Discussions of evolution before Darwin

What began as a small group of Arts and Humanities graduate students sharing a passion for the Romantic era has evolved into an international conference that will be held at The University of Western Ontario May 12-14.

The Romantic Research Group at Western is hosting a three-day event entitled, Romanticism & Evolution, at Windermere Manor. The schedule features four internationally recognized keynote speakers and six seminars conducted by specialists in the field, as well as panel sessions. The talks will examine how literature and scientific discourse from 1775-1850 informed current notions of evolution.

“Not a lot of people at Western know, unless you are in Arts and Humanities, we have a long tradition at Western of having a strong program in Romanticism,” says Josh Lambier, PhD candidate in English and Trudeau scholar.

Since 2005, graduate students and some faculty members in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities have met regularly for reading groups on topics related to Romanticism. The group participated in the faculty’s Research Day and hosted smaller, one-day conferences.

But as the founding student members of the Romantic Research Group approach convocation, they decided to host an international event to culminate their work as part of the group. “It was something to celebrate the work we’ve done, as well as leave a legacy to the students that are going to come after us,” Lambier says.

The goal of the conference is to challenge the assumption Charles Darwin was the first to discuss ideas of evolution. Romanticism & Evolution will focus on earlier, less recognized theories of change and transformation emerging in the cultural, literary, philosophical and scientific debates of the Romantic period.

“(Darwin’s) ideas didn’t evolve out of nothing,” Lambier notes. “They evolved out of an explosion of discourse and an explosion of discussion on the idea of the natural sciences that occurred at the beginning of the Romantic period.”

Modern scientific disciplines, such as geology, biology, physiology, chemistry, psychology and anthropology, are rooted in the Romantic period, he adds.

Some of the leading scholars studying Romanticism are at Western, notes co-organizer Chris Bundock, former Western PhD student and current post-doctorate student at Duke University.

“We’ve had lots of interest and a great group of speakers coming in,” adds Naqaa Abbas, PhD candidate in comparative literature.

The plenary speakers include University of Cambridge’s Gillian Beers, a fellow of the British Academy and Royal Society of Literature. She was made Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1998 for services to English literature. Western’s Tilottama Rajan, a Canada Research Chair, and University of Chicago’s Robert Richards also will speak.

The conference has attracted participants from North America, Australia, Hungary, Switzerland, Taiwan and the United Kingdom.

The group received a $25,000 SSCHRC grant to hold the event. Organizers plan to publish a book of selected essays submitted by the participants.

For more information on Romanticism & Evolution, including a program for the three-day event, visit the conference site.