Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.
- Theodosius Dobzhansky

 NOTE: This is the "LIVE" syllabus; it may not agree with the static version on populi page. Check it weekly/freuqently for updates, particularly on reading assignments

Darin and the Naturalists,  BIO4223, Spring 2021, 2 credits, Mon, Thurs 1:40-3:30 PM, FIRST 7 WEEKS, Room TBA
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.  I'll bring some background to the discussion, but the classroom will be almost entirely discussion-driven, so the burden 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.  

You'll also be writing about what you read, in several modes; again, the focus will be on the readings.


This class revolves entirely around reading and discussion of primary sources, with frequent (mostly 'short-form') 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; for a half-term class, 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.


Roughly half of our class time will focus on Charles Darwin's writings; we will read selections of his Voyage of the Beagle, and ALL of On the Origin of Species. . I recommend that you acquire a copy of 'Origin' so you can mark it up and have it on hand in class. However, Darwin's writings are all available on-line, so you can choose that option if you want.  There were six editions of Origin published by Darwin in his lifetime, and there's no agreement on which is 'best'.  A very inexpensive print version (ISBN-10 : 0451529065), based on the sixth edition, is available at Amazon and elsewhere, usually for less than $10.  There are plenty of other versions, including some fancy annotated ones.  I do NOT recommend using one of the facsimiles of the first edition; Darwin himself made a lot of substantive changes in the second edition and beyond.  There is also an on-line 'variorum' edition, documenting all differences among editions, at http://darwin-online.org.uk/Variorum/.

The rest of the class will involve briefer readings from the work of a selection of naturalist-scientists from Darwin's time to (near) the present.  You will each be responsible for 'adopting' one such writer.  That will involve reading extensively in their work (typically, one or two books or the equivalent), and choosing selected passages (typically, a few chapters) for the whole class to read.  You'll then introduce that writer to the class and lead a short discussion of the shared chapters.  I'll have more on format and expectations for this later; for now, have a look at list of writers below and feel free to start exploring them to see who you find most interesting.

A note on preparing discussion of readings: 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 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 bring questions/comments to class, too);
    - 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.


I. Reading log: Your log should include an entry for each meeting's assigned reading; the entry should be in the 500 (+/- 200) 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; I want ca. 500 of your own words!  You might draw comparisons with other readings or make connections or contrasts with past or current thought or cultural context.  You might simply formulate questions you'd like to pursue and think about how to pursue them.  Your log should be a coherent document (full sentences and paragraphs and all that), NOT simply a collection of disconnected notes.
    The reading log should be kept as a single 'google doc'.  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, documentation of ideas you think interesting/appropriate for class discussion.

II. For your chosen writer/book(s), you will write brief critical review of the work.  Think in terms of 1500 words or so 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.  Your review, however, should be a more fully developed and coherent essay than your regular log entries, and it should take into account your broader reading of your chosen author, not just the chapters selected for class discussion. (Read some book reviews in the NY Times or Science or Nature if you want to get a sense of what I mean...).  See the list at the end of this document for suggestions/examples of appropriate writers and works.


Feb. 18: Gilbert White, Natural History of Selborne. One of the best-known early-modern works of observational natural history, in press continuously for 230 years.  Written in 'epistolary' form -- as a collection of letters (many apparently never sent).  Read 10-12 (or more) of the letters (any of them) compiled in volume I  -- any of them (Vol. II is mostly antiquities and brief journal entries).  Also browse this website that has all of his daily journal entries: http://naturalhistoryofselborne.com/  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?  Many available versions online:  https://archive.org/details/naturalhistoryof00whitrich/page/n7/mode/2up       https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/80773#page/1/mode/1up  You can also get it for free for Kindle or or other ereader apps.

Feb. 22: Voyage, Chs. 6-8  (Voyage of the Beagle -- also published as 'Journal of Researches...' -- is available online in many versions to read in browser, download as pdf, epub, etc.  http://darwin-online.org.uk/contents.html#researches  https://www.fulltextarchive.com/page/The-Voyage-of-the-Beagle/  or your favorite source of ebooks.  OR acquire hard-copy, e.g., ISBN-10 : 014043268X is a good version.

Feb. 25: Voyage, 14-16

March 1: Voyage, 17-19

March 4: Origin, 1-3

March 8: Origin, 4-6

March 11 (NO CLASS)

March 15: Origin, 7,9-10

March 18: Origin, 11-13

March 22: Origin, 14: Faith, Jesus

    Jesus: Henry Walter Bates: The Naturalist on the Rivers Amazon: read Ch. 8 'Santarem'.  Online versions available at https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/276428#page/208/mode/1up   and google books: https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Naturalist_on_the_River_Amazons/41EyAQAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0 OR you can download a free kindle version, etc...

    Faith: Ernest Henry Wilson: A Naturalist in Western China (1913): Chs. 16-17.  Ch 16 is mostly anthropological; 17 more naturalist/botanical observation; make sure you get into both because it would be worth thinking about the contrast in purpose/style.   (The whole book can be read/downloaded here; and there's a photo of author as frontispiece.).  Faith also points to a couple of pieces from his horticultural writing; maybe take a brief look to get a sense: Ch. 1 (roses) in Aristocrats of the Garden; Ch. 1 ('Their ancient lineage') from The Romance of our Trees.

March 25: Wills, Ethan

    Ethan: Florence A. Merriam: Selections from "Birds Through the Opera Glass", "Birds of New Mexico", and "Handbook of Western Birds" (the last to 'peruse'). (all of these are available in full-text via google books or https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/)

    Wills: John Muir: Chapter 2 and Chapter 10 from "Travels in Alaska"

March 29: Kemly,  Darby, Luca

    Luca: Henry Thoreau, "Wild Fruits" from Faith in a Seed

    Darby: J.J. Audubon, from "The Missouri River Journals": from Audubon and His Journals (ed. Maria R. Audubon). Start at beginning of the Missouri R. Journals -- page 447 (numbers in right margin) --  and read to 500 (they're short pages). (If you prefer a pdf version, check here; it's a big file)

    Kemly: Rachel Carson, selections from "The Edge of the Sea"

April 1: Thea, Srichchha, Maggie

    Thea: Jane Goodall, read this chapter: ('Gombe')

    Srichchha: Gene Stratton-Porter, Chapter 1 from "What I Have Done with Birds" (and browse some of the writing about specific birds), AND from "Music of the Wild", read some pages of Section II, Songs of the Fields (starts on P165; the density of text is very low -- lots of photos -- so maybe shoot for up to P200 or so (that's about 15 pages actual text).  These are links to google book versions; if you'd like to download pdfs, you can find them here: Birds  Music and probably other places.

    Maggie: George Schaller, "The Snow Leopard" from Stones of Silence.  This is a longish chapter, but a good choice; read as much as you can and scan.  Maggie says "focus on how he feels about the area/community he's in, and how modern the book is".


Here's a list of naturalist-scientists who left us 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 the voices of the scientists themselves.  However, as one goes back in time, the distinction 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. 
Choose something for your own reading from these -- or look for someone else if you'd like (there are many more possibilities), but check with me before committing to something/somebody.  Works by most of the earlier writers here are available online as pdf's or in ebook format.  Check Google Books, or The Biodiversity Heritage Library, Botanicus,  Missouri Botanical Garden (mostly botanical art...).  B
ut you can probably get most of these in hardcopy as pretty affordable reprints or used copies (check out abebooks.com and bookifinder.com as well as amazon); I can lend copies of some.

YOU SHOULD MAKE YOUR SELECTIONS AS SOON AS POSSIBLE so that you can get started reading!  Everybody should have something chosen by three weeks into term AT LATEST.  Be willing to try something unfamiliar -- not everybody do the same thing!

Pliny the Elder (23-79): A member of the 'equestrian' class ('landed gentry', not quite 'noble' - roughly equivalent to the Darwins?) of imperial Rome, Pliny was a lawyer, writer, military officer, and bureaucrat -- and, perhaps something of an eccentric.  Maybe the first to use the term 'natural history' as title of his best-known work Naturalis Historia. Supposedly intended to cover all knowledge in 37 books, but a number of the books are on areas we now consider 'natural history' Vol III and IV, Books 8-27 are zoology and botany).  They include a lot his own observations as well as compilations of conveyed wisdom (including a lot of weird lore, like sciapods and cynocephalus). Maybe one of the most important surviving works of Roman times and a good illustration of similarities and differences between classical 'scholarship' and modern 'science'.  Pliny's curiosity killed him; he got too close to the eruption of Vesuvius.  Lots of versions available online and in print. https://web.archive.org/web/20161229101439/http://www.masseiana.org/pliny.htm  http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/pliny_the_elder/home.html  https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/bibliography/18226#/summary

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.

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.

Jean-Henri Fabre (1823-1915): French naturalist and entomologist whose series of books on the lives of insects were huge popular hits.

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.

John Wesley Powell (1834-1902).  Explorer, geologist, ethnographer, philosopher, Civil War hero -- and influential government bureaucrat...  Appropriate works would be writings on exploration of Grand Canyon and region (he led the first excursion down the Colorado R. through the Canyon, and barely survived): The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons (nice pdf here)and others

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 and Hudson valley. MANY books that acquired a huge following.

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.

Florence Merriam Bailey (1863-1948): An early activist for protection/conservation of birds and an influence in early days of the Audubon Society.  Recognized as an ornithologist, and wrote a number of books to promote general awareness of birds and their lives.

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 from library or otherwise find (because still on copyright): Under the Sea Wind, The Sea Around Us, A Sense of Wonder..

Edward O. Wilson (1929-): One of the most celebrated American biologist of last 60 years with many books; tons of awards, several for his writing.  Several of his books are essentially observational natural history behind his science

George Schaller (1933-):  German-American Zoologist who did a lot of classic field-studies of charismatic megafauna (gorillas, lions, tigers, snow leopards, pandas...), and published a series of very popular books combining his field-work and science with conservation advocacy and a lot of cultural commentary.

Bernd Heinrich (1940-): Another German-American who's done a lot of classic work on animal (insects and birds) behavior in the wild, including several books for general audience.  His raven books particularly well-known.  Most of his career in New England. Eccentric in a number of ways; probably a good example of a modern version of several of the listed folks from 1800s.


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".

Academic Honesty/Plagiarism

The legitimacy of all scholarly work hinges on honesty of the scholar.  This means, among other things: 1) Honesty about sources of ideas and information, with appropriate/explicit acknowledgement and citation; 2) Doing your own work as called for (I will try to be clear what sorts of collaboration and cooperation are okay) and always acknowledging collaborative work.  'Plagiarism' is not just unacknowledged use of other people's words. We will talk more about these standards in class, but legitimacy of scholarship generally, and of science in particular is completely dependent on their observance.  Failure to observe them appropriately can have significant impact on your evaluation.

Statement on Inclusivity and Accommodations

Bennington College is committed to fostering the intellectual growth of all students, and to creating a learning environment where human cultural diversity is valued and respected. Students can expect a respectful, welcoming and inclusive classroom environment. I hope that all students in this course will openly share their own perspectives and respect the perspectives and contributions of other students and guests. If you feel that this goal is not being met, please donít hesitate to see me, or speak with a college officer from The Office of Diversity & Inclusion, Student Life, or Academic Services.

At Bennington College, we understand that basic needs (food, housing, and wellness) have a direct impact on academic performance, all aspects of health, and overall success of students. If you have a personal circumstance or need that will affect your learning or performance in this course, please let me or your faculty advisor know so that we can direct you to available resources to help support you during the term. If you are

experiencing mental or physical health challenges that are significantly impacting your academic work I encourage you to speak with your faculty advisor or a member of Academic Services (academicservices@bennington.edu or 440-4400), and to connect with health and psychological services (440-4426 or 440-4451).

Bennington College provides reasonable accommodations to students with documented disabilities when such accommodations are requested and necessary to ensure equal access to College programs and facilities. If you believe you are entitled to an accommodation speak with Katy Evans, the Academic Services and Accommodations Advisor, about disability-related needs. If an accommodation is approved, you will receive a memo detailing specifics. It is your responsibility to provide me with the memo and discuss the implementation of accommodations. I will not be aware of your needs if you do not share this memo with me. Accommodations are not retroactive, and can't be implemented until you have discussed your needs with me.

-- KDW Jan 2021