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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context of Origins of Species

Britain’s Imperial & Industrial Century

Darwin’s life coincides with an era of global expansion that is sometimes known as the "Pax Britannica" or Britain’s "Imperial century."  Following the diplomatic settlement of the Napoleonic War in 1815, Britain emerged as the dominant power in Europe, with its Royal Navy firmly in control of sea lanes worldwide.  In addition to formal colonies such as India and Australia, Britain also maintained an "informal empire" of commercial zones-of-influence in the Mediterranean, East Asia and South America. The goods, materials and markets of this far-flung empire helped fuel the industrial revolution in Britain, enriching the commercial-industrial middle classes and funding their artistic, scientific and political endeavors.  The imperial project involved all sectors of British society and the dual mission of ruling and reforming the "uncivilized" people of the world became a critical part of British self-identity in this period.

HMS Beagle Laid Ashore for Repairs in Tierra del Fuego by Thomas Landseer, 1838.  (Wikimedia Commons)  In 1831, the Beagle embarked on a five-year voyage surveying South America and New Zealand for the British admiralty. Darwin was onboard as a gentleman’s companion to the ship’s captain Robert Fitzroy. HMS Beagle Laid Ashore for Repairs in Tierra del Fuego by Thomas Landseer, 1838. (Wikimedia Commons) In 1831, the Beagle embarked on a five-year voyage surveying South America and New Zealand for the British admiralty. Darwin was onboard as a gentleman’s companion to the ship’s captain Robert Fitzroy. The 19th Century also saw the triumph of machine-based industrial production and the factory system in the United Kingdom. Although these developments increased productivity and the availability of consumer goods, they also involved wide-scale social dislocation and impoverishment in both city and countryside.  Workers lashed out through the destruction of agricultural machines, strikes, mass demonstrations and attempts at parliamentary and electoral changes. The British elite, fearing a replay of the French Revolution, responded with violent repression, restrictive Poor Laws and workhouses, as well as gradual electoral reforms. Before 1832, less than 3 percent of the total population in England, Scotland and Wales had the right to vote; by 1884, about 60 percent of English men were enfranchised.  Massive population growth and rebellions and famines in Ireland (then part of the United Kingdom) further compounded the turmoil.  Facing this domestic crisis, many of Britain’s elite saw the poor of their own country as among the "uncivilized" peoples they were destined to govern, tame and uplift.  Others, inspired by the works of Thomas Malthus and Herbert Spencer, began to doubt whether the lower classes could be redeemed at all.

 

Victorian Culture

Although A Tale of Two Cities is set during the French Revolution, its opening lines encapsulate the spirit of Dickens’ Victorian Age: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”   The reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), which began just after Darwin returned from his Beagle voyage, was marked by cultural extremes and deep ambivalences.  On one hand, the Victorians, according to Gregory Radick, were fascinated by “machines, competition, empire and progress,” and their ambitions yielded modern sanitation, advanced water and drainage systems and the most far-reaching public health system of its time. Expanding literacy and new forms of popular entertainment helped create a mass culture preoccupied with novelty and self-improvement. Millions of people attended the Grand Exhibition of 1851 in London, for instance, to marvel at new technologies such as daguerreotypes, the Jacquard loom and the Colt revolver.  At the same time, other strands of Victorian culture from the rural Luddites to the Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite artistic movements rejected industrial progress in favor of nature, the occult or an idealized vision of the medieval past. Led by the example of the Queen herself, refinement and self-restraint were the official watchwords of Victorian society - not only in the moral daintiness now associated with the word “Victorian,” but also in the cultivation of aesthetic taste and emotional sensitivity.  However, historians now emphasize that this public ideology belies the reality of “the other Victorians,” which included criminals, slum dwellers, sex workers and pornographers, yellow journalists, and brutal colonialists. These figures also haunt the literature of the age, from the monsters and vampires of Gothic novels to the sadistic megalomaniac Mr. Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.   

 

Rhea darwinii by John Gould, 1841. An illustration from the Zoology of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle. (Wikimedia Commons)Rhea darwinii by John Gould, 1841. An illustration from the Zoology of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle. (Wikimedia Commons) Science in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Like most scholars of his time, Darwin himself was not a professional scientist but a "gentleman naturalist" who supported himself through family wealth and connections while pursuing his intellectual passions. Over the 19th Century, however, middle-class men were increasingly able to participate in science through positions as clerks, teachers, surveyors or engineers. Indeed, the very word “scientist” to describe a person whose profession was the investigation of nature was first coined in 1833.  This professionalization of science was just one part of a broader change in the way nature was studied.  In the early 19th Century, the activities we consider science were split between the practical activities that took place in workshops and factories, and the academic study of “natural philosophy,” which tied together moral, metaphysical and empirical concerns.  Particularly in England, the dominant understanding of nature in the early 19th Century was informed by "natural theology," or the idea that the purpose of investigating geology, botany and zoology, etc. was to understand God through his Creation.  Darwin himself was educated in this tradition, and he admired and collaborated with leading natural theologians of his day. Even after Continental scholars and British radicals had begun advocating for a strictly materialist approach to the study of nature, however, the conservative British reaction to the French Revolution slowed the adoption of new methods and institutions into British science. Much of the furor over On the Origins of Species and The Descent of Man was driven by this late-breaking conflict between old and new philosophies of science, as well as the resentment of lay and middle-class naturalists towards the well-born clerics who still controlled most scientific departments in British universities.  

 

Written by Jay Gundraker, History, Columbia University

 

Works Consulted:

Janet Browne. “Darwin, Charles,"  The Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science, edited by J. L. Heilbron. Oxford University Press, 2003 

Jonathon Hodge and Gregory Radick, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Darwin. 2nd ed. Cambridge UP, 2008