Jack London, evolutionary psychology and existential primitivism. Five minutes with Kenneth K. Brandt

Liverpool University Press and Northcote House Publishers are thrilled to introduce the first Writers and their Work title of the new partnership, Jack London. We caught up with author Kenneth K. Brandt to find out what we can expect from the book…

Can you tell us a bit about Jack London and his work?

Jack London was born in California in 1876 and died at age 40 in 1916, having authored 50 books. London grew up in the working class and managed to become an “oyster pirate” on San Francisco Bay, traverse the Pacific on a sealing voyage, tramp across North America, join the Socialist Labor Party, drop out of college after one semester, prospect for gold in the Klondike, and become a critically acclaimed and financially successful writer—all by age 24. It was a life of adventure, and also one of frenzied excess by conventional standards, with no shortage of drinking, smoking, and carousing. Daring, outspoken, politically radical, amazingly imaginative, and emotionally complicated, London was a vibrant and flawed embodiment of contradictory—and peculiarly American yearnings. Works like The Call of the WildWhite Fang, “To Build a Fire,” “The Apostate,” and The Sea-Wolf capture the harshness of Darwinian struggle and the atrocities of capitalist exploitation that the author encountered throughout his hardscrabble youth and on his varied travels. London was a prolific writer who benefitted from a growing readership during the early 20th century in what has been called the “Golden Age of the Magazine.” He designed his narratives to appeal to a popular audience and serious readers alike. In a 1913 letter, he described his fiction technique: “On the surface is the simple story any child can read—full of action, movement, colour. Under that is the real story, philosophical, complex, full of meaning. One reader gets the interesting story, the other sees my philosophy of life.” While often action-oriented, his writing tends to dramatize a variety of serious ideas from thinkers who defined his era and remain relevant to our own: Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Darwin, Marx, Spencer, as well as Jung and Freud.

Your book incorporates a wide range of theoretical developments in London scholarship. How did you organize the book to assess London’s writings?

The book focuses primarily on London’s major writings, along with a few lesser-appreciated texts, to help readers engage the depth, diversity, and complexity of his thematic interests. I chart the philosophical influences and literary contexts in which London formed his fiction technique and developed themes that focus on reciprocal ethics, Darwinism, alienation, the interplay of agency and determinism, and his development of a pragmatic idealism. I also examine London’s responses to colonialism and race, particularly in his Pacific fiction. Overall, my approach offers a useful introduction for readers less familiar with London, and for more seasoned scholars, it incorporates new perspectives related to evolutionary psychology, existential primitivism, and animal studies.

What have you found in your examination of London’s works? How does he engage with and challenge the social, political, and philosophical revolutions of his era?

For starters, London was one of the first major writers to engage the biological reality that humans are essentially another animal. He vigorously challenged the notion of human exceptionalism in his era and argued that efforts to establish human entitlement were motivated more by hubris than by valid scientific inquiry. In regard to our own species, London was deeply intrigued by the coexistence of individualism and communalism, and much of his writing centres on the tensions between our egotistic instincts for self-preservation and our inborn cooperative tendencies. Though he recognized that interactions between biology and culture were intricately entwined, on a general socio-political level, London thought that capitalism tended to accentuate our selfish, predatory tendencies, while socialism tended to evoke our more prosocial, altruistic behaviours. His dystopian novel The Iron Heel and even his ‘caveman’ novel Before Adam, highlight how an egotism-altruism conflict is at the core of most of our personal, political, and ecological relationships. In the book, I assess London’s nuanced appreciation of evolutionary theory as conceptualized by Darwin, Huxley, Spencer, and others. His response to evolution is considerably more textured than commonly appreciated. The ‘animal’, for instance, is often a positive category of being in his writing, while humanity is burdened by rationality and devitalized by overcivilization. London, though, does not sponsor a simplistic primitivism or a naïve return to nature. Still, in contrast to his Victorian predecessors, he is more interested in recovering certain instinctual drives rather than subduing them.

How do you think this book will pave the way for further research into the works of Jack London?

When it comes to evolution, literary scholars have traditionally focused on the ruthlessness of social Darwinism, ‘animalistic’ savagery, and instinctual selfishness. Of course, these biases are understandable because such antisocial subjects are plainly present in London’s fiction, but brutish instincts alone do not fully encompass his work’s crucial thematic implications. London’s writing consistently represents what is now termed evolved morality—social instincts, altruism, and solidarity. He recognised that our cooperative inclinations are intrinsic to what it means to be human—instinctually and culturally. The lone wolves never survive for long in London’s fiction. My book examines how his work anticipates recent theories on the prosocial aspects of evolved morality as developed by the primatologist Frans de Waal and the anthropologist Christopher Boehm. Foremost, I hope my book will lessen the divide between the humanities the sciences and show that both fields have much to offer one another. I also hope the book will encourage further research in literary studies and other disciplines that will support a more holistic consideration of how the complex interrelationships among human instincts and cultural influences combine to shape a variety of behaviours and social arrangements.


Kenneth K. Brandt is a Professor of English at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He is the Executive Coordinator of the Jack London Society, the editor of The Call: The Magazine of the Jack London Society, and the co-editor of Approaches to Teaching the Works of Jack London.

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