Let me begin by saying that I was absolutely stunned when I found that this wonderful work was no longer in print. This book was first published in England in or just before 1980 and the edition I am reviewing here was published by Doubleday in 1980 in the United States. This work is now about 30 years old but it has held up very, very well!
I purchased this particular work at a used book store some eight years ago and this is my second reading. To be honest, the second read was as fascinating as the first and in some ways better.
Lynn Barber has given us an intimate look into the Natural History craze which hit England, and by extension, America during the period from 1820 to 1870. It should be noted at this time, as the author is quick to point out, that the definition of `Natural History' was quite different during the Victorian era than it is today. Natural History for the people of this time included not only the study of plants and animals, but also geology, paleontology, geography and all that those disciplines encompass. The study of ecology, as we know it today, did not exist, and as a matter of fact was not even on their radar scope yet. Very few men or women at that time had the faintest clue as to how nature or the natural world worked and to be honest, they did not really care.
The primary facts though, that must be understood, is that the people living in the Victorian era viewed nature completely different that most do now. Their view of nature was covered by four forces. First were the writings of William Paley, who's Natural Theology put forth the belief that the only purpose of studying Nature was to approach a closer knowledge of God...any other reason was a waste of time at best, a sin at worse. Secondly, that the earth was only a mere 6,000 years old, as had been worked out by Archbishop Ussher, who had pinpointed the time of creation at the end of October in the year 4004 B.C. Third, that the words written in the first books of the Old Testament were absolute literal and not at all to be questioned. Forth was the absolute certainly that every living thing that was placed on earth by God, was done so for the benefit of man, and only that... there were no exceptions. Now there were other important but less prominent forces at work here, and the author of this work covers those quite well. These four though are a must in order to understand this era and this natural history consuming phenomenon.
We get a close look at the collecting craze which went from one item in nature to another in a rather willy-nilly fashion. If it was a part of nature, then it was collected; plants, animals, fish, birds, fossils, rocks, and on and on. The author discusses the hundreds upon hundreds of books, magazine articles, pamphlets and published letters which were created during this time. Between collecting, publishing, travel, and such, natural history became quite a cottage industry.
This work goes on to discuss primary movers and shakers during this period of time, both scientists and theologians, and their contributions; or lack of contributions as the case may be. William Paley, Thomas Huxley, Thomas Edward, Gilbert White, Baron Georges Cuvier, Linnaeus (the author gives a wonderful overview of his work), Charles Kingsley, George Lewis, J.J. Audubon, Frank Buckland, Richard Owen, Adam Sedgwick, Charles Lyle, Charles Darwin, and many, many others, far too numerous to name in this short review. The book is simply full of interesting tidbits about these famous men.
The Heyday of Natural History also gives us a very nice glimpse into the various aspects of Victorian life; the class structure, racism, sexism (women were considered not much brighter than the sea crustaceans they were collecting in bottles), daily life (absolute boredom for most women and many men), literature, work conditions (horrible), educational opportunities, religion, politics and much, much more.
Primarily though, weaving in and out of all the facts the author delivers us; all the interesting side stories, is the main premise of creationism and intelligent design versus evolution and Darwinism. The theological impact and scientific impact that the concept of evolution as Darwin presented it cannot be ignored, either during that time, or indeed to this very day. No matter which side of the issue you are on, it cannot be denied that Darwin, and the group of men who surrounded him, changed the world as it was seen and perceived forever. Science was taken out of the hands of amateurs and preachers, and became not just a hobby but a profession. The all powerful church, which controlled just about every aspect of life, including science and education up to that point, started loosing its power and as we have seen, society has changed.
To understand where we are today, we must understand how and why we got where we are, and we must understand the forces which mapped out our journey. Works such as the one being reviewed here go along way in starting us on that journey of understanding. We may not like what we find when we get there, but at least we will know. There are many lessons to be learned by this study, all of which are extremely pertinent even to this day.
The illustrations in this work are numerous. The book is filled with old Victorian prints, drawings and some photographs. The text is great and the illustrations are a feast to they eye. If you can still find a copy of this work, I highly recommend you add it to your library if you have any interest in the Victorian area, Victorian literature, the history of science and religion.
Don Blankenship The Ozarks
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