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, Dickinson 117
Kerry Woods   (Dickinson 143, 440-4465, kwoods@bennington.edu, office hours Tues 2-4, Wed, Fri 10-12)

Much 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.

Your 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.


This 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 only 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 to failure.


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 (kwoods@bennington.edu).  I'll try to offer some commentary feedback on each log every couple of weeks or so.
    LOG ENTRIES SHOULD 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...).


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 class!  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 web-site 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. 6-8

Mar 7:
 Voyage  Chs. 14-16

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:
Henry David Thoreau, from The Maine Woods (Ian)
Henry David Thoreau, from Faith in a Seed (posthumous) (Louis)
Jean-Henri Fabre, "The Pentatomae and their eggs." (Samm)

May 16:
Pliny the Elder, selections (Cole)
Rachel Carson, from Under the Sea Wind (Maddy)
John James Audubon (Jean Rabin) , from The Birds of America (Ivy)

May 23:
Alexander von Humboldt, from Personal Narrative  (Dylan)
Alfred Russel Wallace, from Malay Archipelago (An)
George Schaller, from The Snow Leopard (Mirza)

May 30: (LAST CLASS: 8:30 starting time)
John Burroughs, selections from
Locusts and Wild Honey, Wake-Robin, Leaf and Tendril, and Field and Study (Jessica)
Steven Jay Gould, two essays from The Panda's Thumb (Sarah)


Here's 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 mainstream.  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...)

Many 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 amazon).

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 southeastern U.S.

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 Narrative...' 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 government bureaucrat...  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 others

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. MANY books.

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, above).

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".