skip to content

Department of History and Philosophy of Science


This research seminar is concerned with all aspects of the history of natural history and the field and environmental sciences. The regular programme of papers and discussions takes place over lunch on Mondays. In addition, the Cabinet organises a beginning-of-year fungus hunt and occasional expeditions to sites of historical and natural historical interest, and holds an end-of-year garden party.

Seminars are held on Mondays at 1pm in Seminar Room 2 unless otherwise stated.

For further details about upcoming events, or to be added to the mailing list for the Cabinet of Natural History, please contact Thomas Banbury (tjb98).

Lent Term 2024

22 January

Guillermo Willis (Warburg Institute)
Pierre Gassendi and monocular vision

In 1637, the French philosopher Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655) sought to console Galileo Galilei, who had recently lost sight in one eye, by proposing an unconventional idea: that distinct visual perception arises solely from the retinal image of a single eye. Between the 1630s and 1650s, Gassendi drew upon Epicurus's theory of matter to erect a natural philosophical framework that explained sensorial qualities only in terms of atoms and the void. This presentation delves into Gassendi's account of the causes of our perception of two visual qualities, magnitude and distance, as affected by monocular vision. I examine two of his propositions: first, that the left and right eyes possess dissimilar powers in the apprehension of visual species; and second, contrary to conventional knowledge, that the visual axes of both eyes run parallel through the visual field rather than converging at a focal point.

By analysing Gassendi's correspondence with Galileo Galilei and Fortunio Liceti, along with the portrayal of visual qualities that the French philosopher delivered in his later works, this talk explores the humanistic foundations of these stances on monocular vision and explains their significance towards validating visual perception in the seventeenth century, amidst the epistemological challenges resulting from the contemporary astronomical advances and the emergence of Cartesian optics.

29 January

Alex Aylward (University of Oxford)
A backwards book? Authorship, eugenics, and the evolution of R.A. Fisher's The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection

R.A. Fisher's The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, first published by Oxford's Clarendon Press in 1930, has a mixed legacy. Its opening chapters, analysing various evolutionary scenarios from a combined Darwinian-Mendelian perspective, are widely celebrated today for their role in laying the theoretical foundations of the so-called 'modern synthesis'. Its closing chapters, meanwhile, are notorious. Across more than one hundred pages, Fisher provides an extended meditation on eugenics, in which he attempts to explain the collapse of 'great' civilisations, past and present, in terms of the overzealous breeding of the 'undesirable' lower classes. In this talk I will examine how such a book of 'two halves' came to be. Drawing upon previously unstudied archival evidence, I will reconstruct the authorship of this now classic scientific text, overturning long-held ideas about the timing and order of the book's composition. Doing so not only reveals new insights about the writing and reading of evolutionary science between the Wars; it also recasts a decades-long scholarly dispute regarding the relationship between Fisher's eugenical commitments and his scientific contributions, at a moment when his legacies are being actively debated once more.

Wednesday 31 January

Hasok Chang (HPS, Cambridge)
Re-enacting past experiments: how and why

In recent decades 're-enactment' has become an accepted, even fashionable, mode of historical work. Building on the talk he gave in the Cabinet of Natural History series last year, Hasok Chang will consider different purposes that are served by different types of historical experiments (historical replication, physical replication, and extension). And then he will discuss his own line of work, which he calls 'complementary experiments', which seeks to recover lost scientific knowledge from the past and further extend what has been recovered. The discussion will be illustrated with cases from his current work on the history of 'battery science' in the 19th century. He will invite reflections from the audience on the functions of historical experiments for history of science, for science education, and for citizen science. (If there is demand, a follow-up hands-on workshop may be organised in the Easter Term.)

5 February

Zara Kesterton (Faculty of History, Cambridge)
Fashion in bloom: exploring the presence of artificial flowers in the credit records of an 18th-century French fashion merchant

In recent decades, historians have acknowledged the role that women played in shaping and disseminating scientific knowledge during the Enlightenment. Current scholarship also suggests that fashion was a means through which haptic, economic, and practical knowledge was shared among women. This paper focuses on one particular fashion accessory – the artificial flower – to explore its contribution to our understanding of women's knowledge of botany in 18th-century France. An analysis of the receipts preserved in the credit records of France's most famous fashion merchant, Marie-Jeanne [Rose] Bertin (1747–1813), demonstrates high levels of specificity in the flowers that women chose to adorn their outfits. Seventy-five different types of flowers are mentioned using their vernacular names, suggesting that knowledge about a wide variety of flowers was exchanged between fashion merchants and their clients during conversations about clothing. This paper therefore casts the fashion merchant's shop as a site of botanical knowledge generation and exchange.

12 February

Amelia Hutchinson (Faculty of History, Cambridge)
The Pomeranian Cabinet of Philipp Hainhofer

In 1617, the prolific Augsburg merchant, art agent, and diplomat Philipp Hainhofer wrote to his longstanding patron, Duke Philipp II of Pomerania-Stettin. He was reporting great news. The duke's vast and ornately furnished cabinet of curiosities was finally finished after seven years. But now Hainhofer faced the unenviable task of explaining the high costs and lengthy production time. The eloquent, art-loving broker was unerring. He had succeeded in making 'something princely and prestigious for such an art-savvy and art-loving prince', to which other princely cabinets were 'of no comparison'. Covered in cosmic iconography, filled with affective, powerful materials, and housing a distinct pharmaceutical section, the cabinet was intimately linked to the body: the body of its eventual owners; of the artisans who made it; and of the merchant who compiled it.

This paper focuses on the art cabinets produced by Philipp Hainhofer (1578–1647), whose ingenious and rare creations for princely clientele helped foster his reputation as an important cultural broker and diplomat during the first half of the seventeenth century. By examining notions of the macrocosmic and microcosmic universe and the perceived active properties of materials, this paper explores how bodily entanglements with materials influenced decision-making in the space of the cabinet. It argues that Hainhofer's own experience of corporeal health shaped the ways in which his cabinets came into being, connecting the bodies of geographically, socially and confessionally disparate actors. By directing attention towards health, sensation, and medicine, the material basis of the Pomeranian Cabinet is brought into sharp relief.

19 February

Mathias Grote (Universität Greifswald)
Planetary microbes: Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg, the agency and the politics of microbes, 1840s–1850s

Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg (1795–1876) researched living and fossil microbes (infusoria) from air, sediment or food samples. His discovery around 1840 that infusoria thriving in the Berlin underground would damage buildings caused an early microbe scare in public. Around 1848, Ehrenberg devoted his attention to 'blood' prodigies associated with the cholera, the basis of which he identified as an innocuous red microbe. Both cases allow us to grasp the goals of Ehrenberg's natural history of microbes: following up on Alexander von Humboldt, he aimed at a full picture of microbes' place in nature, such as in biological and geological processes, as well as for humans. What is more, understanding the context of his investigations in a time of political instability reveals a dimension of this story beyond historiography of microbiology: Ehrenberg's conservative-reformist perspective on materialism, religion and the state sheds new light on the relationship of science and politics in Prussia around 1848. Not least, Ehrenberg's mid-19th century arguments about the omnipresence and impact of microscopic life resonates with contemporary ecological debates about microbes' effects on geology or the climate.

26 February

David Lowther (University of Durham)

4 March

Arrianna Dalla Costa (Warburg Institute)
Medical diagnoses through geomancy in medieval and early modern Europe

11 March

Linda Andersson Burnett (Uppsala University)
Instructions for race-making: skull collecting at Edinburgh University's Natural History Museum

Eighteenth and 19th-century European empires abounded with natural-history instructions for travellers and colonial settlers on how best to organise travels, gather information, and collect and preserve specimens and artefacts. My presentation will focus on a set of instructions penned in 1817 by Professor Robert Jameson at the University of Edinburgh. The instructions were designed to encourage Britons overseas to collect for the university's natural history museum. Their contents ranged from technical guidance on how to preserve insects to recommendations about what to collect, such as the 'warlike instruments of different Nations and Tribes'. For Jameson, and many contemporaries, the study of mankind was an important part of the natural historian's remit. Jameson urged people to collect human remains and skulls in particular. During his museum stewardship a large number of skulls arrived from across the globe. Through an analysis of Jameson's instructions and his network of collectors, which encompassed a wide range of colonial actors, I will discuss the co-construction of 'race' during the first half of the 19th century.