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Culture, Characters and Evolution

Mariellyssa Wenk's picture

It can be argued that evolution is solely a biological process – an interaction of time, chance and chromosomes. In class we discussed how language and thought also contain elements of evolution. After reading Forester’s Howard’s End and, to some extent, Smith’s On Beauty, the question arose in my mind of how much culture and sociology can affect the evolution of a community or an individual. Although the evolution of characters happens on a much smaller scale, compared the decades and centuries of change that Mayr describes, it appears throughout both books. In Howard’s End the lives of the characters are dictated by society and the changes they make to their lives are directly related to the aspects of the culture around them.

In a philosophical sense, culture is a complex product of history, biology and sociology, which by molding our morals, expectations and norms of behavior dictates our development as human beings.  For example, the culture of a hunting gathering society means that its members eyes are trained to notice minute variations in plants and to track animals where the eyes of someone in our society are adept at picking out variations in written words.  Culture dictates how we move, what foods taste good to us, how we react to stimulus and what excites us.

Scientists have long looked at the possibility of cultural influence on genes.  As I was reading Howard’s End I was reminded of a certain term that Dennett used repeatedly in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: the concept of the meme. A meme is a unit of genetic information that contains cultural information such as beliefs, likes, dislikes, or specific ways of doing things. Like nature, memes have evolved and continue to evolve as some might become extinct, or survive, spread or change. Nearly every aspect of our lives is made up of memes and they are constantly influencing us. Some of the memes that influenced Margaret, Helen and the other characters were the concept of wealth, music, interpretations of literature, property, and social hierarchy.

Since the development of language and written language, literature has grown into an important aspect of our culture, and also allows us to incorporate different cultural points of view into our lives. Howard’s End and On Beauty both generally share the same storyline but express two extremely different sets of cultural morals, beliefs and interests as they are set in completely different time periods. In the ninety or so years which is the degree of separation between the two novels, the influence, and the interacting memes, have changed greatly from a conservative and uptight, status-minded society to one of liberal beliefs, mixed-race and mixed-class marriages and deep-rooted politics. Obviously, the two are written to provoke and influence two different audiences, yet another example of how culture can change us. 

The two main characters of Howard’s End, Margaret and Helen devote most of their time to intellectual conversation and culture, engrossing themselves with popular music, lunches and discussions. The way that they act within their environment dictates their actions later on in the book. For example, Margaret is told by society to worry. She is the oldest in her family and has adopted paternal instincts in caring for her younger sister and brother. She knows that she must provide for them, and does so by making sure her family is under the care of the Wilcox’s money and housing. Their culture has taught the young women to marry, to have a family, to strive for wealth and happiness. It is for these reasons that Margaret devotes herself to marrying Mr. Wilcox. It is also interesting to look at the evolution of the first Mrs. Wilcox to Helen. The two women are similar in so many ways, yet the person filling the position has become more culturally minded and aware.

Unlike Margaret, Helen reacts negatively to the culture around her. This is foreshadowed in the scene at the music hall where she interprets the score differently than everyone else, and in a dramatic flurry, flees. Over the course of the book, it seems that Helen is the character most affected by the influences of the culture around her. She is constantly preoccupied with not only her own position in society but also the standing of others like Leonard Bast. But instead of following the normal standards of nineteenth century culture, Helen’s drive carries her decisions against the ordinary leading her to be irrational and extraordinary. She becomes pregnant with an illegitimate son, frightens her family and runs away. If there could be a character that is both protagonist and antagonist, Helen would be it. We want to cheer for her desires and courageousness, but at the same time we are almost appalled at the changes of character she undertakes.

Culture affects evolution hugely. Human capability to learn social behaviors has allowed us to develop technology, build intricate societies, construct institutions and live longer, and in turn these things and the changes that occur within them influence us as a community and individuals. We see these changes in both Howard’s End and On Beauty, but those are just two of many pieces of literature that influences our culture and us.


Anne Dalke's picture

The Evolution of Individuals


the way you write about ideas occuring to you--"the question arose in my mind," "I was reminded..." makes me want to ask you where ideas come from; what makes them occur?

Your topic here--an extension of our discussions about biological and literary evolution-- is the evolution of literary characters; this works well as the apex for the eons-long process we've been tracing all semester. And you demonstrate that evolution by employing on Dennett's concept of memes.

What I'm not clear about, from your opening paragraph on, is whether you're arguing that characters are "dictated by society" or just "directly related to aspects of culture." The first sounds deterministic, the other more just, well, a matter of some influence. In the middle of the paper, you use the verbs "express" (as in novels expressing different cultural interests) and "dictate" (as in actions dictating further actions). These, too, have different valences, different meanings.

You close with the claims that culture "greatly affects" and "influences" individual evolution. So, in the end: how determinative do you think culture is, in the process of individual evolution that you are describing? You've set up a very nice contrast between Margaret, who does what culture expects her to, and her sister Helen, who does precisely the opposite. That comparison makes me want to know (of course) why they respond differently to the same set of cultural stimuli; it does suggest that culture does not determine individual behavior.

Your focus throughout is on "how culture can change us," though some of your examples suggest ways that we (the audience) can change cultural products like literature--want to explore that possibility further for your final project?