Bugs and the Victorians

From The Telegraph:

Bugs-main_1416836f In 1781, the naturalist Henry Smeathman published an account of termites in Sierra Leone that included an illustration, carefully labelled, of the mounds they built, the flora and fauna surrounding them, and some nearby Europeans. The only object, in fact, that is not labelled is the 'native’ standing in the foreground – he was 'only’ decorative. This image is the jumping-off point for JFM Clark’s brilliant tour d’horizon of the development of entomology in the 19th century, a work which encompasses far more than the development of bug hunters from amiable eccentrics indulging their 'futile and childish’ passion, to their role as scientific experts in the technocratic state. Bugs, as Clark convincingly shows, helped move science from the contents of a cabinet of curiosities, through scholarly classification to modern pragmatic application.

Clark’s first dozen pages succinctly outline a dizzying range of subjects that were changed by bugs. As the post-Enlightenment scientific revolution took hold of daily life, insects, as social animals, became a model through which questions of our own society could be filtered. The capitalist world, with its new disposable income, drove demand for collections. New printing technologies made lithographs and books on the subject cheaper and more widely available, while rapid urbanisation cast a glow over 'lost’ rural bliss. (Clark notes that Common Objects of the Country sold 100,000 copies in a single week, compared to an annual sale of 20,000 copies of Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help.) The rise of the professional classes led to the notion of 'scientists’ (a new word) as experts.

More here.