Nathan K. Hensley and John Patrick James, “Soot Moth: Biston Betularia and the Victorian End of Nature”
The darkened form of the common peppered moth, biston betularia f. carbonaria, known colloquially as the “soot moth,” was virtually unknown in England prior to 1800. The first reliable field specimen was collected outside of Manchester in 1848, plucked from the heart of Victorian England’s rapidly expanding coal economy. With their black abdomen and wings, these darkened morphs contrasted starkly with what had once been the more frequent form: a white-bodied moth lightly speckled with black and brown. As scientific studies now show, the black morph appeared as a result of industrial manufacture, first around major production centers and later around London. This article traces those studies to argue that the emergence of this particular form of melanistic moth signals a sharp pivot in Britain’s environmental history: its appearance augurs a new fossil modernity, in which coal replaces wood and animal fats as the primary source of English energy, and as stored sunlight, archived as coal, takes center stage as the driver for an endless steam-powered project of worldmaking. Tracing studies of “industrial melanism” to its origins at the beginning of this extractive, fossil-fueled modernity helps us see the soot moth’s emergence as a watershed moment in the history of life and a new chapter in humankind’s relationship to the category of nature.
Kathleen Frederickson, “British Writers on Population, Infrastructure, and the Great Indian Famine of 1876-8”
This article examines British writing about the 1876-8 famine in southern and western India. In British newspapers and journals, the turn to thinking about famine in terms of the total population obscured the extreme variations in food access that worsened with rising economic inequality. When the British press in the late-1870s turned to human causes of famine, they either argued that India’s population overburdened India’s land, or suggested that more rail construction would prevent enough deaths sufficiently to mitigate British responsibility for famine conditions. The turn to population-based arguments helped either to perpetuate the belief that famine was a quasi-natural part of India or to parse the sudden increase in the frequency and severity famines in India under British rule.
Wendy S. Williams, “‘Free-and-Easy,’ ‘Japaneasy’: British Perceptions and the 1885 Japanese Village”
This essay examines press reviews and accounts of the Japanese Village in London from newspapers and periodicals in 1885. These show that although writers were fairly confident that they “knew” the Japanese culture, they had only a superficial understanding of it, and they often depicted Japanese people as simple, coarse, and inferior. These writings largely reflect British feelings of superiority, enchantment, and confusion regarding Japan, a quickly progressing country that was not easy to classify.
Edward B. Tylor’s Primitive Culture articulates one of two major theories of culture to emerge around 1870. His theory defines culture in descriptive terms as the “complex whole” that makes up social ideas and institutions, and in this it helped to establish anthropology as a recognized science. Tylor’s ideas were closely related to those published about the same time by Matthew Arnold, who defined culture as a humanist ideal that society should strive for.