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Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

Understanding and Representing Scale: Scale of Nature: Victorian Culture and The Great Chain of Being - workshop

18th March 2017, 10:00 to 16:00, Seminar Room, Institute of Advanced Study


Amongst the paradigms current in nineteenth-century culture the Great Chain of Being frequently held pride of place, vying against Darwinian approaches in what historian of science Peter Bowler described broadly as the ‘non-Darwinian revolution’. Arming scientists with a scale of nature - a fixed hierarchical arrangement of the natural world from the lowest rudimentary forms of life to its great apogee in man – the Great Chain helped Victorian Britain reassert order and control in the face of threats by the inherent randomness, chance and uncertainty of Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Paradoxically, in the battle between The Great Chain and Darwin, it was the Great Chain of Being that was frequently the Darwinian fittest survivor.

This one-day, interdisciplinary conference on 18th March 2017 aims to explain why, exploring Britain’s understanding of the Scale of Nature by investigating The Great Chain of Being in the context of the non-Darwinian Revolution. It will explore (1) the history of The Great Chain as diversely and divergently reinterpreted by key Victorian science and theology; (2) long-nineteenth-century visual and spatial representations of The Great Chain of Being and competitor evolutionary ideas, as found in drawings, paintings, book illustration, cinema, photography, sculpture, architecture, museum design, exhibition and taxidermy spaces, and zoological gardens; (3) implications for literary contexts such as fiction, poetry, history and biography; and (4) its influence in the arts more broadly, in theatre, dance and music.

This is a one-day workshop extending the conceptual framework of a suite of events hosted by the IAS and CNCS in February and March 2016, including ‘Interdisciplinarity in Nineteenth-Century Studies’ and Victorian Culture and the Origin of Disciplines’. The workshop builds upon these events by combining CNCS and CVAC to emphasize visual as well as other forms of intellectual, aesthetic and scientific culture. Author of the ground-breaking book The Non-Darwinian Revolution (1988) Peter Bowler will be the keynote speaker, and the conference will be of interest to a wide-ranging constituency including historians of art, science and nineteenth-century culture.

For further information about this workshop, please contact Professor Bennett Zon bennett.zon@durham.ac.uk.

Contact bennett.zon@durham.ac.uk. for more information about this event.