Natural History and Maritime Exploration

Faculty Picks: Five Great Books Describing Developments in Natural History selected by Choice reviewer Joel Schwartz

Before the age of exploration, most people in Western, well-cultivated lands were not exposed to the variety and ferocity found in nature. Beginning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, explorer-naturalists began to travel by sea to unexplored regions with increased frequency. They brought back considerable examples of the flora and fauna they observed as well as the illustrations they (or draftsmen they employed) drew of these life forms. This allowed naturalists to study living things from a new perspective, ultimately leading to the development of a coherent theory of organic evolution. The five books selected illustrate how travel by naturalists to distant lands helped drive developments in natural history.

Voyages of Discovery: Three Centuries of Natural History Exploration, by Tony Rice. Clarkson Potter, 1999.
This volume is a visual record of the some of the most significant natural history expeditions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Rice’s work contains superb illustrations showing the achievements of the explorers, naturalists, and artists who made these perilous journeys. The drawings, watercolors, and other artistic depictions of plant and animal life are from collections preserved in the Natural History Museum of London, the world’s largest collection of flora and fauna.

Diary of the Voyage of HMS Beagle, by Charles Darwin, ed. by Nora Barlow. Cambridge, 1933.
The Diary is part of the official account of Darwin’s voyage on HMS Beagle. It contains Darwin’s personal journal, early notebooks, and observations he recorded during his travels to South America (including the Galapagos Archipelago), Tahiti, and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. These writings provide an accurate account of his state of mind during and directly after his voyage, a journey that profoundly changed his life. As a result of his adventures in these unique lands, he began to develop a better grasp of the geology of the regions he explored, the fossils he collected, as well as observe the rich and varied living creatures he discovered. When he returned to England, he began to think about the relationships among living things, and proposed a mechanism to account for their changes over vast periods of time.

The Malay Archipelago: the Land of the Orang-Utan and the Bird of Paradise; a Narrative of travel, with Studies of Man and Nature, by Alfred Russel Wallace. Dover, 1962 (originally published in 1869).
Wallace provides a vivid account of his research in the East Indies but does not include his earlier ill-fated expedition to South America, when a fire on his return voyage destroyed years of research. Wallace’s travels in Malaysia assisted him in independently proposing an evolutionary scheme similar to the mechanism in Darwin’s theory of evolution, natural selection. His work in Malaysia further spurred him into explaining how animal life is geographically distributed, founding the discipline of zoogeography.

The Naturalist on the River Amazons: A Record of Adventures, Habits of Animals, Sketches of Brazilian and Indian Life, and Aspects of Nature under the Equator, During Eleven Years of Travel, by Henry Walter Bates. Murray, 1892 (originally published in 1863).
This text is one of the most appealing works in nineteenth century natural history. The book is filled with beautiful illustrations of insects and other organisms that Bates encountered during the eight years he studied in Brazil. Bates was originally Wallace’s traveling companion in South America, remaining in the interior there long after Wallace returned to England. Bates was a pioneer in entomology and made significant contributions to the subject of mimicry in animals.

Diary of the Voyage of HMS Rattlesnake, by Thomas Henry Huxley, ed. by Julian Huxley. Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1936.

This is a posthumously published journal of Huxley’s voyage on HMS Rattlesnake, which journeyed to Australia and New Guinea. Huxley dredged up a variety of marine animals with a net he devised in order to get a closer look at them. The book contains the drawings he made on his own of the organisms he captured off the side of the ship. Huxley’s observations in natural history led him to produce many papers in invertebrate zoology; he is responsible for establishing a fresh scheme of classification of these primitive forms of marine life. His experience prepared him to be a strong supporter of evolution, although he was not an original thinker in this area.