20 January 2008

Why is nature study so popular in Great Britain?

I have always been impressed by the number of natural history books, especially on invertebrates, that have been published in Great Britain and jealous of the numbers of natural history clubs they have. Sometimes, I have even wished that I had been living in GB just so that I could have been involved in some of that activity, while avoiding the shipping charges that I pay to have books sent here. And at the same time, I have always wondered why most other countries seem to have lagged behind the British in those respects. Not only in countries like Turkey, where serious study of nature by laypeople is unheard of and by professionals is elitist and superficial, but even in the U.S. the state of affairs is way behind GB.

A recent podcast from the BBC Natural History Unit tries to answer the very same question. The narrator Francesco da Mosto interviews several natural history personalities in GB. Among the various ideas they propose to explain "the British passion for the natural world" are the Industrial Revolution's origin being there (by David Attenborough), the founding of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824, the laws enacted for the protection of wild life in the 19th century and the encouragement given to the working classes to participate in nature study (all by Robert Lambert) and the higher likelihood of people encountering wildlife in a "small" island like Great Britain (by Les Stocker). At the end of the program, however, no clear consensus emerges, which is not surprising to me, because I don't think there could have been just one responsible factor. There were probably many interconnected developments that kindled and directed the British society's ongoing love affair with nature.

Also interviewed is the malacologist Robert Cameron, one of the authors of the standard citation "Kerney & Cameron, 1979", which is, of course, their classic A Field Guide to the Land Snails of Britain and North-West Europe. Dr. Cameron talks about the early days of the Conchological Society, the origin of his interest in snails, how he discovered the snail Leiostyla anglica in the Channel Islands during a vacation, the edible snails (Helix pomatia and Cornu aspersum) the Romans introduced to England ("the fast food of the 4th century A.D.") and how the range of Cepaea nemoralis seems to have increased recently (could it be due to global warming?). His explanation for the popularity of natural history is that in GB in the 19th century there was a large middle class with leisure time. Dr. Cameron's comments are scattered thoroghout the podcast, so you have to listen to the entire program not to miss them. This is not to mean that the rest of the podcast is to be skipped; it is entertaining and educational in its entirety.

Incidentally, my 2 favorite bookstores from across the Atlantic are the Pemberley Natural History Books and the NHBS Environment Bookstore.

7 comments:

xoggoth said...

That reminds me I really must give my local natural history club another go.

I had a slight problem with the last speaker who talked about the natural history around her Spanish villa along the lines of "Here we have a slide of our new kitchen, we had it extended and a new window put in. When the men were removing the old cooker they found some sort of lizard behind it"

Tristram Brelstaff said...

David Attenborough is right. The root cause of the current British obsession with nature is the wealth that the Industrial Revolution and Empire brought to Great Britain during the late 18th and 19th Century. This lead to a large middle class who had time and money to spare. In many towns Literary and Philosophical societies and Mechanics' Institutes were formed, where these people could meet, discuss their interests and listen to lectures. Many of these societies had sections for naturalists. Alfred Russell Wallace and Henry Walter Bates (of Batesian mimicry fame) are examples of naturalists who came up through these societies.

Roger B. said...

I can recommend a book called "The Naturalist in Britain: A Social History" by David Elliston Allen.

Forgive me if I've already mentioned it, but I know Robert Cameron. Like me, he lives in Sheffield and is a member of the The Sorby Natural History Society.

Interestingly, the UK lags behind the USA, Canada and Australia when it comes to Natural History Blogging. Maybe it's a question of scale - naturalists are more likely find themselves isolated in larger, less densely populated countries, so blogging is a better way of sharing your ideas than joining a local society.

AYDIN ÖRSTAN said...

Roger, thanks for mentioning Allen's book. I may get a copy of it.

Cameron was at the World Malacological Congress in Antwerp last July, but I don't think I had a chance to talk to him.

Dave Coulter said...

Thanks for the links to the bookstores. I'm not sure my budget thanks you, but that's MY problem, lol....

JasonR said...

Another possibility brought up at the NC Science Blogging Conference is the difference between American and British media. In Britain, the BBC has the money and authority to create programs like Planet Earth and Attenborough's other efforts. In the States, PBS does a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to nature documentaries but they don't have nearly the same market or reach. More commercial endeavors, like on the Discovery Channel, tend to go for the dramatic and monstrous instead of the subtle and marvelous.

AYDIN ÖRSTAN said...

That certainly applies to the present, but the origins of nature study in Great Britain goes back at least to the 19th century.