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September 5, 2020

CRITIQUE Lecture Darwin in the Antipodes: Liberal Evolutionism in Colonial India – 26 January 2021, 6 pm

A virtual CRITIQUE Lecture with Inder Marwah, McMaster University.

Charles Darwin’s influence in political philosophy has, at best, a checkered past given its historical association with eugenics, various strands of social Darwinism, and race ‘sciences’ often marshaled to justify colonialism and imperialism.  And yet, Darwinian evolutionism’s conceptual utility in the social sciences was limited neither to these contexts, nor to thinkers in the Western world.

This paper traces the ways in which Indian liberals at the turn of the 20th century drew on Darwinian evolutionism to resist imperialist domination.  I examine the thought of Surendranath Banerjea and The Bengalee (the nationalist broadsheet that he edited for four decades) to show how early liberal nationalists appealed to evolutionary theory to challenge imperialist tropes portraying Indians as farther back on a fixed scale of social, political and moral progress.  Against the stage-based account of social development sustaining imperial domination, the paper traces out what I describe as liberal organicism, which conceived of Indian society as an integrated socio-political organism whose evolution turned on internal social reform, rather than external political direction.  By shifting the motive force of progress from extrinsic steering to endemic metamorphosis, this organicist liberalism undermined the central justification for pedagogical imperialism.  The paper thus tracks how Indian liberals responded to liberalism’s justificatory developmentalism by using Darwinism and evolutionism to challenge, alter or extend its terms, upending the historicism behind the ever-receding horizon of Indian self-government.  More broadly, it demonstrates the novel political horizons opened by the integration of Darwinism in non-Western contexts, along with its anti-imperialist valences.

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