Tag Archives: natural history

Summer at the Museum

I was originally just going to throw some fun screen grabs from these early time machine  Phineas and Ferb episodes up on the Paleo Porch facebook page and be done. While going through the episodes for the shots though I noticed there was more to say and show about the museum than just the “back-in-time-with-dinosaurs” trope.

Backing up a bit, if you haven’t watched Phineas and Ferb before, or in a while, you should add it to your queue because it is well written , clever, and even the angular animation style is less offensive than its contemporaries.

The time machine arc here actually spans two episodes across two seasons. The first one, episode 21 “Out of Time” aired over 10 years ago now (!) has them fixing the time machine in the museum and going back in time.  The establishing shots and setup are great though:

Gags, and chronologically challenged fossils aside, the backgrounds and the animation inside this museum are great. They really capture the essence of the Natural History Museum as it exists in our collective consciousness. Who wouldn’t love to see a hall of gadgets through the ages permanent exhibit?

Once they get the time machine working and end up in the past, chaos ensues in the predictable manner, what is brilliant is the continued cuts to the modern ichnology display at the museum as it changes from alterations (altercations) in the past/it’s present.

Now, if you are into your dinosaurs you are thinking that a T-rex really gives away the geography of the show, but I am going out on a limb here and considering that this T-rex is actually called a “Tri-State rex.”

Once Phineas recognizing the track, their problems are all but solved. Taking a stick he quickly draws out a message to the others at the museum. Be thankful that there is a time travel section in the Fireside Girls Handbook. 

Isabella and the troop arrive to save the day, only the Tri-State Rex comes back too. This is a longer clip as it wraps everything up, and if you aren’t familiar with the series the talkshow/secret agent cut will be a little confusing, but just roll with it, because “Fossils. *da, duh, dahn.*”

Again, just taking a few seconds to stop in on the interior of the museum as it rolls under a chase scene, and it is a great collection, even if the fish, pteranodon, and protoceratops thing (and the coprolite?) are a threepeat run sequence.

One of the best things about this show was how well the writing meshed across its entirety. Not just within an episode but across episodes and even seasons. It was built as a coherent universe and the obvious and subtle running gags really play in to reward the viewer. The “It’s About Time” episode arcs all the way into early season two  when the time machine comes back into play plot and in “Quantum Boogaloo” we  see the museum and the Tri-State area 20 years in the future.

Something quietly reassuring that the museum of the future, which we are halfway to now is pretty much the same.

In the end, not only was this a fun museum/dinosaur/time travel episode. It was one of the best written time-travel stories written for any medium. It doesn’t complicate itself with 473 different paradoxes, it plays out well in the 22 minutes the episode was given, and ties in pretty seamlessly with itself the following year and a half later when the second episode aired.

The Road to Comps Part 6: Different Approaches to the History of Natural History in the United States

The final section of the first portion of comps prep has the longest title, and the longest entry. These books are mainly a cross section of methodologies used in framing historical accounts of Natural History in America.  The best part about looking at these different approaches is that the content was generally useful as well.  They also criss cross the same time periods, geographies and often the same people.

The Poetics of Natural History

This history of Natural History in the Unites States starts with botany. In fact, most histories of Natural History start with Botany. Irmsher’s The Poetics of Natural History opens with two Quaker botanista, or rather plant enthusiasts, and their lasting exchanges of letters and botanical specimens. Moving chronologically Irmscher turns then to the museum collections of both Charles Wilson Peale and P.T. Barnum (some specimens being the same ones as Barnum purchased the last remnants of Peale’s museum to create his own).

Rattlesnakes and woodpeckers fill the ways, but it is descriptions obtained from the field and from people in the field. Of Course Audubon’s work is described as the “pinnacle of the poetics of natural history ” with his expert renderings of birds in something of a suggested habitat. That is not to saw that everything was 100% correct and this is where Irmscher offers another method of gleaning truth from facts.

What Irmscher’s work does it provide an avenue for information to disperse that does not necessarily require structured education, although it does require literacy, at least for the descriptions of Audubon’s birds of Holbrook’s snakes (North American Herpetology). It is the sources of information and not the information itself that is important to Irmscher’s analysis. The work goes well into his chosen project to expand the importance of storytelling and collecting beyond the “belles lettres” and to its beginnings in concrete experience.

A word about the rattlesnakes. Recently our natural history museum  hosted an Audubon exhibit filled with his amazing artwork, some sketches, and more ephemera. Of all the works and labels the one with the eagle and the rattlesnake stand out the most because the text belabored the fact that Audubon had gotten the snake wrong. This is what Irmscher and some of the following authors are working on: the idea that facts aren’t necessarily the only place to find truth. That is to say, that just representing the facts is something the least useful way to relate, or even understand history. This is also symptomatic of having the fully scientific collection curators serve as the exhibit curators. Nine and a half times of of 10 this comes off as condescending and doesn’t provide the visitor–reader or museum patron–with anything illuminating that they can take away and keep or use in their lives. Turns out historians, museum curators, and people in general could learn a lot from filmmakers in this sense:

Since we are not being pedantic as Werner Herzog advised above, looking at The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes may be one of the best examples of the academic establishment cutting off its nose to spite its face. Again we are looking at sources, and where knowledge is created and how it is traded. The greatest geological event in North American recorded history is forgotten to history and is only reintroduced as seismic scientists attempt to reconstruct the earthquakes to answer questions unrelated to settlement of the Mississippi River Valley in the early 19th century.

Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquake

Conevery Valencius’s research runs the gamut of personal letters and as many newspaper reports as she could kick up in the archives.  The biggest revelation is that the earthquakes were part of everyday life and for a while were on everyone’s lips and at the end of everyone’s pens.  The synthesis of these common sources provide a glimpse into the largest issue of the professionalization of the sciences in the late 19th century–that is, not trusting anyone outside of the profession.

By the time civilization had roared past New Madrid, the impact of the once ubiquitous earthquakes had been relegated to the annals of tall tales of westward expansion and were taken with the same mount of salt as stories of blue oxen and giant lumberjacks.  As it happens, I first read about the earthquakes in high school in a Wild West Magazine article that retold the tale of a murder uncovered by the earthquakes. Valencius mentions the same story briefly as the remains of a murdered slave were uncovered after a chimney collapse.

Coming from a geologic background into the History of Science this has been one of my favorite books from the readings. Not just because of the history, but because Valencius easily justifies the use of “vernacular” science in the case of the earthquakes and provides an excellent precedent for doing the same thing with other historical events. To go further on this point of vernacular, the tide is now turning towards utilizing the stories of indigenous peoples (where they can be found) in relation to larger European and American historical events The most recent being the discovery of the HMS Terror in areas that match up to Inuit tales, tales which also include incidents of cannibalism among desperate seamen. Valencius’ work also means that now those in between indigenous knowledge and learned professionals can also have a voice in the history of American science. Especially revealing is the fact that this isn’t just an exchange of information, it is the creation of knowledge.

Humboldt Current

That aptly named Humboldt Current (which ironically has been renamed the Peru Current) attempts to reframe some American exploration in the light of Humbolt’s “ecological” pursuits. Many well-known names in America were students (in the philosophical sense) of Humbolt’s work to provide evidence of an intricately connected world. J.N. Reynolds, Clarence King, George Melville, and John Muir are all connected mainly through their adoption of Humboltian idea(l)s.

Whether or not the book succeeds in convincing any of the deeply rooted professionals that some exploration is not imperialistically motivated (several reviews indicate it wasn’t) is immaterial. The book provides another angle to look at not only exploration, but ironically, empire, ecology, environmentalism, and nature. That some  expeditions were undertaken for explorations sake, or to prove some pet theory (in the case of Symmes’ Hollow Earth) seems to be beyond belief for more than a few historians. Many of these people also have a problem differentiating between exploration and exploitation (and that says nothing of using the word “exploitation” as a neutral descriptor for environment use a la anthropological theory).

How the Canyon Became Grand

Some of those environments can become cultural even though they have zero survival/subsistence value. The case of the Grand Canyon is one such event. How the Canyon Became Grand is strikingly similar to The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes in that it charts a discovery, forgetting, and rediscovery of something. Anyone on a road trip to visit the Grand Canyon should read this book. Not only to understand how the canyon became grand, but because it is kind of a meta trip as in visiting you are becoming part of that story and its reasoning.

For me, the most interesting parts of the book looks at the first Europeans to see the canyon in 1540. The Spanish were far from embracing Enlightenment thinking in Europe and they were in no way going to waste important colonial time on anything as novel and romantic as a giant hole in the ground.

Fluvialism in the mid 19th century and the geological surveys a few decades later provide adventure and natural spectacle that was part of the great American West. For the exact same reasons the early Spaniards ignored the canyon, 19th century Americans made it Grand. Pyne’s analysis and charts that record the mentions, descriptions, and other engagements with the Grand Canyon foreshadow many of the projects going on in Digital Humanities today. Pyne’s idea that the Grand Canyon became an important American icon because a select group of educated elite gave it  meaning can serve as avatar for any number of American Icons. After all, visits to the canyon or for that purpose. Since you really have to be going there to get there (as it isn’t conveniently on the way to anywhere) it seems that not only is Pyne right about the Canyon, but his results can be applied to nearly anything that educated elite decided to “give meaning.”

American Curiosity

American Curiosity is a lot like the ecological exchange book in the previous post–i.e. that knowledge wasn’t a unidirectional commodity no more than pigs or plants were. Parrish’s work situations the colonial Americans, in the earliest years including women, Native Americans, and slaves, not in reference to London, but in concert with the capital. Think of these “white men in London” in the 1790s as the educated elite of Pyne’s Grand Canyon Analysis. Any and all information was useful during the colonial period. This seems to be the case in any colonial possession of Great Britain, but Parrish stays focused on the American holdings.

Parrish’s work reveals the adversarial nature of colonization was a driving force in the early diversity of natural history “knowledge makers.” This also explains why, as Great Britain came to dominate the continent all enterprises became less diverse. This coincides with the treatment of the Native Americans as well, following the end of the French and Indian Wars, many Native people were on the losing end of decisions that left them with no one to offset British power. This more or less was the case for natural history providers as well.

Correspondence from women were important in practice but failed to be printed in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. One of the issues to remember from this process is that it repeats itself after the American Revolution and as America discovers itself.  There is almost a frontier theory of scientific correspondence and authority. Once a center is solidified (London, or in the US Philadelphia for science and Washington D.C. for politics) the periphery becomes less important as voices of authority in most matters not least natural history collecting, naming, trading. There is much to glean from the analysis if you can get through Parrish’s her smug (90s) theoretical vocabulary regarding  race and gender.  In my case, it is best used as a resource to utilize the same various source material that Valencius uses tracking down accounts of forgotten earthquakes.

It also another facet reading of  Moby Dick as the only people who could understand what it meant to be a whale was the whalers and more broadly why the cetacean chapter or the book is in the middle of the crew waxing on Shakespeare. If she had stopped there it would have been an excellent analysis, but, as with many of the great points she continues to show what “Melville failed to realize,” etc. Although not part of the reading in this case, this book will work exceptionally well paired with Kariann Yokota’s Unbecoming British. 

Unbecoming British

The Passage to Cosmos is the second Humboldt book in the section, and it is useful to see them together. Walls works in the same manner as Sachs in resituating Humboldt’s expeditions. In Sachs case it was to make it less imperialistic, and to Walls it meant fighting the dismissal that Humboldt’s work was overly romantic. More importantly, Walls delves into the loss of Humboldt in American History shortly after his death and huge continent-wide celebrations for his centennial.

Passage to Cosmos

As much as Humboldt tried to find the common thread throughout nature, the differences in his disciples (chosen and unchosen) unravelled it as quickly as he could make ends meet. Materialist, atheist, scientist, “ecologist”, man of letters, romantic, Prussian, Humboldt was all these things and just as individuals can attach themselves to parts of nature and ignore others, the same can be seen in those early adopters of Humboldt’s ideas. In the end it was the professionalization of science, arguments of social darwinism, and (above all) wars with Germany that ground Humboldt’s name out of the annals of (north) American history.

If Passage does nothing else, it should serve as a call to action among historians of science, especially cultural historians of science, to work more unravel the mysteries Walls presents. That Humboldt is still a national hero in many Latin American countries is not just a quaint aside, it is vastly important to the development of natural history and relationships with nature south of the United States border. That most of the english editions of Humboldt works and biographies are severely dated would be an easy place to start. It might also help if the Academy would ever get over its own importance as a memory institution and let Spanish count as a “academic” language. ( I had to petition to get Spanish to count, it was approved, but that I had to petition at all speaks volumes).

It might also be useful to note that Walls is not a historian of science, she is a specialist in English Literature (currently at Notre Dame).  I mention this because the bulk of Passage is devoted to the American Transcendentalist authors and poets that were the earliest adopters of Humboldtian idea(ls). These authors, and the movement will come in another post as I work through the American Studies portion of my readings. Incidentally most of these readings were from original dissertations in American Civilizations or similar disciplines.

Nature's Ghost

Nature’s Ghosts follows the idea of extinction from “the age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology.” It is right there in the subtitle. Content wise it doesn’t add much to the plethora of there books that deal with American Natural History at any or all points in time mentioned. What Barrow’s work does, however, is important. It traces the history of an idea from the very idea that it went against nature to the modern attempts to document it as it wipes out specie after specie.

By following the idea through time Barrow allows us to move through the development of natural history through its splintering into countless professions, the battle for the acceptance of evolution and what it meant for species extinction in regards to natural occurrences, all the way to modern efforts to keep things from going extinct. This is as much a history of conservation as it is any history of ideas. He compares the historical accounts of saving the alligator and the bison to losing the Passenger Pigeon and the Heath Hen. These stories set up the final instances of the California Condor and the whooping crane that even non history inclined individuals will be familiar with.

The strength of the book for my purposes lie in its scope and its relevance to the existing modern period. Something that most people get bent out of shape about when histories start trying to explain how things work today. They hurl Whiggish history around like it is an insult that you want to understand how we got where e are today. This is why the most useful books, and ones that reach the most people are printed by Viking or St. Martin’s Press, and not University presses. Barrow’s work is another in this series that serves as a guide of how to write good, useful, and readable history by including sources that are “outside the box” for most modern American historians.

The Book of Nature

The Book of Nature shrinks Barrows scope to a mere 50 years. It also takes Valencius’ approach and sources out to the popular books of natural history. By looking at what the average (literate) Americans had in hand, Welch follows the development of the educated hobbyist for generations on either side of the Civil War. This crosses much of the same territory as some of the earlier works and deals with some of the familiar authors as well (Thoreau, for example).  The biggest boon to these early nature studies was the explosion of printing, text and more importantly images during the 19th century.

Welch’s study also follows along the development of the American Transcendentalist movement regarding self reflection, with biographies and autobiographies helping author’s work out their, and by extension humankind’s place in nature.  Welch’s study ends just as the professionalization of scientific disciplines start taking authority out of the hand of learned citizenry as well as the earliest rumbles of the American Renaissance. It is an excellent book to show the obverse side to Barrow’s Nature’s Ghost providing a more in depth look at a few sources and historical actors instead of the survey spanning two centuries.

The Destruction of the Bison

The final book in this section, and this portion of comps study has to be one of the strangest books I have ever read. On the surface it seems straightforward enough to be an environmental history about the destruction of the bison. I mean, it is titled The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History. I literally have no idea what the purpose of this book is. I think, in the end Isenberg wanted to point out how complex the near extinction of the American Bison was.

Explaining that something is complex and making it complicated are two entirely different things. This book is heavy on the latter.  Isenberg states that several chapters of this short book appeared in print as various articles prior to publishing in 2001. This (I hope) is why the book is so schizophrenic. On the other hand it isn’t just choppy between chapters.

Within the chapters Isenberg goes from setting up the history of Native Americans turn to nomadism after the introduction of the horse, back to the vocabulary for the plains Indians more broadly to bits and pieces of Chaos theory.  To sum it all up: Isenberg implicates climate, Indians, and the Plains themselves as accomplices to the Buffalo hunters in the demise of the numbers.

I love this comic. The fact that it was released on my birthday makes it even better. ©Neil Kohney
I am using this again because I use both buffalo and bison when talking about this book, and because I love it.  ©Neil Kohney

Several key, and reiterated, points include that fact that Native Americans were not harmonious with nature in some Edenic way, they were not stewards of wildlife, and they were sometimes wasteful in the utilization of the bison carcass. He also shows the market pressures for the Indians to become hunters and providers of hides for the robe market as well. All this historical intraculturalism could serve to provide a more holistic picture of the plight of the buffalo, but then he evokes modern ecological studies (which, for the record I think is actual Whiggish history in the sense that people sneer at it).

To help prove that nature is in no way stable, Isenberg follows a handful of biologist that follow chaos theory. Think Ian Malcolm in Buffalo Park. The absolute worst for me is the use of a modern population study to back up claims that Bison populations experience drastic fluctuations in number. The study in question involved the reindeer on St. Matthews Island.

This is one of the (literal) textbook studies of population as the 29 original reindeer swell to 6000 in almost 20 years only to crash back to 60. The problems with this analogy are: 1) An island is a closed ecosystem in no way similar to the vast expanse of the Great Plains and B) Reindeer were introduced to the island whereas bison evolved over 30+ million years on the great plains. To this end I wonder if Isenberg has ever taken an ecology course or seen a buffalo or the Great Plains.

I will end the discussion on Isenberg’s book with a wonder at just how much he wanted chaos theory to work here. There is already a smoking gun in the plight of the bison and it belongs to the American hunter. Isenberg tries to put other instigators up on the grassy knoll but spends so much time setting up the position he does not establish and accountability for each in relation to each other before  applying them all to the larger problem at hand.

He introduces an idea and then either neutralizes it or proffers a counter almost immediately. If this was supposed to help in the explanation of a complex system it failed. My favorite line in the book falls near the end when he is (again) approaching chaos theory and describes the standard butterfly in Africa causing havoc elsewhere: “no butterfly ever shouldered a .50 caliber rifle on the hide hunters’ range” (196).  He also starts tangents about bison preserves serving to domesticate the bison in regards to the drive of civilization.  This book would far better serve as a collection of essays centered around a relative theme, as a single, drive, work though, it serves as an example of what not to do.  By trying to be history and ecology research it fails to do justice to either.

British Naturalists in Qing China

51-2F-3IZIL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Can a book only 11 years old be a classic? If any work can claim to be such it is surely Fa-ti Fan’s British Naturalists in Qing China: Science, Empire, and Cultural Encounter. This is a huge geographic and political shift from the previous books that have dealt with India and British India. I make that point because it is important to remember that the earliest relationships with China were undertaken pretty much under Chinese terms. Even following the end of the Opium Wars and the forceful opening of trading ports China was never a colony under the British Crown. FullSizeRender-19

That is something that is easy to overlook within all the accounts of British fieldwork is lumped together into the standard imperial-vernacular polemic.  Maybe polemic is too strong a word. Either way it is the standard narrative of the boundary lands–theoretical as well as physical. In less than 200 pages Fan is able to reveal that is much more than what meets the scholars eye, and that much more is needed to understand the nuance, and highly independent (and interdependent) relationship between those that knew the raw material and those that wished to classify it. FullSizeRender-21

Fan’s methodological approach to including the knowledge of the Chinese everyman into the larger scope of Imperial Botany and the powers at Kew should provide anyone researching fieldwork in any region with a more than adequate framework with which to present a fully nuanced and historical account. FullSizeRender-18

He deftly begins with the standard setup presented in historical sources of how Britain was setup in Canton in a line of warehouses and were forbidden to enter the city proper. It is when he looks deeper into the relationship between diplomat and merchant, trade consul-man and informant, outsider and local, that his research provides both a broad view of natural knowledge and a focus on the actual objects and information being traded.


One of the joys of the book is the attention that Fan pays to the folklore and literary influence that existed during the early 19th century Chinese natural history.  Throughout the book he shows just how intertwined natural history and sinology was during the period. One had to understand the nature of the Chinese culture before they could understand the nature of China.


One of the largest differences that face the standard explorative travel adventures was that China was no “Dark Continent,” or unexplored rainforest. China had an infrastructure that lent itself to travel in ways Dr. Livingstone could only have dreamed about.  Once Kew (and other collectors) had established their network in Canton, and eventually other locations, those naturalists on the ground set up networks of their own. Sometimes they had to create a network from scratch, but this was rare due to the expansive success of the French missionaries that had been in China for much longer than British naturalists.

Many of the Chinese natives that provided local knowledge, translations, and information to the naturalists were Catholic converts. The “imperial model,” while still employed by many of the British travelers in China, carried much less authority. In fact, outside of British controlled trade ports it carried nothing.  Armed with their own superiority, many found themselves relying on the Chinese more than they cared to admit. It is also a delight to see just how much the naturalists relied on the knowledge and skill in collecting among the rural Chinese farmers and hunters in order to fulfill their orders and fill their collections. FullSizeRender-17

My favorite story within the book is actually a really good case study into the operations of British natural history in China, and it was undertaken by a Frenchman. Albert A. Fauvel was a member of the Chinese Customs and as such worked closely with the British. In charge of the Natural History Museum in Shanghai Fauvel’s interest in the natural history of China was far more than a hobby.   It was Fauvel who first published description of alligators in China.

The Land Dragon (also known as Tuo.
The Land Dragon (also known as Tuo.

Fan’s analysis of Fauvel’s article is the perfect way to understand how necessary it was for naturalists in China to also be involved in the study of China itself. Fauvel traced the descriptions of the Chinese character tuo to disprove it referenced either an iguana or a lizard. Following descriptions of tuo wherever he could, he surmised that the land dragon with medicinal meat and skin good for drums was indeed an alligator, not unlike those described by John James Audubon and others working in Mississippi and Guyana.

What set Fauvel apart was not his mere description of the Alligator sinensis. Fauvel took the time to understand where the alligator fit into Chinese mythology, legends, and folklore. In China, Fauvel worked from Chinese text to understand the alligator in theory, but was unable to establish it as a new species without specimens. From the specimens in China he was able to work backwards–comparing the Chinese specimens to images in taxonomic reference books. Here we see an almost perfect mirroring of practice in the field involving both text and object.

For my own interests into account, even those beyond the study of field work, is the early discussions of paleontology with China. Early geology in China was limited even more than the other field sciences. One of the brief asides (which will lead me in search of the reference) was the mention of William Frederick Mayers working with Chinese text (in the same manner as Fauvel) to understand China’s prehistoric life. Without any physical remains or specimens to collect, Mayers was forced to work exclusively with Chinese literature, folklore and myth to find “descriptions and drawings of a huge, hairy, rat-like creature living underground, which he believed to be a mammoth” (118).

Modern paleontology is making up for lost time on the China front. Just during the few days I was reading this book,  dinosaur eggs found by workers building a road and the discovery of a bizarre leathery winged dinosaur were announced. Some things have not changed however, as any spectacular, too-good-to-be-true discovery is announced, it is received with some skepticism. This isn’t exactly the same mistrust that 18th century naturalist had of unobservant Chinese, or those who did not bother to separate fact from fable. There have been some high quality fakes coming out on the black market of China, and in the case of fossils in the 21st century just as many are made in China as found in China.

It was described in vivid detail
It was described in vivid detail


I try to always balance out everything I read with something that I wish had been included or different about the book. With this book it was more difficult for content, but easy to be petty. It is an oft repeated lament of mine about color images and illustrations. There are a host of reasons that black and white and greyscale are the case–ultimately I would say would be the cost of the final result being restrictive to its intended audience. However in this case the beautiful description of the illustration of the betel palm that included fruit that is in varying stages of ripeness along with the cross sections of the fruit, a full leaf and the entire tree would have been nice to see in the detail with which Fan describes it.

That Naturalist in Britain

: A Social History
                          : A Social History

David Elliston Allen’s 1976 social history of the naturalist in Britain is by all accounts “a classic.” Interestingly enough it was republished in 1994 by Princeton University Press from its original Penguin Books which brings into the question the relationship  of popular press vs rigorous (inflated pricing) of university presses, but you can take that up on your own.


This is a delightful foray into the beginnings of naturalist thinking, organization, grouping, discourse, or just about any other adjective you can use to describe natural history in Britain from late 17th/early 18th centuries right on through to the 1950s. That alone makes this a great survey into one nation’s establishment of a “scientific discipline” for the lack of a better phrase.

Chapter 3

It is hard to make precise points about Allen’s book because it is so broad in scope–both temporally and by topic. Being a historian of geology (paleontology and earth history, etc) my favorite was Chapter 3 “Wonders of the Past”  that is a less than 20 page foray into the shaping of our relationship to spaceship earth.


Other chapters are similar chunks of larger histories such as taxonomy, the amateur club, the victorian world (very generally), and the rise and fall of the structures of natural history. Social history has moved well beyond what it was in the mid 1970s and if you were to present your committee with an outline using the chapters of this book you would be asked to pick one of them and get back to them.  The very thing that makes it an excellent source to teach a survey of natural history (in Britain, remember) is what makes it a bit chuff for super deep prospecting.


The illustrations alone are worth having this at hand in the library. Even in the austere black and white (as most of these are woodcuts, political cartoons, or black and white photographs) they provide a larger piece of the narrative of popular culture and public involvement with natural history that sometimes falls flat in the laundry list of organizations, field clubs, and/or publications (including photography later).

Camera gun

photopgraphing birds

Allen touches upon a phenomenon that is of great interest to me, and is becoming more of an issue today (especially in paleontology) the relationship between the amateur and the professional. This is something I explored in my thesis The Gilded Skull in England’s Closet which centered on the Piltdown case and the involvement (and voice) amateur collectors and antiquarians had within the burgeoning scientific circles and societies. Now I know by 1908 the Royal Society was hardly an upstart organization, but it had had its share of issues along the way and a hard arm of natural history within the society was closer to egg than to hen.

What can amateurs contribute to this new professional science? That all depends on how these amateurs are trained, how they collected these natural history specimens, and a host of other issues at hand. That is the ever present thorn in the side of vertebrate paleontology presently, highlighted no better than with the Sue debacle and the more recent “documentary” providing great detail on the David against the Goliath government for control over fossils which have a high market value. (I am speaking of Dinosaur 13, and it was pitched exactly as a David vs Goliath tale).

large group

Allen’s studies on the intertwined and ever-changing relationship between those on the inside and those armchair naturalists (splitting and reforming, and looking at membership lists) provide an insight into the world between the chasm between the working collector and the scientific collector. The modern problem, aside form market value, is something that Allen’s work reveals was not a problem in the late 19th and early 20th century–the careful logging of provenance of specimens. The field clubs and societies were extremely careful in how they trained their members and noting where all their specimens were collected.  It was a singular lifetime hobby for many of the members, not one of 4,973 things to fill the schedule of today’s weekend warriors.

These are generalizations, but they are not overarchingly so. The change in market value of specimens during the time that Allen’s subjects were working until now is evident. Natural collecting, when done by men (and some women) of means is a pursuit of knowledge (maybe fame if something could be named after them). Some made money from selling their specimen but few made a living doing so. In fact, few needed to make a living at all. So they came with a personal vested interest of name and reputation behind it. Not quite so today.

Natural History Club 1904

I had the good fortune to spend some time with Dr. Time Rowe from the University of Texas the past two days. He was in giving a lecture on fakes and forgeries in vertebrate paleontology so we talked a lot about motive, resources, and the need for regulation. Anyone can track market values of fossils on eBay or at gem and mineral shows that there is a market value for these things outside of science is damaging the science. There are many examples of forgeries undertaken for a multitude of reasons, but the influx of fakes, some very good, and some very Piltdown-esque stem from the fact that slabs from China revealing a creature with a full 50/50 layout of avian and dinosaurian features can carry a price tag of $80,000.

What has replaced due diligence in collecting bugs, birds, beetles, plants, fossils –highlighted in all of Allen’s chapters– is a receipt and (if you are lucky) a “certificate of authenticity.”  The bottom line here is really there is nothing new under the sun, and human nature is much more similar (and hard to explain) throughout time than we sometimes image (or like to think about). If you are teaching a survey of natural history course Allen’s book will be useful for a variety of reasons not least because of its easy to digest chapters and huge scope (even though it is confined to Britain), but also pragmatic reasons of cost for the students. You may also be able to open a dialogue about the second reprinting 20 years after the first, but no third edition in 2014.  It also provides a good example of early work in social history when it wasn’t quite as part of the historical canon as it is now.