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‘What is meant by this system?’ Charles Darwin and the visual re-ordering of nature

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The issue of arranging and ordering nature to explain how species evolved within the context of divergence and variation, and then how to adequately illustrate it, was one which vexed Charles Darwin, and naturalists before him, for many years. This paper will consider the renegotiation of the ‘Great Chain of Being’ in light of Darwin’s hypothesis, and examines images used to explain the order of nature, from Darwin’s own visual imagining in the Origin of Species to more popular representations found in natural history books of the period. For Darwin, any visual or diagrammatic description of the natural system posed an almost impossible task; his method of explaining it in the Origin took the form of a branching model, but how did popularisers of natural history and zoology treat the order of nature? How were different animals, specifically mammals, arranged within such books and to what extent did this change as the century progressed and the debate intensified? This paper will offer an examination of illustrated zoologies, focusing on the imagery which allowed writers to provide a more enlightening and vivid expression of Darwinian concepts for the lay reader. Theories of divergence and variation were conveyed to a wider audience through natural history books but it will become apparent that the tree model, employed by Darwin, was often contradicted by the writers of these books in order to reassert a hierarchy amongst species.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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