University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science > Charles Darwin and the margins between flora and fauna in the 1870s: the case of insectivorous plants

Charles Darwin and the margins between flora and fauna in the 1870s: the case of insectivorous plants

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On a prolonged summer holiday to the boggy Sussex hollows in 1860, Darwin stumbled across insect-eating sundews. His kitchen experiments (stimulating, heating, poisoning, and cutting them) became a distraction from his writing and letters, and his daughter Henrietta’s illness. He was free to let these macabre experiments dictate future problems to solve, becoming fascinated by their animal-like responses, and how they caught and digested prey. The project was shelved until the early 1870s, when he began to investigate a broader range of species of insectivorous plant that trapped, drowned, poisoned, smothered, anaesthetised, and glued their victims. As he grappled with his ignorance of ‘vegetable physiology’, Darwin sought help from prominent physiologists and chemists working on animal topics, including John Burdon Sanderson, Michael Foster, Emanuel Klein, Thomas Lauder Brunton, and Edward Frankland. He persuaded usual suspects like Hooker, Gray and Thiselton-Dyer to work with him on his new passion. The resulting specialist monograph sold less than 3,000 copies in Darwin’s lifetime, and has been largely ignored by Darwin scholars. Yet it is important in showing how Darwin’s later work was far from parochial in the cutting-edge scientific ideas that it mobilised, the networks of scientists that it galvanised, and the philosophical questions of the boundaries between plant and animal, and the evolution of ‘nervous matter’, that it addressed.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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