Skip to main content

“Through the Agency of Bees”: Charles Darwin, John Lubbock, and the Secret Lives of Plants and People

  • Chapter
  • First Online:
Bees, Science, and Sex in the Literature of the Long Nineteenth Century

Part of the book series: Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature ((PSAAL))

  • 89 Accesses

Abstract

The 1860s into the 1880s were auspicious decades for the bee in British science, and Charles Darwin and John Lubbock, Darwin’s neighbor and fellow scientific naturalist, were the figures most responsible. Darwin’s studies of plant fertilization showed how plants had evolved to secure the services of bees and other pollinators. Lubbock in turn played a key role in popularizing and extending Darwin’s work. Darwin’s books on orchids and on flowers with multiple sexual forms had particular scientific and popular impact, and Darwin reveled in the elaborate structures and reproductive possibilities of these species. At the same time, Darwin used the discourse of bourgeois Anglican marriage to describe the relationship between bees and flowers, and he avoided the more controversial implications of this work for humans. His reasons were partly personal, but also partly related to his theory of sexual selection, which was central to his view of the human races and intersected with Lubbock’s other major scientific interest, prehistoric archaeology. For both men, natural selection was the key to understanding human history, but we can chart Darwin’s anxieties about what the agency of bees in the sex lives of plants might mean for himself, his family, and the evolution of human sexuality.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this chapter

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or eBook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Chapter
USD 29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Available as PDF
  • Read on any device
  • Instant download
  • Own it forever
eBook
USD 119.00
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Available as EPUB and PDF
  • Read on any device
  • Instant download
  • Own it forever
Hardcover Book
USD 159.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Durable hardcover edition
  • Dispatched in 3 to 5 business days
  • Free shipping worldwide - see info

Tax calculation will be finalised at checkout

Purchases are for personal use only

Institutional subscriptions

Similar content being viewed by others

Notes

  1. 1.

    Mea Allen, Darwin and His Flowers: The Key to Natural Selection (New York: Taplinger, 1977); Peter Ayres, The Aliveness of Plants: The Darwins at the Dawn of Plant Science (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2008); Richard Bellon, “Charles Darwin Solves the ‘Riddle of the Flower’; Or, Why Don’t Historians of Biology Know about the Birds and the Bees?” History of Science 47, no. 4 (2009): 373–406, https://0-doi-org.wizard.umd.umich.edu/10.1177/007327530904700402; Richard Bellon, “Inspiration in the Harness of Daily Labor: Darwin, Botany, and the Triumph of Evolution, 1859–1868,” Isis 102, no. 3 (2011): 393–420, doi: 10.1086/661591.

  2. 2.

    Charles Darwin, “On the Two Forms or Dimorphic Condition in the Species of Primula, and on their Remarkable Sexual Relations,” Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London (Botany), 6 (1862): 77–96, http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?itemID=F1717&viewtype=text&pageseq=1.

  3. 3.

    Charles Darwin, The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species (London: John Murray, 1877), 137, http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?itemID=F1277&viewtype=text&pageseq=1.

  4. 4.

    Darwin, Different Forms of Flowers, 138.

  5. 5.

    Darwin, Different Forms of Flowers, 24.

  6. 6.

    The 1662 Anglican marriage rite calls “holy Matrimony” an “honourable estate, …signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and Church.” “The Form of Solemnization of Matrimony,” The Book of Common Prayer, https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/book-common-prayer/form-solemnization-matrimony.

  7. 7.

    Charles Darwin, On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilised by Insects, and on the Good Effects of Intercrossing (London: John Murray, 1862), 41, http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?itemID=F800&viewtype=text&pageseq=1

  8. 8.

    Darwin, Different Forms of Flowers, 138.

  9. 9.

    “The Form of Solemnization of Matrimony,” The Book of Common Prayer.

  10. 10.

    Darwin rarely used the term “bastard,” and when he did, it was typically in citing a German source—“bastard” in German botanical writing being used for “hybrid”—or in quoting another observer. In Origin of Species, Darwin distinguished between “hybrids” (the offspring of the union of two species) and “mongrels” (the offspring of the union of two varieties). In that context, he was keen to show that, apart from fertility, few differences existed between the two groups. Darwin applied the term “mongrel” to plants as well as animals in Origin and Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, but he used the term sparingly or not at all in his botanical works.

  11. 11.

    Gowan Dawson, Darwin, Literature, and Victorian Respectability (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Deborah Lutz, Pleasure Bound: Victorian Sex Rebels and the New Eroticism (New York: Norton, 2011).

  12. 12.

    Joseph D. Hooker, “Address by the President,” Report of the Thirty-Eighth Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (London: John Murray, 1869), lxvi, https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/93116#page/71/mode/1up.

  13. 13.

    See, for example, J. E. Taylor, Flowers: Their Origin, Shapes, Perfumes, and Colours (London: Hardwicke & Bogue, 1878), chap. 1 (“The Old and the New Philosophy of Flowers”).

  14. 14.

    On the popular reception and cultural impact of Darwin’s botanical works, see Bellon, “Inspiration”; Jim Endersby, Orchid: A Cultural History (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2016) and “Deceived by Orchids: Sex, Science, Fiction and Darwin,” British Journal for the History of Science 49, no. 2 (2016): 205–29; Devin Griffiths, “Flattening the World: Natural Theology and the Ecology of Darwin’s Orchids,” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 37, no. 5 (2015): 431–52; and my “Grant Allen, Physiological Aesthetics, and the Dissemination of Darwin’s Botany,” in Science Serialized: Representation of the Sciences in Nineteenth-Century Periodicals, ed. Geoffrey Cantor and Sally Shuttleworth (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 285–306, and “Une Fleur du Mal? Swinburne’s ‘The Sundew’ and Darwin’s Insectivorous Plants,” Victorian Poetry 41, no. 1 (2003): 131–50.

  15. 15.

    For biographical information on Lubbock, see Horace G. Hutchinson, Life of John Lubbock, Lord Avebury (London: Macmillan, 1914); Janet Owen, Darwin’s Apprentice: An Archaeological Biography of John Lubbock (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2013); Mark Patton, Science, Politics, and Business in the Work of Sir John Lubbock: A Man of Universal Mind (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007)

  16. 16.

    Charles Darwin to G. R. Waterhouse, [Jan-June 1850]; Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 1144,” accessed 11 March 2018, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/DCP-LETT-1144.

  17. 17.

    Charles Darwin to John Lubbock, [22 November 1859], Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2532,” accessed 12 March 2018, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/DCP-LETT-2532.

  18. 18.

    John Lubbock, Pre-historic Times, As Illustrated by Ancient Remains, and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages (London: Williams and Norgate, 1865), 481.

  19. 19.

    George W. Stocking, Victorian Anthropology (New York: Free Press, 1987), especially 150–56, 197–218, 248–73, passim.

  20. 20.

    Bernard Lightman, Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2007), particularly chapters 2 and 7.

  21. 21.

    John Lubbock, On British Wild Flowers Considered in Relation to Insects (London: Macmillan, 1875), 34.

  22. 22.

    Lubbock, British Wild Flowers, 3, 5.

  23. 23.

    J. F. M. Clark, “‘The Ants Were Duly Visited’: Making Sense of John Lubbock, Scientific Naturalism and the Senses of Social Insects,” British Journal for the History of Science 30, no. 2 (1997): 151–76, and Bugs and the Victorians (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 80–85.

  24. 24.

    Clark, Bugs and the Victorians, 85.

  25. 25.

    John Lubbock, Ants, Bees, and Wasps: A Record of Observations on the Habits of the Social Hymenoptera (New York: Appleton, 1882), v.

  26. 26.

    Lubbock, British Wild Flowers, 12.

  27. 27.

    Clark, “‘The Ants Were Duly Visited,’” 172–74.

  28. 28.

    “Punch’s Fancy Portraits.—No. 97. Sir John Lubbock, M.P., F.R.S.,” Punch, 83 (19 August 1882), 82.

  29. 29.

    Lubbock, Ants, Bees, and Wasps, v.

  30. 30.

    Lubbock, British Wild Flowers, 45–46.

  31. 31.

    Lubbock, British Wild Flowers, 45.

  32. 32.

    John Lubbock, “Observations on Bees and Wasps,” Journal of the Linnean Society (Zoology) 12 (1876): 125.

  33. 33.

    “Sir John Lubbock on ‘The Busy Little Bee,’” Spectator, 4 April 1874, 9. http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/4th-april-1874/10/sir-john-lubbock-on-the-little-busy-bee.

  34. 34.

    Spectator, 4 April 1874, 9.

  35. 35.

    Lubbock, “Observations on Bees and Wasps,” 139.

  36. 36.

    Lubbock, Ants, Bees, and Wasps, vii.

  37. 37.

    Lubbock, Ants, Bees, and Wasps, 5.

  38. 38.

    Lubbock, Ants, Bees, and Wasps, 1.

  39. 39.

    Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (London: John Murray, 1859), 216, http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?itemID=F373&viewtype=text&pageseq=1.

  40. 40.

    Alison Pearn, “The Teacher Taught? What Charles Darwin Owed to John Lubbock,” Notes and Records 68 (2014), 8–9.

  41. 41.

    Only in a passage summarizing the results of illegitimate unions in one species of Primula does Darwin use the term “incest.” See Different Forms of Flowers, 216–17.

  42. 42.

    Darwin, Orchids, 359.

  43. 43.

    Darwin, Orchids, 359.

  44. 44.

    Darwin, Orchids, 360.

  45. 45.

    On cousin marriage in Britain, see Nancy Fix Anderson, “Cousin Marriage in Victorian England,” Journal of Family History 11 (1986): 285–301; Adam Kuper, “Changing the Subject—About Cousin Marriage, Among Other Things,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 14 (2008): 717–35; Randolph Trumbach, The Rise of the Egalitarian Family: Aristocratic Kinship and Domestic Relations in Eighteenth-Century England (New York: Academic Press, 1978); Sybil Wolfram, In-Laws and Outlaws: Kinship and Marriage in England (New York: St. Martin’s, 1987).

  46. 46.

    Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (New York: Knopf, 2002), 279–82.

  47. 47.

    Charles Darwin to John Lubbock, 17 July 1870; Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7281,” accessed on 12 March 2018, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/DCP-LETT-7281.

  48. 48.

    Lubbock, Pre-historic Times, 481–82.

  49. 49.

    Charles Darwin to John Lubbock, 11 June [1865]; Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4858,” accessed on 12 March 2018, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/DCP-LETT-4858.

  50. 50.

    Pearn, 14.

  51. 51.

    Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009); Evelleen Richards, Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2017); Shuman Seth, “Darwin and the Ethnologists,” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 46, no. 4 (2016): 490–527.

  52. 52.

    John Lubbock, The Origin of Civilisation and the Primitive Condition of Man (New York: Appleton, 1870), 94.

  53. 53.

    John Lubbock to Charles Darwin, 25 March 1867; Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5459,” accessed on 16 March 2018, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/DCP-LETT-5459.

  54. 54.

    Darwin, Orchids, 360.

  55. 55.

    Charles Darwin to John Lubbock, 21 July [1870]; Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7286,” accessed on 16 March 2018, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/DCP-LETT-7286.

  56. 56.

    Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (London: John Murray, 1871), vol. 2, 358, http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?itemID=F937.2&viewtype=text&pageseq=1.

  57. 57.

    Darwin, Descent of Man, vol. 2, 360.

  58. 58.

    Darwin, Descent of Man, vol. 2, 361.

  59. 59.

    Darwin, Descent of Man, vol. 2, 383.

  60. 60.

    John Lubbock to Charles Darwin, 18 March [1871]; Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7598,” accessed on 16 March 2018, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/DCP-LETT-7598.

  61. 61.

    Lubbock to Darwin, 18 March [1871].

  62. 62.

    Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, 2nd ed. (London: John Murray, 1874), vii, http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?itemID=F944&viewtype=text&pageseq=1.

  63. 63.

    Darwin, Descent of Man, 2nd ed., 588.

  64. 64.

    Darwin, Descent of Man, 2nd ed., 588.

  65. 65.

    Darwin, Descent of Man, vol. 2, 362.

  66. 66.

    Darwin, Descent of Man, vol. 2, 362; Darwin, Descent of Man, 2nd ed., 591.

  67. 67.

    Lubbock, Origin of Civilisation, vi.

  68. 68.

    Clark, “‘The Ants Were Duly Visited,’” 172.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jonathan Smith .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

Copyright information

© 2024 The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG

About this chapter

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this chapter

Smith, J. (2024). “Through the Agency of Bees”: Charles Darwin, John Lubbock, and the Secret Lives of Plants and People. In: Harley, A., Harrington, C. (eds) Bees, Science, and Sex in the Literature of the Long Nineteenth Century. Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-39570-3_11

Download citation

Publish with us

Policies and ethics