Mother Nature: the classified story

Cultures of Natural History
April 19, 1996

Today many of the world's great natural history museums are struggling for survival. The budgets of the Natural History Museum in London and the American Museum of Natural History in New York have both suffered from recent public funding cuts. The famous natural history museum in Paris, which features frequently in this book, is in a sad state. Biodiversity has now become a familiar term - used by politicians as well as biologists, yet the world's taxonomists have only been able to classify and name about 1.6 million of the estimated ten to 50 million species in the world.

Despite many recent pleas and even government inquiries that have endorsed the importance of taxonomy, little new support is being given to the field and several universities in Britain have ceased to train taxonomists. Yet both to conserve and to use biodiversity in sustainable ways the basic inventory and stocktaking of what organisms we have is essential. With the serious environmental crisis facing the world today, the need to collect and name organisms has become more rather than less urgent.

It is, therefore, salutary to have an authoritative new book which reviews the progress of European natural history from the 16th century, when the first natural history institutions were created, through to the late 19th century, when much of natural history was transformed into biological science. We are reminded here of the significant contributions that natural history has made over an extended period of time to so many fields such as medicine, art, gardening, ethnology and economics. It is surely shortsighted, in this time of increasing environmental crisis and loss of the species upon which life on earth depends, to undervalue the contribution that natural history museums, botanic gardens and the science of systematics can contribute to the future well-being of humanity.

The editors of this book, in their introduction, point to the importance of natural history: "There is one constancy (throughout the book), namely, the importance of the roles assigned to natural history in the commonwealth of learning: as a universal discipline, prior to political, social and moral order; as the partner with civil and sacred history in the revelation of the workings of divine providence; as the universal and stable foundations for the transitory and speculative systems of natural philosophy; as the basis for agricultural, commercial and colonial improvement of the human estate."

This volume brings together the work of 26 authors in 24 essays, which represents much of the recent research and scholarship in the field of natural history. We are reminded in the early chapters that natural history did not commence in the 16th century, for many Renaissance authors copied information from much earlier sources such as Aristotle, Pliny, Dioscorides, Theophrastus, Albert the Great and many others. Renaissance natural history was very different from what we regard as such today. It was an intricate interwoven mixture of the work of classical authors, fables, folklore and new observations as is shown by William Ashworth's fascinating chapter tracing the treatment of foxes, ichneumons and other animals from an emblematic point of view.

The third chapter is on the culture of gardens, taking us far back beyond the period covered by the book to the Garden of Eden and the Islamic tradition of the garden as paradise, through to the early physic and botanic gardens. Much coverage is given to the Belvedere Court gardens of the Vatican, but the first true botanic gardens were those of Padua and Pisa founded in the 1540s. There is more emphasis given to cultural uses of gardens for banquets, poetry recitals, plays etc, rather than natural history, unless we also includethe fact that the gardens of late 16th century England were places where lovers met secretly, to the disapproval of more puritan observers.

Natural history developed well in the 16th century as European royalty and the popes competed with each other to establish the most extensive research programmes. This was particularly true in Italy, where courts abounded. Paula Findler recounts how a select group of naturalists were well supported through their careers in the numerous courts that existed at that time. Such famous naturalists as Luca Ghini, Andrea Cesalpino, Pietro Mattioli and Carolus Clusius are examples of this form of support.

Natural history intrigued princes and courtiers because it put them in touch with the whole world. Philip II of Spain commissioned Hern ndes to spend six years in Mexico, Georg Markgraf's work, which resulted in the first natural history of Brazil, was sponsored by Prince Johan Maurits of Nassau. Elizabeth I sent Thomas Harriot and John White to collect and illustrate the flora and fauna on Sir Walter Raleigh's second expedition to Virginia.

All of these royal expeditions were a significant step in the development of natural history. In 17th-century England natural history was developed by the curiosi, aristocrats who had a fascination for the rare and novel. This covered a much broader field than natural history but their efforts led to the establishment of many collections of butterflies, beetles, birds, seashells and other products of nature. Also by that time collections of dried plants or herbaria had been established. The first person to popularise herbarium specimens was the Italian professor Luca Ghini, the first director of the Pisa garden. Ghini, like many early naturalists, was trained as a physician. Harold Cook recounts the enormous contribution that medicine made to natural history. This was a logical development because so many medicines were made from plants.

The drive to find new medicines contributed to the opening up of trade routes by the Europeans. The quest for guaiacum to treat syphilis and cinchona bark to treat malaria stimulated both expeditions and intrigue. The majority of the famous 16th-century naturalists were physicians. The physicians brought both anatomy and chemistry to the study of nature.

During the 17th and 18th century the French monarchs established a network of academies throughout the country, starting with the Academie Francaise in Paris, and these did much to stimulate an interest in botany and zoology.

Lisbet Koesner's chapter covers the contribution of Carl Linnaeus, the founder of modern nomenclature of organisms and the most famous naturalist of the Enlightenment. This man of humble origins, who became accepted by the Swedish court, has been considered the greatest botanist that the world has ever known. His sexual system of classification of plants has not stood the test of time, because it was an artificial rather than a natural evolutionary one, but his system of binomial nomenclature is the way in which plants and animals are still named today. As was typical of scientists of the Enlightenment, even Linnaeus spoke of his science as serving economic needs.

Linnaeus also features conspicuously in the following chapter on gender and natural history, for his whole classification was based on the sexual organs of plants, which he likened to those of humans. European science of the 18th century was almost exclusively male, although botany was to some extent considered suited to women. Many upper and middle-class ladies collected dried plants and prepared beautiful illustrations.

During the 18th century various naturalists rose to positions of considerable influence as expert mediators between nature and society. For example, Georges-Louis Leclec, later Comte de Buffon in France, and Sir Joseph Banks in England reached the upper echelons of society. They were able to use their influence to the benefit of the great collecting institutions as museums and gardens developed. It was also in the mid-18th century that the study of rocks and fossils developed and consequently a gradual realisation that nature had altered in the past, and so earth history became part of natural history. This led to many scientific and philosophical debates about the formation and development of the earth.

Natural history began gradually to grow into the three disciplines of botany, zoology and mineralogy. The early 19th-century Germans developed Naturphilosophie out of their romanticism. It was during this period that natural history changed profoundly as it moved apart from theology and from the Renaissance approach to specialisation. Different disciplines such as physiology and palaeontology developed.

At the same time government support began to flow to the great natural history museums. Dorinda Outram takes the development of the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris as an example. Considerable debate occurred as to the merits of sedentary museum-based studies, as exemplified by Cuvier, versus field studies, such as those of Alexander von Humboldt, who is the subject of a chapter by Michael Dettelbach. Humboldt with his "terrestrial physics" moved natural history away from the description and naming of organisms to an ecological approach that considered the influence of physical forces. He was interested in the geographical relationships of plants, the distribution of vegetation into altitudinal belts and other physical parameters. The number of different topics studied by Humboldt caused a reorganisation of knowledge and the creation of new disciplines.

The establishment of the British Empire gave rise to a whole new range of opportunities for naturalists who were variously motivated by a thirst for knowledge of the exotic, the lure of travel and adventure, and their patriotism and desire to benefit the nation economically. Some of these explorer naturalists were wealthy entrepreneurs, such as Joseph Banks, others were sent out as professionally paid collectors for such organisations as the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the Royal Horticultural Society and the Natural History Museum. As a result these and many other institutions began to gather enormous collections and to produce descriptive works, such as the various floras authored by Joseph Hooker at Kew, who described floras of New Zealand, India and Australia. The 19th century produced many great naturalists, such as Charles Lyell, whose work on fossils paved the way for Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace to produce the theory of evolution and consequently the acceptance of more natural systems of classification.

Two fascinating chapters in this book are those on artisan botany by Anne Secord and tastes and crazes by David Allen. I had no idea of the role that botany played in the life of so many British pubs in the mid-19th century. There were botanical clubs in many pubs, where knowledgeable artisans could both learn and present their findings. The purpose of these pub-based societies was to inspect and discuss plants and to borrow and return books to each other or to the library retained for them by the pub. These artisans enjoyed botany rather than the production of scientific texts and so their history is hard to discover. During the period covered by this book collecting often became a mania - shell collecting in the 17th century, for instance, seaweeds in the 18th and ferns in the 19th. Indeed, the Victorians' craze for ferns led to the plundering of that resource and the endangerment of various species. Whole hillsides were stripped bare and woods were cleared of every frond. Unfortunately, some unscrupulous orchid and cactus collectors are endangering species of these plants today in their desire for samples of every last species.

Although this book is intended for a general readership with no previous acquaintance of natural history, a good knowledge of the field is helpful. Those with less background and students of history will find the suggestions for further reading that follow each chapter most helpful.

The entire volume is abundantly illustrated with relevant diagrams, engravings and drawings from many classical sources. The natural history of Europe is well covered, though activities in the field in the rest of the world are not really addressed, except when they impinge upon European interests and activities.

One of the editors, James Secord, brings the book to a fitting conclusion in his epilogue on the topic with which I began this review, the low priority currently given to natural history and the sciences of classification. He most appropriately asks the question why, when wildlife programmes are so popular on television, the science behind them has been relegated to such a lowly status and such inadequate funding.

The historians who contribute to this book have also done a lot to help build the case for more, rather than less taxonomy. I hope that taxonomists will respond by promoting their field and governments and research councils, who hold the purse strings, will realise that so much of science and wealth creation depends upon the descendent disciplines of the natural history brought together so well in this book.

Sir Ghillean Prance is director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Cultures of Natural History

Editor - N. Jardine, J. A. Secord and E. C. Spary
ISBN - 0 521 45394 1 and 55894 8
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £65.00 and £22.95
Pages - 501pp

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