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Bugs and the Victorians

Bugs and the Victorians

Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    Bugs and the Victorians
    Book Description:

    In the wake of the Scientific Revolution, the impulse to name and classify the natural world accelerated, and insects presented a particularly inviting challenge. This lively book explores how science became increasingly important in nineteenth-century British culture and how the systematic study of insects permitted entomologists to engage with the most pressing questions of Victorian times: the nature of God, mind, and governance, and the origins of life.

    By placing insects in a myriad of contexts-politics, religion, gender, and empire-John F. McDiarmid Clark demonstrates the impact of Victorian culture on the science of insects and on the systematic knowledge of the natural world. Through engaging accounts of famous and eccentric innovators who sought to define social roles for themselves through a specialist study of insects-among them a Tory clergyman, a banker and member of Parliament, a wealthy spinster, and an entrepreneurial academic-Clark highlights the role of insects in the making of modern Britain and maintains that the legacy of Victorian entomologists continues to this day.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16003-1
    Subjects: History, History of Science & Technology, Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. viii-xi)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xii-xiv)
  5. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-13)

    In the closing decades of the eighteenth century, Englishman Henry Smeathman scrambled to the top of a Bugga bug hill with four other men. He had been informed of a ship in sight, so he had clambered up the twelve-foot clay hillock with his spyglass to get a better view. He was, however, no ordinary Englishman, and a Bugga bug hill was no ordinary landform. As an accomplished naturalist working and living in Sierra Leone, Smeathman knew that his elevated vantage point had been constructed by millions of termites, or Bugga bugs as they were known in West Africa. The...

  6. 2 The Politics of Insects
    (pp. 14-33)

    Reader of the MS. [manuscript], whoever thou art, let not the dulness of this beginning deter thee from proceeding …’ The Rev. William Kirby began his ‘Journal of an Entomological Excursion’ with this plea. As early as 1797, he clearly concerned himself with the potential audience for his entomological writings. Ultimately, his ambitions manifested themselves in his co-authoredIntroduction to Entomology. Introduced through a common friend and family relation, George Rodwell, in 1805, William Kirby and William Spence formed a friendship which, three years later, grew into a literary partnership. Between 1815 and 1826, the four volumes of theIntroduction...

  7. 3 Struggle for the Minds of Insects
    (pp. 34-53)

    Any attempt to understand the roots of the nineteenth-century passion for entomology must take into consideration the new position it assumed within theoretical speculations in natural history, and the wider ideological concerns that these speculations entailed. One of the most contentious debates in early nineteenth-century zoology addressed the relative roles of instinct and reason in animals. Entomologists were able to engage in these debates precisely because they studied tiny, alien insects. Control of insect minds provided a key to fundamental religious and political questions. Writing in early 1838 in his first notebook devoted exclusively to the ‘Transmutation of Species’, Charles...

  8. 4 Bees and Ants
    (pp. 54-79)

    In one of his first cartoons forPunch, Richard Doyle sardonically recorded the royal acquisition of transparent beehives at Windsor Castle in 1844. Entitled ‘Prince Albert’s Bee-Hives’, the cartoon depicted Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort examining a glass skep or bell jar (figure 4.1). Doyle, uncle to Arthur Conan Doyle, used his skills as an illustrator of children’s books to bring a fantastic quality to the German prince’s efforts at rational experimentation and manipulation of nature. Closer inspection of the hive revealed small fairy-like creatures engaged in various laborious tasks: scything grass, hammering iron, shifting heavy loads and producing...

  9. 5 Social Insects and Secular Science
    (pp. 80-104)

    In mid-Victorian England, secular science underpinned a generalist intellectual culture. Rejecting natural theology, John Lubbock (1834–1913), T. H. Huxley and their fellow travellers were committed to the creed of ‘scientific naturalism’. They therefore believed that all phenomena in the material world could be reduced to naturalistic explanations: revelation had no explanatory role in the realm of scientific investigation. Dalton’s atomic theory, the law of the conservation of energy, and evolution were their holy trinity. Their rapid success as cultural leaders rested upon their skilful mediation between scientific and lay cultures. Entomologist Lubbock, therefore, brought disinterested experimentation to a subject...

  10. 6 Darwin and the Entomologists
    (pp. 105-131)

    A mateurs have long been considered the lifeblood of entomology as a natural history pursuit. The limited tools required for collection, classification and nomenclature seemed to render natural history especially suited to enthusiasts and ‘devotees’ of nature. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, therefore, emergent professional scientists increasingly rejected the categories of ‘naturalist’ and ‘natural history’ as old-fashioned. T. H. Huxley and his fellow travellers promoted ‘biology’ as a unified medical and scientific study of the basic functions of all living organisms. Through the study of physiology and morphology, biologists brought the experimental method to higher education and...

  11. 7 The Colorado Beetle
    (pp. 132-153)

    In July 1877,Funny Folksparodied an ‘impending invasion’ of England by a small bug: ‘We recognize in him the pioneer of an army who will soon attempt to ravage our fields, bringing desolation to our hearths, and comport itself generally like a conquering force in a subjugated country …’ A New World insect, the Colorado potato beetle (Doryphora(nowLeptinotarsa)decemlineata), seemed poised to launch an assault on the potato crops of Britain (figure 7.1). The ensuing response to this threat of ‘biological invasion’ provides historical insight into the relationships between scientific knowledge and politics at a time of...

  12. 8 A Female Entomologist
    (pp. 154-186)

    Glowing tributes in the popular press and learned journals marked the death of Eleanor Anne Ormerod (1828–1901) in 1901 (figure 8.1).The Timesindicated the breadth of Ormerod’s reputation by noting the death of ‘the accomplished entomologist’ as a ‘loss … not to this country alone but to the whole civilized world’. Other obituaries recognized her as a pioneer in a particular field of work ‘on which the best years of her life were lovingly expended’. Robert Wallace, Professor of Agriculture at the University of Edinburgh, contended that ‘she was universally acknowledged to be the greatest authority on economic...

  13. 9 Insects and Empire
    (pp. 187-215)

    In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the British metropolitan entomological community increasingly embraced the specialist science that Eleanor Ormerod had done so much to foster. The development of a discipline of economic entomology was not, however, a response to the grassroots appeals of farmers. Rather, it was a facet of late nineteenth-century ‘public science’ that yoked itself to the promotion of national efficiency and the ‘welfare of the Empire’. The growth of the administrative machinery of government and the push for professional technical education produced a new class of scientist: the expert. Unlike Huxley and his circle –...

  14. 10 House Flies
    (pp. 216-236)

    But I wish to tell you’, explained Dr Dolittle, ‘that I am very sad at leaving your beautiful country. Because I have things to do in the land of the Europeans, I must go. After I have gone, remember never to let flies settle on your food before you eat; and do not sleep on the ground when the rains are coming.’ With these sage words of advice, Dr Dolittle departed from the Land of the Monkeys. Writing in 1920, Hugh Lofting, Dolittle’s creator, chose to warn the simian natives of Africa not about the sting of the mosquito, nor...

  15. 11 Conclusion
    (pp. 237-244)

    By their own repeated admission, entomologists struggled to achieve recognition and respect throughout the nineteenth century. The diminutive size of insects rendered entomology a perceived ‘futile and childish’ pastime. Failure to outgrow the childish delight in insects was construed as deviant behaviour. Thus Moses Harris recounted the perhaps apocryphal tale of Eleanor Glanville, whose will was contested on the basis of her passion for butterfly collecting: a clear mark of lunacy. Joseph Conrad’s misanthropic Stein sought solace in his collection of beetles – ‘horrible miniature monsters, looking malevolent in death and immobility’. And Arthur Conan Doyle, on more than one...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 245-284)
  17. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 285-310)
  18. Index
    (pp. 311-322)