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EMBL Forum Lectures


Arthur J. Conner Professor
of History Harriet Ritvo

Friday, 13 January 2012, 16:00, PETRA 48e Seminar Room, EMBL Hamburg

Harriet Ritvo, Arthur J. Conner Professor of History, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA

The (Very Gradual) Emergence of Darwin's Evolutionary Theory


Charles Darwin began thinking about evolution, variation, and selection as a very young man, in the course of his 5-year journey as the scientific companion to the captain of the Beagle. The ship stopped in the Galapagos Islands as it headed for home, and Darwin's evolutionary theory is often understood as a kind of "eureka" experience, inspired by his observation of the birds and tortoises indigenous to that isolated volcanic archipelago. Instead, Darwin developed his theory gradually after his return to Britain, during years of further thought, reading, and consultation with colleagues. He was famously reluctant to expose it to public scrutiny, and composed On the Origin of Species hastily, in response to a priority challenge from Alfred Russel Wallace.

The reception of the theory of evolution by natural selection has also inspired a popular version that features heightened immediacy and drama, focused on the confrontation between Thomas Henry Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce at the 1860 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Both these versions suggest a preference for producing and receiving romanticised and heroic versions of the history of science, and it is interesting to speculate about why this should be so. 

Examination of Darwin's life and work also suggests a way to understand the process, at least in his own case, and possibly more generally, in a more realistic, if less thrilling way. Darwin was a product of his times, intellectually and scientifically, as well as culturally and socially. He was, for example, far from the first person to focus on the similarities between people and chimpanzees. As he presented an argument whose revolutionary implications he well understood, he was also careful to anchor it in received understandings and familiar perspectives.


Harriet Ritvo teaches courses in British history, environmental history, the history of human-animal relations, and the history of natural history. She is the author of The Dawn of Green: Manchester, Thirlmere, and Modern Environmentalism (Chicago UP, 2009), The Platypus and the Mermaid, and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination (Harvard UP, 1997), The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (Harvard UP, 1987), and Noble Cows and Hybrid Zebras: Essays on Animals and History (Virginia, 2010). Harriet Ritvo is also the co-editor of Macropolitics of Nineteenth-Century Literature: Nationalism, Imperialism, Exoticism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), and the editor of Charles Darwin's The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998). Her articles and reviews on British cultural history, environmental history, and the history of human-animal relations have appeared in a wide range of periodicals, including The London Review of Books, Science, Daedalus, The American Scholar, Technology Review and The New York Review of Books, as well as scholarly journals in several fields.

She serves on the Board of Incorporators of Harvard Magazine; on the editorial boards of Environmental History, Victorian Studies, Victorian Literature and Culture, Agricultural History Review, and Animals and Society, and as editor of the Animals, History, Culture series published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and past President of the American Society for Environmental History. Her research has been supported by fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Humanities Center, and the Stanford Humanities Center. She has received a Whiting Writers Award and a Graduate Society Award from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.