Why a "Romantic" Natural History?


A History of British Birds, Thomas Bewick, 1804
We often assume that Charles Darwin announced a new era in the scientific understanding of the natural world with the publication of On the Origin of Species (1859). In fact, Darwin's theory was the culmination of decades of speculation about connections between human beings and nonhuman "nature." In addition, Darwin provided a systematic explanation for ideas that had been developing over several centuries. These ideas were reflected not only in the work of natural scientists, philosophers, and theologians, but also in the images and ideas of poets, novelists, and visual artists. Nature writers, for example, drew on complex and conflicting definitions of "nature" in order to describe their experience of the nonhuman world. Likewise, "scientists" regularly employed poetic or religious terms to present their empirical and speculative findings. Recent scholarly interest in "romantic ecology" suggests links between our own historical moment and the scientific culture of the Romantic era. A specifically romantic natural history reveals important connections between "romantic" thinking in science and the arts. In addition, such an emphasis helps us to understand our own assumptions about the relationship between human nature and the rest of nature, our contemporary "green" sense of the ecological interdependence of all living and nonliving things.

A Romantic Natural History will survey and organize texts, images, and scholarship that link romanticism and natural history, primarily in the century before Charles Darwin. The site will operate like a scholarly text, with the addition of links and interlinks designed to allow readers to move easily from topic to topic, author to author, and from primary and secondary sources to bibliographic citations. The project seeks to be inclusive, as well as evaluative, and welcomes contributions. In this sense, the site will remain--like creation itself--permanently "under construction."

Prints from J. G. Heck, Iconographic Encyclopedia, 1851 (Trans. Spencer Fullerton Baird). Even in the decades leading up to Darwin's theory, taxonomy had revealed remarkable relationships among parts of "animate creation" (above) ranging from single-celled organisms (upper left) to male and female humans (lower right). In addition, observations by natural historians made it necessary to decide where humans might "fit" into the remarkably complex system of nature as it appeared by the mid-nineteenth century (below).

© Site contents copyrighted (except as indicated) by Ashton Nichols, 2000

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