Book Review: The Great Naturalists

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Natural history, taken in all its extent, is an immense history, it embraces all the objects with which the universe presents us.”

I read The Great Naturalists from cover to cover which, with hindsight, may not be the best way to appreciate the content it offers. Instead, it could be dipped into as a reference for those wishing to acquire a brief overview of the work done by the thirty-seven men and two women who have been included within its pages. They are all European or, later, American. I am left wondering about the contributions made to the natural sciences through the ages by those born elsewhere.

Following an introduction the book is divided into four sections: The Ancients, The Renaissance, The Enlightenment, and The 19th Century. Each section presents potted histories of various pioneers and thinkers whose work contributed to moving knowledge forward in that era. As well as detailing: place of birth, family circumstances, and education; entries include the subject’s key publications and achievements. Writing style is rather dry and factual, perhaps an odd comment to make about a work of non-fiction but this affected engagement – the format became repetitive given the way I was reading.

Aside from the science there are other nuggets of interest, such as the irony that the prestigious Royal Society was formed from a group of scholars “encouraged by the scientifically sympathetic regime of the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell.” Mostly though each entry concentrates on the gradual development of natural history into what is now a range of specialisms. It took centuries for acceptance that “all living things were not made for man”. Religious dogma is shown to have limited wider thinking until relatively recently.

The discoveries detailed were made through travel, observation, illustration and, in some instances, experimentation. Nature was regarded as existing to benefit man, and plants were initially studied for their medicinal properties rather than purely for interest. Once systems were developed for naming and classification, knowledge could be disseminated and built upon. There was often a degree of competitiveness between contemporaries. 

As well as the many published books and their associated illustrations, botanic gardens and collections held in museums proved useful to those coming later. By recording, measuring and collecting on voyages throughout the world there was a gradual increase in understanding of the existence of plant and animal species along with their development and interdependencies. 

I was amused by the entry for Comte de Buffon who, unusually, wrote his books in a populist style, one that was sneered at by the scientific establishment – the ‘educated people’. He was even (gasp of horror) read and enjoyed by women!

“It would be easy to accept the criticisms of Buffon’s academic contemporaries and dismiss the Histoire Naturelle as a purely popularising work, empty and puffed up, with little real scientific value. But through his work Buffon truly changed the face of natural history in a way no academic had done before.”

There are only the briefest mentions of the politics and history of each era. Likewise, there is little judgement of the hunting and dissecting of creatures to attain a knowledge that will be of no benefit to them. 

Many of the naturalists included were independently wealthy or had wealthy patrons eager to enhance private collections. Knowledge of nature was sought without concern for the effects of such activity on location and native species. As ecology became better understood man’s place, along with his origins, finally began to be questioned. 

From Aristotle through to Darwin, the various theories naturalists pondered and posited are presented. None worked in isolation – attributions do not always recognise this. Of Darwin it is written,

“It was never enough for him simply to observe, he needed always to find the explanations underlying even the most commonplace phenomena.”

 Although a great thinker he relied on others to provide him with examples he could study to formulate his proofs.

Any Cop?: The book provides an interesting glimpse into the changing nature of scientific endeavours through the ages. It offers a reminder that accepted facts can change as new discoveries are made.  

 

Jackie Law

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