Backgrounds: From Aristotle to Erasmus Darwin

A ginger-root plant from Barton's "Botany"

"For the ancients, a butterfly might be the soul of a deceased person and, more importantly, the soul might be 'like' a butterfly."

For the ancients, mythology suggested powerful interconnections among the natural, the human, and the imaginary. Gods were like humans, humans were like animals, animals were like plants, plants were like humans, and vice versa. Spontaneous generation, parthenogenesis by fire, impregnation by bulls, swans, rain, and showers of gold were all reminders of permeable boundaries between living and nonliving, animate and inanimate, spiritual and material. Many plants and animals were sacred to the ancients for precisely this reason. A butterfly might be the soul of a deceased person and, more importantly, the soul might be “like” a butterfly. A plant might have powerful medicinal uses, but it was also linked to a specific god or goddess. Wormwood, for example, was sacred to Artemis and, since this goddess was associated with women, the herb was often used to cure female ailments (Pliny HN 25.73).The power of animals could be invoked for practical reasons (hunting) or spiritual purposes (rituals and sacrifices). Thus the bull might be concurrently associated with human food, the story of the minotaur, and the power of Zeus. Aristotle (384-322 BC) was perhaps the first systematic natural historian. He described over 500 species; in fact, roughly one quarter of Aristotle’s known work refers to zoology. Pliny’s Naturalis Historia was dedicated to Titus in A.D. 77; it included almost 40 books ranging through information concerning astronomy, geography, human biology, zoology, botany, medical botany, metallurgy, and geology. Pliny claimed that his work drew on 100 earlier authors and included 20,000 “facts” of nature. His texts present a fascinating mix of careful observations and subsequently supported scientific facts, interlaced with myths, false reports, exaggerations and fanciful stories. The work became a standard source for classical knowledge about the natural world.

This cyclops-human, from Buffon's "Histoire Naturelle," records an actual human birth of the kind that led to serious concerns about "monsters" in the 18th century.

During the Middle Ages, natural history was a complex combination of fabrication, misinformation, and occasionally accurate reportage. Dragons vied with pythons for space in the pages of manuscripts and bestiaries, while herbals listed cures that were sometimes effective and often far-fetched. Travelers reported ten-foot lizards (komodo dragons) on islands in the South Seas, but such accurate reports appeared alongside accounts of the existence of many-headed hydras like the one killed by Hercules. Medical botany was suspect when its cures did not work and suspect when they did; plants that could relieve physical symptoms seemed like magic well into the modern era. Whole areas of rational inquiry into the workings of nature were also off limits for religious reasons; those who delved too far into the mysteries of creation might be branded as lunatics, sorcerers, necromancers, or godless heathens. Scientific inquiry was too close to witchcraft to be accepted by the wider society.

The Renaissance, by contrast, was characterized by a new spirit of curiosity and discovery. Once the earth was removed from the center of the universe by Copernicus, most other ideas about the natural world were likewise subject to revision. New understanding accompanied new discoveries in fields ranging from geology and botany to anatomy and physiology. But while Vesalius was producing the first accurate anatomical drawings, and Harvey was describing circulation of the blood, confusion and debate flourished around a wide range of “scientific” questions. In many cases, empirical observation came into direct conflict with religious belief. What was the connection (if any) between the Biblical flood and fossil remains? Was the world as it now appeared unchanged since ancient times? Were all human beings members of the same species (monogenesis) or descendants of different original types (polygenesis)? What accounted for “monsters” if the natural system otherwise operated with such predictable regularity? Were “freaks” of nature part of a divine plan or merely mysteries that had to be accepted as beyond the realms of human knowing? How should people whose ideas of wild animals were based on foxes, wolves, and bears react when the first rhinoceroses and elephants were uncrated in London and Venice? How could poisons from plants kill, while tonics from the identical plants saved lives? Anxieties like these plagued scientists and nonscientists for several centuries because of unquestioned theological assumptions, insufficient evidence, and the absence of a rigorous experimental methodology. At the same time, voyages of exploration and discovery were bringing back astonishing creatures from the land and the sea, plants of astonishing usefulness and variety, as well as news of human societies that seemed to have nothing to do with the history or the order of Europe. Diversity in natural and social spheres produced a sense that the world was more complex than it had seemed to earlier observers.

Joseph Priestley's apparatus: an extensive collection of Priestley's apparatus is currently housed in the Dickinson College Special Collections (May Morris Room) of the Waidner-Spahr Library.

A "frog-fish" from Surinam, depicted along with hydra-like sponges and a "water-raising" machine from Cheshire ("The Universal Magazine" July 1776)

By the 1700s, revolutionary thinking was not only the province of philosophers, political theorists, and religious reformers. Natural philosophers, botanical collectors, physicians, and amateur naturalists were all engaged in radically new ways of organizing ideas about the nonhuman world. During these years, natural historians constituted a varied but often interrelated group of researchers. Joseph Kastner has called this loose affiliation of corresponding scientists perhaps “the eighteenth century’s most pervasive and influential intellectual group.” They “were found all the way from Siberia to South America, and by their incessant correspondence, they kept information and ideas moving through all the civilized world. John Amman, the English physician working in St. Petersburg, might send a report on Russian rhubarb to Johann Jakob Dillenius, the German botanist working in England, who would pass the information on to Albrecht van Haller, the argumentative plant physiologist of Gottingen, who would inform Isaac Lawson, the physician general of the British Army in Flanders, who would tell one of the Jussieu brothers in Paris, who might suggest to Sir Hans Sloane in London that he pass the information on to Patrick Browne in Jamaica” (Species of Eternity 19-20). Likewise, Thomas Jefferson received tropical varieties of plants for his gardens at Monticello while also sending mammoth bones to Paris for inclusion in the natural history museum that had been organized by the Comte de Buffon. Another important aspect of eighteenth century natural science was the discovery of countless new species, many of which seemed as strange as monsters or mythical beasts. The South Carolina physician Alexander Garden, for example, described a new amphibian to Linnaeus, a snakelike creature with only two front legs and feathery gills behind its head. Siren lacertina Linnaeus called it, creating a new class of amphibian–the mud iguana or mudpuppy–in the process. Garden also presented Linnaeus with a three-foot long amphibian that appeared to be a watery serpent, except for its four feet, each of which had two toes: the two-toed conger eel.

Until the early 19th century, most people had never observed the rest of the solar system except with the naked eye. Now telescopes, and cheap printing, let many people see the universe they inhabited.

Of course, this dramatically expanding discourse of natural science provided poets, writers, painters, illustrators, and the general public with powerful images and food for the imagination. In addition, the “split” we now accept between the sciences and the arts simply did not exist before the twentieth century.Wordsworth read Erasmus Darwin and used his psychological theories in lyric poems. Meanwhile, Darwin (Charles’s grandfather) was writing book-length poems of botanical observations in heroic couplets. Joseph Priestley penned numerous poems and theological essays while also discovering oxygen.

This was a time in human history by which astronomers and others fully understood the seasons in terms of earth's position relative to the sun.

Percy Shelley experimented with chemical and electrical equipment in his rooms at Oxford, and Mary Shelley was talking about the Italian “electrical” scientist Luigi Galvani on the night she “conceived” Frankenstein’s monster. Coleridge sought poetically and philosophically for “one Life within us and abroad” that might unify the seemingly disparate elements of creation. Blake thought not only that “The Catterpillar on the Leaf / Reminds thee of thy Mother’s Grief,” but that “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all heaven in a rage.” Galvanic nerve responses, luminous plankton, sensitive plants (mimosa), poison trees (bohun upas), “intelligence” in animals, and “sexuality” in plants: ideas and images like these fostered poetic reflection and scientific lyricism throughout the century before Charles Darwin‘s On the Origin of Species (1859). As late as 1844, a textbook on astronomy could still offer lyrical descriptions of the names of the planets that made perfect sense as scientific discourse: “As a goddess, Venus was extensively worshipped by the heathens, under various names, as Ashtaroth, Astarte, Aphrodite, Cotitta, &c. As the morning star, she is known by the titles of Phosphorus and Lucifer; as the evening star, by those of Hesperus and Vesper. Her sign among astronomers is said to resemble a mirror with a handle at the bottom” (Kendall, Uranography, or, a Description of the Heavens 215).

A Romantic Natural History helps us to recall the extent to which “science” and “art” were not seen as distinct for most of human history. In addition, reflection on the contexts surrounding both of these realms of human activity (what poems were scientists reading and writing at this time? what sciences were poets and painters studying during this era?) should help to reveal the origins of our own cultural assumptions about the place of human beings in the nonhuman world. We sometimes think that the concept of mutable species burst on the world like a thunderclap with the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. So great was Darwin’s own anxiety about the revolutionary power of his idea, that he wrote to J. D. Hooker in January of 1844 claiming that he felt like a violent criminal: “I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion [sic] I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable” (81). Natural histories written between 1780 and 1830, however, reveal the extent to which pre-Darwinian natural historians anticipated the idea of the mutability of species. In addition, such works often argue for an organicist view of natural life that describes species as much more closely linked to one another than traditional views would have allowed. The writings of many natural historians remind us of the extent to which late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century science often connected with a wider Romantic sensibility. In fact, a specifically Romantic natural history comes to link all of “animated nature” into what Coleridge, by 1796, will call “the one Life within us and abroad” (“The Eolian Harp,” 26). This idea of an organic unity linking all living things challenged the hierarchy of the Great Chain of Being, replacing it with a more dynamic, less stratified, model of natural order. Such a Romantic natural history–not only in scientific works, but in poetry, prose, and the visual arts–also emphasizes connections among humans, animals, and all other living organisms on the planet. Insofar as the radical split between “science” and “art” was essentially a postromantic phenomenon, Romantic natural history is an essential precursor of any contemporary romantic ecology.

In 1816, Mary Shelley penned a famous sentence that offered a natural historical explanation for Victor Frankenstein’s desire to create a new sort of living being: “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me” (Robinson I: 85). The line appears in the original 1818 edition (Hunter 32) of the novel and unaltered in the revised version of 1831 (Smith 55). In Charles Robinson’s recent facsimile edition of the manuscript, “species” appears to have been Mary Shelley’s third word choice after “creation” and “existence” (I: 85). Much recent scholarship has emphasized Mary Shelley’s biography and state of mind during the Frankenstein summer. Additional work on the novel has analyzed the scientific advances of the era; both Galvani and Volta were experimenting with electrical impulses and muscular contractions during the 1790s. Less attention has been given to an equally important question: what precisely did Mary Shelley think the word “species” meant in 1816, and how did her sense of the concept of species relate to a wider Romantic natural history? That is the question that the Romantic Natural History hypertext-site will try to answer.

Links to early natural history sites:

Aristotle’s “The History of Animals” (M.I.T)

Pliny the Elder (Pliny at Livius: Articles on Ancient History website)

“Evolutionary Theory Before Darwin” (George Landow, Victorian Web at Brown)

How Londoners and American colonists might have received their natural history in 1776

Felix Fontana (Italy) on the venom of the viper and other topics in natural history


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