The Natural-History Emphasis

TO MAKE DISCOVERIES the American needed neither boldness nor imagination. In ancient populous England, nearly every new fact or experience was gained by effort, talent, or courage. Not so in America, where novelty seemed to force itself on even the most indifferent and insensitive eye.

Was the American to be blamed, then, if he believed too readily that new knowledge came from just looking sharply at the world, and from acting in it? How could he fail to be less willing than his Asiatic or European contemporary to seek knowledge from contemplation and from study? As the Marquis de Chastellux observed in 1782:

The more the sciences approach perfection, the more rare do discoveries become; but America has the same advantage in the learned world, as in that which constitutes our residence. The extent of her empire submits to her observation a large portion of heaven and earth. What observations may not be made between Penobscot and Savannah? between the lakes and the ocean? Natural history and astronomy are her peculiar appendages, and the first of these sciences at least, is susceptible of great improvement.

One of the most valuable, and certainly one of the most distinctively American, contributions to knowledge was to be the recording of the experiences and scenes of daily life. This was natural history.

In England in the later 17th century, Robert Boyle, Sir Isaac Newton, and others in the flourishing Royal Society charted new laws of physics. But such additions to knowledge, far from being mere bits of new information, were sophisticated generalizations. It was precisely in this realm that the stirring discoveries were made in England during the American colonial period. The physical sciences were, of course, confirmed by experience and observation; but in their atmosphere, in their emphasis, even in their purpose they differed from natural history, which was the realm of the New World’s promise.

The difference between natural history and the physical sciences suggests the difference between New World and Old World concepts of knowledge in the colonial period. To describe 18th-century Americans and Europeans simply as “scientists” or as “children of the Enlightenment” obscures what is most interesting. At least two large features distinguish the world of physical science from the world in which American “scientists” were busiest and most successful in the colonial era. First, the physical scientist must come to his experience ready to organize it by a theory. In contrast, men have often contributed to natural history merely by keeping a notebook of miscellaneous items which have caught their attention; such are Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne, Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, and the natural-history classics of colonial America, Peter Kalm’s Travels, Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, and Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia. No such notebook would be useful to a physicist. Second, the physical scientist—the physicist or chemist—does not deal with the subject-matters and classifications of everyday life. He speaks of entropy, of gravity, of chemical substances, of hydrogen, oxygen, etc. This is in contrast to the natural historian, who is almost always close to the popular vocabulary; he speaks of water, earth, rain, and air.

It is a commonplace in the history of colonial American science that, while great advances were made here in natural history, few epochal contributions were made to the physical sciences. This character of American thought has too often been described as nothing more than its immaturity: the stultifying consequence of colonial life, of American remoteness from ancient centers of learning, of lack of leisure and of books, and of the urgencies of settling a new country. But such an explanation hides from us some of the continuous features of American culture, for the distinctively American bias in science is rooted in the colonial age. “This Country opens to the philosophic view,” Charles Thomson wrote to Jefferson on March 9, 1782, “an extensive, rich and unexplored field. It abounds in roots, plants, trees and minerals, to the virtues and uses of which we are yet strangers.”

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Knowledge of the New World gathered in the New World was inevitably ill-assorted; men noted first whatever came first to their attention. What they saw always depended on the luck of the traveler and the fortunes of the seasons. John Josselyn enthusiastically retailed the marvelous things he had seen and heard in New England on June 26, 1639—the tales “of a young Lyon (not long before) kill’d at Piscataway by an Indian; of a Sea-Serpent or Snake, that lay quoiled up like a Cable upon a Rock at Cape-Ann: a Boat passing by with English aboard, and two Indians, they would have shot the Serpent but the Indians disswaded them, saying, that if he were not kill’d out-right, they would be all in danger of their lives … of a Triton or Mereman which he saw in Casco-bay … who laying his hands upon the side of the Canow, had one of them chopt off with a Hatchet by Mr. Mittin, which was in all respects like the hand of a man, the Triton presently sunk, dying the water with his purple blood, and was no more seen.” No wonder Josselyn concluded “that there are many stranger things in the world, than are to be seen between London and Stanes.”

After reading Josselyn’s and other accounts of observant travelers, how can one believe that a “descriptive” approach to knowledge confines the imagination? The Goddess of Miscellany reigned even in such early promotional tracts as Francis Higginson’s New-Englands Plantation (1630), which described how God had arranged the Earth, Water, Air, and Fire in America to be most favorable to human life. William Wood’s New Englands Prospect (1634) enumerated in poetic disarray:

The kingly Lyon, and the strong arm’d Beare,

The large lim’d Mooses, with the tripping Deare,

Quill-darting Porcupines and Rackcoones be,

Castell’d in the hollow of an aged tree;

The skipping Squerrell, Rabbet, purblinde Hare,

Immured in the selfe same Castle are

Lest red eyd Ferrets, wily Foxes should

Them undermine, if rampird but with mould.

The grim fac’t Ounce, and ravenous howling Woolfe,

Whose meagre paunch suckes like a swallowing gulfe.

Blacke glistering Otters, and rich coated Bever,

The Civet scented Musquash smelling ever.

A century later, variegated New World novelties filled William Byrd’s History of the Dividing Line (1728), and Jefferson’s most important literary product apart from the Declaration of Independence, his Notes on Virginia (1784), was an omnium-gatherum of information about minerals, plants, animals, institutions, and men. This flood of impressions pouring out of America to interest stay-at-home Englishmen was the main stream of new knowledge from the New World. America was shaping the very concept of knowledge.

The modern reader can still pick up a copy of Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1731-43), the writings of John Bartram and William Bartram, Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology (1808-14), or Audubon’s casual writings, and read them with enjoyment and profit. Writers of most works on natural history—even of ostensibly “systematic” accounts of flowers, trees, birds, or mammals—described objects within the scope of common men. Despite an occasional Latin name or learned reference, their works made sense to any person with eyes, ears, and some curiosity. The drawings had some of the universal intelligibility of the 20th-century picture-magazine. Such books of travel and natural history required no theoretical training; they did not depend on abstruse definitions or on a structure of philosophy or argument. They were a warehouse of “facts” stored more or less at random, as the discoverer had come upon them. There was no single or necessary order of material; one did not need to progress from definitions and premises through conclusions. They were thus as different as possible from such classic works of “explanatory” science as Newton’s Principia. Moreover, while few men could understand Newton, much less themselves contribute to physics, any alert American might add to natural history by noticing a plant, some habit of the opossum or deer, or a custom of the Indians.

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We have too long been told that a “unified” scheme of knowledge is required to give meaning and unity to society; that men have a greater sense of sharing values and of working to a common end if they are united by a grand overarching system of thought; that somehow an articulate and systematic philosophy is likely to provide such a system of shared meaning. The stock example is, of course, the Middle Ages when such theologians as Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus constructed monuments of speculative philosophy. It has become an unexamined commonplace that a more unified philosophy will produce a more unified society, that ours would be a better and more meaningful world if we in America possessed such systematic and “unifying” thought.

But is this really true? It may have seemed so in earlier societies where the frame of meaning was supposed to be accessible only to a priestly or ruling class. Could it remain so in a modern literate society where most people would be expected to understand the purposes of the community? One cannot unify such a society by mere concepts, however refined and subtle, however vivid to a few philosophers or theologians. “The attempt to bridge the chasm between multiplicity and unity is the oldest problem of philosophy, religion, and science,” observed Henry Adams in Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1905), “but the flimsiest bridge of all is the human concept, unless somewhere, within or beyond it, an energy not individual is hidden; and in that case the old question instantly reappears: What is that energy?” To say that a society can or ought to be “unified” by some total philosophic system—whether a Summa Theologica, a Calvin’s Institutes, or a Marx’s Capital—is to commit oneself to an aristocratic concept of knowledge: let the elite know the theories and values of the society; they will know and preserve for all the rest.

When life thus draws its meaning from a system of philosophy, when philosophy becomes the device for unifying knowledge, knowledge itself becomes a monopoly. To understand a system, one must begin at the beginning; one must acquire the prerequisites, which are often in a learned or foreign language; and one must build from definitions, axioms, and propositions, to corollaries and conclusions.

But the kind of new knowledge which life in America made possible, precisely because it was factual and miscellaneous, required no preliminary training. One could plunge in anywhere. Knowledge of the New World—its climate, geography, plants, animals, savages, and diseases—was accessible to everyone. The crude carving on the bark of a tree recording that here Daniel Boone “CillED A. Bar” or the casual report of the course of a river were pieces of natural history. The American did not need to begin with explicit premises or with precise definitions and propositions; he began with the first novelty that came to his attention. If “knowledge” was miscellaneous, men could educate themselves with the random materials of experience. They could become “self-made” men, because they could start anytime anyplace. John Bartram and Benjamin Franklin were paragons of this kind of learning, and there were many others who “improved” their experience to become models of learning in the American mold. The ideal of knowledge which came from natural history was admirably suited to a mobile society. Its paths did not run only through the academy, the monastery, or the university; they opened everywhere and to every man.

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