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This Wonderful Evolution of Firmaments: How the Universe--and Everything in It--Became Evolutionary

Date and Time: 
Wednesday, February 24, 2016. 05:00 PM - 06:30 PM
Meeting Location: 
Stanford Humanities Center, Board Room
Workshop: 
Seminar on the Enlightenment and Revolution, 1660-1830
Meeting Description: 

How did the universe come to be seen as historical, dynamic, and ultimately evolutionary, rather than a static creation whose contents remained “fixed” in positions determined by the deity? One might assume that the answer is a technological story about ever bigger and better telescopes, but in fact such cosmologies emerged before technology could rule decisively in their favor. This presentation explores the development of evolutionary cosmology in Britain, revealing how evolutionary thinking was a feature of late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century thought more generally, a paradigm that extended well beyond the boundaries of what we today call biology. In fact, an evolutionary understanding of the universe emerged in concert with an evolutionary understanding of life. Cosmic evolution encompassed two senses of the word "cosmic": it was both an account of astronomical change and a paradigm for understanding the history and progress of everything in the universe, from the transformations of the stars to those of life on earth, including human society.  Thus, evolutionary cosmologies were articulated, endorsed, questioned, and attacked by a wide variety of influential people—including Erasmus Darwin, George Canning, John Pringle Nichol, Robert Chambers, John Herschel, and Herbert Spencer—to support or undermine particular visions of social, political, and religious order and progress.

About the Speaker: 
Jennifer Pegg is a graduate student in the Program in History & Philosophy of Science at Stanford University. Her research focuses on the speculative and imaginative elements of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European and American science--including connections to other forms of imaginative engagement, such as literature, history, and social thought--in contexts that tested the boundaries of natural philosophy, particular those in which observation and experimentation were impossible, limited, or illusory.

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