Harriet Ritvo

Harriet Ritvo a professor at MIT, is the author of The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age.

Poor Darwin

Harriet Ritvo, 26 July 1990

Few scientists have provided the occasion for such an expense of ink as Charles Darwin. Although for much of his career he was appreciated only by a relatively small circle of fellow specialists, the publication in 1859 of The Origin of Species brought him to the attention of a much larger public. And the labelling as ‘Darwinism’ (or Darwinisme or Darwinismus) of a variety of Late Victorian views on matters biological, anthropological and sociological ensured that at least his name, if not precisely his work, would continue to command a high level of recognition. The importance of Darwin’s own ideas and the influence and contentiousness of some of the views that have been associated with them are not, however, the only reasons he has attracted the attention of so many commentators, both among his contemporaries and in the century since his death. The testimony of colleagues, friends and family suggests that he had an attractive personality as well. But, perhaps best of all from the point of view of later generations of writers, he was an enthusiastic saver of documents and thus left ample testimony on both counts. In recent decades Darwin has been well served by archivists and editors; his papers are readily accessible to researchers, his notebooks are now available in print, and the fifth volume in the magisterial edition of his correspondence was published earlier this year. So full has been the scholarly harvest of these rich primary materials that it is often referred to as ‘the Darwin industry’.

Before Darwin

Harriet Ritvo, 24 May 1990

Like 1066, 1688 and 1492, 1859 is an iconic date, indissolubly connected in the minds of schoolchildren and former schoolchildren to a single, conveniently packaged occurrence: the invention of Evolution in Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. It is, however, a date that does not figure in Adrian Desmond’s masterful account of the initial rise and decline of evolutionary theory in Britain. While Darwin was still afloat on the Beagle, transmutation, as it was usually called in the 1820s and 1830s, had become a hot topic in some London scientific circles. But these were not the circles frequented by Darwin on his arrival home in 1836. Nor was the transmutation of the 1830s, in any of its versions, the same as the doctrine propounded by Darwin two decades later. The engine of change, for one important thing, was the inherent plastic power of organisms, rather than natural selection.

The Name of the Beast

Armand Marie Leroi, 11 December 1997

During the second half of the 18th century, the great enterprise of sorting out the biological world was at its most dynamic and magnificent. Empire-builders were sending home animals, indeed...

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