Romantic Natural History

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As Tim Morton and I have noted in our early posts for the new Romantic Circles blog (and as Tim argues so persuasively in Ecology Without Nature), we now need to rethink our uses of the word “nature” and its cognates, perhaps to the point where the very concept vanishes, not because it has “ended” (as Bill McKibben proposed in 1989) but because it now provides only a vague idea that is neither accurate nor useful. Likewise, the replacement of anthropocentrism with ecocentrism in the world we now inhabit becomes a necessity one we accept the fact that Heideggerian “building,” “dwelling,” and “thinking” (Bauen Wohnen Denken, 1951) keep us firmly planted in the nonhuman world even when we speak and write as humans. I prefer to think of us as “roosting” rather than dwelling, an idea I will take up in a subsequent post. But in recent years, these reflections have led me to create a hypertext resource, Romantic Natural History: see

We live in a time when the relationship between the human and the nonhuman is undergoing particular pressure. Consider, to choose only the most obvious recent example, our relationship to oil, to all petroleum products, nothing but the remnant refuse of millions of years of pressure on organic materials that were useless for most of human history, but for the sake of which we are now ready to make wars and rumors of wars that could threaten the very existence of Western culture.

At any such time in history—when the relations between the “natural” and the “non-natural” are being stretched to their limits: bang!—the very idea that defines the “human” is as open to debate as the idea of the nonhuman: think cyborgs, think clones, think test-tube babies and cryogenic corpses. Just such a time occurred when Aristotle first catalogued over 500 species of living creatures, including humans; in fact, roughly one quarter of Aristotle's known work refers to zoology. Another such time occurred when Pliny's Naturalis Historia yielded dozens of books ranging through astronomy, geography, human biology, zoology, botany, medical botany, metallurgy, and geology. Pliny claimed that his work drew on 100 earlier authors and included 20,000 “facts” of nature. When, in the next few decades no doubt, the first human brain receives the first transplant of a silicon chip that will control hormone releases, blood pressure, mood, and even the “person-ality,” we will have reached the point where urbanature will have to give way to humanature.

Meanwhile, the vast cultural category that is called “Romantic” now stretches from a pre-Romantic era (1450? 1500?) to post-Romanticism (the afternoon during which I am writing these words) and everything in between. Christopher Columbus was a Romantic, as we can read in his letters and in accounts of his life, but so were Werner Heisenberg and Stephen Jay Gould. E. O. Wilson is a Romantic: “Ask the questions right from the beginning of the freshman class: What is the meaning of sex? Why do we have to die? Why do people grow old? What's the whole point of all this? You've got their attention. You talk about the scientific exploration of these issues and in order to understand them you have to understand something about the whole process of evolution and how the body works.” (see

From the time of Christopher Columbus and Captain Cook, global exploration introduced the Western world to new species of plants and animals, and even to “new” groups of human beings. Real dragons (the komodo: Varanus komodoensis), sea monsters (giant squid: Architeuthis), and cannibals were all parts of the stories of these expeditions. Many of these creatures were discovered and transported back to Europe and America for exhibition. The Prussian polymath Alexander von Humboldt was the embodiment of such explorations. His ascent of Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador was the highest altitude ever reached by a human at the time. He received life-threatening electric shocks while wrestling with electric eels from the Orinoco River in the Amazon basin. He collected bird guano (for manure), and his description of its properties made it one of Europe’s most important fertilizers. He argued that Africa and South America were originally part of the same landmass, long before the theory of plate tectonics, and he virtually invented the science of meteorology.

Many such explorations of the continents and far-flung islands introduced Europe to plants and animals—not to mention human beings—with remarkable shapes and habits. Snakes that could eat goats, spiders as large as a human hand, people who filed their teeth to sharp points: these tales revealed the world of “nature” to be stranger than anyone has imagined. Discoveries were catalogued in exquisite books of natural history and displayed in early zoos and cabinets of curiosities, private precursors to public museums. There was wide variation among all of this flora and fauna, but there were also stunning similarities, even continents away and oceans apart.

In addition to all of this life, neither amateur naturalists nor dedicated scientists could ignore fossil evidence that flooded into view by the middle of the eighteenth century. Geological hammers were uncovering an earth that was constantly changing. At the same time, scientists like Richard Owen were describing reptiles as big as dragons that had lived on earth for millions of years, millions of years ago: the dinosaurs (“terrible lizards”). Some natural theologians were so upset by this picture of the past that they argued that God had hidden fossils deep in the earth to test the faithful. Other fundamentalists claimed that tyrannosaurus rex and stegosaurus were the remnants of antediluvian creatures that did not make it onto Noah’s ark.

Then, around 1811, a 12-year-old girl, walking on a cliff-side English beach, uncovered ancient bones of gigantic dimensions. Mary Anning had been literally struck by lightning—her nurse had died—when she was barely a year old. Now she struck figurative lightning into the scientific world by finding the first complete skeleton of an ichthyosaur, a gigantic “fish-lizard” that had roamed the Mesozoic seas for tens of millions of years. Her brother had found the skull a year earlier. You can still see Mary Anning’s dinosaur hanging on the wall of the Natural History Museum in London. The confusion created by such geological discoveries was not just religious, however. The way people thought about their own world was changing. That sturdy mountain over there that once seemed such an image of permanence? It will not last forever. That mighty river yonder that has flowed here for all time? Wrong. As Charles Lyell had shown, it was not flowing in this valley five million years ago, and it might not be here a million years from now.

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the gorilla was the Loch Ness monster or the yeti, a mythical creature existing only in the local legends of several central African tribes. Then in 1847, an American missionary doctor—appropriately named Thomas Savage— described a creature he called Troglodytes gorilla. “Troglodytes” means caveman; “gorilla” was the name of a “tribe of hairy women” encountered by Hanno, the famous Carthaginian explorer of the fifth century BCE. But Savage had apparently seen only a few skeletons. The first gorilla hunter and collector was Paul du Chaillu, a larger-than-life Frenchman who killed and collected specimens until he was almost killed in several dramatic encounters with the local human population. Du Chaillu was also the first person to confirm the existence of the group of people known as “pygmies.”

Physical similarities between apes and humans were as unsettling as they were hard to explain. The orangutan was called Homo sylvestris—“man of the woods”—well into the nineteenth century. As early as 1800, visitors to La Specola (the observatory) museum in Florence had been able to gaze upon a perfectly preserved chimpanzee. From up close, his hand looks just like a human hand (he is still there today), his tongue looks like a human tongue, and his eyes—though glass—gaze out with a strange sense of recognition. This is most likely the ape that Byron gazed upon when he visited the museum. By the late eighteenth century, public zoos began exhibiting living specimens of these exotic creatures. No human, I venture to say, whether fundamentalist or atheist, can look upon a living or stuffed great ape without an unnerving, or exciting, sense of recognition. These creatures must be our kin. Meanwhile, theorists from Grandfather Erasmus Darwin to Grandson Charles Darwin were hinting at evolutionary explanations that linked humans directly to all of these monkeys and apes by way of common ancestors. Maybe our ancestors had swung through the trees? Maybe we have been “roosting” on earth for a long, long time. For a timeline of some of these developments, please see

I am serious when I say, in the manifesto for the Romantic Natural History hypertext resource, that “the project seeks to be inclusive, as well as evaluative, and welcomes contributions. In this sense, the site will remain--like creation itself--permanently ‘under construction’.” I welcome your suggestions, your contributions and, especially, your corrections.

--Ashton Nichols