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Laura Plummer
William T. Patten Foundation

Nancy Webber
Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculties

Last modified: Thursday, April 3, 2008

Literary critic, Dame Gillian Beer, discusses Darwin's theories in next Patten Lecture

April 3, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Professor Gillian Beer, King Edward VII Professor of English Literature and President of Clare Hall (ret.), University of Cambridge, will present two Patten lectures at Indiana University Bloomington. The first, "Darwin and the Consciousness of Others," is scheduled for Tuesday (April 8) and the second, "Darwin's 'filthy heraldries': Why Did Darwin's Theories Cause Scandal?" for Thursday (April 10). Both lectures will be held in Rawles Hall, Room 100 at 7:30 p.m., and are free and open to the public.

Gillian Beer

Dame Gillian Beer

Beer's first lecture investigates Darwin's imaginative capacities and explores the ways in which his skepticism and his empathy combine to produce particularly fruitful methods of enquiry. Beer addresses Darwin's fascination with consciousness across a whole variety of life forms, and examines his early private notebooks in which he explored the relations between sentience and reason, emotion and reflection, instinct and intent. She also looks at his later works, The Descent of Man and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, where he works with observations and anecdotes as much as with abstractions -- a way of going about things that may often seem odd now.

Her second lecture reflects on Darwin, the most pacific of men, and his "scandalous" theories, drawing upon reviews, letters, Punch cartoons, and poetry to explore the reactions of diverse 19th-century peoples to the changed world that Darwin's ideas proposed. Many of Darwin's contemporaries experienced profound disturbance, and sometimes disgust, in the face of his theories. What was particularly repellent to those who resisted? And what can those debates tell us about responses now? How did Darwin's emphasis on kinship across species impact the idea of the family? In particular, Beer explores the response of some women writers, Constance Naden, Mathilde Blind, May Kendall and Emily Pfeiffer, who invoked satire and tragedy as means of questioning the human position in the wake of Darwin.

Gillian Beer background

Dame Gillian Beer was born in England on January 27, 1935, in Bookham, Surrey and was educated at St. Anne's College, Oxford. On graduating, she lectured at Bedford College, London, (1959-62) and Liverpool University (1962-64). A Fellow at Girton College, Cambridge, between 1965 and 1994, Gillian Beer began lecturing at Cambridge in 1966 and became Reader in Literature, and she was a Booker judge in 1993, Vice-President of the British Academy from 1994 to 1996, Chairman of the Poetry Book Society (1992-96) and Chairman of the Judges of the Booker Prize for Fiction (1997).

She is a Fellow of the British Academy and a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her books include Darwin's Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (1983, second edition 2000) and Virginia Woolf: the Common Ground (1996).

For more information on Beer, visit British Council's Contemporary Writers at:

Patten Lecture Series History

Since 1937, the William T. Patten Foundation has provided generous funds to bring to IU Bloomington people of extraordinary national and international distinction. Since the first Patten lecture, more than 180 world-renowned scholars have lectured at Indiana University under the auspices of the Patten Foundation. Noted specialists in their fields, speakers have been chosen for their ability to convey the significance of their work to a general audience. Chosen by a campus-wide faculty committee, Patten Lectures have represented over 50 academic departments and programs.

William T. Patten received his A.B. degree in 1893 in history from IU. After graduation he settled in Indianapolis, where he made a career in real estate and politics, including serving as county auditor. He remained appreciative of the educational opportunities that IU had afforded him, and toward the end of his life, in 1931, made a gift to the university in the form of liberty bonds and Indiana municipal and county bonds. The gift was to be held as an endowment bearing his name, and the income used for bringing to the campus eminent leaders in their fields for residence and lectures to enrich the intellectual life of the campus.

The 2008-2009 Patten Foundation Lecture series includes:

  • Thomas Schelling, Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of Economics and Public Affairs, University of Maryland, 2005 Nobel Prize Laureate in Economics, and will speak on Tuesday, September 23 and Thursday, September 25.
  • James O'Donnell, Professor of Classics and Provost, Georgetown University, and past Vice Provost for Information Systems and Computing at the University of Pennsylvania, and will speak on Tuesday, October 28 and Thursday, October 30.
  • Werner Sollors, Henry B. and Anne M. Cabot Professor of English and Professor of African and African American Studies, Harvard University will speak on Tuesday, January 20 and Thursday, January 22.

For a more complete history on William T. Patten and further details on the upcoming lecture series, visit