Sir John Lubbock

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Lubbock, Sir John (Lord Avebury)

(b.London, England, 30 April 1834; d. Kingsgate Castle, Kent, England, 28 May 1913)

entomology, anthropology, botany.

Lubbock was the eldest son of a baronet, Sir John William Lubbock. His father was a banker and mathematician who did work on probability and the theory of tides, and was treasurer of the Royal Society. After three years at Eton, young Lubbock was removed from school before he was fifteen and taken into the family bank, where he shortly assumed the responsibilities of an adult partner. Thereafter his education was largely self-directed according to a rigorous schedule, with emphasis upon natural history. He trained himself to shift from one subject to another at short intervals with entire concentration, a habit he retained through life. Of crucial importance for the development of his interests was the presence at Down House, close by the Lubbock estate in Kent, of Charles Darwin. From the time of his settlement there in 1842, Darwin gave the boy encouragement and direction, beginning a friendship that continued for forty years. In his treatise on barnacles, Darwin utilized Lubbock’s talent for drawing, and Lubbock’s earliest scientific papers were on zoological specimens from the Beagle. His careful work earned the notice and respect of Lyell, T. H. Huxley, Joseph Hooker, and Tyndall, all of whom became his friends. In 1855 Lyell proposed him for the Geological Society. In the same year Lubbock discovered the first fossil remains of a musk-ox to be unearthed in Britain, evidence of a glacial age. Lubbock’s account of the methods of reproduction in Daphnia, which Darwin submitted to the Royal Society for him, led to his election as a fellow in 1858; three years later he was made a member of the council. A convinced natural selectionist from the beginning, after the release of the Darwin-Wallace papers Lubbock’s work in micro-anatomy, such as his notice of the irregularity in the central ganglion of Coccus hesperidum, pointed to the high degree of variation in nature. Despite his youth Lubbock was one of the handful of men whose opinions mattered to Darwin, and he took a prominent part in the controversy that followed the appearance of the Origin of Species.

Lubbock first gained an international reputation by his provision of an evolutionary framework for the accumulated archaeological remains bearing on human beginnings. The tools collected from French river gravels by Boucher de Perthes had long indicated an origin for culture antedating the geologically recent past. The final acceptance of this view by leading British men of science in the late 1850’s generated an enthusiasm for the reconstruction of man’s prehistory. Lubbock had already taken part in the furtherance of Lyell’s search for fossil gaps in the geological record. Between 1860 and 1864, he traveled to the Somme Valley and the Dordogne Caves, the Swiss lake village sites, and the tumuli, kitchen middens, and museums of Denmark. He went over the ground with the investigators, studied the finds, and read the reports and literature, even those in Danish,

The series of articles Lubbock wrote aroused wide interest and formed the basis for a pioneer work, Pre-Historic Times (1865), that consolidated the data on the life of prehistoric man in Europe and North America. He coined the terms Neolithic and Paleolithic to distinguish the later and earlier Stone Age periods. Here and in a sequel, The Origin of Civilisation (1871), Lubbock identified prehistoric cultures as evolutionary precursors of modern civilization and contended for the independent origination of cultural inventions as against diffusion or borrowing. He saw in a common creative mind for mankind a promise of the general evolutionary movement toward civilization and happiness. Lubbock rejected Bishop Whately’s theory of degeneration and categorized savage tribes as comparable to the opossums of the natural world. By studying contemporary primitives he sought clues to the function of ancient implements. The popularity of these books led to their reissue in new editions for over a generation, even after their simplistic evolutionism had become outmoded. But Lubbock never modified these first conclusions.

Anthropology did not interfere with Lubbock’s research on insects, and in 1873 the Ray Society published his standard Monograph on the Collembola and Thysanura. Beautifully illustrated with his own plates, this book of over two hundred pages separated the springtails from the bristletails on the basis of the ventral tube, and named the new order Collembola. About this time he began the seminal studies in insect behavior that were reported in Ants, Bees, and Wasps (1882) and On the Senses, Instincts, and Intelligence of Animals (1888). It was not only the normal habits of his subjects that he set out to investigate, but their powers of sensing, learning, and what seemed to be calculated response. For this purpose he devised the “Lubbock nest,” as it became known, in which ant colonies are confined in moistened earth between two panes of glass. Stacked in series and attached to a post, these could be lowered to a platform surrounded by a moat and the ants let out for excursions. Previously, ant nests had never been kept under observation for more than several months. and the life-span of an ant was thought to be a year. Lubbock was able to keep some workers alive for as long as seven years, and two queens for twice that time. No one as yet knew how an ant nest started, but Lubbock watched queens of Myrmica ruginodis rear larvae and establish a colony. He observed, and described for the first time, that aphid eggs laid in the fall are taken into ant nests over the winter, and in the spring the newly hatched young are transported out to feed on plant shoots. In the nests Lubbock discovered a new mite, Uropoda formicariae, and two parasitic dipterons, Platyphora Lubbocki and Phora formicarum.

While trying to make ants respond to sounds, Lubbock located in their legs a chordontal organ known until then only in Orthoptera, and suggested correctly that it was a sort of hearing instrument. An imaginative and ingenious experimenter, Lubbock introduced specificity into the study of insect behavior by marking individuals with paint for identification, a practice that later became common. He also used obstacles and mazes to test the intelligence of ants, thus anticipating animal psychologists like Kohler.

Lubbock’s experiments on insect vision and color sense were of special significance. On a table with movable concentric rings, designed for him by Francis Galton, Lubbock found that some ants were partly influenced in their sense of direction by the angle of the light, a discovery important for homing. By using colored glass and solutions with spectral light, he established that ants and Daphnia could not only distinguish colors, but were especially sensitive to ultraviolet light. After tabulating the color preferences of bees, and training them to return to colors associated with honey after the honey was removed, Lubbock concluded that bees could see colors. He did not test them with spectral light, however, to eliminate the possibility that they were attracted merely by different degrees of brightness. With modifications, Karl von Frisch utilized Lubbock’s procedures, but it was not until the 1920’s that A. Kühn’s use of the spectrum delineated the range of color vision in bees and revealed their sensitivity to ultraviolet light.

In his lifetime Lubbock was one of the best-known men in England. He began a long career as a Liberal in Parliament by sponsoring the famous Bank Holidays Act (1871) which established what came to be called St. Lubbock’s Days. He went on to sponsor over two dozen other bills, including acts regulating the health professions, the Wild Birds Protection Act (1880), Open Spaces Act (1880), Ancient Monuments Act (1882), and acts requiring the limitation of shop hours and the provision of seats for employees. In 1900 he was made a peer.

He published some twenty-five books, over a hundred scientific papers, and gave lectures on subjects ranging from free trade to the forces that formed the Alps, the hearing of Crustacea, and the pleasures of life. He was never merely a popularizer; his widely read books on the scenery of Switzerland and Britain were also fascinating treatises on geology by an expert. In volumes on British flowers he dealt with the questions of the relation of a flower’s parts to each other and to insects.

Essentially, Lubbock was a great public educator, perhaps the foremost of his time. As an exponent of Darwinism, he was as active as Huxley, without his truculence. A vice-chancellor of London University, head of its Extension Society, and president of the Working Men’s College, he helped widen educational opportunities and the spread of scientific literacy. An 1887 address to the college on “The Hundred Best Books” had a far-reaching effect on publishing in both England and the United States. Possessed of charm and a conciliatory manner, he helped smooth the proceedings of the many scientific societies he headed at various times. He married twice, the second time to the daughter of Pitt-Rivers the ethnologist. He presided over a large household, and often drafted family members and servants alike to assist and appreciate his always ongoing investigations of nature. Lubbock’s mind was not subtle or deep, but he had an organized intelligence and great energy, and he was a magnificent amateur in the old sense. In the world of politics and commerce he was an arch-representative of science; to the intelligent public, during a transition period in intellectual history, he stood for the harmony of experimental truth with idealism and social progress.


I Original Works. An extensive, though not exhaustive, classified bibliography of Lubbock’s works appears in Ursula Grant Duff, ed., The Life-work of Lord Avebury (Sir John Lubbock, 1834–1913) (London, 1924), but it does not list the numerous revised eds. of his principal books.

II. Secondary Literature. The authorized biography is Horace G. Hutchinson’s Life of Sir John Lubbock, Lord Avebury, 2 vols. (London, 1914). Uncritical and lacking scientific expertise, it is useful for facts and the many letters and memoirs reprinted. Appreciative yet authoritative assessments of Lubbock’s contributions in a number of fields, including anthropology, geology, entomology, zoology, and botany, were made by a group of specialists who collaborated on the Grant Duff volume cited above.

Insight into the difficulties Lubbock’s anthropology met with in his later years is provided by Andrew Lang, “Lord Avebury on Marriage, Totemism, and Religion,” in Folklore,22 (1911), 402–425. Especially valuable for its updating of Lubbock’s results in the light of later experimentation and the excerpts it provides from the relevant literature, particularly from W. M. Wheeler on ants and Karl von Frisch on bees, is the reissue of the seventeenth ed. of Ants, Bees, and Wasps, edited and annotated by J. G. Myers (London-New York, 1929).

A vigorous defense of Lubbock’s scientific achievements and an explanation for their persistent denigration was presented by a zoologist, R. J. Pumphrey, F.R.S., in “The Forgotten Man—Sir John Lubbock, F.R.S.,” in Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London,13, no. 1 (June 1958), 49–58. One aspect of Lubbock’s relation to Darwin is treated in Fred Somkin’s “The Contributions of Sir John Lubbock, F. R. S. to the Origin of Species: Some Annotations to Darwin,” ibid.,17, no. 2 (Dec. 1962), 183–191.

Fred Somkin

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Lubbock, John



Sir John Lubbock (1834–1913) was an English biologist, anthropologist, and popular writer on science. His father, Sir John William Lubbock, was for forty years a distinguished member of the English scientific community and at the same time the successful head of the family banking establishment. The son achieved a similar kind of dual identity, adding to his scientific achievements a successful career in government.

Lubbock was essentially self-taught, although he did receive a certain amount of classical education. After entering the family banking business at the age of 14, he began to study natural history, following a program he had prepared himself. In the mid-nineteenth century the renaissance of natural history was an important event on the English intellectual scene; as a participant in this renaissance Lubbock was one of the first to investigate the social behavior of animals, and he published important studies in zoology and botany.

Apart from the mathematical and scientific interests of his father, the most compelling influence on Lubbock’s development as a scientist was the relationship he established, while still an adolescent, with Charles Darwin. Darwin was then already a distinguished naturalist; he was also a friend of the elder Lubbock and his neighbor at Down. Darwin left no students and only a few protégés, of whom Lubbock was the first. Lubbock became an ardent supporter of Darwin’s evolutionism when the Origin of Species was published in 1859. He was the youngest of that small articulate band whose reasoned and informed defense of the new doctrine led to its general acceptance within a decade; and all of his subsequent work was infused with the excitement of applying the theory of evolution.

Basic to all of his work was the underlying point of view that a science of human society is both necessary and possible: like other phenomena in nature, human society may be subjected to objective description leading to the formulation of general principles.

The discovery of man’s great antiquity and the almost simultaneous publication of the principles of organic evolution by Darwin, in 1859, provided the essential theoretical elements for all of Lubbock’s subsequent work in anthropology. Drawing upon an increasing body of data concerning the variation in human behavior, he constructed an overall theory of cultural evolution that came to be the mainstay as well as the hallmark of English anthropology for almost half a century, even though his extreme position was rejected by more objective scholars. In The Origin of Civilization and the Primitive Condition of Man (1870) he developed a theory of the evolution of man and culture that rested on his equation of primeval man and the contemporary primitives. His extreme emphasis on the ideas of “natural progress” led him to arrange his materials (social, ethical, and technological) along a slowly ascending line leading to modern (nineteenth-century) perfection.

Lubbock’s deserved reputation as a popularizer of developments in biology and anthropology, and the occasional innocence with which he approached fundamental problems in these fields, should not be permitted to conceal the significance of his own original contributions to both fields, especially to the nascent field of anthropology. He was the first to compile and synthesize the scattered data concerning the prehistory of Europe and North America, in a series of articles that formed the basis of his Prehistoric Times of 1865. But he believed that archeology is more than description and that it forms the link between geology and history. He clearly defined prehistoric archeology as a concern of anthropology and saw the reconstruction of past cultures as part of the evolutionary history of the continuous past rather than as the simple collection of monuments and antiquities. Prehistory was established as a science of man rather than an adjunct of classics or art history.

Lubbock drew upon ethnographic descriptions of contemporary “savages” to discover the use and cultural context of archeological materials. In reclassifying the stone tool categories formulated by Danish archeologists he coined the term “paleolithic” to designate the chipped tools found in caves and glacial gravels. He further suggested that these tools preceded a stage of development that he called “neolithic,” characterized by the polished stone implements found in Danish peat bogs. Lubbock never accepted the revision of this scheme that was proposed by Mortillet.

On a practical level Lubbock used his parliamentary position and his private means to instigate the passage of the Ancient Monuments Act in order to protect the ancient monuments of Britain against destruction.

Jacob W. Gruber

[For the historical context of Lubbock’s work, see Anthropology, article on The Field; and the biographies of Darwinand Tylor.]


(1865) 1913 Prehistoric Times as Illustrated by Ancient Remains and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages. 7th ed., rev. London: Williams & Norgate.

(1870) 1912 The Origin of Civilization and the Primitive Condition of Man: Mental and Social Conditions of Savages. 7th ed. New York: Longmans.


Grant-duff, Ursula [Lubbock] (editor) (1924) 1934 The Life Work of Lord Avebury (Sir John Lubbock): 1834–1913. London: Watts.

Hutchinson, Horace G. 1914 Life of Sir John Lubbock, Lord Avebury. 2 vols. London: Macmillan.

Pumphrey, R. J. (1958) 1959 The Forgotten Man: Sir John Lubbock. Science 129:1087–1092. → First published in Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London.

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Lubbock, John

Lubbock, John, English conductor; b. Much Had-ham, Hertfordshire, March 18,1945. He was a chorister at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor (1952–59). Following studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London, he received training in conducting from Celibidache. While still a student, he founded the Camden Chamber Orch. in 1967. In 1972 it became the Orch. of St. John’s, Smith Square, taking up residence at St. John’s Church in Westminster with Lubbock as artistic director. In subsequent years, he conducted it on many tours of England, and also conducted it in Europe, the U.S., and Canada. As a guest conductor, he appeared with various orchs. and choral groups in England, and also appeared abroad as a guest conductor. In addition to works from the standard repertoire, Lubbock has been active in commissioning, performing, and recording contemporary scores. He also has been engaged in various educational ventures.

—Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire

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Bank Holiday Act, 1871. Introduced by Sir John Lubbock, this Act compelled the clearing banks to close on certain days, thus making them public holidays. In England and Wales Easter Monday, Whit Monday, the first Monday in August, and Boxing Day became public holidays. In Scotland New Year's Day, the first Monday in May and August, and Christmas Day were declared holidays.

Richard A. Smith

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Lubbock, John (b Much Hadham, 1945). Eng. conductor and chorusmaster. Founded his own orch. 1967 while a student. Sang in LSO Ch., John Alldis Ch., and Swingle Singers. In 1972 his orch. was appointed res. orch. of St John's, Smith Square, Westminster. Début with LPO 1987. Dir. sch. children's orch., Snape Maltings, from 1982. Wexford Fest. 1992 (The Dream of Gerontius).

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