28 January 2011

A difficult history of natural history

It took 2 attempts separated by almost 2 years to drag my attention thru Brian W. Ogilvie's The science of describing: Natural history of Renaissance Europe all the way to the end. The subject matter is interesting all right, but the author's dense prose and the confusing organization of the book destroyed most of the fun of reading and learning.

The book starts out with Renaissance naturalists and their works. Next comes a long chapter on the philosophical background of Renaissance natural history. And then, we return once again to the naturalists and their works. There must be a more efficient way to present all of this. It can perhaps be done by weaving the characters and their philosophies and methodologies in one chronological tale. Ogilvie did not do that.

To be fair, the book has its merits. I learned, for example, how the science of natural history took off almost solely from the study of plants—because they had medicinal properties. The study of animals was mostly ignored until about the mid-17th century (see this post for an example). Consequently, there is very little in this book about the origins of zoology. One exception is an informative discussion of the birds of paradise (Paradisaeidae) that were for many years believed to have no legs and feet and, consequently, to spend their entire lives on the wing.

I also learned that a surprising number of naturalists worked in Europe during the 16th century. The downside of having most of them included in one book is that the names get all mixed up after a while. A subject matters like the history of natural history may best be explored by dividing it into more easily manageable chunks, be they naturalists or some of the plants or animals they studied, and then by writing, not books, but articles about them.

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