1. Aristotle on Lesbos 346-343BC

When the Athenian philospoher Plato died in 347 BC his student, Aristotle, left Athens and moved to the Aegean island of Assos. With the help of other philosophers he established a new school on the nearby island of Lesbos, where he lived for two more years.

Aristotle - copy from a 322BC bronze

Aristotle – copy from a 322BC bronze

Greek_ColonizationMost historians of science agree that it was during this period that Aristotle began his intensive study of biology. Three books in particular, the History of Animals, Parts of Animals, and the Generation of Animals, contain descriptions of the fish, birds, insects and mammals that he found around two lagoons on Lesbos. He also considered the ecological features of the island habitats and of the marine conditions. Then, around 342BC Aristotle and Pythias moved to Pella (the ancient capital of Macedon) at the invitation of king Phillip II, for their son Alexander’s education.

a modern lagoon on an Aegean island

a modern lagoon on an Aegean island

Aristotle also created a classification of animals as “live-bearing and egg-bearing” and which went on to include invertebrates and vertebrates. He thought that all these creatures were arranged on a scale of perfection starting with plants and going up to man, the so-called Great Chain of Being.

A link between humans and nature was made explicit during this time, when the Greek thinkers were establishing European culture. Heraclitus (534-475BC) was from Ephesus and talked about the importance of reason to work out the meaning of nature, what he called logos. So when he moved nearby to Assos, 130 years after Heraclitus’ death, Aristotle was especially aware of the more reasoned ways of thinking. He spoke of the link between Promethean technology and Orphic art as essential to the Greek life style of the times. They liked having two very different ways of understanding nature, realizing that the comparisons maintained a healthy debate, even helping to retain the secrets of life.

These ancient Greeks believed that nature loved to hide, and to help teach that mystery they created the veiled beauty of Artemis, known as Isis in Egypt. This led them on to think about the subject of nature’s origin, the appearance and growth of living species. It caused them to build Artemis a special temple at Ephesus and aimed for another destination after her death.

So beneath Artemis’s veil there was all this hidden science of nature: the structure of all species, their development, what caused them to move and their environment to change. There were also a lot of poems about these myths spoken by the gods, exorcising both their value and meanings from Artemis’s spirit. It became hidden by the poet and not by nature, for nature has no need to reveal herself, happy in the secrecy of the veil.

Heraclitus thought that if we treated nature as a separate entity, something to resist and to treat warily as a likely enemy, then humans would fight nature and expect to be most powerful. On the other hand, if we relax to feel part of nature, then gradually we would understand our place in nature. Art was part of our creative spirit, so it was already in nature as well, keeping nature and humans together.

This was the dialectic between these technological and aesthetic interpretations of nature, non-ending dialogue between the two equal partners, one hard the other soft, both being necessary for the other and both sitting happily in the bigger veiled image of nature.

Although Aristotle’s zoological work is not as well known as his logical and philosophical books, it was a vast encyclopaedia of natural history and was surpassed only in the 18th century. There is a famous saying by Darwin, who was much impressed the first time he read Aristotle’s zoological work: “I had not the most remote notion what a wonderful man he was. Linnaeus and Cuvier have been my two gods, though in very different ways, but they were mere schoolboys to old Aristotle.”

Aristotle’s scientific work was translated into English by the biologist and Greek scholar, d’Arcy Thompson.

D'Arcy Thompson, the eccentric Irish biology professor of DundeeHe also lectured at Oxford in 1913 On Aristotle as a Biologist with a prooemion on Herbert Spencer.


all chapters/posts copyright Michael Boulter 2013

2. Two Men for All Seasons 1516-1624

A political novel called Utopia was published in 1516 by Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) followed a hundred years later by Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, outlining a new experimental method.

Sir Thomas More  Sir Thomas More

text attributed to Shakespeare; or is it the writing of Thomas More or Francis Bacon?

text attributed to Shakespeare; or is it the writing of Thomas More or Francis Bacon?

Sir Francis Bacon by Pourbus

Sir Francis Bacon by Pourbus

People have always been afraid of the unknown and have gone out of their way to find answers to the mysteries and terrors of life. Most have done this by seeking reassurance from creative stories told by people everywhere from the earliest of times. In many of these, both good and bad gods were created and civilisations built around their myths. The gods were appeased by the vulnerable people, as they worshipped and pleaded for protection from each threatening environment.

I, like most other people, have had to find a god to help me express my creativity. The written word has helped with this task particularly since the sixteenth century when facts and ideas started to be printed so changing communication forever. So it is with these that I will begin this daunting task of figuring out a pattern within this history of how life and its evolution has been understood. In most of Europe through this time, the word and work of the Christian God accounted for all of nature on the planet and in heaven.

The defender of Roman Catholicism in England, Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), wrote his personal manifesto in 1516 as a 134 page story of fiction. It was a brave act to publish such a document because everyone realized it really set out a list of complaints about the State and its political system. In it, More expressed the fears of himself and many others about how money was wasted and wars were fought recklessly and needlessly. Most of the complaints fell at the feet of the Crown, and inevitably they led to More’s execution.

In Utopia, More told of Raphael setting off for Brazil in 1507. From there he made a short journey to the island of Utopia where his mythical society lived in what More must have thought to be his kind of paradise. The island had a well-worked-out set of rules by which its society was structured. But they were mere supplements to the Christianity that Raphael and most of his fellow-utopians believed. Atheists were tolerated, though despised, and there was not much time or space for any free-thinking ways of life.

More’s socialist State had a strong welfare system with free hospitals and household support. Life was simple and equal for everyone with no unemployment. The law was kept simple and so there was no need for lawyers, and punishments placed the guilty into slavery. This was how the system kept going, for all households were allocated at least one slave and they also did the nasty jobs. Adultery was a crime, pre-marital sex was punished by celibacy. There were both male and female priests but wives were subject to their husbands’ wishes.

In Greek “utopia” means “no place” and some say that More wrote the story as a joke. Certainly its idealism is hard to take seriously. For example, if the number of inhabitants became excessive the extra people were sent off to the mainland where special colonies were established. At least More was aware of some of the potential difficulties. And he really believed in the ethics that he described for his ideal island, especially that people should have the materialist Epicurian life they so much wanted. But if they broke the rules favouring the majority, he expected that they should be punished.

450 years after More’s novel was published, a feature film starring Paul Scofield put his ideals in a modern context and telling of Moore’s struggle with the corrupt authorities. The film was based on Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons.

With much the same theme, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) published New Atlantis in 1624, also just before his own death. His island was called Bensalem, on the Pacific side of South America, and with the same respect of Christianity. But here, the new social custom was based on its State sponsored scientific institution, Solomon’s House. In effect, his was a description of everything involved in Bacon’s ideas for a scientific methodology. It was the first recognition that the dark ages were over and together with the forthcoming technological incentives from the Industrial Revolution, that was soon to be inevitable.

Bacon’s story of New Atlantis began, only a few years after the Ascension of Jesus, with the miraculous arrival on the island of a copy of the Bible. The event was celebrated each year as the “Feast of the Family” and was accepted by everyone as the mainstream morality that would continue to keep society together. This vision of the future of human discover was quite compatible with Christianity and the role of the church.

As with More’s political rules on Utopia, so Bacon formulated rules for science and each was to be the responsibility of a management group. These officials:

went off to other countries to find out their progress in science and the kinds of experiments they performed,

collate all known experiments of the “mechanical arts”, the “liberal sciences”,

will try new experiments that they “themselves think good”,

others recorded results and set out conclusions.

A final group was to put each new discovery into the context of previous knowledge and to present each advance as a written rule.

3. Three Creative Geniuses 1519-1632

During this period of just over a hundred years there was more creativity and realism than ever before and it appeared in the publications of three innovators. These recorded the observations of Leonardo da Vinci (1519), and the calculations by Copernicus (1540) and Galileo (1632).

The first was by one of the greatest of all observers, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), with his many drawings of living things. Much of what he saw and interpreted holds good today, the animals and plants varying slightly over space and short intervals of time, their environment changing, the earth’s landmasses moving about the globe. During the early Renaissance, science and art were intermingled, with artists like da Vinci making observational drawings of anatomy and nature, and many of the diagrams of his skilled medical dissections are still well-known today. He also went on to make controlled experiments, involving water pressure, relativity movements and aerodynamics.

da Vinci’s helicopter, The Annunciation 1475-1480, human embryo and foetus 1510:

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The processes he began were much like the holistic approaches to science that are becoming popular again today. For example, at one stage he intimated that biological structures were part of some self-organised complex system. Da Vinci died at peace with himself and with these amazingly advanced thoughts, as well as with the God of his early sixteenth century Florence.

This was also the time when the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) was gathering data from his astronomical observations and calculating that the earth was not at the centre of the universe. It wasn’t too hard for the church in Krakow to adjust to his work, mainly because they liked the man for who he was, and didn’t fully understand the implications of his work.

In 1543 Copernicus presented his major theory: On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres and it had seven major conclusions:

“1. There is no one center of all the celestial circles or spheres.

2. The center of the earth is not the center of the universe, but only of gravity and of the lunar sphere.

3. All the spheres revolve about the sun as their mid-point, and therefore the sun is the center of the universe.

4. The ratio of the earth’s distance from the sun to the height of the firmament (outermost celestial sphere containing the stars) is so much smaller than the ratio of the earth’s radius to its distance from the sun that the distance from the earth to the sun is imperceptible in comparison with the height of the firmament.

5. Whatever motion appears in the firmament arises not from any motion of the firmament, but from the earth’s motion. The earth together with its circumjacent elements performs a complete rotation on its fixed poles in a daily motion, while the firmament and highest heaven abide unchanged.

6. What appear to us as motions of the sun arise not from its motion but from the motion of the earth and our sphere, with which we revolve about the sun like any other planet. The earth has, then, more than one motion.

7. The apparent retrograde and direct motion of the planets arises not from their motion but from the earth’s. The motion of the earth alone, therefore, suffices to explain so many apparent inequalities in the heavens.”

A hundred years later, the technical improvements in optical instruments enabled Galilei Galileo (1564-1642) to discover much more evidence for those same ideas, and he did run into difficulty with the church in Rome. With great publicity he defended the views by writing his most controversial work, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. It was published in 1632 and it caused him to be arrested and tried before the Inquisition. That powerful group of churchmen found him “vehemently suspect of heresy” and he was forced to recant.

He spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

4. Bacon Exenterates a Chicken 1626   

While Galileo was in trouble with the religious courts in Rome, the same English lawyer who published New Atlantis in 1624, Francis Bacon, was working out how to practice what he preached. It was time for him to perform the first experiment, to test some idea about nature. For as well as being remembered for pioneering rules about how science might be done, no particular branch of it, but the value of testing the early hunch of a new idea, he is also remembered for actually performing the first experiment. In New Atlantis he argued that as much background influence as possible should be put to one side so that the experiment concentrated on one single thing at a time. And this is what he did: when the chance came, he took it.

Sir Francis Bacon by Pourbus

Sir Francis Bacon by Pourbus

Bacon had been brought up to believe that faith and reason were part of day-to-day religious doctrine and gladly accepted that any new understanding was considered by the Church to be part of its work. To move knowledge forward he was trying to devise a system of finding out new explanations, a method that others would follow and find useful to work with. If everyone could explore the issues in a compatible way, learn to speak the same methodological language, then problems about nature might be solved more accurately and quickly. The answers might then start to fit together and present a more meaningful picture. He was thinking about a process by which ideas could be discovered, rather than about a particular discovery, a scientific method that could be accepted as an authentic way of finding some truth about the nature of life.

He believed that this was more important than the religious way of life but he received a major set-back in putting these views forward to the public. In 1621 he was charged with corruption and imprisoned in the Tower of London to await King James’ pleasure. His wrong-doings were not for any errors in his scientific work but for the bribes he had accepted as Lord Chancellor, and he chose the easiest way out by pleading guilty before Parliament: “My Lords, it is my act, my hand and my heart. I beseech your lordships to be merciful to a broken reed.” The quieter way of life that followed gave Bacon time to think through and develop his emerging ideas of how to do science, how to get to know the mysteries and questions of the natural world and how they might be understood.

The story goes that one winter morning in 1626, Bacon and his friend the King’s doctor set off together on a mission that was going to change the course of human history. Their horse-drawn carriage went up past The Angel out of London into the countryside, along the Great North Road to Highgate. The coach stopped outside a crumbling old cottage and the two men climbed down onto the frozen mud. They went into the building where an old woman was trying to warm herself by the fire. It was close to the spot  where Dick Whittington looked out over London, and at around the same time.

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Like her visitors, the old woman was shivering with the cold, but pleased to sell two of her fowls. The two customers made the woman exenterate the birds and the experiment began.  Bacon took one of the birds outside, picked up several handfuls of snow and stuffed the frozen water into the carcass for it to be left out in the cold. The other was left in the cottage by the warm fire, where it soon became a festering mass of putrefying flesh and bugs. From the simple comparison of the different conditions for the same object the experiment tested Bacon’s theory of how meat decays and how it can be preserved.

His idea, or theory, was that meat decays by reacting with some internal organic substances. The experiment controlled the temperature, making it too cold for organic reactions. The meat was preserved.

By creating a theory, comparing options, eliminating other explanations, he found a solution to the problem or at least another way of understanding it. A week later Bacon reported that “as for the experiment itself, it succeeded excellently well, but in the journey from London to Highgate I was taken with such a fit of casting as I know not whether it was the Stone, or some surfeit or cold, or indeed a touch of them all three.”  The chill had quickly turned into pneumonia and Bacon died the following week. His private secretary, Thomas Meautys, saw to it that Bacon’s Natural History, Sylva Sylvarum and his New Atlantis, were both published before the end of the year.

This way of investigating nature lived on and talk of Bacon’s work stimulated a small group of men from humble families in eastern counties, and as we shall see, they were all studying at Cambridge during the early 1660s. There was no doubt that their work with science was beginning to challenge the authorized explanations of how to account for living things. Their experimental results were being published as new facts and this tempted the dons to debate how to bring up the questions about the origin and diversity of life in nature: where biodiversity came from. But being ordained as priests they had to decide whether or not to stick to their guns and defend their beliefs against such doubts. Even after thinking, arguing and teaching about new topics such as planets in motion around the sun and the time needed for other changes that had happened in the world, it was important that Bacon’s example of reason by experiment was understood and followed.

More optimistic changes at the start of the eighteenth century began to take over and drive society more quickly, enabling politicians to achieve their new social ambitions. Not only were the scientific developments sensible and more popular than the older life styles but they also seemed to work. Science began to take on a more important role as it established new practices in different fields but it continued to be no threat for the established role of the church as it was still being done within the style of God’s design and the way people understood the nature of life itself.

5. The Problem of the Teeth 1660-1690

One dark morning in October 1666 several boats of fishermen unloaded the body of a shark they had taken offshore from Livorno just south of Pisa, in Tuscany. So big was this specimen that its capture attracted attention at the little port and the brave fishermen became local heroes for bringing it ashore without any loss of life. Their employer was the Grand Duke Ferdinand II , an enlightened, questioning member of the nobility. As soon as he heard about the landing of an unusual fish he felt a surge of  excitement.


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Ferdinand was a generous benefactor to the local university and was interested to support the new kinds of scientific enquiry in astronomy and features of the earth. So the giant shark was bound to pique his curiosity. By chance, Ferdinand had just heard that a 27 year old anatomist called Nicolas Steno (1638-1686) had arrived in Florence as visiting professor: surely he would be able to offer some scientific opinion? So the specimen was sent the few kilometres to Florence to be examined by one of the world’s first biological scientists for the most up-to-date opinions that were possible. Steno’s family were goldsmiths and he had enough money to travel around Europe establishing his reputation as an anatomist, making use of his particularly fine skills of observation. He had also been influenced by the scientific argument that he had found firstly in Paris and then at the new Experimental Academy in Florence, recently founded by Duke Ferdinand’s brother, Leopold de’ Medici, to perpetuate and extend the experimental and mathematical work of Galileo.

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The fish was much larger than any shark that Steno had seen before and reminded him of the drawings made more than a hundred years earlier by the Italian naturalist and collector Conrad Gessner. That fish was smaller than the latest specimen though the picture showed its aggressive mouth wide open to reveal enormous teeth, teeth which Gessner had proposed to account for the well-known “tongue stones” commonly found within the sedimentary rocks outcropping in that part of Italy. These striking objects were well-known in the villagers’ folk-lore and there were many different ideas of what they were and how they got into the hard rocks. Gessner’s suggestion that the stones were the broken-off teeth of a shark was not popular. It sounded ridiculous to most people that fish teeth should have found their way into the structure of inorganic rock. But from his precise comparative observations Steno had conclusive evidence that the structures from organic and inorganic sources were the same size. The two kinds of object were from giant sharks, one kind living, the other kind fossilised in the rock.


Sixteenth century scientists like Gessner had collected specimens of crystals and other rocks, as well as petrified wood and shells, and took them together as artefacts of the inorganic earth. All such things were called “fossils” and because they were all made of different kinds of rock they were thought to have formed with the earth, not from any living source. There wasn’t even a question that they may have once been living because there was nothing like them today. Even the tongue-stones were much bigger than the teeth of any living fish that Steno thought they resembled. Most observers seemed to be happy that all these things came from the inorganic earth and had never had anything to do with living creatures. There was no need for any such complex explanation as the one Steno proposed. Fossils were simple relics of the earth, bits of rock.

But by the middle of the seventeenth century more collectors were beginning to think differently and Steno’s interpretation of the tongue-stones attracted more attention. He also had fossils of exquisitely preserved crabs and molluscs that were as life-like as many of the familiar species found in Europe. But he also had some of these familiar sea shells from sedimentary rocks high up in the mountains. The trouble with them was whether they got there by The Flood or whether they were the remains of some animals yet to be discovered alive. They were two different answers to the questions raised by the tongue-stones and which still puzzled most naturalists. But still, for Steno, the Tuscany shark settled the issue: that many things previously thought to be earthly remains were the fossilised relics of dead animals and plants.

It had become a tradition to explain the dilemma presented by those fossil specimens found out of range, high up at the top of mountains, by the eighth chapter of Genesis in the Old Testament that allowed either option:

Now the flood was on the earth forty days. The waters increased and lifted up the ark, and it rose high above the earth.  The waters prevailed and greatly increased on the earth, and the ark moved about on the surface of the waters.  And the waters prevailed exceedingly on the earth, and all the high hills under the whole heaven were covered.  The waters prevailed fifteen cubits upward, and the mountains were covered…. Only Noah and those who were with him in the ark remained alive.  And the waters prevailed on the earth one hundred and fifty days.

But in 1667, opting for the path of rationality with his expert dissection of the giant shark from Tuscany, Steno published his drawings of the large teeth and was able to compare these to other pictures of several living species. The similarities were clear and he offered them as his proof that the tongue stones were once part of a very large living shark: “how well then everything agrees, how unanimously they all point in the same direction.” Steno’s book was noticed in England by one of Francis Bacon’s most enthusiastic supporters, recently appointed as The Royal Society’s first Curator of Experiments. Robert Hooke (1635-1703) had also met Steno in Montpellier in 1665 and clearly remembered the talk about the local legends of the infamous tongue stones. Hooke saw to it that an abstract of Steno’s paper appeared in the Philosophical Transactions, a news-sheet that had just begun to be circulated to fellows. Hooke was an important influence in the new community of scientists, making air pumps and time-pieces for his old friends interested in chemistry and biology who he had met at Oxford.

The work encouraged Hooke and others to make further comparisons between fossils and living things, using another piece of new technology about which he was greatly excited, his microscope.

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Already he had compared the microscopic cellular structure of some fossil wood with that in a thin section of freshly made charcoal. It showed him the big cells that had formed by the fastest growth in the Spring-time and how these spread round the circumference of the tree-trunk to make the now-familiar growth rings.  Hooke was satisfied with science as a part of the religious outlook, and argued that both philosophies saw the earth as a system with many parts and which enabled such things as earthquakes, floods and fossils. If the earth had originated as a fluid, as some were suggesting, then he accepted that this was also entirely compatible with science and religion. But his enquiring mind must have started to suggest some doubts.

This openness and duality helped Hooke to understand the shark’s teeth in two very different situations: one very much active and alive, the other petrified and dead. Because they both exhibited the same cellular structure they must be manifestations of the same thing and Hooke used both to tell the story of the evolution of these fish to show how they grew and evolved. But the possibility that some were extinct species was not even dreamt of, as that would be tantamount to admitting some inadequacy in God’s design. How the sheer weight of sediment covering the specimens got there was not considered either, just as well because some of the mountain exposures had several hundred meters of overlying strata. Their accumulation would have needed a very deep and persistent flood indeed.

Other kinds of large-scale displays of the earth’s force had just been experienced in Italy, where Vesuvius had erupted in 1631, and the catastrophic flooding from seven rivers flowing around the mountain was fresh in the minds of all the local people. Another source of fear that caused a different kind of caution was the Inquisition, which was then passing judgment on Galileo. It was the start of a niggling suspicion with some of the explanations of life that had been accepted for centuries. Was life caused by some forces not mentioned in the stories of Genesis?

More of these questions were being raised as Steno’s academic work proceeded so that some of his colleagues looked again at the first chapter of Genesis:

I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.

And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was good.

The people wanted more justification of the biblical explanations: Francis Bacon had said as much in New Atlantis, but ideas as well as things could still be expected to move slowly in those times.

In his Prodromus (1669) Steno summarised his observations and thoughts arising from his work with the Tuscany shark, setting out his revolutionary ideas about how the earth’s form had been shaped through time. They were ideas that he had previously kept secret, afraid to share them with his seriously religious friends but thoughts, nevertheless, that had become powerful obsessions. Undoubtedly at that time they were ideas that some thought to be blasphemous: that fossils were buried parts of once living organic organisms that had somehow failed.


The work also set out for the first time the basic geological idea that sediments were laid down horizontally and formed layers of rocks, the older covered by the younger and them all containing bits of organisms that had lived at the time of sedimentation. It was one big compromise, pleasing neither the rationalists nor the faithful.

But these were only quiet and trembling whispers and Steno knew that sooner or later the biblical metaphors had to be challenged. He had powerful skills of observation to partner his active curiosity, and unlike most of his contemporaries, he asked questions.  Still expecting to explain nature through biblical orthodoxy he suggested six stages in the process of earth formation based on the six days of the creation story. The first two of these involved sediment from the land being washed into the sea and settling on the sea-floor horizontally, two more involved these sediments being consolidated and folded and in the final two stages the resulting rocks were eroded and weathered. The theory was a brilliant reconstruction of geological processes.

Then he went on to try and test the theory by offering new explanations of how life began and how it might then have diversified. By the middle of the seventeenth century there were many naturalists talking about the way the bodies of dead creatures might become trapped by Steno’s sedimentation hypothesis. Indeed, some of these suggestions were so extreme that they presented a growing number of questions about the bible’s explanation of nature, and they made Steno feel very excited about his challenges to the authority of the church.

These dangerously unfashionable ideas isolated Steno further from that early scientific community for there were very few, if any, with whom he could share such extreme yet rational interpretations. He became so troubled that he eventually capitulated to the mainstream and converted to Catholicism. There, his charisma led to him being ordained as a priest in 1675 and he was then appointed as a bishop two years later. He died in 1686 at the age of 48. Nevertheless, his earlier dilemma about where fossils came from continued to trouble many people, especially those not held in check by the church. They were not convinced by the argument that the six stage process was sufficient to establish living things, and they looked to Steno’s old English friend Robert Hooke, and the new procedure to make scientific experiments, for more convincing evidence that might have settled the matter.

6. Ray of Hope

The Rev John Ray (1627-1705) was one of the new thinkers influenced directly by Bacon, and he used his fellowship at Cambridge to make a big impact on how his colleagues were going to understand nature. His father was the village blacksmith at Black Notley in Essex and his mother an expert herbal healer.

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To her, Culpepper’s herbal reference-book was as important a guide as the Bible was to all around her, so during the Civil War (1642-51) in the Ray household, when John was studying at Cambridge, religion and a natural life-style were strongly connected. John was determined to bring the two together and he used the frequent thirty mile walk between home and college to help him get to know the plants and animals. Unknowingly then, the long walk took him past the witches at Bury.th-2

These were the years when John Ray began to sort out some order in the confusing spread of diversity that he saw around him in the English countryside. He compartmentalized all that he saw through the seasons: different kinds of flowers tended to be different colours in the spring and summer, while trees had a different place in his system to bushes and herbs. Their location also gave him a useful guide to help sort things out, indeed, he went on to use all sorts of characters to describe what he called a species – he was the first to use this word, Greek for kind. But he used so many different characters that they became a serious weakness to his system because it got into knots when they overlapped and when there became too many to cope with at once. A hundred years later Linnaeus, the supreme master at finding order within chaos, considered only sexual structures to classify all of the flowering plants.

Ray had published his first list of plants just after the civil war and called it Catalogus Plantarum circa Cantabrigiam. He was also ordained and that allowed him to enjoy more of the privileges at Trinity College. Pleased to link nature and religion, he preached that God made things for a reason, mainly for man’s benefit. So night-time is provided to enjoy sleep more easily, and complexity in nature and society is because God is intelligent and so everything is adapted for a purpose.

Ray supported most of the reforms that followed the civil war and it came as a shock when the first big set-back threatened to slow down change. This was the 1662 Act of Uniformity which increased the power of the Church of England, insisting on subservience to bishops and demanding the use of the Book of Common Prayer at each service. This was all more than Ray’s new beliefs would allow. Bravely, along with nearly 2,000 others, he refused to sign allegiance. This was because he was moving to a more analytical outlook on life, taking on more than one side of an argument according to his own judgment and not that of his institution. What he knew about natural history, how he saw order within it, was at odds with the new Act and it meant he had to resign his fellowship. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise for this student of nature because it released Ray from the rigid duties of the university so he could travel and explore the animals and plants of mainland Europe.

His fellow dissenter and wealthy friend from student days, Francis Willoughby, joined him and paid for the trip. From what they saw they calculated that there were 10,000 species of insects, 1,300 other animals and 20,000 species of plants in the whole world. By the middle of the seventeenth century the human urge for adventure and the challenge of using science to find out new things both became realistic occupations. European nations were becoming rich enough to finance expeditions to exotic parts of the world, realizing some of the advantages of Empire.

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In 1684 Ray was helping cultivate some of these imported plants at the new Chelsea Physic Garden, gifts that the young Hans Sloane had brought back from his travels to the West Indies. There were “nectarines of all sortes, Peaches, Apricotes, cherryes and plumes of several sorts of the best to be got.” To help, a stove was installed to heat the greenhouse and Sloane wrote about it to Ray with great enthusiasm: “The gardener has fitted a new contrivance, at least in this country; viz. he makes under the floor of his greenhouse a great fire plate, with grate, ash-hole etc., and conveys the warmth through the whole house, by tunnels; so that he hopes, by the help of weather-glasses within, to bring or keep the air at what degree of warmth he pleases, letting in upon occasion the outward air by the windows. He thinks to make, by this means, an artificial spring, summer and winter.”

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It is highly likely that John Ray and Isaac Newton (1642-1727) knew one another while they were at the same college. Ray was 34, and Isaac a 19 year-old student. Newton had travelled 50 miles south from Grantham with little money and no friends but his notebooks, and quickly he shut himself away. He was eccentric from the start, not helped by an equally remote tutor who discussed nothing but ancient Greek. One of his few friends wrote that: “he has sometime taken a turn or two in his garden, has made a sudden stand, run up the stairs with a eureka, fall to write on his desk standing”. For long periods he would go without eating and when someone forced him to have food he would snatch it and carry on standing by his work. They said he was in the grip of inspiration or maybe obsession.

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Perhaps it was his physical weakness that caused Newton to be so guarded or he was afraid of establishment people, his humble origins not helping with all the comfort and fame. He had a notoriously argumentative relationship with Robert Hooke that had got off to a bad start in 1665 with his envy at Hooke’s microscope. Newton thought that light and its bending properties was his own specialist province, pleased to leave Hooke looking at flies’ eyes. The relationship deteriorated in 1672 after Newton’s election to the Royal Society when his anger focused on Hooke’s telescope. This was an instrument for Newton to look outwards, not for Hooke who should have been content to stay searching inwards.

Newton considered himself as a man with a mission. “Just as the world was created from dark Chaos through the bringing forth of the light, so our work brings forth the beginning out of black chaos and its first matter.” So, in 1686, after 18 months writing, Newton sent off the Principia Mathematica to the Royal Society for publication the next year. It was about the science of time, space, place and motion: on its own, time flows evenly, space remains the same. And then the three laws of motion: actions are interactions. Science could now explain anything there was to be explained, except evolution, which was going to be the next challenge, and that involved a lot more.

7. Hooked

Robert Hooke (1635-1703), for one, was skeptical about the famous physical scientist Robert Boyle wanting to absorb all the new scientific discoveries, especially the history of life, into the philosophy and message of The Holy Bible.

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Hooke’s ideas supported Steno’s theory that fossils were spread by some kind of Flood. But that didn’t really say where they came from in the first place and it left out the possibilities that earthquakes from Plato’s power or waves from Bacon’s drowned Atlantis might have had something to do with them. The Flood would have scattered organic debris and shells randomly on the surface, while Steno expected it also to have led to evaporation of the sea and the sedimentation and stratification of its load of mud, sand and minerals. Hooke was eager to carry on with more detailed examinations and comparative observations, extending his microscopic studies of wood structure, and finding teeth from more shark species.

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Nevertheless, Ray and Hooke still worried about which, if any, fossils were organic. It was very easy to continue to believe the convincing and ever-popular story that the intricate designs of nature were all God’s plan and work. Whether by some kind of flood or maybe a miracle, it was relatively easy for God-fearing people to accept. The detail was a bit harder for any scientific alternative that needed evidence and that had to fit in with some other tight constraints. One was the need for extinction to account for unknown shells of ammonites and belemnites, and even Ray and Hooke had difficulty accepting that.

One thing they did accept seemed less simple then than it did a hundred years later in France. In 1691 Ray described his views on natural theology in The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation and talked of the “designfulness” of organisms. He was trying to justify the existence of God in response to the increase in deistic values. To the earlier orthodoxy this was some compromise but Ray was a Christian and this was his responsible compromise for further debate.


Other advances in the early understanding how fossils came into being challenged many other naturalists trying hard to reconcile Genesis and the science. In the 1690s many remained insistent that fossils were inorganic, that they had come from the rock and even John Ray had no real evidence for anything else. All he could say to the sceptics was: “Yet methinks this is but a shift and a refuge to avoid trouble, there not being sufficient ground to found such a distinction.” Eventually he was forced to accept that some fossils, like the Italian tongue-stones, were from dead animals such as sharks because they were so like modern species. Not to give way completely he argued that ammonites and the bullet-shaped belemnites were nothing like modern forms and he pronounced them inorganic: “Nature doth sometimes [play] and delineate figures [purely for ornament]”

Ray settled back at Black Notley, his big questions unanswered, left alone to write about his floristic findings and to explain his arguments as part of God’s gradual improvement of Nature’s beauty. The work was published in 1691 as The Wisdom of God. In it he still could not make up his mind about the old question of where fossils came from, and by then they were being found from all over the place. Many people had noticed that specimens of tongue stones were only found in particular types of rock formation, suggesting that that kind of rock was necessary for their growth; or if they were from a shark, that both were formed together at the same time. Whichever way, it was hard to maintain the then popular role of the Creator, a world full of perfection; that seventeenth century hope of plenitude was being challenged. To some of Ray’s old friends the damage had been done: the status quo had been challenged and many establishment feathers of the old guard among the Cambridge clerics had been ruffled.

Hooke was going out on a limb from most of his friends and his thirst for enquiry and the testing of theories was soon refreshed by a new generation. Interest in design was going to run on, through Cuvier’s Paris of the 1800s and then across to Paley and Owen in England. The belief was based on the premise that just as God ordered the earth through the agency of the laws of physics and chemistry, so He ordered life through the agency of design and heredity.

8. Thomas Burnet Plots

Because it had a university and was close to London, Oxfordshire was a place where field studies of living and fossil species were opening up the vast scale of life’s diversity in both space and time. And another of the newly recognized scientists looking at pre-historic life was Hooke’s friend Robert Plot (1641-1696).

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He was important as much for what he was not, being free of the ties to the professions of church, law and medicine. He was aware that he crossed an important time boundary, having been brought-up to know about life in the comforting traditions of Genesis, but being influenced more and more by the challenging discoveries and discussions around Oxford.  As a university-fellow, not an ordained member of the church, his open and free interest in natural things helped him become the first keeper of the Ashmolean Museum and the first Professor of Chemistry. Most famously he wrote the Natural History of Oxfordshire in 1677, which recorded specimens of archaeology, minerals, what he called “echoes through the ether” and alchemy. He even understood that stalactites and stalagmites formed in caves by the evaporation of water from the dilute solution of calcium carbonate expected in spring water, and that this also explained how organic structures became petrified. It was just one of the ways in which things fossilized: “tis possible, that Shells found on the Tops of Mountains, may be brought thither by the Fall of Spouts. And that real shells found deep in the Earth, may be brought thither by the vast Subterraneous Indraughts coming from the Sea, which occasion Springs.”  th-3

Among some of these fossils brought to him from a quarry in the western part of the county was a very large and heavy femur, with unfamiliar features. Perhaps the process of petrifaction had increased its size and weight? Perhaps it was from an elephant brought to Oxfordshire by the Romans during their occupation of Britain? But other petrifactions didn’t show signs of expansion and there were no other elephant fossils in the same region. Maybe it was from a very large horse, but the fossil’s structure was different.

Even Plot turned away from his modern lateral-thinking that seemed to be a very hard journey with no clear end, and so he went back to Genesis chapter 6 verse 4: There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown. He had forgotten about Goliath who had been “nine Foot, nine Inches” tall, not an uncommon height for giants from literature of the ancients. He even entertained the possibility that the femur was from a woman: “The tallest that I have seen in our Days was a woman of Dutch Extraction, shewn publickly here at Oxford, seven foot and a half high, with all her Limbs proportionable.”  The giant femur was later compared to similar specimens from near the same quarry and named by the Victorian vertebrate palaeontologist William Buckland as Megalosaurus (which we know now to be a Late Jurassic dinosaur).

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Plot’s specimen has been lost but there is still the correspondence he had with another old Oxford friend, Martin Lister (1639-1712), a fossil enthusiast who didn’t care much for Steno’s idea of their organic origin. In one of his many letters to Plot that was eventually published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Lister suggested they formed independently in the rock, by a process he called “plastick virtue”, a kind of natural force he thought mimicked shapes familiar in real animals and plants.

Remember that these early scientists were also committed Christians, as was expected of all academics at Oxford. They had no doubts about their faith in God and were genuinely and excitedly trying to find an explanation for how the creatures that God created could or could not come to end up appearing to be carved in rock half way up a mountain. Plot’s other friend, Hooke, explained it quite differently from Lister but more realistically, saying that they had been “brought to the places whether they are now found by a Deluge, Earth-quake, or some such means, and there being filled with Mud, Clay and petrifying Juices, have in tract of time been turned into Stones, as we now find them”.

One source of this discontent was a group of Cambridge dissenters, since named the Neoplatonists, to whom religion and rationality were part of the same living system. Not for them the reductionism of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes or the Puritanical dogma of the new divine groups. One of the major neoplatonists who summed up the intellectual mood of the pioneer life scientists at the end of the seventeenth century was Thomas Burnet (1635-1715). He came from the north-east of England, had an early interest in the landscape of that part of the world, and went to Cambridge in 1651 where he was ordained to become a Fellow at Christ’s College in 1657.


From his very broad background in 1684 Burnet tried to unite science and scripture with his Sacred Theory of the Earth. This was an earthly history with scientifically credible explanations of biblical events. It involved, but did not explain, all the processes and happenings, seas, mountains and the broken remains of the catastrophic Flood with its volcanoes, earthquakes and severe storms. His idea received a lot of support from scientists, especially Newton, well aware that it meant there could have been no life before the flood, no seas or mountains. Instead, Burnet expected the flood to have been an overflow from a great deep inside the earth, somehow connected to inland springs and the sea to explain the upland fossils. That was the same idea that Robert Plot had described a few years before. The final stages of his history were completely new, predictions with no evidence, and although they were based on familiar processes, they were not taken seriously by the few scientists able to understand them. The main point that Burnet wanted to make was that the earth was not eternal. For good measure, he did not even mention the Incarnation.

Newton and many other scientists were worried about the way Burnet explained the Flood as the beginning of life’s diversity and his origin of mountains and seas. How could that explain fossils being at the top of mountains, if they really were from animals that once lived in the sea, as most of the scientists believed? They could have been living there before the catastrophe of the Flood. Burnet’s option also left open the question of what caused the Flood, God’s providence or some other cause, something blasphemous.

The timing that Burnet chose to present the last three events of his earth theory, those predicting a heavenly future, was impeccable. It was in 1688, the year of the Glorious Revolution, the overthrow of King James II by a group of parliamentarians and William of Orange from Holland.

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The resulting Bill of Rights took power from the English monarch and ensured that Roman Catholicism would not be re-established. Burnet’s stand for the rule of scientific evidence was a turning point in the history of how we understood living processes, for it showed the diversity of living things in a new way. As well as the two-dimensional array of species spread out on the land and in the sea, for the first time there was the third direction back in time to look at the earth and its life before the Flood.

This made the forward-looking Burnet very popular with the new authorities and he was given the important job as Master at Charter House School, in Smithfield.


At the same time he served as cabinet chaplain to William III who reigned from 1689-1705. With this new power Burnet refined his thoughts about the days of Creation, suggesting they were phases of construction, changes in matter and motion. This must have been seen as some kind of official interpretation of life’s meaning, going into surprising detail on things such as the days before the Flood, when the earth was smooth and had constant climate with a perpetual Spring-time. The story-telling entered the world of fantasy with more official policy supposedly from Descartes, that the Flood led to fracture and collapse of this constant state, leading to a ‘ruin’, a ‘broke globe’. It was all very good for those who preferred “facts” to theology, but these were wild ideas rather than “facts” and certainly Burnet’s offering was not science.

Still under questions from the protestant church, in 1692 Burnet defended his position with a clearly thought-out statement of his open expectations to: “be vigilant for truth, and maintain proportion, that we may distinguish certain from uncertain, day from night.” Nevertheless, later that year he was forced to resign as William III’s cabinet chaplain because of his controversial account of earth history. This was the second senior resignation on the issue in thirty years, John Ray leaving Trinity College in 1662 for his refusal to conform by signing the Act of Uniformity.

For the next hundred years rhyme and reason held together across Europe and science made slow but steady progress in a few obscure corners. In England, civil war and the Glorious Revolution had stimulated interest in science and there was rapid progress in chemistry and physics. In Italy the 1631 eruption of Vesuvius had had the same effect, but for the first part of the eighteenth century things had quietened down. For several decades Europe was calm, a period of contemplation and quietly testing the new ways of understanding life. Many scientists were pleased to be working with Bacon’s methods, still looking for a utopian end for life but making a place for reason as well as religion. Bacon, Steno and Ray had opened these ways to new outlooks on the origin and history of living things, allowing people like Burnet to move away from the rigid interpretation of Genesis. It was a courageous break and opened up a torrent of alternative ways to explain these fundamental issues that better fitted the other changes occurring in European society.



9. Coffee House Society 1730-1760

Slaughter’s Coffee House in London’s Saint Martin’s Lane was the haunt of a lot of excited young men. During the Enlightenment of eighteenth century England, these people were hoping for change to a better future: they admired the fortitude and courage of the shipwrecked hero in Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe, written when the British fleet explored and traded with the New World. It meant that the English were well adapted to confront the practical challenges that the industrial revolution offered.

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Many of these colourful entrepreneurs and scientists gathered in Slaughter’s to share the small improvements in life that were emerging at the time. There was more prosperity and good humour than ever before, helped by the unusual spices coming from tropical lands, and other commodities that gave a gradual improvement in living standards. In England, at least, there was no great catastrophe or talk of revolution and more people were part of the emerging middle class. They talked of the explorations overseas and of discoveries their friends had made and held high hopes for their future without the ties of rigid religious and rural controls. In the rapidly growing cities many popular establishments like these coffee houses were opening up for a new society.

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Slaughter’s flourished through the middle of the eighteenth century providing potatoes and neck of pork as well as coffee. There were artists trying to get into the Saint Martin’s Academy, writers and several of the budding new gentlemen scientists. Benjamin Franklin would sup with Priestley, Wedgwood (above) and Banks and across the road there was Chippendales furniture workshop.

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Franklin explains static electricity and became one who wrote America’s Declaration of Independence.

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Joseph Priestley experimented with electrical conductivity.

There were scores of coffee houses like this all over London, usually charging a penny for admission to their different pub- or club-like atmospheres. The Grecian was for philosophers and theoreticians, Lloyd’s Coffee House was frequented by ship owners, and Child’s hosted the clergy. At Slaughter’s they talked a lot about natural history and the new scientific discoveries, about how life is so varied and how it works. The patrons felt relaxed in the free speech away from the traditions of Oxford, Cambridge and the Church, and they were excited by the vast scope of these topics and the potential for their own lives. Some even dared to criticize the Church and declared themselves as non-believers. They also talked about the latest scientific discoveries such as that of a Swiss zoologist called Abraham Trembley who showed that Hydra regenerated when cut into two.


That was nothing unusual, for even the well-known Amoeba was shown never to die: they also just divide into two. Others talked of John Needham, a catholic priest, who had observed the hundreds of microflora in droplets of pond water, and went on to warn the coffee house clients that they also generate spontaneously in left-over soup.

One frequent patron at Slaughters’ was the Scottish surgeon John Hunter (1728-1793) an enthusiast for practicing Baconian experiments in medicine, especially with victims of gunshot wounds.


There was also Jesse Ramsden (1735-1800) who helped naturalists observe their smaller-scale features by making scientific instruments such as microscopes. Philip Miller (1691-1771) occasionally came over from Chelsea where he looked after the Physic Garden and had made it one of the best-known botanical centres in the world. The cramped five acre space beside the Thames was packed with plants from the Americas, South Africa, Australia and East Asia. These were the days before the great professional collectors and Miller patiently amassed his hundreds of imported specimens by correspondence and sea shipment. The landlord was the king’s doctor, Sir Hans Sloane, who had brought specimens back from his travels in the West Indies because he rightly thought that many were from unfamiliar groups.


In 1736 Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) had visited the garden at Chelsea (below, left) and was surprised at its lack of order, that it was much more chaotic than he would have wished. He urged Miller to use his new system of classifying plants and animals, newly written details of which he had just taken to a Dutch printer’s workshop. The Swedish naturalist had been asked to bring some order to another chaotic collection of plants, one owned by his friend at Uppsala, the Professor of Theology, Olof Celsius, uncle of the astronomer who devised the temperature scale. Celsius had a large collection of local plants which he asked his new friend to sort out and identify. He got more than he bargained for: when Linnaeus enthusiastically went off to collect more specimens, he returned with a newly worked-out system of classification for the whole flora. It was a brilliant advance on earlier systems, different because it relied entirely on the reproductive features of each species and which has formed the basis of flowering plant taxonomy ever since. Like most of the wise men who aired their feelings in London coffee houses, Linnaeus admitted to a belief in God but barely tolerated the church ceremonies.

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Instead, Linnaeus worshipped nature from the unique perspective of his botanic garden (above, right) and just as systematically organized his life to bring up students in this new world of order and understanding of nature. Throughout the 1770s he encouraged the students to travel outside Europe and bring back living specimens of plants for cultivation at home in Sweden. While the politicians argued about sending expeditions abroad, Linnaeus offered action: if Sweden couldn’t go to nature, then his plan was for nature to come to Sweden.

10. Explorers 1750-1780

Throughout the 1750s and 1760s men of science became especially interested in the exotic treasures being brought back from tropical shores by a brave new generation of explorers. While they were waiting for the next journey abroad they would share their hopes and experiences over cups of coffee at Slaughter’s. Some would walk round the corner to see the latest additions to a growing collection of plants and stuffed animals being curated by one of their regular company, Daniel Solander (1733-1782).


The collection was in a large house at 32 Soho Square, purchased by Joseph Banks (1743-1820) to exhibit the things collected on his expeditions of the new Empire.

He had been introduced to Solander as Linnaeus’s favourite student and, anxious to promote that same taxonomy, Banks appointed Solander as the archivist and offered his sister work as housekeeper. All the time she wanted her brother to settle down and become “enlightened with the Bright Sunshine of the gospel” but she was soon to be bitterly disappointed for Solander enjoyed temptation as well as enlightenment and life in Soho gave him plenty of both.

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Banks had married a rich heiress and because they had no children they both devoted their time to science and to looking after the growing hoard of artefacts of nature that was packed into their house in Soho Square. For forty years they were at the centre of scientific life and became respected society hosts. For the meetings of the Royal Society Banks wore a “Full Dressed Velvet or Silk coat” to “properly fill the President’s Chair” and there he held science up for all to see, the public, the civil servants and the politicians.

Banks was one of the eighteenth century’s most important natural scientists, and from Eton to Oxford he yearned to explore the rich diversity of different environments. His family’s estates in Lincolnshire produced more than enough income to fulfill these ambitions so he began to travel the world. First, he went to Newfoundland and Labrador, collected plants in Iceland, then visited Fingal’s cave in the Hebrides and when he was 23 years old he joined Captain Cook’s expedition to Australia onboard HMS Endeavour.

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Cook, Banks, Sandwich, Solander, Hawksworth            HMS Endeavour – Cook’s first voyage

Also caring more for the adventure in his veins than for coffee, Solander joined with Banks on that same voyage and in May 1770 they landed at Botany Bay. Cook noted the very beautiful birds such as cockatoos and parrots but was more wary of the Aborigines: “we were never able to form any connection with them.” Nevertheless, what these sophisticated visitors did see of the native lifestyles affected them deeply: “these, I had almost said happy, people, content with little nay almost nothing. From them appear how small are the real wants of human nature”. The exhausted crew navigated the Great Barrier Reef and the two naturalists added to the rich pickings of the expedition.

On their return they moved the crates of specimens into Banks’ house in Soho and set to work identifying and describing the 1,400 new species. Solander was pleased to test his hero Linneaus’ system on such a large set of untried species while Banks’ motives were more commercial. At the Royal Society he had talked with a doctor from the English Midlands called Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) about their exciting new discoveries. Darwin wrote of their importance: “the future improvements in Agriculture, in Medicine, and in many inferior Arts, as dying, tanning, varnishing; with many of the more important Manufactures, as of paper, linen, cordage”. Solander’s identifications were going to be crucial in organizing these benefits.

It was Banks who then did so much to help open up the new human society that migrating Europeans were starting up in Australia, experimenting with merino sheep to improve the breeds there, exporting the breadfruit tree from Polynesia to the Caribbean and importing mangoes from Bengal. And back home he promoted Botany Bay as a convict colony.


In Africa he encouraged others to explore the Nile and the Niger, all the while encouraging scientific investigation and financial investment from England. There, he was an archetypal country squire, short and fat and on public occasions wore stockings and a wig, as well as his silk coat.

That happened quite often, because by then his life in London was spent running the Royal Society.  He was first elected in 1769 and from 1778 to 1820 was its President, advising government and directing its money to the many causes that applied the scientific work of Bacon’s by-then successful and well-tried method of experiment. Many of the social and cultural changes were inspired by goodness, liberty and a love of nature. Also emerging was a harder and more measured way of doing science the Bacon way, experimenting and analyzing each variable separately and with great precision. Banks held office while the Royal Society was going through a period of transition, starting when the more romantic view of scientific work was normal and ending when the more firmly restricted objective experimentation was taking over. Although the fuller romantic views remained highly valued in their own right, they appealed most to particular people further away from science. The journals of the explorers, Gilbert White’s correspondence and the writing of Coleridge and Wordsworth held on to nature’s beauty as the centerpiece of what life on earth was about. What Solander and Banks had seen of the inhabitants of the lands they visited expressed another perspective of this idea, just as Hooke’s 1664 drawings in Micrographia had shown beauty as well as precision.

One of the many social rewards from the continuing support of exploration and observation came a few years later with Banks’ suggestion that if Britain imported tea only from its colonies it would save £700,000 a year, a significant sum of money then. The imports of Camellia sinensis from China were switched to the tax-free market in India once the commercial production of Camellia assamica began a few decades later. As with coffee and sugar before, “there is no possibility of preventing the consumption of tea … so the only Object we can aim at is to produce the Article ourselves.”

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Cook’s second world voyage, on board HMS Resolution, set off in 1772 with father and son naturalists Johan and Georg Forster, and they were all joined at the Cape of Good Hope by another of Linnaeus’s students, Anders Sparrman.  They didn’t return home to Sweden until 1776, exhausted but with especially rich pickings. Of all their new species, none seemed to fit with any of the known forms of fossils, frustrating those who had argued that the fossils were accounted for by being living species as yet undiscovered.

There were other Swedish students at that time such as Carl Thunberg who explored the interior of South Africa and then Japan and who returned to Uppsala to take over the professorship after Linnaeus’s death in 1776.

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Carl Thunberg in South Africa                 leaves of the orchid Cypripedium

Although he was a very functional explorer, there to describe the organisms rather that admire the beauty of the scenery, Thunberg did have his local admirers. One South African local wrote that “As long as botanists wander in our paradise of flowers, so long will the name of Thunberg be held in honoured remembrance.” Linnaeus himself had written in memoriam of earlier explorers years before these men, and others of his students, ventured forth: “Good God! When I observe the fate of botanists, upon my word, I doubt whether to call them sane or mad in their devotion…”. As if in evidence, just two years later, aged only 49, Solander had a stroke at the house in Soho Square and died there.

Many more expeditions followed in succession by competing European countries building their Empires. The French navy sent Admiral Louis Antoine de Bourgainville (1729-1811) on an expedition around the world, and more than 200 men were away from 1766-9.

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Some of the travellers tried to negotiate for an end to slavery and in other ways to improve the new societies that they visited. But colonization and the church’s hypocrisy had become big business and many generations were to pass before the imbalances could be controlled.