Bugs and the Victorians

Michael Worboys enjoys an account of the birth of the study of insects in the 19th century

Author: John Clark
Publisher: Yale
Reviewed by: Michael Worboys
Price (RRP): £25

Charles Darwin has been everywhere this year due to the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. He appears again in this splendid history of insects, entomologists and entomology in the long 19th century. Darwin was known as a devoted beetle collector while at Cambridge and kept up this interest all his life. For up-to-date entomological knowledge, he increasingly relied upon his next door neighbour John Lubbock and Clark’s account of their relationship illustrates important themes of the book: professionalisation, intellectual networks, popular science, research and the social uses of science.

Lubbock was the son of a wealthy banker, whose scientific career bridged the amateur-professional divide, yet he strongly supported science becoming more professional, not least so scientists could provide cultural leadership to society. He published on archaeology, anthropology and psychology as well as entomology, lectured on moral improvement and served as Principal of the Working Men’s College.

He was a member of the X-Club, the group of elite scientists who met to discuss scientific matters and promote a greater role for science in Victorian politics and culture. Senior politicians mingled with scientists at Lubbock’s home and often went across to Down House to meet Darwin, as in March 1877, when he was accompanied by scientists TH Huxley and Lyon Playfair, and Liberal politicians William Gladstone and
John Morley.

Clark shows how Lubbock’s most popular book, Ants, Bees and Wasps gained a wide readership, going through 18 editions, and appealing both to traditional naturalist-collectors and modern experimentalists. Indeed, Lubbock’s research on social insects was highly original, seeking to determine the ability of insects to ‘learn’ and ‘reason’. Around his home he kept numerous ant nests in glass cases; some saw these as entertainment, though they were carefully contrived artificial structures that allowed conditions to be varied and measurements taken. Lubbock’s aim was to demonstrate evolutionary continuity in mental attributes between humans and non-human animals; others took this further, seeing parallels between human and insect societies.

Clark shows that this type of speculation began in the 18th century in the encyclopaedic writings of William Kirby and William Spence, for whom “philosophies of nature and society were inseparable”. Their story is followed by wonderfully rich discussions of specific issues, such as beehives as models of industry, of the threat of the Colorado Beetle, of insect pests threatening health and agriculture in the empire, and at the change in views of house flies from, according to Lubbock, “dipterous angels dancing attendance on Hygeia” to “winged sponges speeding hither and thither to carry the foul behests of Contagion”.

Two chapters are biographical, one on Darwin and one on Eleanor Anne Ormerod, who, against all the conventions and expectations of the times, became Britain’s leading authority on agricultural insect pests. She was the unofficial government entomologist, and almost single-handedly established the subject of economic entomology in Britain. Clark shows how she chose not to challenge gender stereotypes, but rather to use her financial independence to create a unique scientific role of female philanthropist-scientist, and that some of her ideas, such as proposing hunting the house sparrow to extinction, seemed decidedly unfeminine.

The book is insightful, elegantly written and beautifully illustrated. John Clark has taken a putatively narrow topic and constantly surprises with the myriad aspects of Victorian society and science that entomology touched and can illuminate in new ways.
 

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