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Catastrophic ThinkingExtinction and the Value of Diversity from Darwin to the Anthropocene$
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David Sepkoski

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9780226348612

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: May 2021

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226354613.001.0001

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Extinction in a Victorian Key

Extinction in a Victorian Key

Chapter:
(p.47) 2 Extinction in a Victorian Key
Source:
Catastrophic Thinking
Author(s):

David Sepkoski

Publisher:
University of Chicago Press
DOI:10.7208/chicago/9780226354613.003.0003

This chapter investigates the cultural context for theories of extinction during the nineteenth century, focusing in particular on the way Victorian cultural and political attitudes both influenced and reflected views of natural history. In particular, it argues that scientific discussions of extinction were part of a broader political and cultural concern that touched on race and empire. By the mid nineteenth century, the dominant model of extinction was Charles Lyell's view that extinction was the inevitable result of the failure of organisms to adapt to their environments. In other words, extinction was a "fair result" of natural competition, and contributed to the overall progressive development of natural history. This interpretation was incorporated fairly directly by Charles Darwin into his evolutionary accounts in Origin of Species and Descent of Man, where extinction was seen as the inevitable corollary to natural selection. Moreover, Lyell, Darwin, and other contemporaries quite explicitly related natural extinction to the European imperial conquest of the globe, often arguing that the eradication of native flora, fauna, and peoples was the inevitable result of cultural progress.

Keywords:   Charles Darwin, imperialism, natural selection, competition

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