The History of Life
This geological chart appears in the Bridgewater Treatise of the Oxford geologist, William Buckland. These treatises were intended to demonstrate the compatibility of science with Christianity. The ordering of geological strata—and indeed the debate over whether humans could truly reconstruct the chronology of the planet—was a primary goal of early-nineteenth-century geologists. Their reconstructive work resulted in images like this, which provided a time-traveller’s eye-view of the Earth’s history, matching geological strata with the fossils discovered within them.
In Petrifactions and Their Teachings (1851), Gideon Mantell provided a guide to the fossils on display on the British Museum. One of the most important early researchers on the extinct animals that would come to be called dinosaurs, Mantell was also a well-known popular writer on the earth sciences. This edition of Petrifactions from the University’s Special Collections was signed by Mantell and presented to the President of the Geological Society of London, William Hopkins.
Evolution was in the air long before Darwin. In Vestiges, published anonymously by the journalist Robert Chambers, a variety of evolutionary speculations were synthesised into a gripping book that became a sensational talking-point. Enticing for huge swathes of the public but disgusting and immoral for many more, Chambers’s persuasive arguments made his book one of the most frequently-published works of the century. Despite intense criticism of Vestiges from the scientific community, the ‘evolutionary epic’ of life’s forward progress soon became an established literary genre.
The nineteenth-century edition here accompanies the 1969 Leicester University Press reprint. Leicester's ‘Victorian Library’ series was an invaluable part of the Victorian Studies Centre’s work in making accessible books that typically had not been reprinted since the nineteenth century.
In On the Origin of Species, Darwin introduced readers to natural selection, his mechanism for evolution. Through his homely examples of pigeon-breeding and tangled riverbanks, Darwin largely avoided the dramatic progress narratives used by earlier writers on evolution. His painstaking evidence helped to make the discussion of evolution more socially acceptable both within elite scientific communities and beyond. Printed again and again in new editions, Darwin continuously re-crafted his argument.
Published a few years after his friend Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Huxley’s Man’s Place in Nature was a far more provocative text. It explored the implications of human evolution that Darwin had hardly touched upon. Huxley was a prominent man of science who argued eloquently for more extensive state support for scientific research and teaching. His strident arguments for the importance of science in culture, accompanied by his evidence for humanity’s ape ancestry, were controversial and influential.