BOOK: Charles Darwin’s Looking Glass

Some readers here might be interested in this new book which looks at the intersection of British literature and Darwin or evolution:


Dominika Oramus, ed., Charles Darwin’s Looking Glass: The Theory of Evolution and the Life of its Author in Contemporary British Fiction and Non-Fiction (New York: Peter Lang, 2015), 150 pp.

Publisher’s description The book offers a comparative analysis of diverse Darwinism-inspired discourses such as post-modern novels, science fiction, popular science and nature films. Analysing the uses of the evolutionary discourse in recent literature and films, the study demonstrates how natural science influences the contemporary humanities and how literary conventions are used to make scientific and popular-science texts intelligible and attractive. Charles Darwin’s Looking Glass shows how and why today’s culture gazes upon the myth of Darwin, his theory, and his life in order to find its own reflection.

Table of contents here. Charles Darwin’s Looking Glass is available through Amazon or the publisher’s website.

ARTICLE: Deceived by orchids: sex, science, fiction and Darwin

A new article of interest in the British Journal for the History of Science:

Deceived by orchids: sex, science, fiction and Darwin

Jim Endersby

Abstract Between 1916 and 1927, botanists in several countries independently resolved three problems that had mystified earlier naturalists – including Charles Darwin: how did the many species of orchid that did not produce nectar persuade insects to pollinate them? Why did some orchid flowers seem to mimic insects? And why should a native British orchid suffer ‘attacks’ from a bee? Half a century after Darwin’s death, these three mysteries were shown to be aspects of a phenomenon now known as pseudocopulation, whereby male insects are deceived into attempting to mate with the orchid’s flowers, which mimic female insects; the males then carry the flower’s pollen with them when they move on to try the next deceptive orchid. Early twentieth-century botanists were able to see what their predecessors had not because orchids (along with other plants) had undergone an imaginative re-creation: Darwin’s science was appropriated by popular interpreters of science, including the novelist Grant Allen; then H.G. Wells imagined orchids as killers (inspiring a number of imitators), to produce a genre of orchid stories that reflected significant cultural shifts, not least in the presentation of female sexuality. It was only after these changes that scientists were able to see plants as equipped with agency, actively able to pursue their own, cunning reproductive strategies – and to outwit animals in the process. This paper traces the movement of a set of ideas that were created in a context that was recognizably scientific; they then became popular non-fiction, then popular fiction, and then inspired a new science, which in turn inspired a new generation of fiction writers. Long after clear barriers between elite and popular science had supposedly been established in the early twentieth century, they remained porous because a variety of imaginative writers kept destabilizing them. The fluidity of the boundaries between makers, interpreters and publics of scientific knowledge was a highly productive one; it helped biology become a vital part of public culture in the twentieth century and beyond.

BOOK: Complexity: The Evolution of Earth’s Biodiversity and the Future of Humanity

This new book might be of interest to this blog’s readers:


William C. Burger, Complexity: The Evolution of Earth’s Biodiversity and the Future of Humanity (Amherst, NY: Prometheous Books, 2016), 380 pp.

Publisher’s description Tracing the arc of evolutionary history, biologist William C. Burger shows that cooperation and symbiosis have played a critical role in the ever increasing complexity of life on earth. Life may have started from the evolution of cooperating organic molecules, which outpaced their noncooperating neighbors. A prime example of symbiosis was the early incorporation of mitochondria into the eukaryotic cell (through a process called “endosymbiosis”). This event gave these cells a powerful new source of energy. Later, cooperation was again key when millions to trillions of individual eukaryotic cells eventually came together to build the unitary structures of large plants and animals. And cooperation between individuals of the same species resulted in complex animal societies, such as ant colonies and bee hives. Turning to our own species, the author argues that our ability to cooperate, along with incessant inter-group conflict, has driven the advancement of cultures, the elaboration of our technologies, and made us the most “invasive” species on the planet. But our very success has now become a huge problem, as our world dominion threatens the future of the biosphere and confronts us with a very uncertain future. Thought-provoking and full of fascinating detail, this eloquently told story of life on earth and our place within it presents a grand perspective and raises many important questions.

ARTICLE: An Amphibious Being: How Maritime Surveying Reshaped Darwin’s Approach to Natural History

A new article in the journal ISIS:

An Amphibious Being: How Maritime Surveying Reshaped Darwin’s Approach to Natural History

Alistair Sponsel

Abstract This essay argues that Charles Darwin’s distinctive approach to studying distribution and diversity was shaped by his face-to-face interactions with maritime surveyors during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1831–1836). Introducing their hydrographic surveying methods into natural history enabled him to compare fossil and living marine organisms, to compare sedimentary rocks to present-day marine sediments, and to compare landscapes to submarine topology, thereby realizing Charles Lyell’s fanciful ambition for a superior form of geology that might be practiced by an “amphibious being.” Darwin’s theories of continental uplift, coral reef formation, and the origin of species all depended on his amphibious natural history. This essay contributes to our understanding of theorizing in nineteenth-century natural history by illustrating that specific techniques of observing and collecting could themselves help to generate a particular theoretical orientation and, indeed, that such practical experiences were a more proximate source of Darwin’s “Humboldtian” interest in distribution and diversity than Alexander von Humboldt’s writings themselves. Darwin’s debt to the hydrographers became obscured in two ways: through the “funneling” of credit produced by single-authorship publication in natural history and the “telescoping” of memory by which Darwin’s new theories made him recall his former researches as though he had originally undertaken them for the very purpose of producing the later theory.

ARTICLE: Liberal Evolutionism and the Satirical Ape

A new article in the Journal of Victorian Culture:

Liberal Evolutionism and the Satirical Ape

Kate Holterhoff

Abstract This article considers intersections between the doctrines of mid-Victorian liberalism and biological evolution using 1860s caricatures and satires from Punch. In the years following the 1859 publication of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, caricatures featuring satirical apes illustrated mutually supportive cultural attitudes about politics and science. Ideas of character united the discourses of mid-Victorian evolutionism with liberalism, and the confluence of these ideas, or what I term liberal evolutionism, dramatized this overlap for Victorian culture. My project shows that the apes depicted in Punch were often intended as not only whimsical responses to the theories put forward by Darwin and Mill, they also point to the formation of the British subject.

ARTICLE: Darwin’s “Mr. Arthrobalanus”: Sexual Differentiation, Evolutionary Destiny and the Expert Eye of the Beholder

A new article of interest in the Journal of the History of Biology:

Darwin’s “Mr. Arthrobalanus”: Sexual Differentiation, Evolutionary Destiny and the Expert Eye of the Beholder

Roderick D. Buchanan

Abstract Darwin’s Cirripedia project was an exacting exercise in systematics, as well as an encrypted study of evolution in action. Darwin had a long-standing interest and expertise in marine invertebrates and their sexual arrangements. The surprising and revealing sexual differentiation he would uncover amongst barnacles represented an important step in his understanding of the origins of sexual reproduction. But it would prove difficult to reconcile these findings with his later theorizing. Moreover, the road to discovery was hardly straightforward. Darwin was both helped and hindered by the tacit expectations generated by his transformist theorizing, and had to overcome culturally-embedded assumptions about gender and reproductive roles. Significant observational backtracking was required to correct several oversights and misapprehensions, none more so than those relating to the chronically misunderstood “Mr. Arthrobalanus.” With careful attention to chronology, this paper highlights some curious and overlooked aspects of Darwin’s epic project.