Victorian England and Natural History

2780 words (11 pages) Essay in Environmental Studies

04/09/17 Environmental Studies Reference this

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Victorian society is a time characterized by the rule of Queen Victoria in England, during the years 1837 to 1901. In the years leading up to it, ideas surrounding natural history began changing, and they were brought to a head by scholars in Victorian times. With more discoveries of fossils, interest in natural history and dinosaurs increased. Scientific study of dinosaurs and the history of the world increased and began to be a true avenue of research and discovery. Before the Victorian era, there were many beliefs that were held. Through scientific discovery these beliefs were tested and changed. Science and natural history gained popularity throughout the Victorian era and led to changing beliefs of the society as a whole, when scientific discoveries contradicted established beliefs.

Before Darwin and the theory of natural history, religious beliefs were considered to be the natural order of things. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century, religious beliefs needed to be reconciled with nature so that natural theology could be studied. In general, the natural world was understood through the Bible and was built upon faith rather than science (Thompson, 2008). Science is different from faith, because it has no connection to the upper power. It searches for the truth and begets change, which threatens religious beliefs. There were Christian beliefs that were accepted as truth, including a greater chain of being, a young Earth, and species are immutable (Thompson, 2008). All of these beliefs were tested by scientific discoveries of the Victorian era. Another important scientific creation pre-Victorian England was that in the eighteenth century, Linnaeus created a system for classifying the natural world. This system showed a transition from an ignorant, unstructured view of the past to a way of understanding species in relation to each other (Ritvo, 1997). By the Victorian period, classification was necessary to the understanding of natural history and Linnaeus’s method was generally accepted as the nomenclature that would be used. While the system of taxonomy did have some inconsistencies and ambiguous rules, it persisted and was used in practice when naming new species.

Victorian England was characterized by a growing industrial economy and a growing and valued middle class. According to James Camerini, in his essay Early Victorians in the Field, the “culture of early Victorian natural history was shaped by, and in turn shaped, the larger culture” (Camerini, 1997). With the growing working and middle class people, the pursuits of science were made possible. There was a growing commercial trade in natural history specimens and the information was made easier to access. According to Harriet Ritvo, “The global expansion of European influence in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, whether by means of conquest, politics, or trade, was both mirrored and expedited by the efforts of knowledge workers” (Ritvo, 1997). With more globalization, Early Victorian researchers, such as Charles Darwin and Henry Huxley, were able to travel with the navy on expeditions and collect specimens of species from around the world (Camerini, 1997). Natural history was becoming a hobby of the masses as well as the scientists who specialized in it. In the chapter, Natural History and the Victorian Tourist: Form Landscapes to Rock-Pools, Aileen Fyfe studied the connection between science and Victorian Tourism. Before the Victorian era, travel and tourism was only for the aristocracy, because no one else had the money or the vacation time to travel, which could last from a few months to years (Fyfe, 2011). In the second half of the nineteenth century, there was a change in domestic tourism in England, when the working class were gaining leisure time and railways made travel easier and faster (Fyfe, 2011). With more tourists, the activities tourists could do changed and expanded, including interest in natural history.

They were able to collect rocks, fossils, animals, plants that they sent back to England and these experiences led to their future research and discoveries.

One of the most contested discoveries of the Victorian era is the theory of natural selection. Charles Darwin wrote about and described this theory in his book, On the origin of species by means of natural selection. Darwin lays out his argument explaining that there is variation of species around the world because of the struggle for existence that all organisms are faced with. Natural selection is therefore acting in the good of each being, leading to the success of the species that is best suited for its environment (Darwin, 1859). Species are not permanent and can adapt to survive in their environment. According to Charles Darwin, “One general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.” (Darwin, 1859). His theory of natural selection contradicted many beliefs that were held at the time and revolutionized the species concept and it allowed for the theory of evolution. Evolution is the belief that species change throughout time and all living organisms evolved from the simplest forms of life.

There were many objections to Darwin’s theory at the time of its release. Natural selection contradicted many beliefs that were held at the time, such as a great chain of being, the Earth was young, and that species do not change and are permanent states. Some argued against Darwin’s theory. In an article published in the Spectator, the writer intended to show how the “broad facts of geology are directly opposed to” natural selection (Objections, 1860). The writer argues that species have been constant for thousands of years, and as such they would never change no matter how much time goes by. Instead of natural selection, the article references creation as the source of changes in conditions and what allows old species to disappear and new species to form (Objections, 1860). Before 1859, creationism, or the belief that all organisms living originated from a single creation moment particularly of divine nature, was the common belief. Victorian England was a primarily Christian society, and many beliefs were rooted in religious beliefs, before scientific discoveries proved them wrong.

The article mentions the fauna of the Mesozoic period, especially the reptiles from that

By the end of the Victorian period there were two major versions of evolutionary biology: Lamarckism and Darwinism. While mostly accepted by scientists today, Darwinism was highly contended when it came out, with Lamarckian beliefs being the most influential competitor (Fichman, 1997). Lamarck was the first to come up with an idea of species change, known as: the theory of acquired characteristics. Progressionism was the center of Lamarkism, since traits were acquired by an animal’s intentional actions and that trait could be inherited by future generations (Fichman, 1997). Organisms would therefore always be changing in response to their environment to become better suited for it. When the theory of evolution by natural selection came out, it also suggested progressionism. Instead of acquired characteristics, Darwin and Wallace believed in the appearance of random variations in nature, which were then sorted by natural selection based on whether the variation assists a species or not. The traits were inheritable, not acquired. Without the knowledge of genetics and mutations of genes, Lamarkism seemed more plausible, which allowed that theory to maintain its popularity and be discussed throughout the Victorian period (Fichman, 1997).

In the 1870s and 1880s, Darwinism, the belief in Darwin’s theory of natural selection, was growing in influence. This lead to the theory of evolution needing to reconciled with Christian doctrine. For example, Reverend Thomas Roscoe Rede Stebbing “wrote on ‘Darwinism, natural history, and theology’, including Essays on Darwinism published in 1871,” and his religious beliefs changed to be ‘consistent with the logic of science, but its roots were transcendental, emanating from a god of love and unselfishness'” (Beckett, 2011). He used Darwinism to explain the origin of human morality as well as some tenets of the church. Religious beliefs needed to be altered and texts needed to be interpreted differently so that they could be reconciled with the discoveries of science, such as evolution.

After Darwin, the shift of study went from collecting to identifying types, with a growing interest in conservation nature. The study of natural history at the time was very much tied together with other studies such as antiquarian and archaeological investigation, and there was never any clear distinction. The link between these studies was also tied with religion, because they looked at history as a combination of nature and human history. “History before man, or at least before man left records, was the history of nature” (Beckett, 2011). The focus of natural history studies was collecting and classifying throughout the nineteenth century. By the Victorian time period in England, popular interest in the geology and landscape was wide spread. Both amateurs and professionals were interested in the natural sciences, and began looking at, collecting and studying plants, animals, rock and fossils.

In the Victorian era, there was an increase in interest and understanding of animals from the past, including dinosaurs and their reptile relatives. In the year 1841, Richard Owen was the man to define the category of large terrestrial reptiles, that he called Dinosauria. He focused his research on paleontology, and worked on new species as they emerged. This group was known for having an open acetabulum in the pelvis. When these fossils were first found, there was the belief by members of the church that the fossils were created by God as fossils and that the beings were never alive. Palaentology though shows who life and death have gone on for thousands of years and in many different forms (Owen, 1860). Owen separated the Paleozoic into three periods, where different groups of animals dominated the landscape: the first by the fish, the second by the reptiles, and the third by the mammals (Owen, 1860). Even so, he believed the differences were not necessarily chronological changes but geographical ones, since the different periods were seen in different locations. Owen quotes Cuvier’s theories of that no parts of an organism without also changing other parts (Owen, 1860). Owen did not believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Tracing species back in time is a way to understand the way the earth was at that time. Owen did predict that Archeopteryx was a bird-like species, but made predictions about the face including “that the mouth was devoid of lips, and was a beak-like instrument” which was proven incorrect with the discover of other forms (Owen, 1863). Owen revolutionized the study of fossils but was incorrect in his believes regarding evolution.

While he did not know that modern birds are the descendants of theropod dinosaurs, he did believe that bird forms would have been founded as old as the Triassic. Owen wrote, “No actual remains of birds have been found in any deposit older than the chalk, yet their their existence long ages previous to this is certified to us by footprints in the sandstones of the Triassic or Liassic period, which cannot by any possibility have been made by any other animals” (Owen, 1860). Owen would not have believed though that the modern bird forms were at all related to non-avian dinosaur forms. Henry Woodward also talked about the scarcity of avian fossils. He mentioned that it was believed that birds were around in the Jurassic due to the footprints, which is Owen’s prediction from 25 years prior, but he now argues that the tracks may have been left by Dinosaurian reptiles, which have a tridactyle hind-foot like a bird (Woodward, 1885). With new data and analysis, Woodward was able to adapt Owen’s theory and get closer to the truth. He also did this with reconstructions of the Iguanodon, which originally discovered in 1825 and he talks about a previous interpretation done by a Waterhouse Hawkins and Richard Owen. The problem with the first reconstruction was the lack of knowledge and bones that were present for analysis with a discovery from 1878, which included multiple complete skeletons, they were able to reanalyze the bones and understand the specimen better (Woodward, 1895). Scientific discoveries throughout the Victorian era led to theories and predictions, which were either confirmed or denied with more research, as is the case with all hypotheses.

Ideas from biology were not just being adopted by scientists and were also being used and translated to be used politically in the changing times of the Victorian period, due to their growing popularity. In 1883, Francis Galton termed ‘eugenics’. He believed that races of mankind could be ranked by how many individuals with “high natural ability – which he defined as intellectual capacity, eagerness for work, and power of doing superior work” were born per generation (Fichman, 1997). When an inferior race came into contact with a superior one, it would be wiped away by the superior race. Eugenics was using Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Even so, it really was just a conservative aristocratic view of the world, which Galton attempted to use to create programs to limit the options of the ‘inferior races’. Huxley also played a large part in the connections between biology and politics. He worked to distance the ideas of evolution from ethical policies and sociopolitical disputes by discrediting the belief that nature is moral (Fichman, 1997). In Victorian England, scientists, such as Huxley, Tyndall, Leslie Stephen, and John Morley, were able to “create a largely secular climate of opinion in which the theories and metaphors of modern science penetrated the institutions of education, industry and government” (Fichman, 1997). They worked toward social and material progress which would also advance science and technology, drawing the the attention of the all people. By the 1840s, scientific world was a modern professional community, with the professional scientist status rising (Fichman, 1997). This meant that evolutionary biology was becoming more well-known, even outside of the scientific community. Biology and science was on the forefront of politics and people’s mind.

Since natural history gained popularity throughout the Victorian era among all people, the issues that were brought up by scientific discoveries and theories were discussed by all. Darwin in particular caused controversy in Victorian society, because the theory of evolution by natural selection shook the faith of the primarily Christian communities in England. Even though there were scientific theories before Darwin, his book was a turning point in understanding the world through religious beliefs and ideals. Science was in pursuit of the rules of nature, and while religion seemed to have already established them, new discoveries contradicted the ideas that most people prescribed to, such as a young Earth and immutable species. A growing interest in scientific theories and a decline in religion started in the Victorian era, with theories that began it prove religious beliefs to be incorrect.


Beckett, J., & Watkins, C. (2011). Natural History and Local History in Late Victorian and Edwardian England: The Contribution of the Victoria County History. Rural History, 22(01), 59-87.

Camerini, J. (Ed.). (1997). Early Victorians in the Field. In B. Lightman (Ed.), Victorian Science in Context (pp. 354-377). London: The University of Chicago Press.

Darwin, C., MA. (1859). On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favored races in the struggle for life. London: W. Clowes and Sons.

Fichman, M. V. (1997). Biology and Politics: Defining the Boundaries. In B. V. Lightman (Ed.), Victorian science in context (pp. 94-118). London: University of Chicago Press.

Fyfe, A. (2011). Natural History and the Victorian Tourist: From Landscapes to Rock-Pools. In C. W. Withers & D. N. Livingstone (Eds.), Geographies of Nineteeth-Century Science (pp. 371-398). London: The University of Chicago Press.

Objections to Mr. Darwin’s theory of the Origin of Species. (1860, April 7). The Spectator, pp. 334-335. Retrieved March 20, 2017.

Owen, R. (1860). Palaeontology or A systematic summary of extinct animals and their geological relations. The British quarterly review, 32(63), 179-202.

Owen, R. (1863). On the Archaeopteryc of von Meyer, with a description of the fossil remains of a long-tailed species, from the lithographic stone of Solenhofen. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 153, 33-47. Retrieved March 22, 2017.

Ritvo, H. (1997). Zoological Nomenclature and the Empire of Victorian Science. In B. Lightman (Ed.), Victorian Science in Context (pp. 334-353). London: The University of Chicago Press.

Thomson, K. S. (2008). Before Darwin: reconciling God and nature. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Woodward, H. (1885). VI.-On “Wingless Birds,” Fossil and Recent; and a Few Words on Birds as a Class. Geological Magazine, 2(07), 308.

Woodward, H. (1895). I.-Note on the Reconstruction of Iguanodon in the British Museum (Natural History), Cromwell Road. Geological Magazine, 2(07), 289.

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