Cabinet of Natural History Michaelmas 2014 Programme

Cabinet of Natural History seminars are held on Mondays at 1pm in Seminar Room 2 in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Free School Lane, University of Cambridge. You are welcome to bring your lunch with you.

Organised by: Margaret Carlyle,


13 October: Susannah Gibson (HPS, Cambridge)

“Jean André Peyssonnel and the coral island”

In the 1720s, Jean André Peyssonnel, a physician and naturalist from Marseille, conducted a series of experiments on corals that demonstrated for the first time that they were neither vegetable nor mineral but belonged instead in the animal kingdom. In great excitement, Peyssonnel sent his findings to the Académie des Sciences in Paris where they were first mocked, and then ignored, before being accepted several decades later. This talk examines not only Peyssonnel’s observational and experimental results, but also the conditions necessary for once-rejected scientific results to become generally accepted as true.

20 October: Christof Dejung (History, Cambridge)

“Historical time, primitive peoples and the abyss of race: conceptions of temporality in German anthropology and folklore studies (1850s–1930s)”

The first society for folklore studies in Germany was established in 1890. The aim of the scholars who founded this society was to study the traditions and material culture of Germany’s domestic rural populations. It is less well known that the study of German folklore also had colonial roots. After the mid-19th century German anthropologists examined both domestic and colonial societies within one field of analysis. They were both deemed superstitious, unindustrialised and hence, in scholars’ eyes, living in a ‘primitive’ stage of civilisation. How did scholars and scientific bodies justify devoting themselves to the study of civilisations as far apart as the agrarian German hinterland and colonial possessions? Why did the two research trajectories separate after the turn of the century with the establishment of folklore studies as a scientific discipline? What was the impact of evolutionist theories and racial ideas? And why did domestic traditions become the foundation of national history, while overseas civilisations remained in the position of ‘peoples without history’? This paper will shed new light on such key topics as the role of temporality and progress in claims to territorial rule, the significance of scientific knowledge for the self-conception of modern societies, the establishment of middle class identity in relation to primitive cultures, home and abroad, and the rise of nationalism in the age of empire. It will also discuss the extent to which these notions shape our understanding of global societies today.

27 October: Cabinet Annual Fungus Hunt

3 November: Jane Wess (University of Edinburgh)

“The role of instruments in exploration: the RGS and its explorers, c.1830–1900”

The Royal Geographical Society was founded in 1830, and, from the beginning, instruments were to be involved in its undertakings. These ‘instruments’ have been defined by the actors: they were for measuring and drawing; commensurate with the earlier category of ‘mathematical’. A way of approaching their role is to consider what they embodied, how they were mobilised and what agency they exerted. Embodiment would include the knowledge and resources involved in their production, the mathematical principles they assumed, the discipline involved in their management by the RGS, and the spirit of modernism that is inherent in them. Their mobilisation would look at specifics of when, where and by whom they were used, what particular instruments were selected in what circumstances, and the difficulties with transport and standardisation. Their agency would focus on the practices they impose, the hierarchies they establish, and the ‘othering’ of native inhabitants to which they contribute, as well as the physical results of their use. The paper will argue that instruments played a crucial role in establishing the ‘explorer’ and the ‘field’ during the mid-19th century, and continued to maintain the authority of Western values after that time.

10 November: Christopher D. Preston (Centre for Ecology & Hydrology)

“Natural history on the move: John Ray’s continental travels, 1663–1666”

In April 1663 John Ray left Dover for Calais, accompanied by two friends from Trinity College, Cambridge, Francis Willughby and Philip Skippon, and by Nathaniel Bacon. By the time Ray and Skippon returned to Dover in April 1666 they had travelled east to Vienna, south though Italy to Sicily and Malta and then home via Rome, Geneva and Montpellier, only leaving Montpellier when forced to do so by the expulsion of all Englishmen from France. In this talk I hope to examine the approach adopted by these hard-working travellers, distinguishing it from the more sybaritic behaviour associated with the Grand Tour. I will then discuss how they were able to study natural history (and in particular plants, birds and fish) when on the move. Finally, I will outline the way in which the surviving plant specimens from the tour can be used to examined the claim by C.E. Raven, Ray’s biographer, that Francis Willughby ‘contributed almost nothing to Ray’s botanical work’.

17 November: Emma Pyle (HPS, Cambridge)

“W.B. Carpenter and the wonder of microscopy”

The development of the distinction between science and literature took shape during the 19th century. This paper will argue that William Carpenter’s The Microscope and its Revelations, first published in 1856, straddled that divide. It was a form of literature that ‘bridged’ a style of science communication characterized by narrative and aesthetically loaded language of wonder, and a burgeoning style steeped in passionless and restrained language. I will address where wonder appeared in the text and explore how Carpenter prescribed a method of microscopy that promoted the experience of wonder alongside codes of behavior encouraged by the new ‘men of science’. This paper will draw on contemporary concerns surrounding education and the moral virtues of hard work to demonstrate how, for Carpenter, the character of the individual could be trained through microscopy as much as his intellect. I conclude that The Microscope and its Revelations presented the experience of wonder as the ultimate reward for the diligent student who sought to understand, not merely see, the world through the lens of the microscope.

24 November: Victoria Pickering (Queen Mary University of London and Natural History Museum, London)

“Collecting natural history: Sloane’s ‘Vegetable Substances'”

The ‘Vegetable Substances’ collection forms part of the surviving botanical material collected by Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753) between the 1680s and 1740s, and now housed in the Natural History Museum in London. Its corresponding catalogue lists 12,523 ‘Vegetables’ and the names of over 300 people who contributed to this collection from around the world. Broadly, I am interested in how this collection was involved in the production and exchange of natural knowledge. In this paper I will use my catalogue-based research and work on Sloane’s manuscripts to give an overview of the collection and then explore some of the major contributors to the ‘Vegetable Substances’ in detail. Whether they directly sent things from abroad or acted as conduits for plant specimens, the type and utility of such material are viewed in the contexts of their complex networks, showing how Sloane collected, boxed, and preserved natural history.

1 December: Alexi Baker (CRASSH and HPS, Cambridge)

“Jane Squire’s early modern adventures: ‘I see not why I should confine myself to needles, cards, and dice'”

The remarkable life of Jane Squire (1686–1743) sheds light on a range of early modern projects – including maritime endeavours from early diving and salvage to the search for the longitude, and the development of universal systems of language and geography. Her experiences as an outspoken participant in mathematical pursuits also reveal how gender could both help and hinder in such traditionally masculine activities, and how marginalised religious faiths could affect participation in British science and mathematics. After spending years in debtors’ prison in London due to large investments in marine salvage (and her unapologetic Catholicism), Squire became the only woman to openly pursue the British longitude rewards established in 1714. Her religiously-motivated scheme, involving a new ‘universal’ language and means of representing terrestrial and celestial geography, sheds much light on the early 18th-century search for and Board of Longitude. It is today the single most common longitude treatise in collections worldwide, and drew attention at the time from learned and influential individuals, ranging from the bluestockings to the Pope.


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