The Essential Naturalist: Timeless Readings in Natural History

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Like nearly every area of scholarly inquiry today, the biological sciences are broken into increasingly narrow fields and subfields, its practitioners divided into ecologists, evolutionary biologists, taxonomists, paleontologists, and much more. But all these splintered pieces have their origins in the larger field of natural history—and in this era where climate change and relentless population growth are irrevocably altering the world around us, perhaps it’s time to step back and take a new, fresh look at the larger picture.

The Essential Naturalist offers exactly that: a wide-ranging, eclectic collection of writings from more than eight centuries of observations of the natural world, from Leeuwenhoek to E. O. Wilson, from von Humboldt to Rachel Carson. Featuring commentaries by practicing scientists that offer personal accounts of the importance of the long tradition of natural history writing to their current research, the volume serves simultaneously as an overview of the field’s long history and as an inspirational starting point for new explorations, for trained scientists and amateur enthusiasts alike.

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Editorial Reviews

Current Books on Gardening & Botany
This book includes eight centuries of observations in essays, such as the history of bees, birds, tigers, the Galapagos Islands, and a fascinating section on the relationship between ants and acacia trees. This is a book for a winter’s evening when the snow is high and you need reassurance that warmth exists somewhere. Or take it on a trip to exotic locales. Some of the articles are personal accounts by scientists. Other papers include overviews of the natural history field. The variety of contributors to this volume is stunning, including papers by Rachel Carson, Edward O. Wilson and Prince Albert of Monaco, among others.

— Adele Kleine

Current Books on Gardening & Botany - Adele Kleine

“This book includes eight centuries of observations in essays, such as the history of bees, birds, tigers, the Galapagos Islands, and a fascinating section on the relationship between ants and acacia trees. This is a book for a winter’s evening when the snow is high and you need reassurance that warmth exists somewhere. Or take it on a trip to exotic locales. Some of the articles are personal accounts by scientists. Other papers include overviews of the natural history field. The variety of contributors to this volume is stunning, including papers by Rachel Carson, Edward O. Wilson and Prince Albert of Monaco, among others.”
Choice - D. Bardack

“[P]rovides an essential insight into the way keen observation helped to develop people’s vast knowledge of the living world. Highly recommended.”


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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226305707
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 5/15/2011
  • Pages: 552
  • Sales rank: 1,116,707
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael H. Graham is associate professor at the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories at San Jose State University. Joan Parker is the head librarian at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories. Paul K. Dayton is professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.

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Read an Excerpt

The Essential Naturalist

Timeless Readings in Natural History


Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-30570-7

Chapter One

A Foundation Built by Giants

Michael H. Graham

The attraction of humans to nature is clear and ubiquitous. Whether it is a means to find resources for survival, to promote commerce, or to stimulate the senses, the understanding of how natural organisms live within their environment is of intrinsic value to all people. At the beginning of human history, cave paintings and early writings focused largely on descriptions of nature. Over millennia, such descriptions evolved into advanced techniques for identifying organisms, complex schemes for classifying them, intricate models for studying their interrelationships, and numerous scientific societies for debating the results. In the past, all of these scientific pursuits would have been termed Natural History, and the practitioners natural historians or naturalists. Today, answers to complicated questions about the functioning of the natural world are pursued by thousands of ecologists, evolutionary biologists, taxonomists, organismal biologists, paleontologists, environmental scientists, etc. Indeed, many debate whether Natural History remains a valid scientific pursuit, what the characteristics of Natural History really are (is it a purely descriptive field?), and whether natural historians are equipped for hypothesis-oriented science. Despite such debate, the utility of understanding how nature works remains timeless and has never been denied.

We define Natural History as the systematic study of natural organisms through observations. We prefer this definition to others because it focuses attention on the organisms (as opposed to molecules) and observations (as opposed to models), yet it does not explicitly state the forms of study. We further assert that it follows that Natural History writing is the description of the results of such studies and that such writing may take different forms: from colloquial nature writing to expeditionary reports to more formal scientific pursuits. Our goal with this book has never been to exhaustively explore the characteristics of Natural History nor document its historical development; the ongoing series of Egerton (2001–present) is a sensational resource for such activities. The contributors to this book are all naturalists, and in our own ways we have defended and promoted the utility of Natural History in science through our politics, research, teachings, and writings (e.g., Grant 2000, Graham and Dayton 2002, Dayton 2003, Greene 2005). This book is also not an attempt to get readers to experience nature firsthand, although we believe that this is a likely and meaningful outcome. Instead, we advance here the simple idea that our current understanding of how the world functions comes from the collective knowledge of generations of naturalists that came before, and exist among, modern-day scientists. Borrowing from the classic metaphor of Bernard of Chartres (John of Salisbury 1159), we consider that contemporary naturalists are today viewing nature from the "shoulders of giants" whether they recognize it or not. Finally, our only tangible connection to the contributions of these giants is through their writings. Thus, our explicit goal is for this book to serve as a means of promoting the reading and writing of Natural History and as an entry point for the exploration of original literary contributions by early and contemporary naturalists.

These are essential activities for scientists and nonscientists alike. The papers selected for this book are arranged around central themes that focus on of the diversity of Natural History writing forms and the subsequent utility of Natural History literature in the modern world: inspiration, exploration, initiation, intuition, and unification. Many of the papers are old and rarely encountered through traditional literature searches, or were published in sources that are difficult to obtain; these may serve as a primary source for Natural History students. Given the breadth of Natural History, however, the selections can by no means be considered representative of the best that Natural History has to offer. Indeed, readers must acknowledge that many of the facts or interpretations within the selected papers have ultimately been revised, and that some of the concepts forwarded by the author may appear as naïve relative to modern perspectives. Goode (1886) recognized this in his presidential address to the Biological Society of Washington:

There were then, it is certain, many men equal in capacity, in culture, in enthusiasm, to the naturalists of today, who were giving careful attention to the study of precisely the same phenomena of nature. The misfortune of men of science in the year 1785 was that they had three generations fewer of scientific predecessors than have we. Can it be doubted that the scientists of some period long distant will look back upon the work of our own times as archaic and crude, and catalogue our books among the "curiosities of scientific literature?"

Four generations later, Goode's words ring ever more true. Our goal, therefore, was simply to select interesting readings that advance our chosen themes. The sections are introduced with commentaries by contemporary naturalists that provide additional entry points into the Natural History literature. The commentaries represent the diversity of impacts that Natural History has upon its practitioners; they are inherently personal. Together, these readings and commentaries are a unique anthology of Natural History and a modern testament to the timeless nature of the field.

Most naturalists can list the seminal readings that were influential in shaping their views of nature and their desire to pursue Natural History. Such papers effectively put visions of nature into words and are often sensational, utilizing a variety of personal writing styles. Certainly the first papers read by young naturalists can tend towards the colloquial, with little interest by the authors in making direct scientific contributions. Nonetheless, by definition, these papers are inspirational. In the first section, "Inspiration," Robert Paine introduces a series of rousing papers by drawing upon a lifetime interest in Natural History and in the education and development of naturalists. The reader is confronted with feelings of adventure, disappointment, and devotion to nature, and may be left with desires to explore, investigate, conserve, and put on a jacket; this is the essence of "nature writing."

After inspiration, the next step in practicing Natural History is obviously the collection of personal observations of nature. Although such observations can occur anywhere and anytime, some of the most useful and compelling Natural History contributions have come from naturalists observing new things, in new places, at just the right time. For thousands of years, colonialism, exploration, and even missionary activities have placed learned people and keen observers in distant unknown places of the world. In many cases, subsequent writings of these naturalists remain as the sole descriptions of unique species, habitats, and human cultures. In the second section, "Exploration," Gage Dayton, Paul Dayton, and Harry Greene demonstrate the importance of expeditionary reports for understanding the natural history of remote lands, and the serendipitous discoveries that often arise during such explorations. Whether on a distant island, aboard a royal yacht, or in the outskirts of Texas, these contributions make lasting impacts on our understanding of the functioning of our world and provide a unique baseline against which to gauge the impact of contemporary human activities.

That many of the world's most famous and successful ecologists and evolutionary biologists began with naturalist roots is evidence of the modern utility of Natural History. The most popular and well-cited papers of the most influential natural scientists have been reprinted and commented on elsewhere (e.g., Real and Brown 1991, Lomolino, Sax, and Brown 2004), clearly demonstrating the authors' perception and superior contributions to their fields. Rarely, however, do these reprinted works identify Natural History as the almost universal stage upon which these giants learned their trades. In "Initiation," Nancy Knowlton highlights early contributions to Natural History by eminent scientists that have been overshadowed by the popularity of their subsequent work. In no case will these papers be recognized as the seminal works of the authors, but in every case they demonstrate good Natural History as a prerequisite for success in natural sciences.

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn (1962) described in detail how society's inability to accept, explain, or even understand certain scientific contributions has historically repressed the contribution's impact on our understanding of how nature works. The inherent breadth of Natural History as a field, and the focus on detailed observation and exploration, often places naturalists at the frontiers of science. In the fourth section, "Intuition," Shahid Naeem introduces a series of naturalists whose observations uncovered patterns that would become fundamental ecological / evolutionary principles beyond their time. Some of the contributions were representative of distinguished careers in which a new technique, theory, or perspective continuously placed the naturalist at the forefront of discovery. For example, in addition to his codiscovery of the theory of natural selection with Charles Darwin (Darwin and Wallace 1858), Alfred Russel Wallace also unknowingly founded the field of biogeography through a series of works including The Malay Archipelago (Wallace 1869), The Geographical Distribution of Animals (Wallace 1876), and Island Life (Wallace 1880). Island Life in particular, which far predates MacArthur and Wilson's (1967) Theory of Island Biogeography, could still serve as a foundation for a modern biogeography course, although the following quote from the introduction shows that even the most gifted giants have flaws:

Since, if we once admit that continents and oceans may have changed places over and over again (as many writers maintain), we lose all power of reasoning on the migrations of ancestral forms of life, and are at the mercy of every wild theorist who chooses to imagine the former existence of a now submerged continent to explain the existing distribution of a group of frogs or a genus of beetles. (Wallace 1880, 10)

Other contributions in this section reflect unique accomplishments that, though groundbreaking, never achieved much attention or recognition and need not be branded as transformational; they were simply ahead of their time. The discovery of such gems by the literature- savvy naturalist can be rewarding.

Today, some may argue that Natural History is too descriptive for naturalists to make useful contributions to the process- oriented studies of ecology and evolution. Yet again, in our view, naturalists simply pursue an understanding of how nature functions: the same simple goal of ecologists and evolutionary biologists. In its infancy, Natural History was inherently descriptive, as there were few established patterns in nature to warrant a search for explanatory processes. Everything changed with the events leading up to and including the publication of The Origin of Species (Darwin 1859), after which evolutionary biology and ecology emerged as theory-driven disciplines for understanding nature. Still, process is irrelevant without pattern, and thus ecological and evolutionary contributions suffer in the absence of the context provided by Natural History. In the final section, "Unification," Peter Grant develops a chronicle of readings to demonstrate the union of ecology and evolutionary biology in a contemporary Natural History framework. Thus, Grant helps to redefine Natural History in a modern perspective by casting doubt on the depiction of natural description and pattern formation as antiquated pastimes destined to oblivion.

We learned much in developing this Natural History anthology, uncovering new leads with every new citation, bibliography, or passing reference. Each day we found a new paper, a new author, and a new perspective, many of which could easily have been included in this book. It is to the endlessness, the perpetuity, the complexity, and the integrity of the Natural History literature that modern natural scientists owe their success. In the end, we owe everything to these often-faceless giants and their Natural History foundation upon which our contemporary understanding of nature has been built. We hope that the words in this book will promote interest in both the past and future study of nature ... our Natural History.


Robert T. Paine


Louis Agassiz's dictum "study nature, not books" remains eternally current. Remediation and conservation based on understanding the resident species' ecological quirks and needs are likely to be less successful and effective without the deeply rooted knowledge let alone appreciation of how nature functions. But how does one become a student of nature? Access to the living world, or nature, that astonishing tapestry of living things, their patterns, activities, smells, sounds, and interactions is essential. Yet the accumulated intimate knowledge of organisms, their Natural History, is becoming more difficult to acquire; Natural History requires access to nature. Here I focus on a third and related term, naturalist or natural historian. Becoming and being a naturalist requires more than mere enthusiasm—it requires the development of many talents. For instance, many people, young or old, lay or scientific, are committed to conservation or addicted to some favored taxon (e.g., falcons, whales, sea otters). These people are not necessarily naturalists. The paragraphs that follow provide my perceptions on factors contributing to a naturalist's ontogeny. That development begins with ample opportunity to observe nature, and surely adult encouragement is an essential ingredient. But it also seems to require intense curiosity about her workings, a freedom to roam, and a capacity to survive, even enjoy, being a loner. Bates (1950) stressed that the necessary observational skills develop early; they are difficult if not impossible to teach later on. Bates wrote (1950, 254), "The commonest first sign of a developing naturalist is the collecting habit."

Fundamental assumptions of this viewpoint are that a child can read and has access to books, and that a deep fascination with the organic world is subsequently nurtured or at least not suppressed. Thus the intuition, observational skills, and interpretative abilities will develop early. Superb naturalists of course existed well before the printing press—witness stone age cave art—suggesting that there is no requirement that a naturalist be literate. But in the presence of today's mounting environmental crises, an interest in the science underlying biological patterns, in addition to advocacy and adoration, is required. I suspect that intuitive naturalists are increasingly uncommon in academic and regulatory circles because of decreasing access to natural environments, as suggested by Balmford et al. (2002). They asked British children aged four to eleven to identify fl ash cards of both common native wildlife and Pokemon "species." At age four, identification success of wildlife was substantially greater than that of Pokemon species, 32% vs. 7%. By age eight, children were "typically identifying Pokemon 'species' better than organisms such as oak trees and badgers" (Balmford et al. 2002, 2367). There can be little room for optimism in these results.


Excerpted from The Essential Naturalist Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

From the Editors

A Foundation Built by Giants~~~Michael H. Graham

Inspiration~~~Robert T. Paine
The Great Horned Owl (1927)—Edward H. Forbush
Just Tigers (1944)—Jim Corbett
Looking Back (1944)—Jim Corbett
Forward to The salamanders of the Family Plethodontidae (1926)—Emmett R. Dunn
The Wisdom of Instinct (1918)—Jean Henri Fabre
The Wolf Spiders (1954)—John Crompton [pseudonym of John Battersby Crompton Lamburn]
Contour Diving (1934)—William Beebe
The Winter Journey (1930)—Apsley Cherry-Garrard
Wombats (1963)—Peter J. Nicholson
Journey to the Sea (1941)—Rachel L. Carson
Notes on the Natural History of Some Marine Animals (1938)—George E. MacGinitie

Exploration~~~Gage H. Dayton, Paul K. Dayton, and Harry W. Greene
Inaccessible Island and Nightingale Island (1879)—Henry N. Moseley
The Islands Galapagos (1697)—William Dampier
The Sea Otter and the Sea Cow (1741-1742)—Georg W. Steller
Chapters from the Life-Histories of Texas Reptiles and Amphibians (1926)—John Kern Strecker
Account of the Electrical Eels, and the Method of catching them in South America by means of Wild Horses (1820)—Alexander Von Humboldt
Comments on the Cephalopods Found in the Stomach of a Sperm Whale (1913/1914)—Prince Albert I of Monaco
On collecting at Cape Royds (1910)—James Murray
A Submarine Gully in Wembury Bay, South Devon (1934)—John A. Kitching, T. T. Macan, and H. Cary Gilson
A Briefe and True Report of the Newfoundland of Virginia (1588)—Thomas Hariot

Initiation~~~Nancy Knowlton
Home range and mobility of brush rabbits in California chaparral (1954)—Joseph H. Connell
Food recognition and predation on opistobranchs by Navanax inermis (1963)—Robert T. Paine
Variation and adaptation in the imported fire ant (1951)—Edward O. Wilson
Storm mortality in a Winter Starling roost (1939)—Eugene P. Odum and Frank A. Pitelka
The dispersal of insects to Spitsbergen (1925)—Charles S. Elton
A tenderfoot explorer in New Guinea (1932)—Ernst Mayr
On the occurrence of Trichocorixa kirkaldy (Corixidae, Hemiptera-Heteroptera) in salt water and its zoo-geo-graphical significance (1931)—G. Evelyn Hutchinson
Ecological compatibility of bird species on islands (1966)—Peter R. Grant
Bivalves: spatial and size-frequency distributions of two intertidal species (1968)—Jeremy B. C. Jackson

Intuition~~~Shahid Naeem
The Structure and Habits of Birds (1244-1250)—Frederick II of Hohenstaufen
Of the Spider (1800)—Antony van Leeuwenhoek
Observations Relating to the History of Bees (1758)—Jan Swammerdam
History of a mussel bed: Observations on a phase of faunal disequilibrium (1935)—Edouard Fischer-Piette
On a provisional hypothesis of saltatory evolution (1877)—William H. Dall
On the Natural History of the Aru Islands (1857)—Alfred Russel Wallace
Evolutionary criteria in Thallophytes: A radical alternative (1968)—Lynn Margulis
Observations and Experiments upon the Freshwater Polypus (1742)—Abraham Trembley
On the causes of zoning of brown seaweeds on the seashore (1909)—Sarah M. Baker
On the causes of zoning of brown seaweeds on the seashore. II. The effect of periodic exposure on the expulsion of gametes and on the germination of the oospore (1910)—Sarah M. Baker
The chalk grasslands of Hampshire-Sussex border: The effects of rabbits (1925)—Alfred G. Tansley and Robert S. Adamson
The biosphere and the noösphere (1945)—Vladimir J. Vernadsky

Unification~~~Peter R. Grant
The Natural History of Selborne (1813)—Gilbert White
Maupertuis, Pioneer of Genetics and Evolution (1959)—Bentley Glass
On the Various Contrivances by which Orchids are Fertilized by Insects (1862)—Charles Darwin
Lepidoptera: Heliconidae (1861)—Henry W. Bates
Vertebrata: Aves: Drepanidae (1903)—Robert C. L. Perkins
Geography and evolution in the pocket gopher (1927)—Joseph Grinnell
Coevolution of mutualism between ants and acacias in Central America (1966)—Daniel H. Janzen

List of Contributors

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