While our study of the world around us is undoubtedly as long as that of human history (and has been the province of famous thinkers from Aristotle onward), the field of study known as natural history really got its kick off in the mid-18th century and reached its height of popularity during the Victorian era, before the professionalization of science and the marginalization of the amateur community that was both a major supporter and a major contributor. The real “heyday of natural history” (to borrow the title of a book on the subject), particularly in Britain where its popularity was the strongest, occurred from around 1820-1870, reaching into every strata of society from the aristocracy to the working classes. Today natural history is largely a historical curiosity, and many of the basic skills of natural history are disappearing from modern science.
When most people (or at least the people that have answered my informal “poll”) think of natural history (not that most people think of natural history all that often), they tend to identify it with the science that is today biology. Historically however, this is just half the story–natural history has included not only areas of modern biology such as botany and zoology, but also fields like geology and paleontology. For a time, natural history also overlapped with the idea of natural theology, giving Victorians a convenient excuse to find entertainment in the study “through Nature up to Nature’s God”*. Indeed, the study of natural history offered the middle classes an occupation–most of their household work had been handed off to servants, and there were strict boundaries set on social interaction, particularly for women.
Natural history would offer the Victorian era man or woman relief from boredom, and was seen as an acceptable sort of entertaiment, or a “rational amusement”**. It was considered healthful–a reason for taking the advised daily walk, it was “morally uplifting” (the natural theology argument, lengthily laid out in William Paley’s weighty tome, Natural Theology)**, and it was entertaining. While many today might question this last idea, natural history was equivalent to the gaming craze of today. During the Victorian era natural history wasn’t seen as a useful subject, and was not taught in schools. And like many subjects not taught in school (a young Darwin was told by the headmaster at his school that it was a waste of time), natural history became quite popular. Its popularity was also probably helped by the relative ease with which the layman could pick up the tools and skills of natural history and communicate with those individuals that made a living at it (and contribute to their work).
The decline of natural history was first sounded with the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. It is somewhat ironic that one of the greatest natural historians was also one of the last (I’m pretty certain that he would have been unhappy to realize this), but Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection turned the field of biology into a legitimate science, which led to the end of two of its most attractive features–it became part of school curriculum and it became increasingly professionalized, making it more difficult for laymen to feel as if they were contributing to its continuation. The end of the natural history phenomenon wasn’t purely a victim of these events, and it can be argued that natural history didn’t end so much as it just changed form, but the end of the natural history craze can surely be attributed in large part to this shift.
*from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man
**ideas discussed in chapter 1 of Lynn Barber’s The Heyday of Natural History
And a bonus reading list (from my library):
Books about Natural History’s History: These books are a combination of general overviews, general themes or specific people or events in natural history. Nearly all of them are cheaper used online or via Kindle, though some are published by universities and are quite expensive (I paid over $40 for my e-book of the Botanizers).
The Heyday of Natural History by Lynn Barber
The Botanizers: Amateur Scientists of the 19th Century by Elizabeth Keeney
The Book of Nature: Natural History in the United States by Margaret Welch
Just about anything from Stephen Jay Gould (his essay collection, published as a series of books is superb)
Finding Order in Nature: The Naturalist Tradition from Linnaeus to E. O. Wilson by Paul Farber
Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History by Douglas J. Preston
Colonial Botany: Science, Commerce, and Politics in the Early Modern World by Londa Schiebinger and Claudia Swan
Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by James A. Secord
Women in the Field: America’s Pioneering Women Naturalists by Marcia Myers Bonta
Lincoln and Darwin: Shared Visions of Race, Science, and Religion by James Lander
The Romance of Victorian Natural History by Lynn L. Merrill
The Evolution of American Ecology, 1890–2000 by Sharon E. Kingslan
Evolutionary Theory & Victorian Culture by Martin Fichman, Morton L. Schagrin and Michael Ruse
Asa Gray: American Botanist, Friend of Darwin by A. Hunter Dupree
Books from Natural History’s History: All of these are public domain. Some of them are historically significant, while others are not–but they give an interesting glimpse into period natural history. A few of them I have purchased in print, either at a bookstore or online, but the rest (and more) can be found free from Kindle or Google books. I would recommend checking out the reviews as some of the kindle versions lack pictures, which pretty much ruins the book (like a 19th century field guide), while Google’s versions are often quite good (and can be converted easily into a PDF and printed from).
Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by Robert Chambers
On the Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, The Voyage of the Beagle and The Autobiography of Charles Darwin by Charles Darwin
The Naturalist on the River Amazons by Henry Walter Bates
Evenings at the Microscope and Natural History by Philip Henry Gosse…really anything by Gosse!
Anything by Asa Gray
Anything by T. H. Huxley
Natural Theology by William Paley
The Birds of America by John James Auubon
Curiosities of Nature by Francis T. Buckland
The Loves of the Plants by Erasmus Darwin
The Entertaining Naturalist by Mrs. Loudon
Principles of Geology by Sir Charles Lyell
*I’ve posted this here as part of my blog consolidation process. It was originally posted on my (now defunct) blog on the Victorian era, Civil War reenacting, and 19th century Natural History.