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Current Exhibition


Mice and Men: Evolutionary Thought and Heredity in the Nineteenth Century

The nineteenth century is remembered as the period when, following the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), humanity was forced to reckon with its relation to nonhuman animals, acknowledging the apes as our distant cousins. Biologist T. H. Huxley, who earned the nickname “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his role in popularizing evolutionary theory, described this uncanny moment of recognition: “Brought face to face with these blurred copies of himself, the least thoughtful of men is conscious of a certain shock, due, not so much to disgust at the aspect of what looks like an insulting caricature, as to the awakening of a sudden and profound mistrust of the time-honored theories and strongly-rooted prejudices regarding his own position in nature.” Certainly, the story of how Darwin’s “natural selection” shook both scientific and popular culture captures one important aspect of evolutionary thinking in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But it is not the only credible narrative of how everyday people understood and deployed theories of heredity and species differentiation during this time.

This exhibition shows the scope of evolutionary thinking before and after Darwin’s watershed publication. As these texts and specimens show, religion and science were not always starkly opposed in their understanding of the natural world, and citizens at a range of class levels used concepts of inheritance in practical tasks like breeding hogs, intellectual pursuits like collecting specimens of local fauna, and deeply personal decisions like choosing a marriage partner. At the broader societal level, we see concepts of heredity and taxonomy deployed to enforce hierarchies of race, class, and gender that supported imperial projects and rationalized enslavement. Together, these texts and specimens offer a picture of how ordinary people, as well as professional researchers, used evolutionary thinking to define and navigate their world.

Many thanks are due to Drs. Travis Perry and Wade Worthen in the Biology Department for loaning the specimens in these cases, the Office of Undergraduate Research for supporting the summer 2023 project that led to this exhibition, Rick Jones for creating the exhibition poster, and Dr. Melinda Menzer in the English Department for exhibition support.

– Dr. Gretchen Braun, Catherine Davis ’24, and Dr. Jeffrey Makala