Intelligent Designs

A recurring motif of this course has been the ubiquitous magazine Punch. Since Punch‘s satirical cartoons popped up so frequently in our discussions of the Victorian era, I thought I’d take a sidelong glance at the historical (and ongoing) evolution debates by examining a contemporary homologue of Punch cartoons to see how evolutionary ideas and general reactions to Charles Darwin’s writing have (or haven’t) changed in the last century and a half.

Advanced Technology. Image by Randall Munroe (

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…Poor shameful Jenny, full of grace, thus with your head upon my knee;–
Whose person or whose purse may be the lodestar of your reverie?…
What, Jenny, are your lilies dead?
Aye, and the snow-white leaves are spread like winter on the garden-bed…
Jenny, you know the city now. A child can tell the tale there, how
Some things which are not yet enroll’d in market-lists are bought and sold…
Our learned London children know, poor Jenny, all your mirth and woe;
Have seen your lifted silken skirt advertize dainties through the dirt…
What has man done here? How atone, great God, for this which man has done?…
Like a rose shut in a book, in which pure women may not look…
I think I see you when you wake, and rub your eyes for me, and shake
My gold, in rising, from your hair, a Danaë for a moment there….

Jenny” – Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)

One of the oft-cited themes of the Victorian era is the trend of professionalization. Intellectual history had previously favored polymaths. Leonardo da Vinci, the paradigmatic Renaissance man, was a painter, sculptor, musician, writer, inventor, architect, engineer, and geologist – among other things. Not much had changed by the Enlightenment, which was dominated by men like Benjamin Franklin, a politician, author, printer, postmaster, inventor, and physicist. In the nineteenth century, though, specialization gradually became the norm. Charles Darwin is a sort of transitional figure in this trend: he began medical training in Edinburgh, then attended Cambridge to prepare to enter the clergy; while at Cambridge, though, he spent much of his free time on amateur entomology, and after his voyage on the Beagle, he basically stuck with naturalism for the rest of his life (although he did pursue a much wider range of subjects within the natural sciences than would be standard for scientists today, encompassing biology, geology, and psychology).
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Law and Order: ICU

The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

“Each injured person whose wounds fester has the right to ask his surgeon why.” Artifact located at the Science Museum in South Kensington, London.

I often hear people complain that modern American society is absurdly litigious. From the man who sued a beer company for “false and misleading advertising” when he never met the beautiful girls shown in the commercials, to the one who demanded $67 million from his local dry cleaners in compensation for the “mental anguish” he experienced when they lost a pair of his pants, Americans are famous for pointing the finger of expensive blame everywhere but on themselves. But I’m not convinced that this is merely either a modern or an American phenomenon. I know I’m only seeing about a half a percent of the whole picture, but at least from the glimpses I’ve gotten this summer, Victorian England definitely tended towards litigation fever.

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Naming of Parts

Surely, Mr. Darwin’s theory is none the worse, morally, for having some foundation in fact.

Asa Gray (1810-1888)

Earlier, I considered the development of new professional terminology (like the word “scientist”) during the Victorian era. To-day, we have naming of parts once again. We’ve already heard about natural philosophers (who were later known as physicists or astronomers) and natural historians (who, roughly, turned into biologists, geologists, and ecologists). But what’s the modern-day homologue of a natural theologian? Natural theology was a common context for Victorian discourse in science and its sociopolitical implications. But what was it all about?

Coming into the discussion, I thought I pretty much knew. “This must be another branch of the natural sciences,” I thought, “just like natural history and natural philosophy, except from a religious perspective.” I figured a natural theologian would, say, study the geological remnants of the Flood, or analyze the biological implications of the Bible. I was on the right track as far as subject matter, but I had made a fundamental error. I was approaching the question as a 21st-century student of human evolutionary biology, so my focus was off-center. Natural theology is not a branch of science, but a branch of religion. The hot topic of the moment wasn’t natural theology; it was natural theology.
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Ship Happens

A full day of traffic on the Thames, condensed into one image. Photo by Alisdair MacDonald, via The Daily Mail Online.

Traffic was a real problem in London long before the advent of the car. The Thames was a major artery for commercial transport – one which became fatally clogged after the industrial revolution. It is said that in the early nineteenth century, you could cross the Thames without ever getting your feet wet by simply stepping from one ship to the next. If that was true, it might have been your best bet for getting across, because there was no other way to cross on foot. For one thing, there were no bridges. Since huge ships (some with masts over a hundred feet tall) needed to travel down the Thames every day, any bridge would need to be taller than the tallest ship; in order to make a bridge that tall with a gradient gentle enough to be manageable by horses with carts, the approaching ramps would have to be impossibly long. (The technology to build bridges which open in the middle to allow ships through was decades away.) You could take a ferry across, but that was both slow (due to all the floating traffic) and prohibitively expensive. In fact, if you had cargo to transport, the price of crossing the Thames was comparable to the price of crossing the Atlantic ocean. That’s right: sending your goods from Southwark to Soho was nearly as expensive as sending them from Bristol to Boston. An alternative method of transportation across the city was desperately needed.

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Loos in the Time of Cholera

Man is an intelligence in servitude to his organs.

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963)

Le Parlement de Londres, soleil couchant - Claude Monet (1903). Image by National Gallery of Art, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the summer of 1858, the Members of Parliament abandoned their beautiful waterfront building in London and fled to Oxford. Why? No political upheaval was brewing. No angry mob pounded on the doors. No deadly natural disaster threatened the capital. No terrorist plot was uncovered. No extraordinary criminal activity frightened people away. In fact, in that unusually hot summer, the stench of the River Thames simply became so offensive that spending the day in Westminster was absolutely unbearable.

For much of the nineteenth century, the Thames was essentially an open sewer, alternately sloshing and stagnating its slimy way through London. The river was (and still is) very tidal; its unpleasant contents tended to drift back and forth repeatedly before finally flowing out to sea. And what were those contents, exactly?
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Supply and Demand

They tell us it was necessary for the purposes of science. Science! Why, who is science for? Not for poor people. Then if it be necessary for the purposes of science, let them have the bodies of the rich, for whose benefit science is cultivated.

William Cobbett (1763-1835)

Since I’ve made it my mission to graduate from Harvard without taking Ec 10, I don’t know much about economics. What little I do know can be summed up in three words: supply and demand. When the supply of a commodity can’t meet the demand for it, prices skyrocket, and competition heats up. Capitalism rewards creativity, and finding an innovative way out of a supply bottleneck can be incredibly lucrative.

Case in point: Imagine you are a medical student. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to understand the human body. For centuries, you would do this by reading the works of Galen in a dead language. By the eighteenth century, however, people like John Hunter were beginning to point out that there might be a better way. At the time, physicians were (like today) among the upper crust of society, while barber-surgeons were mere manual laborers. You read that right: you would get your leg amputated by the same person who cut your hair. In the hierarchy of manual labor, barber-surgeons were ranked seventh; milliners were at the top. Physicians would use their book-learning to diagnose diseases, often without actually touching their patients, and would select a treatment (such as blood-letting) to be performed by a barber-surgeon, or a drug (like an herbal blend) to be prepared by an apothecary. People like Hunter, however, thought that fluency in Ancient Greek might be a less important item in a good doctor’s toolkit than, say, knowledge of the circulatory system. He left Scotland to help run his older brother William’s cutting-edge anatomy school in London. Together, the Hunters helped bring anatomy to the forefront of medicine, through both research and education.
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