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The Natural History of Selborne - Gilbert White,
This review is from: The Natural History of Selborne (Penguin English Library) (Mass Market Paperback)
This seems to me a rather strange and unlikely book to have become a best-seller, and yet apparently it was, both in its day and for many years afterwards. I was lead to it via the wealth of natural history books I began reading around Darwin's bicentennial, many of which reference White's book.
A compilation of correspondence with two of White's fellow enthusiasts for what was then called 'natural philosophy' - what we might simply call the study of nature (& in this instance mostly focussing on bird varieties, locations and movements) - The Natural History of Selborne serves as a reminder of how important letter writing was (Darwin was famously prodigious in this dept.) in the pre-electronic era.
Amongst the potential charms of White's Natural History of Selborne for modern readers, I feel, are its gently parochial and nostalgic aspects, as well as the more serious interest it has in helping set the tone for the role of the C19th 'gentleman amateur' in the evolution of modern science. The down side of this book, however, is that the minutae White is so interested in are not necessarily as compulsively interesting (to me any rate), especially when he gives his data, as he often does, as lists, as are the bigger ideas that someone like Darwin gets at.
Still, as already noted, this is an interesting insight into the boiler room work of natural science in the days of the 'gentleman amateur', for which obsession bordering on mania seems to have been an essential motive force. White is one of a humbly industrious type admired and emulated by Darwin, who not only read & enjoyed The Natural History of Selborne, but very nearly followed the same career path as White: the Victorian gent as clergyman & 'natural philosopher'.
James Hannam's excellent book God's Philosophers draws attention to the relationship of medieval religion to the evolution of science, and in some respects White is clearly an heir to the tradition Hannam writes about. The church providing, in the posts of some clergy, a sinecure wherein someone like White can dedicate himself as much (perhaps significantly more?) to his personal interests as to the pastoral care of his 'flock'!
These days most science is highly professionalized, and although amateurs are sometimes called upon, for example when 'twitchers' help collect data for a census on avian populations, as individuals they are frequently excluded from the 'priesthood' of professional scientific expertise (writer Elaine Morgan's contributions to the literature on the Aquatic Ape Theory come to mind as a recent example of such a scenario*), with figures in the mould of White, Darwin, Wallace and others like them, now much, much rarer in the realms of science.
Does this mean that the gentleman amateur is now an extinct species, perhaps? Or are there actually flocks of them, simply overwintering somewhere, out of sight, in some leafy English idyll?
* No less an authority/figurehead than David Attenborough has aired the aquatic ape theory on a number of occasions, although according to many sources (e.g. Wikipedia), the theory is apparently not held to be valid by many scientists or academics.