DARWIN AND THE NATURALISTS
Nothing in biology makes sense
except in the
light of evolution.
- Theodosius Dobzhansky
Darin and the Naturalists, BIO4223, Spring 2017, 2 credits,
Tuesday 8:10-10:00 AM,
of modern biology is rooted in the insights of a series of 18th and
19th-century naturalist-scientist-explorers. who
combined extensive and inspired observation with a newly emergent
empiricist world-view to change our approach to and understanding of
the natural world. Their writings often took the form of journals
interlarded with theoretical speculation, and achieved great popularity
among a readership reaching well beyond their scientist/naturalist
peers. We will focus, particularly, on Charles Darwin, undoubtedly the
most important of these thinkers (arguably one of the most
important thinkers of the 19th century, period), but will be dipping
into the works of several of his
predecessors, peers, and successors.
Kerry Woods (Dickinson
143, 440-4465, email@example.com, office hours Tues 2-4, Wed, Fri
job will be to READ a lot of the writings of these people, reflect on
what you've read, and bring your thoughts to class discussion.
The course will be almost entirely discussion-driven, so the
burdent is very much on you to generate questions and reflections about
how these historical writings integrate (or don't) with how you and we
understand science, and how historical context is or isn't important in
understanding. Your own background in natural science will be
diverse, but everyone should work to place our readings in context with
what you already (think you) know about science and its history.
There will be writing in several modes, but your work with readings
will be the most important part of the class.
EXPECTATIONS AND EVALUATION:
class revolves entirely around reading and discussion of primary
sources, with modest, but frequent, associated writing. To do
well in the class you must do the reading in a timely way and come to
class prepared to talk about it. Attendance is essential; with
one meeting per week, absences are problematic. Make sure any
necessary absences are arranged in advance. Too many absences
will be reflected in evaluation and may lead to failure. Written
assignments must be completed and on time; late assignments will affect
your evaluation, and missing or consistently late assignments may lead
I. Reading log:
Your log should include an entry for each week's assigned reading; the
entry should be in the 300-500 word range (500 words is roughly one
single-spaced page) and it should focus NOT on
a summary or synopsis of the entire reading, but on developing one or a
few specific ideas, questions, connections, etc. that the reading
stimulates for you. Your log entries should be clearly and
concretely linked to readings (quotes, citation of specific material
good!), but use these as a springboard for your own thoughts,
comparisons and analyses. You might draw comparisons with other
readings or make connections or contrasts with current thought.
You might simiply formulate questions you'd like to pursue and think
about how to pursue them.
The reading log should be kept as a single
'googledoc'. Create the document and share it with me
(firstname.lastname@example.org). I'll try to offer some commentary
feedback on each log every couple of weeks or so.
BE MADE BEFORE THE CLASS IN WHICH THE READING IS TO BE DISCUSSED. Think
of them as being, in part, a springboard for what you'd like to
introduce to class discussion.
II. Each of you will choose a book or comparable longer reading for our
focus in May (see below for further explanation and ideas). In
addition to choosing a portion of that work for class reading, you will
write brief critical review of the work and append it to your own
log. Think in terms of 1200-1500 words minimum, and not a lot
more than that. These should be similar in approach to the
shorter log entries -- i.e., NOT simply summarizing what you've read,
but focusing on and developint one or a few questions, ideas, thoughts
of your own that derive from and relate to the reading. (Read
some book reviews in the NY Times or Science
or Nature if you want
to get a sense of what I mean...).
READING ASSIGNMENTS FOR CLASS
A note on preparing for class discussion:
Do not expect that simply reading the assigned work once and coming to
class will be sufficient preparation! As you read TAKE NOTES; I expect to see you referring to notes in
REREAD portions of the material to reinforce context and focus your
questions and comments. Your notes should focus on any or all of:
- questions of fact and historical context
raised by the reading (DO feel free to look things up -- but make note
of the questions anyhow);
- questions about intellectual context, with
particular focus on understanding WHY writers thought as they did,
focused on what they did, etc.;
- aspects of particular relevance to current
thought/understanding either as precursor or contrast;
- and anything else that interests you and
might be interesting to other class members.
Feb 21: Gilbert White, Natural History of Selborne. Read
10-12 of the letters compiled here (any of them) and browse the
linked above. Be prepared to discuss. How does White's
approach to natural history strike you? How is it like or unlike a
modern scientist's approach? From reading White, what is your
sense of the intellectual and scientific discourse of the time?
Feb 28: Voyage Chs.
Mar 7: Voyage
Mar 14: Voyage Chs. 17-19
Mar 21 (NO CLASS: Harvard Forest Symposium)
Mar 28: Origin Chs. 1-3
Apr 4: Origin Chs. 4-6 (LONG)
Apr 11: Origin Chs. 7-8
Apr 18: Origin Chs. 9-11
Apr 25: Origin Chs. 12-14
May 2, 9, 16, 23, 30: FIVE MEETINGS IN MAY RESERVED FOR
INDIVIDUALLY CHOSEN BOOKS AND PRESENTATION/DISCUSSION (see below)
POSSIBLE SOURCES FOR INDIVIDUAL
a list of naturalist-scientists who left books that are, at least in
part, journals of observations. There are, particularly in modern
times, some very good 'nature writers' who are/were not active as
scientists (e.g., Ed Abbey, David Quammen, Sigurd Olson, Ernest
Thompson Seton, etc.); they are not on the list because I want the
focus to be on primary sources that are more in the scientific
However, as one goes back in time, the line is not so clear.
Another ambiguous territory includes artists; through the
nineteenth century, rigorous scientific documentation called for
trained illustrator-artists, and these individuals often made
important, direct contributions to expanding sciences; a few of them
are here. IF YOU'D LIKE TO
PURSUE SOMETHING NOT ON THIS LIST, check with me...
Choose something for your own reading from these -- or
look for something else if you'd like (there are many more
possibilities), but check with me. Sources
for interesting online material include The Biodiversity Heritage
Library(but a lot's in other languages), Botanicus, Missouri
Botanical Garden (mostly botanical art...)
of these can be read online, downloaded as pdf's or ebooks, but you may
prefer to get hardcopy; many can be found as inexpensive reprints or as
used copies (check out abebooks.com and bookifinder.com as well as
YOU SHOULD MAKE YOUR SELECTIONS AS
SOON AS POSSIBLE
so that you can get started! Everybody should have something
chosen by mid-term or sooner. Be willing to try something
unfamiliar -- not everybody do the same thing!
Pehr (Peter) Kalm (1716-1779):
Finnish-Swedish botanist, naturalist, and agricultural theorist. A
disciple of Linnaeus. After travels in eastern N.America (what
was then the frontiers of NY and PA), his Travels in North America was a
best seller, with extensive commentaries on a lot of stuff (as much
cultural, political, and agricultural as natural history).
William Bartram (1739-1823): Son
of pioneering, self-educated
botanist/naturalist John Bartram (who didn't write much), became a
naturalist-explorer in his own right, and was one of the first
naturalist-observers to write about much of eastern U.S., mostly in the
Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859): Darwin's hero (pretty
much everyone's hero at the time), and one of the last great
synthesists across all the sciences. His 'Personal
of several years' travels in Latin America was a massively popular book
and influential in geology, geography, biology. It's huge --
several volumens -- so you'd do part..
Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809)
and William Clark
(1770-1838): The Lewis and
Clark expedition was one of the first 'official' -
government-sponsored' efforts where natural history observation was
explicitly part of the mission (that's partly because Thomas Jefferson
thought they'd find mastodons). The journals kept by Lewis and Clark
include a lot of trivial logistics but also a lot of fascinating
observation of natural history of the great plains and western
mountains. It's a remarkable story in many ways, and also
entertaining in terms of spelling (Clark, in particular).
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862).
Thoreau was not just a political thinker and transcendentalist
philosopher; he was also a keen observer and, in his journals and
other writings, began formulating a number of ideas that have become
part of modern ecological theory. Need to be selective here;
focus on the hard-core observational
natural history (or at least works that are that in large part: essays
on 'succession of forest trees',
'natural history of Massachusetts', etc. The Maine Woods is
probably most science-y book -- or the (long) posthumously published
collection Faith in a Seed (I
can loan it). Choose several essays or book.
Henry Walter Bates (1825-1892): The
Naturalist on the Rivers Amazon.
A younger contemporary of (and devotee of) Darwin and one of the great
naturalist-explorers. First to describe what has come to be
called 'Batesian mimicry' (think monarch and viceroy
butterflies). Spent years traveling in South America collecting
for rich Englishmen.
Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913); Close
friend and contemporary of Bates (they traveled together for a
time). Best known as 'co-discoverer' of natural selection. Either Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Rio
Negro or The Malay
Archipelago would be good. Maybe supplemented by his
essay on natural selection.
John Wesley Powell (1834-1902).
Explorer, geologist, ethnographer, philosopher -- and influential
Appropriate works would be writings on exploration of Grand
Canyon and region: The Exploration of the Colorado River and
its Canyons (nice pdf here)and
John Muir (1838-1914):
Like Thoreau, a philosopher and impressionist, like Powell, a practical
advocate and organizer -- but also an influential observer and thinnker
about natural systems (particularly influential in geomorphology and
glacier science). Several books include a lot of rigorous natural
history observation; could also do a collection of essays. Check
out lists on wikipedia article. Possibilities include Travels in Alaska, The Mountains of
California, The Yosemite, etc
John Burroughs (1837-1921):
Perhaps more of a 'writer-naturalist' than a 'scientific naturalist',
Burroughs worked at a time when these roles were becoming more clearly
separated. His essays and books were tremendously influential in
early days of the conservation movement. Interesting in part
because he, like Thoreau, worked mostly 'close to home' in the
northeastern U.S. He was especially devoted to the Catskills.
Ernest Henry ('Chinese') Wilson (1876-1930). One of the last of a
series of eccentric British adventurers who went to the ends of the
Earth and endured crazy hardships to collect plants. Wilson spent
years in western China where he managed to deal with bandit-kings,
serious injuries and disease in highly inaccessible places, etc. -- all
with a stiff upper lip and in outlandish costume. He wrote a lot,
but not all relevant here: maybe the charmingly titled, "Naturalist
in western China, with vasculum, camera, and gun; being some account of
eleven years' travel, exploration, and observation in the more remote
parts of the Flowery Kingdom."
Rachel Carson (1907-1964):
Most famous for Silent Spring,
but also a main-stream scientist wih some well-known natural-history
books -- but you'd have to buy or get form library (because still on
copyright): Under the Sea Wind, The Sea Around Us, A Sense of Wonder..
Artist-explorers were very important in early
scientific/natural-history exploration, particularly before the advent
of photography. Their illustrations and paintings were often very
influential and treated as scientific documentation. If you'd
like to work with one of these individuals, we can talk about how to
proceed -- the ideas of review and analysis would be the same, but the
approach to art would differ from approach to text, and might depend on
later commentaries as well as primary work... (Note that this was one
of a few arenas of the scientific world where women were able to gain
early entry; that's interesting in itself.)
Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717):
A remarkable German-Dutch woman who traveled to the wilds of South
America with her daughter in very early days and produced some of the
most itntricate, accurate, and technically advanced natural history
illustration of the day. She was fascinated by the process of
metamorphosis. Many websites with reproductions of her work, and
her own society.
Mark Catesby (1682-1749): An
early naturalist-explorer in North America. His highly Natural
History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands was
the first major publication focused on plants and animals of North
America. (A close friend of John Bartram -- father of William,
John James Audubon (1785-1851):
Entrepreneur and promoter as well as ornithologist/artist; ended up
inspiring both the science of ornithology and one of the major
conservation organizations (though he would not, himself, be seen as a
conservationist). Journals as well as paintings.
Marianne North (1830-1890).
One of the most traveled Victorian explorers and botanists (much of it
on her own). Correspondent of Darwin. Very productive of
both writing and painting, with a full building at Kew Gardens housing
>800 (!!) of her paintings --
"the only permanent solo exhibition by a female artist in Britain".