Atlantic History Natural History
David Beck
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 March 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0236


Natural history was largely neglected by historians until the 1980s, with the exception of perfunctory mentions of early-16th-century naturalists such as Conrad Gessner and Ulisse Aldrovandi and semibiographical accounts of the “great” naturalists from John Ray onwards. However, in the past three decades a significant body of scholarship has demonstrated the importance of natural history as an intellectual pursuit throughout the early modern period and beyond. Historians of science have argued that it played a pivotal role in the Scientific Revolution by providing evidence of things which could not be explained by the “old” science, and later the facts on which the “new” was founded. Building on this thesis, scholars have examined the relationship between natural history and various aspects of the sociocultural networks within which naturalists carried out their study, including, but by no means limited to, practices of trade, the “republic of letters,” cultures of collection, politics, and the construction of empires. The practices and methods by which naturalists were able to amass their vast collections, and the taxonomic structures imposed upon them, have been of particular and enduring interest to historians, as have the multifaceted relationships between textual evidence, firsthand observation, object exchange, and illustration. Current work in cultural history and historical geography is also turning to natural historical practices as representative of conceptions of identity, especially the relationship people saw between themselves and the landscape around them and the relationship between the natural and human world.

Introductory Works

Farber 2000 offers a 136-page introduction to natural history from the 18th to the 20th century, written for the general reader. In the absence of a general survey for pre-Linnaean natural history, readers are invited to consult two edited collections as an introduction to writing on the subject. Jardine, et al. 1996 links natural history to a wider culture of collecting, while Delbourgo and Dew 2008 offers the first genuinely cross-Atlantic study of the production of scientific knowledge. Adams 1969 offers a readable version of the standard biographical accounts of “the great naturalists.”

  • Adams, Alexander. Eternal Quest: The Story of the Great Naturalists. New York: Putnam, 1969.

    Deals primarily with the better-known European naturalists such as Linnaeus, Humboldt, Cuvier, Darwin, and Wallace. Good reading, with plenty of well-crafted anecdotal information included regarding the lives of the naturalists discussed.

  • Delbourgo, James, and Nicholas Dew, eds. Science and Empire in the Atlantic World. New York: Routledge, 2008.

    The first truly trans-Atlantic study of the production of scientific knowledge. Highly comparative. Twelve essays in four sections: Networks and Circulations, Writing the American Book of Nature, Itineraries of Collection, and Contested Powers.

  • Farber, Paul Lawrence. Finding Order in Nature: The Naturalist Tradition from Linnaeus to E. E. Wilson. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2000.

    A brief 136-page introduction to natural history from the 18th century to the 20th, focused, as much historiography is, around the “orders” or taxonomies applied in natural history. Written for the general reader, a useful work for undergraduates and those new to the topic.

  • Jardine, Nicholas, Emma C. Spary, and James A. Secord, eds. Cultures of Natural History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

    Twenty-four essays link natural history with the history of collecting more widely. Closely focused on the meaning and significance of natural objects in particular cultures, arguing that natural history can be considered as intellectual “prior” to the political, social, and moral. Wonderfully illustrated throughout.

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