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Theories of Cultural Evolution in an 18th Century French Novel

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The process of cultural evolution is similar to that of biological evolution, but departs from it in significant ways.  More drastic changes occur in cultural evolution over a shorter period of time, and people have agency to decide how they will approach cultural evolution and find their place in contemporary culture.  Both forms of evolution are theorized and contested by scholars.  In the 1735 novel, The Wayward Head and Heart (Les Égarements du coeur et de l’esprit) by Crébillon fils, the author presents a young boy learning to navigate through the rigid aristocratic society of the day, and he encounters two older, more experienced socialites who give him differing opinions of cultural evolution.  Those shed light on how people view their position in society, as an individual who conforms to yet is separate from a group.

Monsieur de Meilcour narrates his past, looking back to his debut, at the age of seventeen, into aristocratic society.  Since many decades have passed between the time in which these events took place and the moment in which Meilcour narrates them, he sets the scene for his readers: “Manners have changed so prodigiously since then that I would not be surprised if my story were treated as a fable today.  It is hard for us to believe that the vices and virtues that are no longer under our eyes ever existed: however, everything I write is real and I do not exaggerate” (51).  Meilcour underscores some of the primary differences between biological and cultural evolution.  Biological evolution often occurs in plants and animals that do not have the mental capacity to think and to articulate themselves.  When it occurs in humans, small progressions take such a long time that humans cannot remember having been otherwise (Dalke and Grobstein notes).  Homo sapiens have existed for millennia, and homo erectus was not capable of producing self-reflexive literature, so not only do current humans not remember their ancestors, they have no access into their ancestors’ psyche.  Meilcour contends that humans cannot remember their own cultural evolution.  In part, as with biological evolution, this has to do with age: the youth to whom Meilcour writes did not grow up in his epoch.  Yet he is speaking of an odder phenomenon: the people who did live during the time period he writes about do not remember it.  If it is not “under [their] eyes” they do not recall its existence.  Meilcour depicts people in society as avid meme receptors with a limited space for meme retention; when society develops new mores, people adapt those and promptly forget about the ones they had before.  Biological evolution is often considered to be a building process in which simple organisms develop more complex physical attributes and mental capabilities.  This is certainly true in the case of human evolution.  Through Meilcourt, Crébillon depicts cultural evolution as a process of replacement.  This has the effect of reinforcing a truth in biological evolution: there is no progress to a better state (Dalke and Grobstein notes).

In this decadent world, though, there is room for personal evolution.  Crébillon’s novel is essentially a moral tale.  The French title of the novel literally means “the strayings of the heart and of the mind”: Meilcour morally and intellectually falters during the novel, and is put on the right course by the end.  This task is done by the beautiful and eloquent Marquise de Lursay, a 40 year old friend of his mother.  She is romantically interested in him and he likes her as well, yet because this relationship could be scandalous and Meilcour is unaware of society’s rules, she must subtly interest him, and he is too inexperienced and naïve to pick up on her subtle verbal and bodily cues.  Then he falls passionately in love with the young Hortense de Théville and tries to pursue her, though a marquis seems to be the one succeeding in the endeavor.  The Comte de Versac, who Melcour admires, speaks terribly of Lursay for ambiguous reasons, and Meilcour believes the count, becomes inappropriately rude to Lursay and keeps trying to woo Hortense.  In the end, Hortense disspears from the novel and the Marquise de Lursay persuades Meilcour that everything the duke has told him is unfounded.  He learns to respect her, and writes that she was a very good lover, but his heart still strayed and eventually their relationship ended.  The novel ends with the affirmation that he has grown to appreciate her eloquence and wisdom: “I left her promising, despite my remorse, to see her early the next day, I was determined to speak with her” (295).

When the Comte de Versac speaks against the Marquise de Lursay at one of society’s many gatherings, Meilcour immediately believes him and feels he was betrayed.  Versac befriends the young boy, and eventually gives Meilcour his perspective on how society works and how it must be navigated.  “You must learn to perfectly disguise your character” (245) he teaches Meilcour.  “It is often better to give a bad impression of yourself, rather than showing everything you have; hide, beneath a scatter-brained demeanor, your penchant for reflection, and sacrifice your vanity for your interests” (245).  Then he makes a startling confession: “I was born so different from the way I appear that it is only through extreme pains that I can conceal my spirit” (249).  The count believes that if you appear different from society, you will be hurt by it.  His is a “survival of the fittest” approach to cultural evolution; culture is malicious, trying to weed the week out, so strength is needed to survive.  In biological evolution, organisms cannot prevent themselves or their kind from going extinct; if they do not have the physical means or brain power to survive, they simply do not.  In culture, according to Versac, the matter is more complicated.  An individual must act like the dominant group to survive, and the person who is not clever enough to conform to the group is weakest and will be annihilated.  He tells Meilcour never to be modest because “you will become a martyr to someone else’s vanity” (247).  Notice the word “martyr” in the last quotation; Versac is thinking in terms of life or death.  In a world where society’s games are all that exist for the aristocracy, a social death is no better than a physical one.

In a private conversation with Meilcour, the Marquise de Lursay fights back against Meilcour’s misconceptions of her: “Your lack of experience tricked you, not my finesse” (276) she asserts.  She continues to explain that the feelings she had for him were genuine, and, contrary to his accusation, that she never pretended that she had never been in love before.  “I doubt…that I ever gave you reason to believe I am not sincere” she continues. “I may have wronged you; I think I did: but not in the ways you claim, and if you have anything to reproach me for, it is for being too credulous” (285).  Lursay teaches Meilcour that genuineness is possible in this society as long as a man has enough aptitude to understand what women subtly communicate.  Lursay is exactly right then in saying that Meilcour’s lack of experience tricked him.  Crébillon postulates that happiness in society can only come from a certain amount of cultural conformity, an understanding of memes so that one organism can transfer information to another, but that this cultural understanding allows for a transcendence of society.  The situation cleared up by the time Lursay was able to speak honestly to Meilcour, but she could not do that until she knew him well enough, and for them to reach that level of intimacy, they had to conform to social rules.  In fact, in this society, people are always around.  Everyone knows where everyone else is at all times.  When Lursay promises to have “peu de monde” (only a few people) at her house, all of the aristocracy is there.  There is little chance to speak honestly, and too much time apart from the crowd is frowned upon.  However, for a time the Marquise de Lursay and Meilcour become lovers, and as far as readers of Crébillon know, neither of their reputations suffers from this.  Crébillon depicts people as having a limited yet certain amount of agency in society; they can escape culture, but only so much and for only so long. 

Crébillon’s conclusions on cultural evolution in The Wayward Head and Heart differ from a “less wrong” contemporary view of biological evolution.  Crébillon’s protagonist, Meilcour, believes that people forget past social mores the minute they are no longer the custom, so the process of social turnover is much faster and with fewer transitions or links than in the process of biological evolution.  The evil character, the Comte de Versac, believes that to fit in to a culture one must disseminate the self to conform to the standards of the group, but the virtuous character who triumphs in the end, the Marquise de Lursay, believes that after people follow the rules well enough to make a personal connection, they can have a relationship that transcends social boundaries.  Conformity and individuality may oppose each other, but they can exist side by side.  Crébillon’s novel demonstrates that the concept of evolution, at least the cultural variety, can be the theme of a fictional work, and is not relegated to the scientific realm.



Works Cited

1.  Crébillon fils.  Les Égarements du coeur et de l’esprit (Trans. The Wayward Head and Heart.)  Paris: Les Éditions Gallimard, 1977.

*Note: All English translations of quotations are by Gaby Kogut.

2.  Paul Grobstein and Anne Dalke, “The Evolution of Stories” class notes.