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Professor's Books Ignite Enlightenment

Imagine a world that considered genetics more on par with astrology than with “hard science.” Or one in which ambitious SEAS students completed rigorous problem sets on family structure in Amazonian tribes or on religion and castes in South Indian slums.

To find out more about such a strange world, you might want to ask Columbia professor, author, and alternate universe enthusiast Jenny Davidson. In her upcoming talk at Book Culture, Davidson will discuss her newest work, Breeding: A Partial History of the Eighteenth Century.

Davidson joined Columbia’s English and comparative literature department in 2000. After teaching Literature Humanities for a few years, she now focuses more exclusively on the 18th century. She has also published two academic books, two young-adult novels, and is working on a third novel.

When asked how she manages to juggle teaching and writing, Davidson said, “They’re deeply complementary, and they really do enrich each other. But anyone who’s writing and teaching knows that the hardest thing is finding any time to write.” Just to add to her busy schedule, Davidson is also planning to run the Antarctica Marathon in March.

A work of both intellectual history and literary criticism, Breeding focuses on the battle between nature and nurture during the Enlightenment. Davidson was well aware of the difficulties of analyzing such a debate, even on a linguistic level. “I was drawn to the word ‘breeding’ as a key word because it seems to work both as a synonym for nature and for nurture,” she said. More scientifically-oriented terms such as “heredity,” “genetics,” and “biology” were all coined in the 19th century.

Davidson is particularly interested in how attitudes toward the threat of determinism have changed. “For us, the threat of determinism comes very strongly by thinking about genetics,” she said. Many tend to react negatively to comparing the mental faculties of various racial or gender groups through genetics, and new fears have recently surfaced about the potential for genetic discrimination in employment opportunities and health care coverage.

The 18th century is often portrayed as a golden age of egalitarianism and an era built on the principle that all men are created equal. Yet the idea of the “blank slate” did not carry with it any real promise of equality. “It was culture that was felt to be so strong that it was almost—and horrifyingly—inescapable,” Davidson explained. People might possess the same theoretical potential at birth, but social and cultural realities were essentially inviolable barriers.

Davidson’s most recent young-adult novel, The Explosionist, has strong thematic ties to Breeding. It tells the story of a teenage girl in an alternate 1930s Edinburgh, where the 19th century took an entirely different course—the Scottish Enlightenment continued to dominate intellectual developments, especially attitudes toward reason and emotion.

“I’ve always loved young adult books. I just read them very regularly and enthusiastically,” Davidson said. She admires in particular the works of Diana Wynne Jones, Philip Pullman, and Garth Nix, authors whose books are as rich, complex, and lengthy as adult novels. A few years ago, while perusing the selection at the Bank Street Bookstore, Davidson was unable to discover any newer young adult fiction satisfying her criteria. “It sort of gradually dawned on me, I guess I might have to write it myself,” she said.

The medium of fiction allowed Davidson to explore the implications of Enlightenment philosophy on a more intimate, human level. Her academic work had already led her to wonder about the emotional costs of internalizing an “ethos of reason.” Writing The Explosionist helped her realize how high these costs might be.

Davidson will discuss Breeding: A Partial History of the Eighteenth Century with Vassar College English professor Julie Park at Book Culture on Feb. 25 at 7:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

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