Hi, I’m Meg and I am a volunteer tour guide for the Bridging Binaries LGBTQ+ tours at the Whipple Museum.
This microscope belonged to Charles Darwin, famous for his work on evolution in the nineteenth century, and former student at Cambridge. Darwin took this smaller microscope on his Beagle voyage between 1831 and 1836 and used it so much that on his return he suggested improvements to the design. You can see an ad in this cabinet for a microscope QUOTE ‘made to the express design of Mr Darwin’. His work with barnacles on this Beagle voyage became central to his thinking on two-sex reproduction, and informed his later work on evolution.
In the Origin of Species, which he wrote in 1859, Darwin argued for ‘sexual selection’ – essentially that all sexual competition is for mates of the opposite sex, and that the more ‘attractive’ a partner was, the more likely it was to succeed. Darwin likely understood ‘Competition for mates’ in context of the culture of Victorian courting. In fact some of Darwin’s initial thoughts on the matter had come from observing ornamentation in birds in the natural world and likening this to the way women dressed in Victorian society – with extravagant headdresses and dramatic silhouettes. But the most flamboyant birds – the ones that spread their wings most extravagantly were actually male.
As methodical and objective as Darwin and his fellow scientists claimed to be, the scientific understanding of courtship between animals was strongly shaped by Victorian ideals of monogamy between a man and a woman. Science in this period was were heavily influenced by Christian teachings, which in the 19th century interpreted the Bible as being categorically opposed to any sex outside of heterosexual marriage
For Darwin, sex was about reproduction only – same-sex sexual activity didn’t make sense because it was supposedly “against nature”. So Darwin and his successors limited themselves to discussing heterosexual sex in nature, discarding all other forms of sexual expression as unnatural ‘defects’ and ‘anomalies’. They chose to ignore homosexual behaviours when they looked at the natural world, despite them readily existing. For example, when George Levick observed the amount of male-male sex among penguins on Robert Falcon Scott's* famous South Pole expedition, he wrote that QUOTE “There seems to be no crime too low for these penguins”. This happens even now – did you know that 94% of the sexual activity of giraffes is between giraffes of the same sex? This mostly gets edited out of nature documentaries.
The way queer and homosexual behaviour in animals has been erased and censored allows the idea that it is ‘unnatural’ among humans to flourish. But now that we know, scientifically, that homosexual behaviour is present in all species, revisiting these narratives critically allows us to move further and further away from the harmful idea that homosexuality and queerness are unnatural and biologically deviant.
* In the audio recording, Meg accidentally says Walter Scott instead of Robert Falcon Scott – we’re sorry for any confusion!