- Charles Darwin, Lop-Eared Rabbits, and The Mill on the Floss
In an early chapter of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860), Maggie Tulliver anxiously awaits the return of her brother, Tom, from his boarding school. Charged with caring for Tom’s rabbits during his absence, Maggie realizes she has forgotten all about them, and learns from Luke, the head miller, that they lie dead in their pens. Luke attempts to console the tearful, guilt-stricken Maggie: “‘Don’t you fret, Miss,’ said Luke, soothingly; ‘they’re nash things, them lop-eared rabbits; they’d happen ha’ died, if they’d been fed. Things out o’ natur niver thrive: God A’mighty doesn’t like ’em. He made the rabbits’ ears to lie back, an’ it’s nothin’ but contrairiness to make ’em hing down like a mastiff dog’s’” (45). Lop-eared rabbits have long, heavy ears that hang down the side of the head rather than standing erect. In 1829, when The Mill opens, they were relatively new, among the first of the “fancy” rabbit breeds in England. Despite their large size, lop-eared rabbits were indeed “nash”—delicate—although it is clearly Maggie’s failure to feed them, not their fragile constitutions, that leads to their untimely demise.
The Mill frequently deploys the language of animal breeding, and as Mary Jean Corbett has demonstrated, that language must be interpreted in the context of the recent publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), with its reliance on artificial selection and its discussions of variation and inheritance. Much of the novel’s language of breeds and crossing has to do explicitly with Maggie, as when Mr. Tulliver famously laments that Tom is “a bit slowish” (28), taking after his wife’s family, while Maggie’s intelligence will be no advantage in the marriage market: “That’s the worst on’t wi’ the crossing o’ breeds: you can never justly calkilate what’ll come on’t. The little un takes after my side, now: she’s twice as ’cute as Tom. Too ’cute for a woman, I’m afraid …. [A]n over-’cute woman’s no better nor a long-tailed sheep,—she’ll fetch none the bigger price for that” (28). Intelligence is wasted on a woman; worse, Maggie may be, like lop-eared rabbits, a “[thing] out o’ natur” that will similarly never thrive.
This discourse about “the crossing o’ breeds,” however, differs from that about lop-eared rabbits, although both were of concern to Darwin. The systematic effort to “improve” domesticated animals by enhancing desired traits through selective breeding provided Darwin not only with the analogy between artificial and natural selection that served as his key heuristic tool in Origin but also with reams of empirical data about variation, inheritance, and reversion. The breeding of domesticated animals by “fanciers,” however, simply sought to exaggerate certain physical characteristics, often ones that were without utility or even beauty. In Darwin’s day, pigeons were the most vivid example. Pigeon-breeding was wildly popular, and fanciers displayed their prize birds at exhibitions and shows, just as agriculturalists did their cattle, [End Page 19] pigs, sheep, and poultry. While the work of fanciers also demonstrated the power of human selection, it specifically showed how far slight variations in a single wild species could be driven in a fairly short time, to the point that the various breeds appeared—even to breeders themselves—to be separate species, widely different from each other and from their common wild progenitor.
Pigeons thus played a critical role in both Origin and The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868), the book Darwin had promised would contain all the evidence he had had to omit from Origin for lack of time and space (see Secord). In “Variation Under Domestication,” the opening chapter of Origin, Darwin used domestic pigeons as his primary example of the ubiquity and plasticity of variation. In Variation, pigeons were even more prominent: two of the first volume’s eleven chapters, and nearly a quarter of its pages, were devoted exclusively to pigeons. Pigeons dominated Variation visually. Almost a third of...