"Cats is "dogs", and rabbits is "dogs", and so's parrots; but this 'ere "tortis" is a insect", a porter explains to an astonished traveller in a 19th-century "Punch" cartoon. Railways were not the only British institution to schematize the world. This book aims to capture the fervour of the Victorian age for classifying and categorizing every new specimen, plant or animal, that British explorers and soldiers and sailors brought home. As she depicts a whole complex of competing groups deploying rival schemes and nomenclatures, Harriet Ritvo shows us a society drawing and redrawing its own boundaries and ultimately identifying itself. The experts (whether calling themselves naturalists, zoologists, or comparative anatomists) agreed on their superior authority if nothing else, but the laymen had their say and Ritvo shows us a world in which butchers and artists, farmers and showmen vied to impose order on the wild profusion of nature. Sometimes assumptions or preoccupations overlapped; sometimes open disagreement or hostility emerged, exposing fissures in the social fabric or contested cultural territory.
Of the greatest interest were creatures that confounded or crossed established categories; in the discussions provoked by these mishaps, monstrosities, and hybrids we can see ideas about human society about the sexual proclivities of women, for instance, or the imagined hierarchy of nations and races. An account of taxonomy as zoological classification and as anthropological study, this book offers a new perspective on the constantly shifting, ever suggestive interactions of scientific lore, cultural ideas, and the popular imagination.
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(235mm x 155mm x 18mm)
Harvard University Press
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Country of Publication:
UK Kirkus Review »
The Victorians were great classifiers: taxonomy was an art form in itself in the 19th century. This was also a period in which a great deal of new information was discovered about the natural world thanks to voyages of Darwin and the endeavours of an increasingly professional scientific community. This unconventional and absorbing book examines the way in which very different groups within society, from zoologists to butchers, circus entertainers to artists, categorized and regarded the different types of animals. In doing so it sheds much light on the beliefs, values and prejudices of the contemporary mind. (Kirkus UK)
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Author Biography - Harriet Ritvo
Harriet Ritvo is Arthur J. Conner Professor of History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.