Natural Histories in Eighteenth-Century Britain

A review of The Pursuit of Nature: Defining Natural Histories in Eighteenth-Century Britain, by Susannah Gibson.

“Natural histories,” Susannah Gibson explains, “did not stand or fall on scientific merit alone” (p. 120). Their reception, dissemination and use were determined by a range of external factors which, in late eighteenth-century Britain, became dominated by one institution: the Linnaean Society of London. Gibson shows why and how the Society imposed stability on British natural history.

Gibson’s dissertation, The Pursuit of Nature: Defining Natural Histories in Eighteenth-Century Britain, takes up the gauntlet laid down by James Secord in the conclusion to his 1996 co-edited volume Cultures of Natural History (see James Secord, “The Crisis of Nature” in Nick Jardine, James Secord and Emma Spary (eds.) Cultures of Natural History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 447-459). Secord noted that, despite its title, the book did not answer the question “What is natural history?” (Secord, quoted in Gibson, p. 6). Other scholars of the eighteenth-century natural sciences, such as Charles Gillispie, G.S. Rousseau and Roy Porter, Simon Schaffer, Anne Secord and John Gascoigne, have similarly acknowledged that “natural history” comprised a range of practices, but they have not attempted to provide a holistic definition of what practices and theories comprised the science.

Indeed, the task of defining eighteenth-century natural history is not an easy one and much discussion has assumed that “natural history” was solely composed of the four practices that characterize the discipline today: collection, display, nomenclature and classification. But, as Susannah Gibson so convincingly demonstrates, natural history was a composite discipline that encompassed a range of ways of studying the natural world in eighteenth-century Britain. Most significantly, Gibson’s dissertation shows how natural history comprised many practices now considered to be defining features of other disciplines, especially “experimenting, theorizing, hypothesizing, seeking causes, and explaining” (p. 6) that characterized natural philosophy. Gibson’s most significant finding is that the attempts to tighten the definition of “natural history” only occurred at the very end of the eighteenth century, following the foundation of the Linnaean Society of London in 1788. The Pursuit of Nature thus revises our understanding of what comprised the natural sciences in eighteenth-century Britain.

The dissertation is unusual in that it follows a reverse chronological order, discussing first the significant role played by the Linnaean Society in defining natural history after 1788. The five chapters that follow offer case studies from earlier in the eighteenth century. As a whole, the dissertation is characterized by openness and sensitivity: Gibson introduces natural history via the categories used by “self-proclaimed naturalists” (p. 9), and she focuses not only on the practices that naturalists considered part of their discipline but also on the theoretical aspects of their work (pp. 13, 77). I also particularly commend the final chapter, in which Gibson expands her study to investigate the connections between Britain and Europe.

The Linnaean Society of London, Gibson argues, “shaped our perception of the science” (p. 21). Chapter 1 lifts away the conceptual strata of the modern age to expose and explicate how the substance of natural history was stabilized after the foundation of the Linnaean Society. The Society “brought an austere formality to British natural history” (p. 22), for the fellows “deliberately narrowed the scope of natural history in order to ensure their success” (p. 23). They prioritized taxonomy as a “scientific” activity, and they headed a new trend towards scientific nationalism that was emerging among some British and French scholars. The Linnaean Society provided the benefits of a formal institution to natural history, but it also stifled debate and controversy (pp. 24, 44).

Chapters 2 and 3 examine naturalists’ efforts to impose a taxonomic boundary between the plant and animal kingdoms. Chapter 2 discusses debates about “zoophytes” (such as corals) and Chapter 3 examines theories about “sensitive plants.” In both cases, it was not clear whether these natural productions should be classed as animals or vegetables. Gibson demonstrates how natural historians studying such difficult boundary objects applied practices from multiple disciplines, seeking not just to describe but to explain the natural world: her subjects “did not feel constrained by any idea of disciplinary boundaries; they were willing to use whatever tools necessary to understand the lives of plants. They were […] willing to create theories, to propose hypotheses and to speculate in their quest to explain plant life” (p. 75).

Chapter 4 discusses the Linnaean sexual system, which provoked a moralized controversy in late eighteenth century Britain. Gibson argues that in fact “two very different kinds of natural history” (p. 102) coexisted in Britain. Her approach is original compared to most existing work on the subject. Scholarly studies of Linnaeus’s sexual system, such as those by Londa Schiebinger, Ann B. Shteir and Sam George have focused mainly on how gender featured within Linnaean botany. But, as Gibson points out, “it is rarely written about in relation to the wider practices of natural history or used to make more general statements about the sciences” (p. 103).

The final two chapters shift from considering the practical and methodological composition of eighteenth-century natural history to the social contexts in which it was practiced. Chapter 5 discusses how naturalists established their credentials as scholars in an era before professionalization. Collecting and writing about natural history was characterized by a “lack of training, lack of structure, incoherency of the field and idiosyncrasies of practice.” (p. 157) This, Gibson concludes “encouraged a kind of entrepreneurial spirit” (p. 157) that could have direct economic benefits for those who sought them. Chapter 6 examines the connections between natural history in Britain and that practiced on the continent, asking how naturalists were able to exchange letters, books and objects across long distances. Her close attention to manuscript sources breathes further life into her already eloquent prose.

Susannah Gibson convincingly demonstrates that eighteenth-century natural history included a host of practices now usually associated with natural philosophy, and was not only about description and accumulation. Her dissertation is the first full-length discussion of the practices and theories that comprised eighteenth-century natural history. It is well-written, and the prose conveys not only a substantial argument but also the author’s own passion for her subject.  The Pursuit of Nature not only fills a significant gap in current scholarship, it also makes possible a new and more integrated way of thinking about the natural sciences in the eighteenth century.

Sarah Easterby-Smith
School of History
University of St Andrews

Primary Sources

Transactions of the Linnaean Society
Linnaean Society Archives
Royal Literary Fund Archives
Swedish Linnaean Society Archives
Warwickshire County Record Office

Dissertation Information

University of Cambridge. 2011. 213 pp. Primary Supervisor: James Secord.


Image: With permission from the Whipple Library, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge.


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