BOOK: Orchid: A Cultural History

A new book by historian of science Jim Endersby (A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology, Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the Practices of Victorian Science) will interest not only historians, but plant enthusiasts, anyone with a general interest in natural history, and, although he is just part but not the focus of this book, Darwin aficionados. I am in the midst of reading it now, and enjoying its fluid narrative and wide range of content all centered on one type of plant, the orchid. Chapter 5 deals specifically with Darwin’s experiments on orchids and his 1862 book On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing.


Jim Endersby, Orchid: A Cultural History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 288 pp. 

Order through Powell’s City of BooksOrder through

Publisher’s description At once delicate, exotic, and elegant, orchids are beloved for their singular, instantly recognizable beauty. Found in nearly every climate, the many species of orchid have carried symbolic weight in countless cultures over time. The ancient Greeks associated them with fertility and thought that parents who ingested orchid root tubers could control the sex of their child. During the Victorian era, orchids became deeply associated with romance and seduction. And in twentieth-century hard-boiled detective stories, they transformed into symbols of decadence, secrecy, and cunning. What is it about the orchid that has enthralled the imagination for so many centuries? And why do they still provoke so much wonder? Following the stories of orchids throughout history, Jim Endersby divides our attraction to them into four key themes: science, empire, sex, and death. When it comes to empire, for instance, orchids are a prime example of the exotic riches sought by Europeans as they shaped their plans for colonization. He also reveals how Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution became intimately entangled with the story of the orchid as he investigated their methods of cross-pollination. As he shows, orchids—perhaps because of their extraordinarily diverse colors, shapes, and sizes—have also bloomed repeatedly in films, novels, plays, and poems, from Shakespeare to science fiction, from thrillers to elaborate modernist novels. Featuring many gorgeous illustrations from the collection of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Orchid: A Cultural History tells, for the first time, the extraordinary story of orchids and our prolific interest in them. It is an enchanting tale not only for gardeners and plant collectors, but anyone curious about the flower’s obsessive hold on the imagination in history, cinema, literature, and more.

Reviews of Orchid: H-Net; Times Literary Supplement
Radio programs about Orchid: Ideas (CBC Radio); WICN (90.5 FM in New England)
Endersby on orchids elsewhere: Cambridge Core blog;


BOOK: How Evolution Shapes Our Lives: Essays on Biology and Society

A couple of years ago, Princeton University Press published the huge volume, The Princeton Guide to Evolution (out in paperback in February 2017), which provides a large overview of evolutionary biology, as a science and its relationship to human society (you can read the introduction here). Now the press has condensed a variety of chapters that address evolution as it relates to human society into a shorter book.


Jonathan B. Losos and Richard E. Lenski, eds., How Evolution Shapes Our Lives: Essays on Biology and Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 416 pp.

Publisher’s description It is easy to think of evolution as something that happened long ago, or that occurs only in “nature,” or that is so slow that its ongoing impact is virtually nonexistent when viewed from the perspective of a single human lifetime. But we now know that when natural selection is strong, evolutionary change can be very rapid. In this book, some of the world’s leading scientists explore the implications of this reality for human life and society. With some twenty-three essays, this volume provides authoritative yet accessible explorations of why understanding evolution is crucial to human life—from dealing with climate change and ensuring our food supply, health, and economic survival to developing a richer and more accurate comprehension of society, culture, and even what it means to be human itself. Combining new essays with essays revised and updated from the acclaimed Princeton Guide to Evolution, this collection addresses the role of evolution in aging, cognition, cooperation, religion, the media, engineering, computer science, and many other areas. The result is a compelling and important book about how evolution matters to humans today. The contributors are Dan I. Andersson, Francisco J. Ayala, Amy Cavanaugh, Cameron R. Currie, Dieter Ebert, Andrew D. Ellington, Elizabeth Hannon, John Hawks, Paul Keim, Richard E. Lenski, Tim Lewens, Jonathan B. Losos, Virpi Lummaa, Jacob A. Moorad, Craig Moritz, Martha M. Muñoz, Mark Pagel, Talima Pearson, Robert T. Pennock, Daniel E. L. Promislow, Erik M. Quandt, David C. Queller, Robert C. Richardson, Eugenie C. Scott, H. Bradley Shaffer, Joan E. Strassmann, Alan R. Templeton, Paul E. Turner, and Carl Zimmer.

You can read the first chapter here.

BOOK: America’s Darwin: Darwinian Theory and U.S. Literary Culture

Tina Gianquitto and Lydia Fisher, eds., America’s Darwin: Darwinian Theory and U. S. Literary Culture (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2014), 401pp.

While much has been written about the impact of Darwin’s theories on U.S. culture, and countless scholarly collections have been devoted to the science of evolution, few have addressed the specific details of Darwin’s theories as a cultural force affecting U.S. writers. America’s Darwin fills this gap and features a range of critical approaches that examine U.S. textual responses to Darwin’s works.

The scholars in this collection represent a range of disciplines—literature, history of science, women’s studies, geology, biology, entomology, and anthropology. All pay close attention to the specific forms that Darwinian evolution took in the United States, engaging not only with Darwin’s most famous works, such as On the Origin of Species, but also with less familiar works, such as The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

Each contributor considers distinctive social, cultural, and intellectual conditions that affected the reception and dissemination of evolutionary thought, from before the publication of On the Origin of Species to the early years of the twenty-first century. These essays engage with the specific details and language of a wide selection of Darwin’s texts, treating his writings as primary sources essential to comprehending the impact of Darwinian language on American writers and thinkers. This careful engagement with the texts of evolution enables us to see the broad points of its acceptance and adoption in the American scene; this approach also highlights the ways in which writers, reformers, and others reconfigured Darwinian language to suit their individual purposes.

America’s Darwin demonstrates the many ways in which writers and others fit themselves to a narrative of evolution whose dominant motifs are contingency and uncertainty. Collectively, the authors make the compelling case that the interpretation of evolutionary theory in the U.S. has always shifted in relation to prevailing cultural anxieties.

Darwin and Evolution in Cartoons and Caricatures

Visual representation in science is the study of how images can inform an understanding of scientific practice and the production and dissemination of knowledge. There will be at least two worskshops on this topic in the next year (here and here). The description of one describes images as “occupy[ing] a special place… for their power to encapsulate scientific knowledge, their capacity to communicate to various publics, and their flexibility in the production of meanings by the interaction of producers and users.” For this month’s edition of the history of science blog carnival, The Giant’s Shoulders and it’s theme of visuals and representations in science,  I thought I’d share some information about Darwin and evolution in cartoons and caricatures.

Jonathan Smith looked at visual representation within Darwin’s various books in his 2006 book Charles Darwin and Victorian Visual Culture (Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture) (you can read the first chapter as a pdf). One could look at Darwin portraiture and photography, maybe Janet Browne has, and how specific images have been used to push a particular way of looking at Darwin. The Darwin year saw many books looking at Darwin and his impact on art. Constance Clark’s 2001 article in The Journal of American History, “Evolution for John Doe: Pictures, the Public, and the Scopes Trial Debate,” is about the “role of visual images of evolutionary ideas published during the [Scopes]debate.” And Heather Brink-Roby’s article “Natural Representation: Diagram and Text in Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species,” in Victorian Studies, looks at how Darwin used diagram and text “not simply to argue for, but also as evidence of, his theory.” Also, analyses of the March of Progress imagery of evolution and other representations (like trees of life) would fit into visual representations (see here and here, and of course Gould’s Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, specifically chapter 1, “Iconography of an Expectation”).

Where do political cartoons and caricatures fit into this? Surely, such images were avenues of knowledge for the public, and how a cartoon represented Darwin or evolution (anti-evolution, pro-evolution, etc.) had an impact on the viewer, and evolution was used as a means to comment on society and culture or whatever was in the news. I know of at least two historians of science who have published on the topic:

Browne, Janet. “Darwin in Caricature: A Study in the Popularisation and Dissemination of Evolution.”Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 145:4 (December 2001): 496-509. (also, see my post 19th-Century Caricature Prints with Tyndall, Darwin caricatures at The Primate Diaries, and Darwin caricatures at Genomicron)

Davis, Edward B. “Fundamentalist Cartoons, Modern Pamphlets, and the Religious Image of Science in the Scopes Era.” In Religion and the Culture of Print in Modern America, edited by Charles Lloyd Cohen and Paul S. Boyer, 175-98. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008.

Davis presented at the History of Science Society meeting in 2009 on “Demonizing Evolution,” sharing some of the fundamentalist cartoons. Since Google Books won’t let me see the cartoons in the article, I’m not sure if those in his talk are the same as those in his article, but I will share a few from his talk:

Sunday School Times, June 1922

Why be an ape--? (London, 1936)

Sunday School Times, January 1929

no source given for this one

These cartoons in the era of the Scopes trial present evolution as: dangerous to one’s faith (learning about and accepting evolution will creep into one’s religious life), “modern” education is cheating on God and the Bible; evolution is anti-religion; evolution is sacred and religious itself; the theory of evolution is collapsing, full of speculation and not fact-based. Much of these claims are still used today, by many creationists and intelligent design proponents who spend more time trying to discredit evolution than convincing us that their view is scientific. Such cartoons and anti-evolution pamphlets, according to Davis, “provide new insights into the intense debate about the meaning of science and the nature of religion that took place among American Protestants in the 1920s. From popular publications such as these, we see just how the fundamentalists and the modernists both attempted to influence public opnion about the religious image of science in the decade of the Scopes trial” (193).

There is a wonderful resource for political cartoons that do the opposite of demonizing evolution. Historian of science Joe Cain has brought to our attention the ephemeral journal Evolution: A Journal of Nature, which ran from 1927 through 1938, 21 issue in all, and he provides a publication history for it in a 2003 article for Archives of Natural History. Evolution was “a monthly platform for pro-evolutionist perspectives and as a device for rebutting anti-evolutionists. It also aimed to bolster the resolve of teachers caught in the centre of curriculum debates.” Its purpose was laid out in the first issue:  “This magazine will help bridge that gap by furnishing a forum in which science itself can speak in popular language without fear of the restraints with which fundamentalists are seeking to shackle them.” Among the articles within Evolution were scores of political cartoons. Cain has made all the issues available (also available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library) and a page with some of the cartoons. Here are a few:

Unfortunately, Evolution was not a great success (hence, only 21 issues). By its 12th issue, the journal touted its 5,000 subscribers, and provided a list of how many by state. Interestingly, it had the most subscribers in New York City (675), California (551), New York State (494),  Illinois (486), and Ohio (299). A few others in the 100-200 range (including Pennsylvania), and the rest under 100, including all states in the South.

I will also point out another website, put togteher by Mark Aldrich, called Cartooning Evolution, 1861-1925, broken up into Darwin and EvolutionEvolution as Social CommentVictorian ScienceFundamentalist PublicationsThe Scopes Trial: Northern NewspapersThe Scopes Trial: National Magazines, and The Scopes Trial: Southern Newspapers. Here’s a sampling, but be sure to check out the website itself, there are many more. Enjoy:





puck 1885









New Journal: The Evolutionary Review

The Evolutionary Review

The Evolutionary Review

The Evolutionary Review:

provides a forum for evolutionary critiques in all the fields of the arts, human sciences, and culture: essays and reviews on film, fiction, theater, visual art, music, dance, and popular culture; essays and reviews of books, articles, and theories related to evolution and evolutionary psychology; and essays and reviews on science, society, and the environment. Essays in The Evolutionary Review implicitly affirm E. O. Wilson’s vision of “consilience,” that is, the unity of knowledge. They also give evidence that an evolutionary perspective can yield a richer, more complete understanding of the world and ourselves.

The first issue is set to come out this month.

CFP: Darwin’s Legacy: Evolution’s Impact on Science and Culture

From NCSE:

The Evolution Learning Community at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, will be hosting “Darwin’s Legacy: Evolution’s Impact on Science and Culture” — a multidisciplinary student conference to be held March 19-21, 2009. The conference will be a unique opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students in the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and arts who are conducting research or creative endeavors related to evolution to present their research, investigate graduate study opportunities, network, enhance their CVs, and enrich the body of knowledge surrounding evolution. Abstracts are due on January 30, 2009; authors will be notified of acceptance by February 12, 2009.

Abstracts may be submitted to any of the following theme sessions: evolution and the social sciences; evolution and religion; evolution and human uniqueness; economics of evolution and its consequences; the biodiversity crisis and conservation; Darwin’s impact on art, music, and literature; sex and evolution; genomes, race, and medicine; evolution and ethics; the future of humanity; species in space and time; speciation and the species problem. Note that papers need not be submitted to a theme session; presentations on any topic related to evolution are welcome. In addition to the student presentations, there will be addresses by keynote speakers, including Kevin Padian, David Mindell, David Buss, and Peter Carruthers.