This article focuses on the publication of Darwin’s final book (1881) in the context of Darwin’s larger attempts to resist the habitual anthropocentrism of human beings. It begins with Darwin’s discussion of animal cognition and the senses of worms. It concludes with his emphasis on the significant effects worm digestion has on the landscape and the fertility of the earth. The article links Darwin’s Worms Edwin Abbott’s 1884 novella Flatland, arguing that both texts are engaged in dismantling human perceptions that stem from possessing a highly visual brain, and that both throw doubt on the belief that a single objective world exists independent of particular observers.
In his B Notebook on Transmutation (1837-38), Charles Darwin speculated that the “introduction of man” on the evolutionary scene was “nothing” compared to the insect, which he considered “the first thinking being.” More than any other class of life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, insects and other invertebrates raised questions about the origins of mental experience and about the relationship between human and nonhuman nature. Their minds represented scientific insight at its limits, where traditional modes of observation and empirical experiment gave way to less certain tools of analogy and thought experiment. Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) provides a useful historical touchstone for the evolution of these analogies and thought experiments, having constrained the field of plausible analogy from one that included physiology, philosophy, and theology, to the central analogy of common ancestry, or the shared evolutionary history of organisms. However, while Darwin’s theory of descent may have displaced other analogies, it did not replace them, and well into the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, invertebrate minds continued to inspire a variety of both novel and relic assumptions and methods for examining mental affinities with our spineless distant cousins.
1792 witnessed the publication of the complete version of Erasmus Darwin’s The Botanic Garden, a lengthy nature poem that surveyed the state of science in its day. The Botanic Garden proved immensely popular on its publication but later fell out of favor as the Anti-Jacobin took aim at its liberal politics. This paper focuses on one of the most notorious sections of the poem, in which Darwin describes his plan to change the world’s climate via iceberg destruction. The argument traces the reception of Darwin’s climate imagery from its initial reception through its redeployment in the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Although The Botanic Garden and its plan for climate intervention might be framed in terms of what philosophers call the “negative event”—an event that fails to happen—Darwin was essentially correct in his assertion that the technologies of the industrial revolution could be used to change the climate of the globe.
In 1789, Gilbert White publishes The Natural History of Selborne, which encapsulates in epistolary form his natural history observations of a single parish for forty years. Selborne’s way of looking at nature—attentive, local, and reverent—popularizes a way of looking at nature that persisted in popular natural history throughout the nineteenth century. The importance of White’s natural history, both in itself and through its afterlife as a canonical text, depends on our understanding its key orientation: nature as seen through the lens of ecology and reverence.