Nathan K. Hensley and John Patrick James, “Soot Moth: Biston Betularia and the Victorian End of Nature”


The darkened form of the common peppered moth, biston betularia f. carbonaria, known colloquially as the “soot moth,” was virtually unknown in England prior to 1800. The first reliable field specimen was collected outside of Manchester in 1848, plucked from the heart of Victorian England’s rapidly expanding coal economy. With their black abdomen and wings, these darkened morphs contrasted starkly with what had once been the more frequent form: a white-bodied moth lightly speckled with black and brown. As scientific studies now show, the black morph appeared as a result of industrial manufacture, first around major production centers and later around London. This article traces those studies to argue that the emergence of this particular form of melanistic moth signals a sharp pivot in Britain’s environmental history: its appearance augurs a new fossil modernity, in which coal replaces wood and animal fats as the primary source of English energy, and as stored sunlight, archived as coal, takes center stage as the driver for an endless steam-powered project of worldmaking. Tracing studies of “industrial melanism” to its origins at the beginning of this extractive, fossil-fueled modernity helps us see the soot moth’s emergence as a watershed moment in the history of life and a new chapter in humankind’s relationship to the category of nature.

I. “A remarkable change”


“With compliments from the smoke.”

“Biston Betularia, or Peppered Moth.”

With its black abdomen and coal-colored wings, the “soot moth”—a melanistic form of the common peppered moth—was virtually unknown in England prior to the nineteenth century. Incomplete datasets date the earliest known specimen to 1811, but this example is considered to be of “unknown provenance” (Saccheri et al. n.p.). The first reliable field record of what scientific studies call a “completely black morph” was collected outside of Manchester in 1848 (Brakefield et al. 16212), plucked from the heart of Victorian England’s rapidly expanding coal economy in the midst of the vertiginous growth of that new energy system.[1] Fifty years later, in 1896, James Tutt reflected on the stunning emergence of this new variety of biotic life by telling the story of the soot moth’s morphology, using the template of an industrial novel. In this story of emergence, the pale A. betularia gives way, near “our large towns,” to a darkened cousin:

The speckled A. betularia, as it rests on a trunk in our southern woods, is not at all conspicuous, and looks like a natural splash or scar, or a piece of lichen, and this is its usual appearance and manner of protecting itself. But, near our large towns where there are factories, and where vast quantities of soot are day by day poured out from countless chimneys, falling and polluting the atmosphere with noxious vapours and gases, this Peppered Moth has, during the last fifty years, undergone a remarkable change. (Tutt, British Moths, 305)

The moths continued to proliferate from England’s epicenter of industrialization, to the point that, by the turn of the twentieth century, the black forms comprised approximately 90% of recorded specimens around Britain’s urban and industrial centers (Cook 400). As we will explain, the “remarkable change” Tutt identified, a discovery subsequently replicated in scientific studies across the twentieth century, came about by natural selection. In unpolluted forests, the flecked or white form of the moth blends in on the tree trunks where it rests, and the black variety doesn’t, making the latter targets for predation by birds. In forests blackened by coal pollution, the opposite is true, and speckled varieties stand out against dark trunks, making them easy prey. It is a test case of how, by means of what Charles Darwin had earlier described as the “principle of preservation,” the “variations useful to [an] organic being” are—under pressure of predation and competition—preserved, maintained, and eventually become dominant (98).

Darwin helped found the nation’s leading body for the study of insects, the Entomological Society of London, in 1833. Despite this, he never wrote about the soot moth specifically. But biston betularia (the f. carbonaria was added in 1869, to signal the form’s relationship to carbon energy) has long been a feature of introductory biology textbooks, since it presents a particularly vivid and temporally condensed example of Darwin’s signal theory. Instead of morphology happening in the almost infinite span of gradual time Darwin imagined for formal alteration—a “lapse of time … so great as to be utterly unappreciable by the human intellect” (341)—the soot moth emerged in less than a single human generation. So where gradualist theories of natural history, following on the uniformitarian model of Charles Lyell, understood variation to happen over eons—at a temporal scale “unconscious” and “insensible” (29) to human observers, as Darwin repeats—the melanistic changes to biston betularia happened in a geological heartbeat: just fifty years or so was enough to invert the population numbers of these two varieties. This astonishing temporal acceleration makes the case useful for study by high school students, since variation transpires at a rate we can see. More importantly, biston betularia’s morphology underscores the dramatic effect of human action on biotic processes and “natural” mechanisms, since it shows that natural selection might not be so natural after all, at least if we understand “nature” to refer to a realm of being outside of or untouched by human activity—complexities of definition we explore below. The soot moth is a test case, then, for showing how industrialized carbon transfer and systematic ecocide alter the very structure of life in the Anthropocene.

From the perspective of the environmental humanities, the emergence of this particular form of melanistic moth is perhaps most significant because it correlates with—and, as science confirms, was caused by—a sharp pivot in Britain’s environmental history. This was a moment when coal had sufficiently replaced wood, muscle power and animal fats as the primary source of English energy, and when prehistoric sunlight, archived into lumps of dense black material, began to be used not just in homes but as the dark fuel for endless steam-powered applications, from railroads to cotton mills. The industrial apocalypse of England’s coal-fired modernization project generated not only energy-intensive forms of western life in their familiar guise as material comfort (for some) and human immiseration (for more). By giving rise to the soot moth—“one of the best-established and clearest illustrations of adaptive evolution” (Diamond and Bond 41)—the era also generated an anthropogenic footnote to the Darwinian mechanism of adaptability, by which pressure from a surrounding ecosystem or “environment” alters the structure of biotic organisms. The twist here is that the environmental pressure working so effectively to determine a new shape for life was entirely man-made. For this reason, the remarkable emergence and flourishing of the soot moth can be seen, we think, not just as a central moment in the history of evolutionary biology, nor simply as an allegory of Victorian England’s emergent and then maturing extractive economy. It is also a key episode in man’s still-changing relation to the category of “nature.”

Building on earlier work by Raymond Williams, Timothy Clark opens the Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment by parsing at least three mutually exclusive definitions of nature that now mix in ecocritical discourse.[2] Nature, Clark notes, can mean (1) the essence or defining characteristic of something; it can mean (2) “the sum total of the structures, substances, and causal powers that are the universe,” a usage that would include human beings within the category. But the term also, and most powerfully, has been used to indicate (3) “the non-human world, the non-artificial,” where nature stands as what is outside of or opposed to the human as such: this, Clark says, is a sense in which “culture and nature are opposed” (6-7). It is this latter sense Bill McKibben had in mind when in 1989 he announced “the end of nature” under conditions of climate change. We hasten to add, as McKibben did, that during the long lifetime of the species homo sapien, no category of nature understood as independent from humankind has ever existed (except, perhaps, as cultural invention): we are animals too. Still, this ideological formation has forcefully determined cultural attitudes toward the nonhuman world for centuries. While Timothy Morton, in Ecology Without Nature, proposed abandoning the category entirely, Jesse Oak Taylor suggests, by contrast, that under climate change, “‘nature’ becomes all the more present as an imagined absence, conjured up by the very attempt to unmask it as illusion” (4-5). Oak Taylor coins the term “abnatural” (ab-, “away from” and “derived from”) to refer “to both nature’s absence and its uncanny persistence”—if only as an ideological residue (5). What we add to this debate over our post-, non-, or abnatural present is a point about periodization: it was at the moment we focus on here, on or about 1848, that human action was confirmed in scientific terms to have definitively shaped the course of biotic evolution, collapsing any still-lingering divide, ontological or conceptual, between nature and culture. This discovery installed into the scientific record the fact that human action could now redraw the very blueprint of life on earth.

All this suggests that the amateur scientists combing the woods outside Manchester and conducting trial studies with moths and birds among the darkened trees were among the first witnesses of the Anthropocene—the name, as is now well known, for the proposed geological epoch in which man’s presence has permanently and measurably altered the composition of earth systems.[3] Our claim here advances on work by Oak Taylor and others who have located in the nineteenth century traces of our allegedly new geological predicament.[4] Our suggestion is that the combination of biotic morphology and man-made pollution embodied in the soot moth makes this tiny flying insect a test-case for thinking about the interfusion of human and nonhuman worlds in the so-called Age of Man.If the collapse of the nature-culture distinction embodied in this tiny moth did not register with its full force for observers at the time, it is precisely because of this epistemic lag that we turn to this exemplary insect now. In what follows, we recount the controversies around Tutt’s initial claim that the soot moth emerged and flourished because of coal pollution; describe Bernard Kettlewell’s twentieth century attempts to prove that claim; and chart subsequent parsings of the evidence, some of which were funded by anti-evolution creationist foundations. Finally, we revisit the questions about the category of “nature” raised by this tiny moth. The essay that follows thus attempts to measure the monumental shift in the order of life we claim is augured by the soot moth: a shift in which, for the first time in the history of the earth, human agency in the form of industrial pollution recognizably altered the course of biotic evolution. By reconstructing this watershed moment in the history of life, we begin to understand a key moment in what we could call the beginning of the end of Nature.

II. Blasted landscapes

As noted above, the soot moth, or biston betularia f. carbonaria, differs sharply from the “original phenotype,” biston betularia f. typica, in several important ways. Laurence M. Cook and I. J. Saccheri note that the common peppered moth is characterized by a mere “sprinkling of black marks” over a “white background” of abdomen and wings (“Peppered Moth”). The soot moth, by contrast, is mostly black, with occasional flecks of gray along the thorax. White rings sometimes mark their antennae and legs. Often they are entirely black. A glance at the photographs below will show why, in the choked-out perimeters of the Great Towns, the white moths—whose pepper-colored bodies had previously served as camouflage against the lichen—became easy targets for predatory birds. Unlike their lighter cousins, the darker moths blended with the newly soot-covered trunks, and evolution took its toll: black moths survived to reproduce with other black moths, and the frequency of the highly melanic morphs expanded exponentially. In locations further removed from urban centers, where human populations were less dense and coal soot less choking, the darker moths appeared later and less frequently.

Common (bottom right) and melanistic (top left) peppered moths

Common (lower right) and melanistic (top left) peppered moths

Despite consensus that environmental factors decisively shaped the soot moth’s evolution, the inherent caution of scientific method has prevented the potentially startling fact of anthropogenically-directed evolution from registering with its full force beyond the circles of professional biology—though Paul Beatty’s 2015 novel, The Sellout, drew on the moth’s story to allegorize gentrification.[5] In contrast to Beatty’s bold allegorization, evolutionary biologists have approached this tale with a degree of caution: scientists argue on the one hand that the carbonaria morph represents a quintessential example of natural selection and allude, always, to the priority of pollution in that process; but they point out, on the other, that myriad environmental factors beyond pollution might also have contributed to its morphological shift. Such caution or (in James Hansen’s words) “scientific reticence” (1) makes sense: it is of course difficult to account for every factor at play within an ecosystem; it’s even harder when you’re doing it more than a century removed. But subsequent experiments have confirmed that the soot moth’s emergence not only correlated with but was caused by industrial pollution. What historians, biologists, and even literary scholars can derive from this fact is a remarkable story about the coincidence of anthropogenic climate change and “natural” selection: the headline of this story is that a new form of life proliferated amid the rise of industrial manufacturing in Britain, a life form uniquely adapted not only to endure but to prosper in the waste spaces and altered landscapes of early fossil capitalism. In this sense the moth, like the Matsutake mushrooms Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing describes in The Mushroom at the End of the World, exemplifies the forms of resilient being able to thrive in what Tsing calls “disturbance based ecologies” (5): the “blasted landscapes” that characterize “the ruin that has become our collective home” (3). “What emerges,” Tsing asks, “in damaged landscapes, beyond the call of industrial promise and ruin?” (18).

The moth is an early answer to Tsing’s question. It thrived in spaces literally blackened by the nineteenth century’s gathering fossil-fueled economy, contaminated zones where certain preindustrial fauna could no longer endure, but new forms inched tentatively into being and began, even, to flourish. While reaching their apogee in the factory-town industrialism of midcentury, the carbon-based capitalist processes that gave carbonaria its big break had of course been taking place since the late eighteenth century, when James Watt’s separate condenser allowed early steam engines to transform fossilized plant life into energy, harnessing more force in less space and rendering the steam engine implementable in a factory setting. As Robert C. Allen notes, these new engines required only “8.8 pounds of coal per horse-power hour” (167), increasing the need for coal even as they burned the resource more efficiently. But while William Blake deplored London’s “dark Satanic Mills” (8)—a likely reference to London’s short-lived map iconAlbion Mills—as early as 1804, the steam-powered factory system reached a kind of apex at midcentury. According to Andreas Malm, the “engine capacity in cotton mills rose by a stunning 62 percent between 1835 and 1838, amounting to an addition of 15,377 hp in three frenzied years,” leading to “a maximum potential steam power capacity of 30,982 hp” throughout Britain in 1835. This was an astounding leap, reflecting a rapid reform in the energy potential of Great Britain. Still, water mills and human muscle continued to power the majority of cotton mills throughout England and Scotland. A “second sprint,” which, in Malm’s words, came in the “mid-1840s,” pushed “82 percent of total hp in the British cotton industry” to steam power (80). By 1850, nearly 40% of Britain’s total economy was dependent on coal, “freeing” the production of everything from textiles to flour from its “dependence on wind, water and muscle.” From 1850 to 1870, “two-fifths of the growth in British labour productivity” could be attributed to steam power (Allen 156). As Timothy Mitchell notes, this coal economy also effected a new concentration of labor, since coal-based production worked most efficiently when this new geophysical product could be disseminated along narrow distribution channels (railways) toward large hubs of concentration, conversion, and combustion (cities). The resulting steam-powered metropolises were the sacrifice zones of a gathering fossil modernity and were, as Engels attested in his awestruck exposé of Manchester, all but antithetical to life as such. For Engels, these blasted landscapes and zones of “black” misery were almost too difficult to describe:

[O]n re-reading my description [of Manchester], I am forced to admit that instead of being exaggerated, it is far from black enough to convey a true impression of the filth, ruin, and uninhabitableness, the defiance of all considerations of cleanliness, ventilation, and health which characterize the construction of this single district. (92)

Engels catalogued the human misery of the Great Towns by referring to “the social war, the war of each against all” inside these dark urban slums (69). In the areas outside them the struggle for existence played out at a smaller scale, in coal-darkened forests formerly home to lichens the color of eggshells.

By the mid-nineteenth century, when carbon emissions caused many of those lichens to die off and the trees themselves to go dark, the moths benefitting from this environmental shift were those whose genetic makeup included a dark allele, then only about 0.01% of biston betularia populations (Hart et al.). By 1895, the percentage of black moths around Manchester registered—as noted above—at over 90% (Cook 400). These new melanistic traits emerged only to assure survival and reproduction in a world now altered definitively by what poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called “man’s smudge”:

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
(“God’s Grandeur,” ll. 5-8).

Embedded in the alliterative motion of line six, Hopkins’ “trade” and “toil” name a capitalist modernity that immiserates human beings, since it turns them into “shod” beasts, their feet never touching the earth. But it is a crime also visited on the earth itself, which is “smudge[d]” and debased, Hopkins tells us, by the standardizing, mechanical processes of extraction and labor that threaten “generation” itself. This violence Hopkins tropes with successive thumping iambs, “have trod, have trod, have trod.”[6]

From the point of view we advance here, the phenomenon of soot moth morphology in Britain is but an early, and heavily concentrated, sign of the deadening but perversely generative process Hopkins describes. It is one indicator of how aggregated human action can become coded into the structures and processes of life itself, an act of poesis at evolutionary scale. But since this new code-writing was driven not by bioregional climate factors but by the pressures of anthropogenic pollution, the effect entomologists now refer to as industrial melanism was not at all isolated to Manchester. From 1848 to 1860, sightings of carbonaria moths became frequent throughout Lancashire and Yorkshire, eventually spreading throughout the North and East of England and along the Welsh border. Melanistic moths also appeared in the Netherlands, and the massively polluted cities of the North American continent eventually earned their own morph: biston betularia cognataria (Brakefield et al. 16212). The effect is not local to moths: “following the advent of large scale air pollution,” biologist David W. Rudge observes, a broader “trend toward darker forms” has emerged in myriad species across the globe (“Tutt” 494). In this sense, industrial melanism is a phenomenon of fossil modernity at its full global scale.

Dining hall of Exeter College, Oxford, 1908, covered in soot.

While effects from the industrial-scale incineration of coal were perhaps most evident near manufacturing centers, where forests went dark and workers could hardly breathe, domestic usage of this black fuel also increased. The combination of coal consumption in factories with its use in the home caused the presence of “smoke and sulfur and nitrogen gases” to become “appallingly intense” across much of England (Cook 400). This is especially true of London, whose population had grown rapidly in the Industrial era, in keeping with Mitchell’s point that the energy system of coal worked on a principle of concentration, drawing workers from the countryside toward “the end-points and main junctions” of the “narrow, purpose-built channels” by which energy now moved (19). For his part, Cook cites “the darkness of the skies and blackness of the buildings” that typified such cities in the period, explaining that “attempts to control pollution were largely ignored” (400). As Oak Taylor documents in The Sky of Our Manufacture, London’s so-called fogs were in fact not fog at all, but dense miasmas of chemical and soot pollution whose toxicity produced subtle variations of color, thickness, and quality. These light-shows of fossil modernity generated, in one 1905 description:

swirls of orange-colored vapour … momentarily mixed with the black, as if the celestial artist was trying the effects of some mixing of colours on his sky-palate [sic], and through these gigantic rents there suddenly appeared, like the spars of wrecked vessels, the chimneys of the houses opposite. Then the rents would be patched up again, and the dark chocolate-covered pall swallowed up the momentary glimpse. But the commotion among battling vapours grew ever more intense: blackness returned to one quarter, but in another all shades from deepest orange to the pale gray of dawn succeeded one another. (Qtd Brimblecombe 125)

Such effects could be inspirational, as J. M. W. Turner’s canvases of this period suggest. They were also deadly, incompatible with the maintenance of human and nonhuman life. Fogs killed some 1,100 people in London in a single four-day fog event in January 1880 alone, and in 1873 “many of the cattle which were in London at the Great Show at map iconIslington are said to have died of suffocation. A large number of the beasts still living had to be put out of their misery” (Brimblecombe 124, 123). Oak Taylor’s catalogue of air pollution’s effects on Victorian fiction explains that coal’s choking ubiquity in the period is reflected in any number of the period’s canonical texts. In the opening pages to Bleak House (1853), for example, Charles Dickens famously describes the “[s]moke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle,” mixing with “flakes of soot … as big as full-grown snowflakes” (3). In 1884, John Ruskin noted the presence of carboniferous material in the atmosphere, describing what he referred to as the “modern plague-cloud”: a series of meteorological “phenomena hitherto unrecorded in the courses of nature, and characterized pre-eminently by the almost ceaseless action of this calamitous wind” (30-1). The atmosphere of dread famously suffusing Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde (1886) wouldn’t be atmosphere at all but for the tendrils of pollution curling around the story’s gothic events. It was not until 1897 that the first carbonaria moth was found in London (Cook 400), but by that time coal-pollution was far advanced there. Yet another deadly fog event struck the city in 1892, this time killing around a thousand people (Brimblecombe 124), while levels of sulphur dioxide and chloride fluctuated at intermittently deadly rates throughout the century’s final decade. This toxic milieu was nevertheless its own kind of life-generating engine, a backdrop for what Tsing calls “multispecies world making” amid damaged zones (22). As the soot moth shows, and as Hopkins intuited (“And for all that, nature is never spent”), even the poisoned air of dirty England could spur unprecedented creative changes to the structure of life. “Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death,” as Darwin had written, “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved” (360).

III. 4,864 moths

It wasn’t until fourteen years after Darwin’s death, in 1896, that the entomologist J. W. Tutt first suggested the soot moth as proof for the theory of natural selection. Tutt argued in his British Moths (1896, expanded over the course of two decades into a larger series, Natural History of the British Lepidoptera, 1890-1911) that the rise in carbonaria moths was due to what he referred to as environmental factors, by which he meant human-made changes to the forest ecosystem, that he saw correlating with this otherwise unaccountable increase with bird predation in soot-altered forests. Only in the 1950s was Tutt’s theory tested. Bernard Kettlewell, then a researcher at the University of map iconOxford’s Department of Genetics, obtained a grant to study industrial melanism in general and biston betularia specifically. He conducted three surveys between 1952 and 1972 in order to prove scientifically that environmental factors had shaped the black moths’ emergence. His experiments included introducing moths and birds into an aviary, using the space as a control in order to observe predation patterns. Kettlewell demonstrated that, first, the birds did indeed prey on the moths and second, that when the dark moths were difficult for humans to see, they were similarly difficult for birds to detect. The experiment established an identifiable correlation between bird predation and the moths, though it did not necessarily prove Tutt’s theory. Kettlewell’s arguably most significant trial involved releasing tracked moths into the wild around Birmingham and also around the less polluted forests of map iconDeanend Wood, near Dorset. The experiment illustrated precisely what he’d hoped: dark-colored moths around industrial Birmingham became prevalent, while in the cleaner, less-polluted woods around Dorset, the lighter moths prevailed. As later and sometimes creationist-backed critiques would come to note, the study was not entirely definitive: other environmental factors might have been involved. But it provided what the scientific community had previously lacked: an empirical demonstration of Darwinian evolution. Kettlewell’s findings became so well known that, as noted above, biology textbooks began to cite them as a definitive example of Darwin’s theory; many do so to this day.

But as is common with groundbreaking contributions, doubters emerged, some scientific and others charged by a political or theological conviction to discount natural selection entirely. One of Kettlewell’s supervisors at Oxford, E.B. Ford, suggested that the melanistic moths were “better able to tolerate toxins present in the pollutants” (Rudge, “Melanism in Moths” 173), thus questioning the predation theory but reaffirming the connection between the uptick in melanism and environmental factors. More recently, Rudge has refuted the Kettlewell study while attempting to salvage its findings, claiming that “much of the research on industrial melanism since Kettlewell’s first investigations in the early 1950s, by him and others, has been an attempt to remedy” the many “perceived problems” in that early experiment (“Melanism in Moths” 175). The suggestion was that Kettlewell relied too heavily on Tutt in developing his hypothesis, “lump[ing] Tutt’s account among other previous speculative accounts” on moth evolution and ultimately finding what he (Kettlewell) sought from the outset (“Tutt” 505).[7] Further objection has come from what Cook calls “the antievolution lobby” (“Rise and Fall” 400). Judith Hooper’s tendentious Of Moths and Men (2002), for example, attacks both Kettlewell’s methodology and his biography, arguing that scholastic competition and compromised techniques render his findings unreliable. Kettlewell, she argues, too readily adopted the ideas of Ford and brought them with him “into the field,” where he could become “quite manic,” “sleeping little, forgetting to eat, frenetically overdoing” (xvi, 112). Hooper’sclaim is that, because of his eccentric nature, Kettlewell’s experiments were botched and haphazard, a consensus shared by certain science journalists in the 1990s, among them Robert Matthews, who writes in London’s Daily Telegraph (and whom Hooper quotes): “Evolution experts are quietly admitting that one of their most cherished examples of Charles Darwin’s theory … is based on a series of scientific blunders. Experiments using the moth in the 1950s and long believed to prove the truth of natural selection are now thought to be worthless” (n.p., qtd in Hooper 284-5).

Hooper’s character assassination, which takes the form of a journalistic exposé rather than academic study, has come under fire by geneticists for its own lack of rigor. Among Hooper’s detractors was Michael Majerus, a Cambridge geneticist, whose final study—the most extensive of its kind—definitively vindicates Kettlewell’s findings. Responding to the rapid decline of melanistic populations since 1970—largely attributed to strengthening environmental standards and, as a result, more lichen-rich and “less sooty” bark—Majerus released 4,864 moths over the course of six years, the “largest” sample size “ever attempted for any similar study” (Cook et al.).[8] Particularly in its observation of “local insectivorous birds,” Majerus established beyond scientific doubt a causal link between bird predation and rates of melanism, results that in this case found “selection pressure against melanics” (Cook et al.). These populations “disappeared faster than non-melanics,” about a quarter of whose disappearances “were owing to bird predation” (Cook et al.). The data was not compiled and published until after Majerus’ death in 2009: an unfortunate fact, since Hooper castigates Majerus as yet another of Kettlewell’s blundering disciples. Majerus’ study concludes that “new data, coupled with the weight of previously existing data”—by Kettlewell, Cook, and others—“convincingly show that industrial melanism in the peppered moth is still one of the clearest and most easily understood examples of Darwinian evolution in action” (Cook et al.).

IV. Touching the future

Majerus’ conclusion cuts through the thicket of reticence Hansen suggests characterizes scientific discourse about climate change: this reticence, Hansen notes, comes from a “pressure on scientists to be conservative” and to load claims with caveats, internal dissent, and hedges about major conclusions. Such caution is a key ingredient of the scientific method, but ill-suited (Hansen says) to “an issue with a short time fuse,” like anthropogenically-induced climate collapse (2). From the period we describe here and onward, scientific reason itself—disinterested, calculating, cautiously neutral—has been used as a conceptual technology to propagate the various material innovations (like the steam engine) that permitted the kind of energy extraction that quite literally made the moth on or about 1848. Almost exactly a century later, just as the Great Acceleration began in earnest, Max Horkheimer could note in 1947 that reason itself “has become completely harnessed to the social process. Its operational value, its role in the domination of men and nature, has been made the sole criterion” (21). “It is as if,” Horkheimer summarizes, “thinking itself had been reduced to the level of industrial processes … made part and parcel of production” (21). From the perspective we advance here, this means that certain forms of scientific reason have enabled and sustained the seeming productivity of our calamitous energy regime: structures of knowledge are intimately intertwined with, and help sustain, at a conceptual level, the extractive processes that define our present. From this it follows that scientism’s strict bias toward the neutrally empirical paradoxically prevents us from fully recognizing our present disaster, if not from feeling its effects. The point is that scientific reason has itself become an ideology, one that has seeped into our culture in ways we must learn to historicize and understand if we are to move beyond the binaristic logic of truth and non-truth, provable or unprovable claims, and into the truly interdisciplinary territory that might allow us to build new worlds from the ruins of present.[9] “It’s not easy to know how to make a life,” says Tsing, “much less avert planetary destruction. … [But we] can still explore the overgrown verges of our blasted landscapes—the edges of capitalist discipline, scalability, and abandoned resource plantations. We can still catch the scent of the latent commons—and the elusive autumn aroma” (282).

Tsing’s metaphor—of exploration at the verges of blasted landscapes—is an apt trope for the form of historical reconstruction and interdisciplinary assemblage that has guided our approach to the moth in this essay. As we’ve explained, professional consensus now affirms that the black variety of the peppered moth, corporeally matched to the newly soot-covered trees surrounding industrial centers, emerged and flourished because of anthropogenic pollution. That it took until 2009 to establish this correlation in a way that meets the empirical standards of the scientific method illustrates the danger of methodological reticence in the face of the gathering threats posed by climate change now. Our sense is that humanistic knowledge, cultural analysis, and historical accounts of our present emergency will be crucial not in dredging up new data, but in parsing what that data might mean for enduring together in a changing world. It is for this reason that we think this tiny moth opens an important prehistory to our anthropogenic present and condenses into biotic trope an epochal shift in Britain’s environmental history. This key moment in the history of extractive fossil capitalism is also a crisis point in the trajectory of environmental thought, where “nature” itself, as concept and material fact, has come undone.

Anthropogenic climate change will have, and already has had, more far-reaching consequences than a mere tweak to a single species’ morphology. But if the case of the soot moth tells us anything—and we think it should—it is, first, that human action rewrites the internal structures and microscopic, unreadable chemistries of everything from icebergs to insects; and second, that life can endure with remarkable resilience and creativity amid even the most apparently disastrous conditions. It follows from these points that the actions we take—from individual choices and collective work to systemic changes in the infrastructures that organize energy flows—influence ecosystems on a minor but also evolutionary scale. Our action touches the future. If we can labor even to imagine a future greener and more livable than the present, then worldmaking action at least becomes thinkable. It is to the precarious and damaged present—our postnatural condition, inherited from the Victorians—that the soot moth, mute and fragile and darkened to survive, bears witness still.

published August 2018

Nathan K. Hensley is Associate Professor of English at Georgetown University. He is author of Forms of Empire: The Poetics of Victorian Sovereignty and coeditor, with Philip Steer, of Ecological Form: System and Aesthetics in the Age of Empire. John Patrick James is a Ph.D. student in English at the University of California, Berkeley. His criticism is published or forthcoming in Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly  and on the blog of V21: Victorian Studies for the 21st Century, and his poems appear in Boston Review, Kenyon ReviewPoetry NorthwestBest American Poetry 2017, and elsewhere.



Hensley, Nathan K.; James, John Patrick, “Soot Moth: Biston Betularia and the End of Nature.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


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[1] 1848 was also the year Marx and Engels, with Manchester in mind, inventoried the new forms of exploitation made possible by fossil-fueled capitalism, in The Communist Manifesto. Predicated, as they note, on the “subjection of Nature’s forces to man,” modern capitalism “is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells” (Marx and Engels, n.p.).

[2] In “Ideas of Nature,” Williams explains that his title term “has a nominal continuity, over many centuries, but can be seen, in analysis, to be both complicated and changing”; and nature, he says, crystallizes more radically diverging ideas than any other keyword he has studied (67-68).

[3] Certainly the mainstreaming of coal production and inauguration of the energy-intensive forms of bourgeois life that have driven our ecological disaster suggest the nineteenth century as a possible place to look in the Anthropocene story, in which “nature,” as Fredric Jameson has noted, “is gone for good” (ix). Jameson is describing the cultural condition of late capitalism that he dates to the post 1970 period, but the soot moth is just one indicator of how, already by 1848, the process of “modernization” had advanced sufficiently that some of the “breaks,” “shifts,” and “irrevocable changes” Jameson identifies as central to postmodernity are already materially present.

[4] Recent studies that have argued for the Victorian century origins of the Anthropocene include, for example, Jesse Oak Taylor, The Sky of Our Manufacture; Oak Taylor and Tobias Menely, eds, Anthropocene Reading, and Nathan Hensley and Philip Steer, eds. Ecological Form: System and Aesthetics in the Age of Empire. See also Malm, Fossil Capital, and Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life.

[5] We thank Anne Gala for bringing this reference to our attention. Beatty writes:“We’re the black moths in that classic evolution photo, clinging to the dark, soot-covered tree … It always bothered me that in those photos, the white moth was invariably high up the tree trunk. What were those textbooks trying to imply?” (qtd. Gala 6).

[6] The “oil” that readers hear echoed in the rhymes “soil” and “toil” refers to that used in the Catholic liturgy, but within the context of the Victorian Anthropocene contemporary readers might be forgiven for anachronistically hearing reference to the hydrocarbon that has come to dominate fossil-fuel consumption from the twentieth century onward.

[7] While the early twenty-first century witnessed a flourish of backlash to Kettlewell’s study, the experiment has long attracted criticism, perhaps most notably from the zoologist Theodore David Sargent, who accused Kettlewell of training birds to target moths from the bark. See Sargent.

[8] Brakefield et al. estimate that by 2018 the carbonaria form will fall as low as 1% in some places, a steep decline from the near 90% prevalence of the form in the mid-twentieth century, though populations may retain an approximate 30% in some areas (16215).

[9] Moreover, as scholars of the nineteenth century know well, scientific and humanistic modes of inquiry didn’t quite crystallize into what we think of as disciplines until midcentury (and in many cases, much later). As Devin Griffiths among others has vividly demonstrated, the separation between the two cultures of science and humanities breaks down definitively when viewed historically.