Deep Things out of Darkness: A History of Natural History

Deep Things out of Darkness: A History of Natural History

by John G. T. Anderson

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Natural history, the deliberate observation of the environment, is arguably the oldest science. From purely practical beginnings as a way of finding food and shelter, natural history evolved into the holistic, systematic study of plants, animals, and the landscape. Deep Things out of Darkness chronicles the rise, decline, and ultimate revival of natural history within the realms of science and public discourse. Ecologist John G. T. Anderson focuses his account on the lives and contributions of an eclectic group of men and women, from John Ray, John Muir, Charles Darwin, and Rachel Carson, who endured remarkable hardships and privations in order to learn more about their surroundings. Written in an engaging narrative style and with an extensive bibliography of primary sources, the book charts the journey of the naturalist’s endeavor from prehistory to the present, underscoring the need for natural history in an era of dynamic environmental change.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520273764
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 12/31/2012
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 366
Sales rank: 978,815
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

John G. T. Anderson is the W. H. Drury Jr. Professor of Ecology and Natural History at College of the Atlantic. He was the editor of Drury’s Chance and Change: Ecology for Conservationists (UC Press, 1998).

Read an Excerpt

Deep Things Out of Darkness

A History of Natural History

By John G. T. Anderson


Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-27376-4


From Hunter-Gatherers to Kings of Kings

By definition, prehistoric peoples did not leave us a written record of who they were or what they did. We are forced to infer their stories from artifacts, from oral histories, or through comparative studies of more recent humans who seem to have made use of similar technologies and resources in similar environments. There are obvious dangers in all this, particularly when we must base our assumptions on what are often only fragments of a civilization or culture. Some patterns, however, do seem to recur with enough frequency that it may be safe to suggest at least a working hypothesis on the role that aspects of natural history may have played in early human societies.

Many of the questions that God asks in the Book of Job inquire into just the sort of knowledge that would have been useful to nomadic peoples, and these questions may be regarded as an allegory for the loss of contact with the wider and wilder world that seems inevitably to accompany humans' settling down to live in one place. Today, with the luxury of precut, precooked, packaged foods, we feel this loss as primarily one of aesthetics; we can agree with Wordsworth that there is "little we see in Nature that is ours," but personal understanding and experience of nature are no longer a matter of survival, at least in the short run. Hunter-gatherers are very practical people; they have to be. Game and other resources are often highly seasonal in terms of both distribution and abundance, and individuals may be faced with superabundance at one moment and near starvation at the next. Local human population numbers may have varied widely both within and between generations. The traditional view of nonwestern societies as being in balance or harmony with a relatively stable nature has been challenged by more detailed analyses. Survival required the development of detailed knowledge about the habits of game species. In this sense, natural history is very old, and it may well be the oldest of our sciences. People learned to read the environment long before they learned to read the printed page, and clouds and seas and the ways of animals and plants and seasons were not just interesting external phenomena, but essential elements of everyday life.

In a hunter-gatherer society, the success or failure of a particular hunt—and, ultimately, of any given social group—was in part a function of the abilities of local experts to find and in some cases to manage game within the constraints of social taboos and tribal needs. Patterns of growth, reproduction, and movement of prey species affected the development of cultural practices around methods of harvest. There are major advantages to specializing on particular food sources and developing a high degree of knowledge of prey species, but there is also a real risk of overspecialization in a varying environment. Beyond this, if one overharvests prey, the result may be socially or biologically disastrous.

Evidence suggests that the impact of overkill is by no means limited to any one cultural or geographic group. For example, the effect of technologically advanced humans on naïve prey species has been demonstrated repeatedly in Polynesia. When the Maori reached New Zealand, they were confronted with a remarkably diverse avifauna, including some of the world's largest flightless birds, the moas (Dinornis). The Maori had been sea peoples, capable of making long voyages and subsisting off fish and other marine organisms, although their ancestors had certainly also fed on island birds. What they found in New Zealand was a veritable hunter's paradise: flightless birds unused to predation by organized terrestrial mammals. Flannery makes it clear in his discussion of the archaeological evidence that the resulting slaughter was enormously wasteful, with little or no attempt to consume large portions of the birds killed. Within two hundred years, the majority of the moas had been wiped out, and by the time Europeans arrived, the New Zealand avifauna was a shadow of its former self.

Someone who understood the natural history of plants and animals considered suitable for food would be in a powerful position in any society. Although it is dangerous to project the culture of one group onto others not known to us, it seems possible that some variation on the habit of identifying individuals as experts in the ecology, capture, and processing of particular foodstuffs, as seen in recent Washoe, Paiute, and Shoshone cultures, may be a longstanding model. The "rabbit boss" or "antelope boss" among Great Basin peoples was responsible for planning hunts and directing other members of a social group in the capture and preparation of game animals. As such, the boss must have of necessity been highly familiar with life-history elements of his or her particular target species or other taxonomic group.

The boss was a natural historian in the sense that he or she closely studied a particular organism or taxonomic group and was recognized as the local or regional expert on that taxon. There is a distinctly different "feel" to this form of natural history, which we will discuss much later (see chapter 10) in Humboldt's encounter with the "poison master" in Venezuela. The activities of the local expert might differ little (at least in the field) from those of a Victorian natural historian, but the ultimate ends were different. In the case of the local expert, the intent was usually supremely practical in an immediate sense: you ate well or you didn't. The Victorian naturalist might eat well or badly regardless of the outcome of any particular study, but the intent was to satisfy curiosity and/or to gain social status elsewhere.

The exact nature of Paleolithic peoples' foraging behavior—and indeed overall lifestyle—is the subject of endless debate, ranging from the timing and method of human arrival in a particular area to the extent of their impact on particular species. Although it is tempting to rely on theoretical ecological models of costs and benefits to support specialization or generalization, cultural norms and the passage of time inevitably affect what is considered valuable enough to harvest—and hence to study. Gender roles, for example, affected understanding of the landscape and environment, although one should avoid being too glib in applying modern notions of men's work and women's work to societies very different from our own. It has been popular to focus on dramatic ideas of big-game hunting as being the centerpiece of prehistoric lifestyles, but few human cultures are likely to have lived exclusively off the products of large animals. Foraging, processing, and manufacture all required an increasingly intimate knowledge of the environment and set the groundwork for more abstract ideas of natural history that emerged millennia in the future.

As human culture changed from nomadic hunting and gathering to animal husbandry and finally to a sedentary, agrarian way of life, attention shifted from the immediate demands of the hunt to longer-term issues of controlled production and harvest. It seems likely that many hunter-gatherer societies appreciated complex systems of land management that enhanced access to game or the growth of desirable fruits and berries. There is plenty of evidence, from both oral histories and core stratigraphy, of regular cycles of burning in order to produce desired mixtures of trees, shrubs, and open grasslands. Many of the supposedly "natural" landscapes of the Americas and eastern Africa that were reported by early explorers appear, on further examination, to have been the products of sophisticated application of fire as a clearing agent and cultural practices, including patterns of migration, that maximized productivity in available food supplies.

Farming requires a new relationship between humans and the land. The more that one invests in a particular plot of earth, the more reluctant one is likely to be to give it up and move on. If one has taken a great deal of effort to clear a particular region, put up a substantial dwelling place, and select particular types of plants and animals that one wants to encourage (or discourage), a drop in local productivity is likely to be met with innovation, rather than simply migration to a new area. Tillage agriculture called for more immediate attention to particular locations than did a wandering existence, and it also had the potential to smooth out some of the variance that an otherwise uncontrolled environment might impose.

The transition from a nomadic lifestyle to a more sedentary existence seems essential for the development of a more abstract and less applied natural history. The ecological economics of this transition have been discussed by a variety of authors, and it has occurred repeatedly in different times and places. For the purposes of this book, I concentrate for the moment on the history of the Near East: the region between India and Syria that contained the Fertile Crescent. This region in general, and particularly that between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, has long been regarded as the birthplace of western civilization.

Unlike in the Americas, there was a wealth of small to medium-sized mammals in Eurasia that could be transformed into domestic livestock. Domestication of goats and sheep occurred between nine and ten thousand years ago in the Near East. Breeds of domestic cattle were developed from wild species at roughly the same time. Oxen provided both meat and draft labor as agriculture became more intensive. Horses do not seem to have been incorporated into the domestic landscape until much later—perhaps as recently as 3500 BCE. The first horse cultures developed in what is now Kazakhstan and other areas of Central Asia, rather than farther south, in the Fertile Crescent. Initially horses were used both as milk animals and for riding and drawing sledges. Eventually the advantages of mounted cavalry made the armies of Asia nearly invincible against their opponents to the east and west. It is no surprise that Europeans adopted horses as soon as they became available to them.

The practical natural history of the early hunter-gatherers must have morphed over time into a form of what we would call today agroecology. Successful farmers developed techniques for cultivating particular soil types and had deep knowledge of water requirements, the correct timing of sowing and harvest, and the types of crops that could and could not be grown together. They were also familiar with pests, plant diseases, and other potential sources of loss. Successful farmers, like successful hunter-gatherers before them, passed on useful techniques and abandoned efforts that took too much work or failed to yield a dividend. They might also have been regarded as having an "in" with the gods, or as being just plain lucky, but even today you can find racehorse breeders who shake their heads at too much science and say, "Breed the best to the best and hope for the best." One suspects that similar feelings have been common for as long as there has been organized agriculture and livestock rearing. Such early natural history was still not knowledge sought for knowledge's sake or for a wider understanding of the world, but it provided a basis from which later scholars could work.

The first evidence for an academic natural history comes from the Assyrians, an ancient people who ruled much of the Middle East under various kings until their final defeat by the Medes in the seventh century BCE. At the height of their power, the Assyrians were the masters of the lands from Egypt north into central Turkey and east to the western edge of modern Iran. With a heartland lying in the rich soils of the Fertile Crescent, the Assyrians were ideally placed to develop a complex civilization. They created a network of paved roads linking cities of their empire and facilitating trade throughout the Near East. They brought agriculture and animal husbandry into a recognizably modern condition, and they engaged in studies of astronomy, medicine, and philosophy that had a profound influence on later writers such as Pliny and Aristotle.

Assyrian reliefs illustrate torture, slave labor, and the destruction of opposing cities and armies, but they also show an increasing artistic sensibility and a growing emphasis on the depiction of nature in both a stylized and a more realistic form. Assyrian rulers assembled hunting parks and "paradises" that contained selections of plants and animals from throughout the empire and provided the opportunity for the study of animals in a more or less natural setting, while giving rise to stories of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon—one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.

Asurbanipal, who ruled in Nineveh and Babylon from 668 to 626 BCE, might serve as a potential founding father of natural history as we think of it today. Other rulers in the Near East might have established a degree of scientific study of nature, but Asurbanipal provides evidence for a systematic study, drawing on the work of earlier writers in amassing texts for his library, the contents of which are the first surviving example of a broad interest in the structure of the world that goes beyond utilitarian usage.

Asurbanipal was the great-grandson of Sargon, an officer in the Assyrian army who had seized the throne in a coup d'état during the absence of the reigning king. Sargon's son and grandsons had plotted, schemed, and murdered their way through any opposition to both retain their hold on the throne and expand their empire. Asurbanipal proved to be a highly capable military commander, and he also used the rivalries and disorganization of his enemies to extend the frontiers of Assyria into regions never before annexed or explored.

Having smashed all opposition, Asurbanipal returned to Nineveh, where he ruled for another twenty years in what was to prove to be a golden age at the twilight of Assyrian civilization. The King of Kings seems to have been a great collector and also something of an aesthete. His royal palace was much more elaborate than those of his predecessors, decorated with sculptures and friezes. Excavations at Nineveh have revealed detailed relief panels depicting Asurbanipal hunting lions, contemplating his "paradises," and engaging in a variety of kingly and priestly tasks. Notable in many of these illustrations is a careful attention to detail in depictions of plants and animals that suggests that the king and his court might have been sticklers for a realistic interpretation of nature.

While the portraits of royal life alone would have made the finds at Nineveh of great importance, of even more interest was the discovery of a vast library of cuneiform tablets that must have at one point occupied a significant portion of the royal palaces. Piles of broken tablets covered the lowest floor of the palace to more than a foot deep, and their positioning suggests that they must have fallen through from an upper level, rather than simply having been consigned to basement storage. Many of these tablets have been translated, and often proved to be copies of still more ancient texts whose originals are lost to us. Among the treasures of Asurbanipal's library was the Epic of Gilgamesh—perhaps the oldest "book" now available—as well as descriptions of a flood that foreshadows the story of Noah in the Bible. Here also we have for the first time evidence of a systematic ordering of natural objects, in the context of trade, commerce, and medicine, including an extensive herbal describing over one hundred medicinal plants.

We have no evidence that the king himself ever engaged in active study of natural history, so my selection of this king and this moment in history as the starting point of natural history as a form of science rather than subsistence is admittedly arbitrary. Much of what is found in the translated portions of the library relating to plants in particular is utilitarian in that it relates to medical applications. In this sense, there is little difference between what the Assyrians were doing and what medieval monks and abbesses were still doing nearly two millennia later. The library at Nineveh and the images of the royal paradises hint at broader themes: with appropriate patronage, great things could be done; knowledge could be both advanced and stored for future generations; and the written word could provide a continuity and a precision that oral tradition lacked.

Unfortunately, Asurbanipal was not only the greatest king of Assyria; he was also the last great king. After his death, the empire came under increasing attack, and Nineveh itself fell to the combined armies of the Medes and Babylonian rebels around 607 BCE. Enough remained of Asurbanipal's library more than two centuries later that, according to some authors, it inspired Alexander the Great to commission a library of his own—the Great Library of Alexandria—although it seems more likely that that library was the work of Alexander's general Ptolemy and his successors. Ironically, the contents of the older library were preserved because they were written on clay tablets, while the more modern Alexandrian library made use of flammable papyrus and thus was lost.


Excerpted from Deep Things Out of Darkness by John G. T. Anderson. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: Adam’s Task, Job’s Challenge
1. From Hunter-Gatherers to Kings of Kings
2. A Wonderful Man: Aristotle and Greek Natural History
3. The Spoils of an Empire
4. An Emperor and His Descendants
5. New Worlds
6. Ray, Linnaeus, and the Ordering of the World
7. Journeys Near and Far
8. Before the Origin
9. Forms Most Beautiful: Darwin
10. The Geography of Nature: Humboldt
11. Hearts of Light: Wallace and Bates
12. Spoils of Other Empires
13. Breadfruit and Icebergs
14. Naturalists in New England: Thoreau, Agassiz, and Gray
15. From Muir and Alexander to Leopold and Carson
16. The Slow Death (and Resurrection) of Natural History

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