Evolutionary Theory in Images

Darwin’s Images: The Visual Representation of Evolutionary Theory, 1830–1890

Julia Voss

The project investigated the visual world surrounding evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century. Although Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, his first publication on evolutionary theory in 1859, contained only one illustration, evolutionary theory was indebted and gave rise to numerous images. Thus Darwin’s first diagram, showing the panorama of evolution on a fold-out page, was already a collage of pictures that came from paleontology, taxonomy, and zoology. Equally, Origin of Species gave rise to an ever growing image production in the scientific and popular field. From one publication to another Darwin himself increased the number of illustration reaching peak with the baroquely illustrated The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals in 1872. Other scientists, arguing against or in favor of evolution, also took part in the vivid image production.

Starting from the observation that most of the images that were being produced in the context of the debate on evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century are still prominent today, the project explored their significance for science as well as for the public understanding of science in the heyday of evolution. The research centered upon four particular pictures that have become icons of evolution, such as the Darwin finches, the evolutionary diagram, the pictorial sequence of evolution, and the depiction of the human animal. These icons of evolution are traced back to the context in which they originally appeared. Thus the material includes pictures, newspaper cutouts, and handdrawings in the Darwin Archive in Cambridge as well as books, newspapers, or journals. In following up the chain of seeing, the project examined how pictures migrate from the popular to the scientific field and vice versa. Most importantly it raised the question of the role of images in scientific research and how images shaped and produced evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century.

Funding Institutions

Volkswagenstiftung