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1 January 2004 The Selborne Pioneer: Gilbert White as Naturalist and Scientist, a Re-examination
Bernd Heinrich
Author Affiliations +

Ted Dadswell. 2003. Ashgate Publishing, Hants, England, and Suite 420, 101 Cherry Street, Burlington, Vermont 05401-4405. xviii + 238 pp., 13 black-and-white plates. ISBN 0-7546-0749-6. Cloth, $79.95. —Gilbert White lived (1720-1793) in the agricultural village of Selborne, England, where “the human ecology was continuous with the non-human.” The eldest of seven surviving children, his fishing and hunting as a young man “paved the way” for natural history, while gardening “gave him his naturalists' apprenticeship.” He was also an Anglican cleric, a poet, and as Dadswell makes clear in this book, a remarkable pioneering naturalist and clear-headed scientist.

White has been known primarily for the literary achievement of his Natural History of Selborne. Ironically, that work has enjoyed a worldwide readership over the centuries primarily because it was thought to be unscientific. Now, after the blossoming of ethology and behavioral biology of animals in the wild, it seems instead to have presaged those disciplines.

White became known for his seemingly pedantic measuring to exact detail and his unconventional approach to problems. Much was said of his shouting through a megaphone at his pet tortoise, Timothy, and several writers have (incorrectly) extrapolated that he “played the trumpet” to his bees. He measured the size of hailstones to document what he meant by “large.” Perhaps equally bizarre to 18th-century contemporaries was his detailed record-keeping of several species of crickets and the swallows of his district. His primary contribution was his combining of original field observations of birds with a scientific experimental approach to problems. However, a mythology of White evolved, in which his reputation grew as a quaint childlike observer of local trivia. He was said to be contented and a “bit lazy,” with “no philosophical ambitions” and “never a victim of introspection.”

Classification and physiological research dominated the zoological and botanical sciences in his time. Specimens were collected, described exactly, and named, and they were cut apart, often while still alive. White was little interested in those endeavors and he was the first to concentrate on the life and manners of animals, especially of birds, in the field. Despite his avowed disinterest in the then predominant scientific fashion of nomenclature, he nevertheless identified 440 wild plants and 120 species of birds in his immediate neighborhood. He added the noctule bat and the harvest mouse to the list of British mammals, and he was the first to distinguish the three morphologically similar “leaf warblers,” now called the chiff-chaff, willow warbler, and wood warbler, by their songs and habits.

He may or may not have influenced ornithologists in the two centuries after him, but there is no question that he preceded them in trying to solve problems that concerned us not until the first half of the 20th century, and occupy us even now. To him, the annual disappearance of the swallows was a burning problem, though it was no problem at all to his contemporaries who were convinced they hibernate under the mud of local ponds. Aside from his long-standing studies of bird migration, other problems that occupied him include the function of winter flocks of finches, parasitic habits of the cuckoo, bird song dialects, “dispersion” or territoriality, gregariousness and fighting (in rooks), seed dispersion (jays and magpies), instinct and its functionality, and courtship feeding. Through his quantifying and questioning, he maintained patience and a restraint from making generalizations and coming to conclusions where the evidence did not warrant. He warned against the pitfalls of analogy (as Lorenz would do as well) and he challenged the authority of reason, appealing to thorough empirical observations.

His reliance on and presentation of empirical observations presented in detail, though perhaps pedantic then, make his work timeless now. His measuring of the number, kinds, and probable ages of trees in a small woodlot seem modern, as are his description of bird densities in his time (starlings, common now, were scarce then, whereas stone curlews, now rare, were common). The chiff-chaffs arrived punctually almost to the day (20–23 March). Do they still?

Given his many-faceted and seemingly contradictory life and science—only now becoming clearer through the lens of modern biology—it is perhaps not surprising that many myths and misconceptions have attached themselves to Gilbert White. Dadswell cites a recent example concerning earthworms. In 1984 a broadcaster remarked on the air that: “the old naturalist Gilbert White hated earthworms and wanted to get rid of them, unlike Charles Darwin who wrote a book in their defense.” The truth is quite different. A century before Darwin's work on earthworms, White had elaborated on their importance. He described them as “a link in the chain of nature [who] if lost, would make a lamentable chasm” because they are “food for half the birds and some quadrupeds,” and they “turn soil” and “by their ceaseless boring, contribute greatly to its [soil] drainage and aeration.” Furthermore, “they draw leaves and grass into their holes, and manure the soil having eaten this vegetable material. Humble but innumerable, worms are the greatest promoters of vegetation, which would proceed but lamely without them.”

White watched earthworms at night with candlelight as they pulled vegetation into their burrows. He was the first to discover their hermaphrodism. At the end of his paper on worms he says: “A good monograph on worms would offer much entertainment and information at the same time, and would open up a large new field in natural history.”

Darwin read Gilbert White with pleasure, but when his book on worms came out a century later (and largely mirrored what White had written) there was only a brief, dismissive mention of his predecessor.

Gilbert White has not been dismissed over the past 200 years. The Natural History of Selborne (1789) has appeared in 200 editions and been translated into more than a dozen languages. He has been repeatedly resurrected in our cultural archives. However, the point of Dadswell's book on White is to make the case that White was not the “naïve” and “childlike” or “childish” man he has been portrayed as. Instead, Dadswell insists: “to describe White as less than a rigorous and highly original naturalist is to quite misrepresent both the man and his work.”

I had not read Gilbert White, and after reading this book I felt chastised: I should have read him. I felt I was reading about a kindred spirit, whom I would like to have known. He reaches across the seeming abyss of two centuries. Dadswell contrasts White with his contemporaries by presenting short passages of their own writing in five appendices. The first of those is Stephen Hale's account (1733) of “tying a middle sized dog down alive on a table, and having layed bare his windpipe” and proceeding from there on his “experiment” on breathing (I will spare the details). When “matters were preparing for (an) additional experiment,” Hale continues, “the dog dyed.” This account encapsulates the then grossly lacking understanding of and attitude toward animals, and gives me increased respect for White's supposedly “anti-experimental” approach, which was in fact precisely the opposite. He was the quintessential scientist who is aware of his subject. Although he made no great overt show about “controls” and did not even use that language, his use of controls through the comparative method to neutralize variables not tested is apparent in most of the questions he asked (although they occur so naturally as to appear accidental).

The second appendix, by Mark Catesby, is on “Bird Migration as a Fact?” (1748). It was published in Gentleman's Magazine (presumably even then not the premier ornithological journal). It seemed to me as being far beyond its contemporaries. Perhaps, not surprisingly, all of it is dismissed by the well-known indoor ornithologist Daines Barrington (who made significant experiments on bird song) in his “Report of Torpid Swallows” (1781). In this third appendix, Barrington uncritically supports the notion of swallows hibernating in the mud. This paper now sounds like pure drivel. I suspect it helps explain why Gilbert White was not recognized by his peers and showed no evidence of caring.

The fourth appendix, “The Sin of Cruelty” (1776 and 1992) by Humphrey Primatt, concerns the “proof of the goodness and providence of God” in providing us with the “brutes” (domestic animals) who are made to be dumb and senseless and strong so as to “be useful unto men.” This essay is a chilling reminder of a (to us) scarcely conceivable imbecility, invoked in the service of a good cause, which White had to deal with in many cases of superstition (that he encountered and countered with ridicule).

Finally, the fifth short appendix, William Paley's (1803) “Design in Shell-Bearing Animals” gives a glimpse of the then-rampant condescending gibberish on the alternative to adaptation that White faced (and that we still face), but for which he offered no alternative. White's restraint is exemplary, because there was, then, simply no alternative: he did not know what we now know. He stuck to the facts, rather than speculating.

I personally found those five short (total seven pages) appendices the most potent reminder of what White faced, and hence what kind of a man he was, and what he achieved. They speak volumes. Although Dadswell alludes to the British 18th-century intellectual background, I felt more could have been said explicitly to make his case. As it is, White is presented almost as though he were a behavioral biologist of the 21st century. That is understandable, however, because he would easily have fit in with behavioral ecologists today.

Dadswell wrote his book because he felt that, given what we now know (especially from behavioral work on birds over the past 50 years), Gilbert White had been misrepresented. Dadswell concludes:

White's recent successors may or may not have been aware of him—[but] they have re-run most of his inquiries and tried out most of his suggestions. In the process, they have shown him to be an extraordinary pioneer, and more than this, a largely justified one.

White helped pave the way for Darwin's insights on evolution (and earthworms) a century later, and for behavioral biology a century after that.

White considered his “the enlightened age,” as perhaps does every age. I suspect that, a century from now, we will have progressed as far in the consciousness-versus-automata debate as White's hypothesis of migration has progressed against the (then much more reasonable) hibernation-in-the-mud hypothesis—to which he kept an open mind—in the centuries since his death.

Bernd Heinrich "The Selborne Pioneer: Gilbert White as Naturalist and Scientist, a Re-examination," The Auk 121(1), 270-272, (1 January 2004).[0270:TSPGWA]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 January 2004
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