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4 - Natural History and Self Culture

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Summary

The fact is, if every individual in Great Britain were a naturalist, there would be no rascals and vagabonds.

Sir Thomas Moncrieffe

In 1882, James Geikie, member of the Geological Survey and resident of Perth, used the platform afforded him as President of the Perthshire Society of Natural Science (PSNS) to sketch the traits of the ‘true naturalist’. His counterpoint was the ‘mere collector of curiosities’ or the ‘pseudo-naturalist’ and the museums which had resulted from the ‘mania of collecting’. Collections composed of every kind of curio might evoke ‘occult musings’ but they could not impart knowledge of the ‘wonderful adaptations and harmonies of nature’. In contrast, the true naturalist systematically uncovered the ordered laws of nature. Geikie's ideal was not ‘a mere one-idea'd man … but a philosophical specialist whose mind is open to light from all quarters’. As such individuals also demonstrated, the cultivation of one of the several subjects making up the natural sciences could ‘quicken the observing faculty, sharpen the reasoning powers, and expand the imagination’. In short, the disciplined but ‘philosophical’ study of natural science was, for Geikie, ‘admirably adapted … for the purposes of self-culture’.

Chapters 2 and 3 have indicated the ways in which associational natural history was construed as part of mid- to late nineteenth-century Scottish civil society. Presenting the natural history society as a significant local cultural enterprise involved, it has been argued, a complex set of negotiations between conceptions of scientific work and conduct and activities deemed appropriate and relevant for civic culture. This chapter, in keeping with the emphasis on science as civic culture, aims to further situate the activities of natural history societies by looking at the kind of individual who epitomized the ‘true’ or civic naturalist. In particular, it examines the ways in which representations of prominent members resisted a characterization of the naturalist as ‘neither particularly godly, nor particularly virtuous, nor particularly polite’ a characterization that others have argued was on the ascendancy in mid- to late nineteenth-century Britain.

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Publisher: Pickering & Chatto
First published in: 2014

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