Arabella Buckley’s Evolution: the family bond

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“A Woolly Monkey and Child” in Arabella Buckley, Winners in Life’s Race, or the Great Backboned Family (1891), p. 247, fig. 65 (available:https://archive.org/stream/winnersinlifesra00buck2#page/n7/mode/2up)

Arabella Buckley (1840-1929) published Winners in Life’s Race, or the Great Backboned Family in 1883.   Buckley was exposed to Darwinian theory through her work as secretary to Charles Lyell, and later became a close friend of Darwin and Wallace; Wallace had come to similar conclusions to Darwin regarding the evolutionary process at roughly the same time, but failed to gain equal notoriety.   Buckley’s work reflected her fascination with and wonder at the diversity of life as well as her spirituality, and she saw no conflict between her scientific ideas and religious belief (Lightman, 2007: 244-245).  Hers was a progressive evolution (in the sense that human beings still maintained a place of privilege ), but also one that emphasized the family bond, a bond which united all living things; her writings taught a kind of moral evolution (Gauld, 2009:134, Lightman, 2007:247-249).

Winners in Life’s Race, or the Great Backboned Family told the 19th-century general public the story of the vertebrates through anecdote and illustration laden with anthropomorphic language and recurrent images of animals nurturing their young, expressing “self devotion and love” (Buckley, 1892, Lightman, 2007: 247-249).   In her chapters on primates, for instance, she included an image of a woolly monkey and “child”, affirming her point in anthropomorphic fashion.  This book was originally aimed at children, but its level of detail meant that it was read widely by adults.  Ritvo (1985:82) has noted that children’s books written in the early to mid-1800s were replete with conflicting depictions:  “descriptions of apes and monkeys often vacillated between admiring recital of their resemblances to man and firm denials of their closeness”.  The focus on parent-child bonds softened a context (for readers) in which animals constantly struggled for life; having said that, Darwin (1859 [1968, 1985]) himself often abandoned a terminology of struggle in the combative sense in Origin of Species for a more subtle vocabulary based on dependence.  Buckley’s conclusions made continuity less frightening, and even inspiring, due to her framing of evolution.

Winners in Life’s Race is incredible for its beautiful detail,  a testament to Buckley’s passion for biological diversity and her commitment to trying to capture the complex lives of the vertebrates, as they were known in the late 19th century; it was no small feat  for a woman to engage so deeply with controversial scientific ideas at a time when men dominated the field.  She is known as a key populariser of the evolutionary “epic” (Lightman, 2007:222).

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