Orchids Are Fertilized by Insects (1862, 1877), that the study “of organic beings may be as interesting to an observer who is fully convinced that the structure of each is due to secondary laws, as to one who views every trifling detail of structure as the result of the direct interposition of the Creator” (1). After detailing the intricately ingenious contrivances by which the various “tribes” of orchids recruited insects to serve as go-betweens, moreover, Darwin worried that he had succeeded in defending his theory against the traditional divine creator only to open the door to a creator of another type: “Some naturalists believe that numberless structures have been created for the sake of mere variety and beauty—much as a workman would make [. . .] different patterns” (201).
While admitting that his earlier accounts of variation could not “solve the problem of the vast diversity of structure adapted for closely analogous ends in many large groups of organic beings” (Contrivances 200), Darwin relied once again on the reproductive imperative to thread the needle between an external creator and a purely hedonistic nature. He argued that the various contrivances he so admired provided the means by which orchids, over countless ages, enhanced the efficiency of their reproduction by conserving the reproductive energy they would otherwise expend to produce the surplus pollen necessary if they were pollinated by the wind. By developing a distinctive contrivance for attracting a pollinator, Darwin explained, each variety of orchid ensured the “safe transportal [of pollen] from plant to plant, and [placed] it securely on the stigma” (203). Never mind the attraction that compelled them to develop such different contrivances. Never mind, too, that sexual selection falls short of explaining what that pollinator—apparently frenzied by an orchid that smelled, looked, and felt like a female wasp—stood to gain reproductively from transporting pollen sacs from male to female flower and presumably from male to male as well.
I want to pause here and assess what happens to the creative force that drives his entire system, as Darwin shifts from the example of zebra-donkey hybridization to that of orchid-wasp coevolution. To propose a reproductive rationale for orchid-wasp coevolution, he substitutes a deceptively hermaphroditic flower for his choosy female zebra and a willingly duped male wasp for the indiscriminate donkey. The glaring discrepancy that that comparison opens up between these two examples affords a perfect demonstration of how sensual attraction changes when it is released from a mating ritual that aims single-mindedly at biological reproduction. To abide by the reproductive logic formulated in The Descent of Man, we must assume the wasp was attracted to anything that emitted a certain aroma and that in other sensory details resembled his kind. But the wasp’s obvious preference for the orchid-wasp over the females of its own kind certainly suggests, to the contrary, that the power of sensual attraction does not necessarily operate in the service of biological reproduction. The idea that attraction does serve the reproductive imperative fails to account for the fact that male wasps who wasted their reproductive energy on orchids did not eventually lose out to competitors who could tell the difference between female wasps and vegetable imitations. Given that not one but several species of pollinators thrive by dallying unproductively with orchids, it is safe to say that some wasps succeeded over their uxoriously inclined competitors in establishing new variations simply because they were excited by variation.
Nor, on the other hand, is it reasonable to see the extravagant contrivances developed by each orchid species as energy-saving devices, as Darwin suggests. In that event, the most efficient of those contrivances would have displaced those that were less so and reduced the number of variations. It seems more reasonable to assume that their mutual attraction produced wasps attracted by even the slightest modification of the courtship ritual and orchids with the plasticity to keep coming up with variations on that ritual’s protocols; the orchid’s various contrivances shaped and were in turn intensified by an attraction that ensured variation and ultimately new species rather than production of the same. From this reading of this obviously compelling example, we might draw the conclusion that living things are not attracted to what they need so much as they need that to which they find themselves attracted. By considering the possibility that living things must attract and be attracted to, rather than strive against, other variations, we arrive at much the same truth that Darwin himself did on marrying his beloved first cousin, Emma Wedgwood, even though he believed the endogamous marriage would disadvantage him reproductively.
What I want to take away from Darwin’s failure to resist an attraction he considered biologically disadvantageous to his offspring is that the power of attraction, as he depicts it in personal as well as scientific examples, has no long-term goal in mind—including even the survival of the species. What replenishes the force field of attractions that Darwin proposes in his later works is its capacity to produce ever new and captivating variations. In thus liberating the concept of attraction from the reproductive imperative, Darwin grants the orchid’s power of variation priority over the masculine principle of natural selection. He does so, moreover, without infusing the wasp with phallic masculinity, as Deleuze and Guattari do. Neither masculine nor feminine, the later conception of nature’s force that shaped Darwin’s orchid-wasp looks ahead not only to the vitalism that drives Deleuze and Guattari’s biological machine but also to Deleuze’s concept of “charm,” which he compares—rightly, to my mind—with literary style. “Charm,” in Deleuze’s words, “is the source of life just as style is the source of writing. [. . .] But the charm is not the person. It is what makes [it possible for] people [to] be grasped as so many combinations and so many unique chances from which such a combination has been drawn.” It is “[t]hrough each fragile combination [that] a power of life is affirmed with a strength, an obstinacy, an unequalled persistence in the being” (Dialogues 5). Charm, as Deleuze came to see it near the end of his life, is akin to a concept of friendship in which each of us seizes on some aspect of another that is actually a departure from the type, a point of madness, if you will, that offers each the possibility of becoming someone else in combination with another.10
I am grateful to Warren Montag and Richard Barney for organizing the symposium “Systems of Life” at the Huntington Library in spring 2013, where I presented an early version of this paper, and to Stefan Helgesson at Stockholm University for arranging the symposium in September 2014 where I first tried out the present argument. I am indebted to Phillip Stillman, Ben Richardson, and Emma Graner, whose practical advice as my research assistants is evident throughout. Barbara Herrnstein Smith made a number of important suggestions for which I am equally grateful.
The 1860s and 1870s saw the rise of what was called “sensation fiction,” which featured female characters whose nervous responses made themselves felt in behavior hostile to the family; the same period was marked by the first stirrings of radical feminism and gave rise to such anthropological speculations as Friedrich Engels’s claim (based on Bachofen’s Das Mutterrecht) that human societies formed around matriarchal principles well before the male exchange of women determined the external boundaries and internal hierarchies of a culture.
Louis Althusser uses the term “descriptive theory” for this way of reading (92–93).
In The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, Foucault portrays this cultural change as the most important event of modern times. In it, he sees “European culture [. . .] inventing for itself a depth in which what matters is no longer identities, distinctive characters, permanent tables, with all their possible paths and routes, but great hidden forces developed on the basis of their primitive and inaccessible nucleus, origin, causality, and history” (251).
Malthus argued that man was also subject to this law of population: “Among plants and animals the view of the subject is simple. They are all impelled by a powerful instinct to the increase of their species, and this instinct is interrupted by no reasoning or doubts about providing for their offspring. Wherever therefore there is liberty, the power of increase is exerted, and the superabundant effects are repressed afterwards by want of room and nourishment, which is common to animals and plants, and among animals by becoming the prey of others” (23).
Here we see Darwin beginning to think of variations not only as the stuff out of which new forms are composed but also as the very principle of innovation. In The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868), he pushed this equation beyond the limits of pregenetics’ scientific credibility by formulating his much criticized theory of “gemmules,” or particles circulating in the blood of each life-form that conserve unused variants for distribution to future generations.
Fisher revised the theory of sexual selection to account for the “fusion” of some variations by means of preferences that created clear lines of biological inheritance. Just so, he argued, the fission among certain of these lines, often due to geographical migration, allowed preferences for very different variations to develop to the point where each line lost either the attraction required or the ability to interbreed, thus avoiding the diminished reproductivity that accompanied hybridity in nature. See Bartley.
In “Kropotkin Was No Crackpot,” Gould relies heavily on Daniel P. Todes’s study of the Russian school of evolutionary theory, especially its rejection of Darwin’s reliance on the Malthusian claim that “competition, in a gladiatorial mode, must dominate in an ever more crowded world” (332). Gould uses Todes to explain the divergence between Kropotkin’s and Darwin’s views of what might be called the “social” impact of the struggle for survival (“Kropotkin” 331–34).
Assessing what to think today of Kropotkin’s argument and that of the entire Russian school, Gould writes, “I would hold that Kropotkin’s basic argument is correct. Struggle does occur in many modes, and some lead to cooperation among members of a species as the best pathway to advantage for individuals. If Kropotkin overemphasized mutual aid, most Darwinians in Western Europe had exaggerated competition just as strongly” and used it to justify many different forms of socio-political oppression (“Kropotkin” 338).
In their “Introduction: Rhizome” to A Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari famously offer the wasp-orchid relationship as an alternative to genealogical models of biological heritage. Rather than see the orchid’s development as parallel to that of its wasp pollinator, they contend that “something else entirely is going on [. . .] a veritable becoming-wasp of the orchid and a becoming-orchid of the wasp” (10), which make of both a different life-form.
Deleuze makes explicit the connection between charm and friendship in L’Abécédaire, an extensive set of interviews with former student Claire Parnet. When asked for his thinking on friendship under the letter “F” for “Fidelity,” he contends that friendship has nothing to do with fidelity and everything to do with “charm,” “captivation,” or, in terms of this essay, “variation” (see Stivale).