Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Origin of Our Species?

Where else but in the pages of the venerable TLS would you find a review of a book like Sociable Knowledge by Elizabeth Yale whose subtitle is “Natural history and the nation in early modern Britain.” Of course the title may be ultimately more pregnant than the subject matter which is an attempt to chart the history of volumes like John Aubrey’s Naturall Historie of Wiltshire, what the reviewer Felicity Henderson describes as “a prime example of a collaborative and never to be completed work.” Interestingly when you read about natural history you may be reminded of the modern enterprise W.G. Sebald was up to in his wanderings through the English countryside, which were infused both with historical memory and a sense of the sublime. Henderson quotes the naturalist Edward Lhuyd, whose late 17th century British Dictionary was an early example of this kind of research, thusly, “It’s well known, no kind of Writing requires more Expences and Fatigue than that of Natural History and Antiquities: it being impossible to perform any thing accurately in those Studies, without much Travelling, and diligent Searching.” Could it be that this tradition of observance with its emphasis on the natural world established a methodology which would be employed in one of the great observational enterprises of all time, the genesis of the theory of evolution that came in 1859 with  Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life? 

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