12. Natural History Gets Scientific 1775-1790

Normal English life in these times was warmly reported by Gilbert White (1720-1793) in his everyday correspondence about nature in the countryside, published as a little book in 1788 called The Natural History of Selborne. It is still in print and is said to have sold more copies than almost any other English language publication except The Bible and Shakespeare. The letters were to his friend the naturalist Thomas Pennant and a Welsh judge Daines Barrington and showed his strong love for the Hampshire countryside and for Selborne in particular.

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The essays have an easy conversational style and have come to be some of the most popular writings in the English language. This is because they are so common-place and ordinary while being tasteful and of their time. They talk of the weather, the time of planting and harvesting, and most caringly his observations of bird behaviour, their songs and the timing of their migration.

Although he was devoted to observing nature and recording what many then thought to be the obscure detail of what he saw, he lived away from other naturalists, sharing his ideas only by writing and using guide-books such as John Ray’s floras. But then, as well as being a relaxed and talented writer he became well-known locally for his innovative experiments. To find out whether bees could hear, he shouted at them through a trumpet. th-10

He tried to measure the speed of sound by timing echoes, and he often dissected animals to understand their life style and diet. To check whether cuckoos were structurally adapted to brood in nests of other species he exchanged them with their close relative the nightjar. Unfortunately, all these three series of experiments gave negative results.

From time to time Gilbert White strayed across county boundaries to make comparisons of the environment and the flora and fauna that had become attached to it. In the 1780s he wrote of one such pilgrimage to the “chain of majestic mountains”, now known more modestly as the South Downs, in Sussex.

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White wrote to Barrington with very enlightened questioning “was there ever a time when these immense masses of calcarious matter were thrown into fermentation by some adventitious moisture; were raised and leavened in to such shapes by some plastic power; and so made to swell and heave their broad backs into the sky so much above the less animated clay of the wild below”?

White became amused to hear of some of the so-called enlightened scientists being trapped in old traditions, for some still believed in old wives’ tales. Linnaeus, for example, believed that ‘in winter the swallows slept on the bottom of the lake’ and in1767 White responded: “A Swedish naturalist is so much persuaded of the fact that he talks in his calendar of Flora, as familiarly of the swallow’s going under water in the beginning of September, as he would of his poultry going to roost a little before sunset. Now it is likely that these poor little birds (which perhaps had not been hatched but a few weeks) should, at that late season of the year, and from so midland a county, attempt a voyage to Goree or Senegai, almost as far as the equator.”

Looking back at those times reveals many such explorations of natural history being on the gentler side of the Enlightenment, in contrast to many other attitudes to reform. The hard side was exemplified by attitudes such as David Hume’s cold distrust of human intentions. It was this practice of reducing complex issues to one single issue that characterised this distinctly British, some would say Scottish, outlook on life. A popular little story was told at the time and illustrated the harsher attitude. One night in 1759 Hume (1711-1776) was walking home across the bog left by draining the North Loch for the new Princes Street Gardens.

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He slipped and fell into the swamp and couldn’t get up. An old lady found him and recognized him with anger: “David Hume the Atheist!” she called out. Not wishing to give way from her powerful position she offered a bargain: “ye shall na get out o’ that till ye become a Christian yousell; and repeat the Lord’s prayer and the Belief.” Hume immediately agreed and the old lady held out her hand and pulled him up. This was what Hume’s enlightened spirit was about – a cold acceptance of both sides of the situation, followed by the desire to get out of adversity with reasonable seriousness. It was ignoble but it got results.

It was in this spirit that Hume’s Dialogues was published in 1779 emphasising the importance of opposites in a living system. For anything to exist there had to be a situation in which it did not exist, so that any evidence in favour had to be balanced by the evidence against. If the old lady in Princes Street Gardens was against, the members of the Oyster Club were certainly for the use of new ways and values.

burns-03 The club was popular with artists as well as a few of the new scientists who listened in awe of Robbie Burns’ poems “chiefly in the Scottish dialect.”

Although he didn’t drink whisky, James Hutton (1726-1797) a land-owning farmer and former doctor, did like oysters and so with the chemist Joseph Black and the economist and pin manufacturer Adam Smith, he started an Oyster Club. This met for lunch through the 1780s, and was attended by Edinburgh intellectuals as well as visiting thinkers. These included James Watt and Benjamin Franklin and, meeting in a different tavern every week, since the meetings were often a bit too sought after, they would convene to discuss art, architecture, philosophy, politics, geology and economics, each giving a brief update on their special projects which were “informal and amusing despite their great learning”. Hume was not a true member of the club for he was too set in the age of reason. Instead, the members were more liberal thinkers, good at explaining what had already changed, in contrast to those who were meeting then in Paris who called for changes to happen.

A Scottish landowner James Hutton began to travel around the British Isles a great deal and made observations of the landscape and the few rocks that were exposed by the new industrial excavations. Soon he developed a passion for the science that he realized lay behind these earthly structures and he started to read about some of the work coming out of mainland Europe in the 1770s. As we shall see, twenty years later he used this knowledge to make his own geotheory, well within the tradition of Hume’s empiricism.

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Not to be outdone by his fellow Scots in the Oyster Club the right-wing Hume often travelled south to see his friends, and joined Daniel Malthus when Rousseau was in town from Paris. These three were good friends and strong stalwarts of rigid functional living. They got on so well together that their discussions, often in ear-shot of Daniel’s son Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834), usually went on to the early hours of the morning. Deeply influenced by what he had heard, the young man became a mathematician at Cambridge, where he followed the trend of his father’s early morning discussions and took holy orders when he was thirty years old. A year later, 1798, he published the first version of his famous essay, Principles of Population, in which he compared the geometric increase of a species’ population with the linear increase of its subsistence.   th-12

In that essay he wrote: “evil exists in the world not to create despair, but activity” and he seems to have preached even stronger support for society’s divisions. These were his solutions to the still-unsolved problem he identified, and led many to advocate human population control a century later. Before then, however, the Malthus essay was to have crucial influence on two major scientific figures who became active when Malthus was old, Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin.

More and more, life was being understood as one great machine, in which forward movements of nature and human society were seen to be made at every slight opportunity, rewarding curiosity and neglecting complacency. Economists like Malthus wanted action, Adam Smith wanted division of labour in the factories. Biologists like Linnaeus proposed working classification, the Lunar Men praised working machines and transmutation. These and others agreed that the way to understand living systems was first to work out its order.

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