‘The Age of Mammals: Nature, Development and Palaeontology in the long nineteenth century’ – Chris Manis (King’s College) – Franco-British History Seminar

Posted on April 14, 2022

14 April 2022 - 17 h 00 min - 18 h 30 min

Chris Manias (Kings College London), ‘The Age of Mammals: Nature, Development and Palaeontology in the long nineteenth century’

Maison de la Recherche, 28 rue Serpente, Paris 6e, Room D421, 5pm – 6:30 pm.

This session will be in-person only. It will be recorded and posted on the seminar’s YouTube channel.



When people today hear ‘paleontology,’ they immediately think of dinosaurs. However, for much of the history of the discipline, scientists and public audiences seeking dramatic demonstrations of the history of life focused on something else: the developmental history of the mammals. Assumptions that ‘the Age of Mammals’ represented the pinnacle of animal life made mammals crucial for understanding the formation (and possibly the future) of the natural world. Yet this combined with more troubling notions, that seemingly promising creatures had been swept aside in the ‘struggle for life’ or that modern biodiversity was ‘impoverished’ compared to previous eras. Why some prehistoric creatures, such as the sabre-tooth cat and ground sloth, had become extinct, while others seemed to have been the ancestors of familiar animals like elephants and horses, were questions loaded with cultural assumptions, ambiguity and trepidation. And how humans related to deep developmental processes, and whether the ‘Age of Man’ was qualitatively different from the ‘Age of Mammals,’ led to reflections on humanity’s place within the natural world.

This paper will outline Chris Manias’ current book project, which examines how nineteenth-century scholars, writers, artists and publics understood the developmental history of the mammals ­- the animals they regarded as being at the summit of life. Using mammal paleontology as its central focus, the project examines how paleontological theories of development and reconstructions of fossil beasts led to new understandings of the environment and animal world. Taking in examples from Europe, North and South America, and colonial contexts, the project argues that nineteenth-century engagement with animals and the environment were preconditioned on ideas drawn from the deep-time sciences, which promoted a world-wide vision of nature and modern life as inscribed by a deep natural history.


Chris Manias is Senior Lecturer in the History of Science & Technology at King’s College London.  He is a specialist in the history of science in modern Europe and North America, with special interests in the history and wider cultural impacts of the human, evolutionary and deep-time sciences.  His first book, Race, Science and the Nation: Reconstructing the Ancient Past in Britain, France and Germany, 1800-1914, examined the transnational development of understandings of national origins in the nineteenth-century, and interchanges between anthropology, archaeology and comparative linguistics.  He is currently working on a book project entitled The Age of Mammals: Nature, Development and Palaeontology in the Long Nineteenth Century (forthcoming with University of Pittsburgh Press, 2023), which examines how the deep past of the mammals was reconstructed in the nineteenth century, and used to define the present of the natural world. 


Franco-British History Seminar – partnership

The  History Seminar Franco-Britannique has been organised since 2000 at the University Paris-Sorbonne, now in partnership with the Institute of historical Research, London, and with the following research centres: AGORA (Cergy Pontoise), CREA (Paris Ouest-Nanterre-La Défense), CREW (Paris 3-Sorbonne Nouvelle),  CRULH (Lorraine), LARCA (Université de Paris) and the  Maison française d’Oxford. Every year, the programme conveys the latest insights from foreign and French-based researchers in British history, medieval, modern and contemporary British history. Phd and master degree students as well as all researchers with an interest in British history are welcome.

  • Sessions on Thursdays from 5pm to 7pm.
  • At the Maison de recherché de l’université Paris-Sorbonne (28 rue Serpente, Paris 6e).
  • Room D421 (screens at the entrance confirm location)
  • The year’s programme is on the SFB website HERE
  • Talks are taped and archived on the website of the Institute of historical Research Here.

Next sessions

  • Jeudi 21 avril : Emma Griffin (East Anglia), autour de son livre Bread Winner. An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy (Yale University Press, 2020)
  • Jeudi 12 mai : Laura King (Leeds), ‘The School Case of Poor Harold: Families’ multi-generational remembrance of deceased children in twentieth-century England’