Victorian scholars, ever proud to claim their man Darwin as the centrepiece of evolution, continue to comment how many topics of pressing current concern Darwin and Darwinism anticipated. Social and cultural transformation, the evolution of natural forms, the extinction of mankind, amidst others. No other century seems to have boasted such a prescient harbinger for the future who continued to be culturally germane. Not Galileo, Newton, or Einstein. Not even nineteenth-century Karl Marx.
Yet contenders exist, even if we allow ourselves to be overshadowed by Darwin. Today’s far-flung neuroscience wars over consciousness and cognition, mind and body, memory and recall, sympathy and empathy, could not have occurred without Descartes’ dualism setting all sorts of processes in motion – biological, philosophical, scientific – and further enabling them to feed into the mind-body debates of subsequent centuries.
Thomas Willis’ revolutionary brain theory of the late seventeenth century is another. But Willis did not enact his imaginative leap alone; his theories were applied, and then further developed by different types of Enlightenment mechanists and vitalists, scientists and doctors. The formation of nervous man was a collective effort. Novelists and poets also anticipated some of the positions. So fully over one hundred and fifty years that by the early nineteenth century it was apparent a new paradigm of human beings as fundamentally nervous creatures had crystallized.
Why is this worthy of comparison with Darwin, evolution and human extinction? The nervous paradigm is the forerunner of irritability, depression, and stress – states of being that often feed into terminal illness, and for which the contemporary pharmaceutical industry prescribes as lucratively as for other serious medical conditions. Statistically, the (combined) profit from medications for all types of stress equals that of other major life-threatening conditions. And medical prescriptions for stress-related ailments have more than doubled each and every year since 2005.
Without the early modern nervous paradigm, increasingly stressed-out mankind would be no more conceptually intelligible than extinct mankind envisioned without evolution.