Writing history can at times appear to be something of a free-for-all. There is apparently room for everybody from enthusiastic amateurs to those with professional qualifications and experience including, it seems, biologists. Normally those engaged in academic disciplines tend to stick to their knitting, especially as we are in an age of specialisation, encouraged by an increasing growth in the breadth and depth of knowledge, the skills required to absorb it, and the cost of doing these things. But now and again some of us stray outside our core disciplines, the writer included, and I am taking this opportunity to reflect a little on why engagement with history has had its attractions to biologists.
In eighteenth century Europe, it would have been unremarkable for a young man of means who had had the benefit of a classical education and the Grand Tour, to have a passion for collecting butterflies, shells, and stuffed birds, or for stocking an aviary or menagerie. Even in nineteenth century Europe or North America, few people would have deeply pondered the divisions between science and history, as the broad sweep of both subjects, and the eclectic interests of the educated classes, made room for the inclusion of a variety of disciplines in their study and writing. History and the living world were even regarded as the natural provinces of theologians. Natural History – the name itself is suggestive – later became the classless preoccupation or hobby of a wide range of people in Victorian times.
However, even while all this was taking place, developments in the life sciences were beginning to cause its fragmentation into now familiar sub-disciplines. Divisions prescribed by Linnaean classification enabled parts of the living world to be studied separately and exclusively. The medicinal and economic uses of plants, aided by exploration and discovery, encouraged the science of botany. Comparative anatomy enthused zoologists. After Darwin, evolution and genetics emerged as separate fields and towards the end of the nineteenth century ecology started on its path towards a distinct science. History, which once included just about everything that created change in its wake, modified its content with the times, with new currents and streams emerging as separate areas of study. Thus, today, we have concentration on areas as diverse as military, theological, and political history, national histories and different time periods – rather than the world from the beginning. A great event, such as the French Revolution, could provide a scholar with work for a lifetime. The growth of science itself became of interest to historians (this is something we will come back to).
It can be argued that the increasing divisions of scholarship, and consequent specialisation by its participants, diminished the possibilities for communication across the broad reaches of knowledge. This process was enhanced by the restrictive divisions of educational curricula, the development of specialist research institutions, and the arts/science divide followed by the academic departments of universities. Like secret societies, the specialisations developed modes of expression and neologisms that proved impenetrable to the uninitiated. Therefore the climate for interdisciplinary study did not appear propitious. But as we will see, the complexity and interrelationships of the social, biological, and physical world demanded that in some areas the barriers between disciplines should be breached. That this happened sooner rather than later can be seen in the biological and social implications of Darwinism, the rise of ecology, and concern for nature that brought biologists closer to needing to understand the human role in the natural world – and for historians to understand how these revelations were affecting society. Despite religious belief and their classification as sentient social beings with a sophisticated culture, humans were increasingly regarded as part of Nature rather than separate from it. The post-war growth of environmental movements and thinking, along with human population and climate crises, raised the awareness of biologists to areas outside their laboratories and study sites, bringing a wider range of people in touch with ecology – just as natural history had drawn in people from all walks of life in the nineteenth century. The twentieth century rush to study the environment inevitably drew historians and geographers into the vortex. Environmental history became another area of specialisation.
This is enough by way of general background, the rest of this paper is devoted to looking further into the matter from the standpoint of a biologist – one who has made his own incursions into history – with a look at some others who have done the same.
Biology and history, and history of science
Why do biologists engage with history? Each is a separate discipline with its own traditions, literature, debates and rules. Each has discussions about what is important within the discipline and the ways in which it should be studied. Points of contact, on the face of it, appear relatively few. The practitioners are found in separate faculties – often in separate buildings or institutions. However, as we will see shortly, whole areas of biology are dependant on knowledge of what happened in the past. One of the first things a student learns is the life history of an animal or plant – the changes and successive stages that mark its development. We will come later to other examples, but to provide a context for these it might be useful to probe a little further into the division between the history of science and history in science – which are different things although both have to do with understanding past events.
The history of science is generally the history of the development and changes within science itself, which is often related to the more general social and intellectual histories of societies and cultures. A New Zealand example is Charles Flemings’s Science, Settlers and Scholars, an institutional history centred on the history of the Royal Society of New Zealand, but which touches on many aspects of the development of science in this country and its personalities. In biology, this sort of enquiry might look at how the discipline has been to a degree a cultural and social product derived from political, institutional, public, and private interests. Discovering Birds, the Emergence of Ornithology as a Scientific Discipline, 1760-1850 by P.L. Farber is such a work. Our Islands, Our Selves, A History of Conservation in New Zealand, by David Young, is as much about something that is political, cultural and social in nature as it is about a science. The biographies of scientists fit in here as well as they include not only the scientific achievements of their subjects, but also the social context within which they worked. Examples by New Zealand authors include Michael Hoare’s The Tactless Philosopher, Johann Reinhold Forster (1729-1798) and Ross Galbreath’s Walter Buller, the Reluctant Conservationist. Two of the authors in the above examples – Fleming and Galbreath – are, or were, biologists, although Fleming was also a distinguished geologist whose biography was written by Mary McEwen, an ecologist.
Approaches to history in science
History in science, we can say, is where certain elements within the discipline lend themselves to historical investigation as a necessary part of understanding it – such as the layering and ageing of geological strata, the ancient movements of tectonic plates, and the origins and distribution of flora and fauna. Such studies do not necessarily have much in the way of linkage to human concerns and behaviour, particularly as so much took place in deep history before humans evolved and history was recorded. Certain sciences lend themselves to these sorts of enquiry – biology and geology more so than, say, chemistry or most branches of physics.
Looking more closely at biology, there are several areas that investigate the past in order to find explanations for what we see in animal and plant species and the environment, and some of these studies find connections with human history. We will look at some examples, drawn from biosystematics, biogeography, evolution, biological anthropology, ecology and environmental studies, and the epidemiology of disease.
Biosystematics is the description, naming and classification of species and the determination of the relationships between them. It is as old as the study of biology itself and achieved the basis of its present framework in the later eighteenth century. It involves the construction of phylogenies which are like family trees in which links are drawn through existing species to primitive and ancestral species, using fossils or other evidence. DNA technologies have revolutionised this field, although morphometric and palaeontological approaches are still important. Using trees, the likely evolution of a species can be determined as a result of mathematical testing of alternative branchings, which may be able to be dated using the likely rate of evolution according to molecular clocks, or the use of geological strata in the case of fossil material.
The story pieced together in this way can be fleshed out by biogeography (which we will come to shortly). In the case of archaeology, through its examination of artefacts, adds to the biological and palaeontological evidence to provide a more complete picture of human development. Extrapolations from current human behaviours can also help interpretation of the past.
More conventional social and cultural history can also lend a helping hand to biosystematics. A number of species that form current Western knowledge base were collected by expeditions such as those of James Cook in the eighteenth century, and ultimately described and named using Linnaean classification. Twentieth century biologists tracking down this material frequently had to trawl through expedition records, diaries, correspondence paintings and sketches in order to correctly identify an animal or plant. In a number of cases, the relevant species might have subsequently become extinct, leaving no other record than a drawing or a few lines of description – and the type or original specimen having decayed in a poorly curated museum collection, or somehow been lost.
P.J.P. Whitehead’s Forty Drawings of Fishes is a sumptuous, large format publication of the British Museum of Natural History where many of the records made by Cook’s naturalists are kept, including paintings by the expedition artists. Whitehead and his museum colleagues revealed that illustrations of birds, fish, and plants by Sydney Parkinson and George Forster had a value to science in addition to their artistic merits and significance to the social and historical record. We even talk about some of these paintings as iconotypes where the physical specimen on which the name and description was based has been lost. Short written descriptions made by the naturalist Daniel Solander and others, provided valuable clues to the original location of voyage species. Whitehead and his colleagues became authorities on the naturalists of the late eighteenth century, the expeditions they were a part of, and the museums developed to house these and other collections.
Biogeography is the study of the distribution of plants and animals. It is closely connected with biosystematics and phylogenetics, as well as the earth sciences, depending as it does on the presence of natural barriers, such as oceans and mountain ranges, as well as plate tectonics, and palaeontology. A relevant New Zealand work is the Ghosts of Gondwana by G.W. Gibbs that goes back into deep time to describe the origins of this country’s flora and fauna. Biogeography, palaeontology, and biosystematics were fundamental to evolutionary theory espoused by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace and their predecessors.
Evolution as a discipline studies change in species over time revealed by variations in morphology, the development of reproductive and other barriers, as well as genetic changes observed by molecular techniques. Evolution by natural selection, proposed by Charles Darwin in his On the Origin of Species…, was a theory that had impacts across the social spectrum, which ultimately produced a flood of historical writing devoted to the man and his ideas. The implications of the theory for human society, its beliefs and development were profound and penetrated virtually every field of scholarship.
Biological anthropologists have also been examining human evolution and dispersal, initially through the study of fossil material, supported by archaeological findings. The study of present day populations, including the development and distribution of languages, has also played an important part. In recent decades findings from these sources have been linked to evidence from molecular genetics – particularly mDNA and Y-chromosome studies – throwing much light on the origins and dispersals of modern humans. Of particular interest in New Zealand have been findings related to the origins and dispersal of Polynesians who were ancestral to Māori. Estimates of Māori arrival in New Zealand have been confirmed by dating the bones of rats (kiore) that accompanied the early voyages. Here we can see biological knowledge and techniques assisting in the explanation of events in human history.
Ecology and environmental studies are two further areas that, while often treated separately, overlap in several ways. Ecology has widened its scope to include humans as part of nature and has acquired cultural and social dimensions that are explored in subjects like environmental studies, a multidisciplinary field which includes environmental history. Environmental history is important when we look to past records of environmental change through climate and other physical phenomena such as sea-level rise, plate tectonics, and meteorite impacts. Change in the physical environment can lead to extinctions and redistributions of species and to the emergence of new ones. Environmental history has also a human dimension through its examination of the human exploitation of natural resources, disease, pollution, the translocation of species, and environmental modification, destruction and restoration, all requiring some reference to the political, economic and social factors that underwrite human activities. Human colonisation itself is of biological and historical interest, both in the biological sense of human dispersal, and the socio-cultural sense of occupying the territory of other people and invading new environments. It is no surprise that ecology and the environment invite attention from a range of disciplines, including biology, medicine, history, geography, anthropology, law, and others.
This is illustrated by a couple of books that come to hand: one called Ecology and Empire: The environmental history of settler societies; the other, Environmental Histories of New Zealand. In the first book, of the 16 contributing authors, only one, Tim Flannery, is a biologist, the rest are drawn from the departments of History and Geography of various institutions. Similar comments apply to the Environmental Histories of New Zealand, where an agriculturalist, a botanist, and an anthropologist, were three scientists among 18 or so contributors. This is not a cause for concern, and there is no law that says that the balance between the recorders of human agency and biological process should be even. The authorship of these books tells us that there are broad zones of interaction between disciplines that defy the pigeonholing of scholarly enquiry referred to earlier.
On the other hand, just about all books on species introductions to New Zealand contain significant historical material, although written primarily by biologists. New Zealand’s island nature and compact and rapid history of human occupation make it a significant exemplar in the world of alien species introductions and native species translocations. It is worth noting that the history of these contains significant socio-cultural, as well as biological, content.
The epidemiology of disease has played a significant part in human history, one where environmental change and movements of human populations have led to disease spread and epidemics, sometimes of great severity. The impact of disease on immunologically naïve populations has particular importance in the wide debate on the effects of colonisers on the colonised. Disease epidemiology has received attention from biologists (including entomologists, parasitologists, microbiologists, and ecologists), geographers, historians and medical scientists.
To summarize: The point of bringing these things to the reader’s attention is that it explains why many biologists are used to thinking about the past and that in a number of instances connections can be drawn to human activity or social history, attracting some biologists to more conventional historical themes.
Biologists writing history
Having established some of the connections between biology and history we will briefly examine a selection of biologists who have ventured into history writing. We can start with two, both Americans, who achieved international reputations for their popular or semi-popular writing which contained historical as well as biological themes. Stephen Jay Gould, who died in 2002, was an evolutionary biologist and a prolific writer and essayist in areas of science, history and society, as seen in The Mismeasure of Man, An Urchin in the Storm, Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms, and The Lying Stones of Marrakesh.
In a similar vein is Jared Diamond, a medical physiologist who developed interests in ornithology, evolutionary biology and human history. His Guns, Germs and Steel, ‘a short history about everything and everybody’, was admired or criticised in equal measures by scholars across the board. Forms of determinism as explanations for historical phenomena often find short shrift and in this case agricultural and geographical determinism as explanations for perceived western superiority were bound to be controversial. It was no surprise to find Jared Diamond given critical attention in Eight Eurocentric Historians, by M Blaut, a crtique that, according to one reviewer, had problems with its own assertions and generalisations.
Coming closer to home, Australian biologists and environmentalists Tim Flannery and George Seddon, come to mind. Flannery’s The Future Eaters – the adaptation of people to life and environment in Australia and New Zealand – became something of a classic. George Seddon studied geology but became an ecologist and environmentalist, exploring the idea of a sense of place in relation to an environment he was familiar with in Western Australia. He regarded the process of Euro-Australians learning to know and love their country’s flora and fauna, movement towards ‘an imaginative possession of their environment’. He explored these themes in his books, Sense of Place and The Old Country. Another biologist, Tim Low, wrote Feral Future, a popular account of alien species introductions to Australia that contains much historical material.
In New Zealand, Herbert Guthrie-Smith was a self-taught naturalist, with a particular bent for ornithology. He published widely in this field, but is best known for Tutira – The Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station. In this book, he describes the geological, human and natural history of the place he turned into a productive farm after years of struggle, throughout which he observed the comings and goings of the plants and animals – native and alien – that lived there. It is a fine work that documented changes that were widespread in New Zealand as a result of European occupation, and over which he voiced his profound regret. It was published shortly before another significant work, that of the biologist G.M. Thomson, whose The Naturalisation of Animals and Plants in New Zealand, provided a valuable historical record and commentary that underscored many of the points that Guthrie Smith was making.
A natural heir to these earlier writers was the late Geoff Park, a botanist and ecologist, who began with the Department of Conservation and latterly worked for Te Papa Tongarewa/The National Museum of New Zealand, and in the Waitangi sector. Early in his career, Park became interested in landscapes and their history. This culminated in Ngā Uruora, The Groves of Life, part-journal, part history and part admonishment but also a personal odyssey through the scant remains of New Zealand’s lowland forests during which its author recalls their botanical and human history. In the process Park rebukes the European for careless, unthinking use of the land and the destruction of lowland ecosystems in exchange for dairy farms, depriving the indigenous people of their food sources and heritage. Published 46 years after Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac – an American environmental classic – it struck a similar chord with its readers in its ecological references and trenchant criticism of the country’s European occupants. From the same stable (also originally from the Department of Conservation) is Philip Simpson, a plant systematist and ecologist, whose writings on major New Zealand tree species contain many historical references. Being ecologists, both of these writers were aware of the connections between human cultural and social history, ecology and the environment.
Ross Galbreath began as an entomologist but completed the crossover into history with a series of notable publications including Walter Buller, The Reluctant Conservationist and Working for Wildlife, a history of the Wildlife Division of the Department of Internal Affairs. The botanist, Bruce Sampson gave us Early New Zealand Botanical Art, and aspects of New Zealand ornithological history were touched on by Charles Fleming in George Edward Lodge, The Unpublished New Zealand Bird Paintings. A number of other examples exist in the periodical literature.
One conclusion that might be drawn from this list is that many of the authors had links to ecology, environmental studies and biosystematics, disciplines that – as we have seen – lend themselves to historical investigation. We can also see a tendency to the writing of popular or semi-popular works, aimed at a wider audience than just academic historians and biologists. Another conclusion that might be reached is that most of those biologists in New Zealand who engage with history did so as a reflection of something of a deficit in our understanding of the history of science in this country, particularly in mainstream historical teaching and research, although this is a situation that has changed to some degree.
My own interests in biology and history began with a mimeographed work compiled by lecturers and students in the Zoology Department, Victoria University. Called The First Century of New Zealand Zoology 1769 – 1868, it consisted for the most part, of extracts from the records of expedition naturalists who collected in the period covered by the title. Restricted by scope and distribution, the work suggested a need for a more ambitious undertaking, looking at a longer period in greater detail. At about the same time I encountered Peter Whitehead’s Forty Drawings of Fishes referred to above, which made great use of previously unpublished drawings by artists who accompanied Captain Cook on his voyages to the Pacific. The format and content suggested by these two works led to my writing The Southern Ark, Zoological Discovery in New Zealand, 1769-1900. Material from the archives and collections of libraries and museums in Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand provided a picture of how New Zealand animals were collected and studied, as well as something of the social and cultural context in which this took place.
For example, to properly understand the type location of the South Island brown kiwi – the first kiwi to be described – we need to look at the New South Wales shipping and trading records, the peregrinations of a bibulous sea captain, obtain a glimpse into sealing on the New Zealand coast, examine museum gift registries and records in the Earl of Derby’s library, and the labels attached to bird skins in the Liverpool Museum. One of the interesting things to emerge from this is that the type locality of the original specimen is not as clear as was once believed. It may have been Dusky Sound is sometimes claimed, but it could equally have been elsewhere on the southwestern coast of the South Island or Stewart Island. One thing that stood out from the research that went into this book was the degree to which interest in New Zealand and its fauna was not solely that of the imperial centres, but was spread right across Europe, from the times of the earliest zoological discoveries. For example, shells from New Zealand were first described by German conchologists in an eighteenth century periodical, and New Zealand insects were first described in a publication from a Danish entomologist in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
The ideas behind “sense of place” and its biological and cultural outcomes were among several things that led to my next book. When the historian J.C. Beaglehole wrote his New Zealand: A Short History (1936), he claimed that unlike Māori, European New Zealander lacked a genius loci, a ‘tenderness of place’ or identity with the land they occupied. My question, sixty years later, was “have we now achieved this state, and if it is both a biological and a cultural process, what were the starting points and what steps have we taken to achieve it?” The book that endeavoured to answer this and related questions was No Other Home Than This, A History of European New Zealanders. It attempts to record cultural as well as physical and biological change, conjoint processes that can be said to result in a developing sense of place. In parts of the farmed country “the place” that was created bears a strong resemblance to the old agricultural landscapes of Europe. They had – inevitably, given the agricultural imperative – created elements of the landscape that they had left behind, joined at the hip, so to speak, by what remains of the indigenous landscape. In spite of on-going environmental challenges, this duality of landscape and the things that inhabit it is what we may have become accustomed to and fond of, and within which we may have learned to be creative in ways that have a character different from many people’s European forbears. I have been unrepentant about including a measure of human and European history in the book to reinforce the idea that Europeans did not engage the New Zealand environment in a cultural vacuum, but arrived with a complete biological and cultural package that determined their future behaviour here, and left European traces in the landscape and culture – as well as impacts on Māori – that survive to this day.
There is a certain amount of discomfort, for a scientist, in trying to grapple with an amorphous concept like “sense of place”. How do you measure it – if it is measurable at all? How do you line it up with a science like ecology, and track it with the creative endeavours of poets and landscape painters? How is the concept seen in relation to the more awkward one of national identity? That there are difficulties there is no doubt, but the comprehensive written record that has accompanied European colonisation, and the visual evidence of the landscape itself, can at least provide a foundation for the conclusions that have been drawn. Even conclusions have their problems when we are talking of a work that is still in progress, a landscape, both cultural and physical, that is still changing, even though, in the case of the physical landscape, the pendulum of change is not swinging quite as widely and as rapidly as it used to.
To conclude, what this article tells us is that biologists have disciplinary incentives to engage in historical writing, while for some, this need has extended to the writing of history itself. I will leave the last word to David Young, who in his tribute to Geoff Park, published in this journal, referred to Geoff’s love of ecology and history, and he wondered why, ‘this dualism did not occur more often. After all both are sprawling disciplines preoccupied with understanding the context of relationships and communities.’
J.C. Beaglehole covers this point in connection with Joseph Banks: Beaglehole, 1974, The Life of Captain James Cook, A & C Black, London. Pp.142, 143.
Fleming, C.A. 1987. Science, Settlers and Scholars. Bulletin of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 25: 353 pp.
Farber, P.L. 1997. Discovering Birds, The Emergence of Ornithology as a Scientific Discipline. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
Young, D. 2004. Our Islands, Our Selves, A History of Conservation in New Zealand. Otago University Press, Dunedin.
Hoare, M.E. 1976. The Tactless Philosopher, Johann Reinhold Forster (1729-1798), The Hawthorn Press, Melbourne.
Galbreath. R. 1989. Walter Buller, The Reluctant Conservationist. GP Books, Wellington.
McEwan, M. 2005. Charles Fleming, Environmental Patriot. Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson.
Whitehead, P.J.P. 1968. Forty drawings of fishes made by the artists who accompanied Captain Cook on his voyages to the Pacific1768-71, 1772-75, 1776-80, some being used by authors in the description of new species. British Museum (Natural History). London.
Other biologists include A. Wheeler (ichthyology), A. Lysaght (ornithology), and W. Stearn (botany).
Gibbs, G.W. 2006. Ghosts of Gondwana, The History of Life in New Zealand. Craig Potton Publishing. Nelson.
Darwin, C.R. 1859. On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Murray, London.
Griffiths, T. and Robin, L. (Eds.) 1997. Ecology and Empire: The environmental history of settler societies. Melbourne University Press. Melbourne.
Pawson, E. and Brooking, T. 2002. Environmental Histories of New Zealand. Oxford University Press. Melbourne.
Gould, S.J. 1981. The Mismeasure of Man. W.W. Norton. New York.
Gould. 1987. An Urchin in the Storm, Essays About Books and History. W.W. Norton. New York.
Gould. 1995. Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms. Harmony Books. New York.
Gould. 2000. The Lying Stones of Marrakesh. Harmony Books. New York.
Diamond, J.M. 1997. Guns, Germs and Steel, The Fates of Human Societies. Jonathon Cape. London.
Blaut, J.M. 2000. Eight Eurocentric Historians. The Guilford Press. New York.
Alvarez, P. 2003. Eight Eurocentric Historians (Review). Journal of World History: 14 (1) : 105-111.
Flannery, T. 1994. The Future Eaters. Reed/New Holland. Sydney.
Seddon, G. 1972. Sense of Place. University of Western Australia Press. Perth.
Seddon, 2005. The Old Country, Australian Landscape, Plants and People. Cambridge University Press. Melbourne.
Low, T. 2001. Feral Future. Penguin. Melbourne.
Guthrie-Smith, W. H. 1921. Tutira – the Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station. Blackwood. Edinburgh.
Thomson, G.M. 1922. The Naturalisation of Animals and Plants in New Zealand. Cambridge University Press. London.
Park, G. 1995. Ngā Uruora, The Groves of Life… Victoria University Press. Wellington.
Leopold, A. 1949. A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There. Oxford University Press. New York.
Pōhutukawa and rātā: New Zealand’s iron-hearted trees, Te Papa Press. Wellington. 2005.
Galbreath, R. 1989. Walter Buller, The Reluctant Conservationist. GP Books. Wellington.
Galbreath, 1993. Working for Wildlife, A History of the New Zealand Wildlife Service. Bridget Williams Books/Historical Branch, Dept. Internal Affairs. Wellington.
Sampson, F.B. 1985. Early New Zealand Botanical Art. Reed Methuen. Auckland.
Fleming, C.A. George Edward Lodge, The Unpublished New Zealand Bird Paintings. Nova Pacifica/National Museum. Wellington.
Fell, H.B., Garrick, J.A.F., Sorensen, J.H. et al. 1953. The First Century of New Zealand Zoology 1769 – 1868. Zoology Department, Victoria University College. Wellington.
Andrews, J.R.H. 1986. The Southern Ark, Zoological Discovery in New Zealand 1769 – 1900. Century Hutchinson. Auckland.
Beaglehole, J.C. 1936. New Zealand: A Short History. Allen and Unwin. London.
Andrews. 2009. No Other Home Than This, A History of European New Zealanders. Craig Potton Publishing. Nelson.
Young, D. 2009. Geoff Park: A Tribute. Environment and Nature in New Zealand. 4 (2): 39-42.