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Abstracts for Cabinet of Natural History

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 (except for the seminar on Friday 14 February) at 1pm in Seminar Room 1. Please feel free to bring your lunch.

Organised by Jules Skotnes-Brown (jasb2).

Lent Term 2020

Show overview

20 January Peter J. Bowler (Queen's University Belfast)
'Home and colonial' wildlife literature around 1900
The topic of this paper derives from earlier studies of popular science literature around 1900 and focuses on natural history literature devoted to wildlife in colonies of the British Empire, especially India. The 'home and colonial' theme refers to the emergence of a British population in the colony large enough to sustain serious interest in the local wildlife – wildlife that was an everyday experience for them but which would seem exotic and exciting to readers back in Britain. The paper looks at the relationship between material published in Britain and the growing body of works aimed at expatriate readers and increasingly published in India. It also looks at the emergence of societies such as the Bombay Natural History Society, and the links between them and the publication of descriptions of big game hunting in India.
27 January Tamara Fernando (History, Cambridge)
Seeing like the sea: the pearl fishery of Ceylon as a maritime assemblage, 1799–1925
This paper argues that the pearl fishery of colonial Ceylon, which has featured in key economic and state-centric analyses of imperialism in South Asia, may also be read as a multi-species assemblage where the non-human – sharks, molluscs and bluebottle flies, for instance – have new causal and agential power to shape emergent capitalist forms. Importantly, however, this consideration of the non-human above and below the waves of the sea also compels the parsing apart of the 'human', revealing a system of multiple, overlapping regimes of labour. Thus, contrary to the model of Raubwirtschaft [plunder economy], which homogenises and flattens both the natural world and those who inhabit it, the fishery represents a tiered and variegated system where overseers, divers, and indentured workers interacted with and produced the ocean and its maritime occupants in independent but intersecting ways.
3 February Sarah Qidwai (University of Toronto)
Decolonising history of evolutionary biology: a perspective from 19th-century India
In an 1896 article in the Urdu journal Tahzib-ul-Akhlaq, titled 'Adna Halat se Aala Halat par Insaan ki Taraqqi' ('The Stages of Human Development from an Inferior to Superior State'), Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817–1898) wrote, 'the monkeys that exist today, orangutans and apes, are quite similar to humans in many ways. Darwin claims that middle chains are missing or extinct, but even if we found them, they would only prove similarities among kinds.' Here, Sayyid Ahmad refers to the English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–1882), not to discredit or defend Darwin's theory of evolution, but to support Sayyid Ahmad's own position on the topic, outlined in 'Adna Halat', that humans evolved over time from a common animal ancestor and this process is guided by a divine creator.

This talk examines questions related to Sayyid Ahmad's views on human evolution and its broader implications related to historians of biology. What is left out when historians use a term such as 'Darwinism' to represent the history of evolutionary biology? Does it create a Eurocentric narrative of evolutionary thought focused on a specific area? I will argue that Sayyid Ahmad's views on human evolution are not only important in how we write about the history of evolutionary biology, but also of the theories of human development from a non-Eurocentric perspective, in this case a Muslim in 19th-century India.
14 February
Jonathan Saha (University of Leeds)
Monkeys and modernity in colonial Myanmar
Animal studies scholars have long interrogated the ways in which definitions of what it means to be human have rested upon comparisons with animal others. As this work has shown, monkeys and apes have been pivotal in the history of these definitions. The taxonomical order of primate has been a site for much discussion over the place of humans within the animal kingdom, as well as the grounds for disputes over what constitute distinctively human traits. However, these are often Eurocentric narratives which examine the intellectual debates within Natural History as they played out in imperial scientific societies, publications and research institutions. In contrast, my paper focuses instead on a colonial context, looking particularly at more ephemeral, vernacular Burmese-language texts. It explores how Burmese, British and wider understandings of monkeys intermingled in early 20th-century Myanmar. Monkeys, it will be argued, were entangled with shifting discourse on Buddhism, modernity and nationalism. By focusing on Burmese anti-colonial thought, the paper expands the ambit of animal studies scholarship and carefully attempts to better align its concerns with those of postcolonial and decolonial critique.
17 February Chris Manias (King's College London)
Fossils in the Fayum: biogeography and colonial palaeontology in the 1900s
At the turn of the 20th century, European and American palaeontologists expanded their research into colonial regions. Partly this took advantage of imperial expansion, which formed a new context for natural history collecting, the increased influence of European and American museums, and the development of geological surveys. It was also connected with new scientific research agendas, with debates and researches on biogeography becoming a major scientific concern. This paper will examine one of the most high-profile instances where these areas intersected: the upsurge of palaeontological excavation in the Fayum in Egypt in the years around 1900. Expeditions from a range of countries and institutions, including the British Museum of Natural History in London, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the natural history of museums of Munich and Stuttgart, conducted excavations in the region, seeking to acquire Egyptian fossils and present them to public audiences in their home countries. This paper will examine how these expeditions interacted with one another, and operated through local intermediaries, geological institutions and excavators, as a case-study of the complex interrelations within colonial science in this period. Moreover, it will examine how the fossils collected during these projects were understood to revise dominant interpretations of evolutionary and biogeographic history. They seemed to show the ancestors of elephants, manatees, hyraxes and whales, as well as a range of stranger herbivorous and carnivorous mammals, and therefore filled important gaps in knowledge of life's history. In this way, this international colonial project drew off a sense of mystery and purpose, marking out Africa as a whole as an important centre of evolutionary development.
24 February Laura Brassington (HPS, Cambridge)
Darwin and the dog breeders: on correspondence and class in 19th-century Britain
In November 1870, a 'very happy, lazy & handsome' package travelled 400 miles from rural Fifeshire, Scotland, to King's Cross station in London. Tucked up in a little basket, 'Bran', the Scottish deer hound, was greeted at 9am in the busy metropolis by a servant, who took him to an inn and gave him some water, before accompanying him to Down House. Bran was sent to Charles Darwin by George Cupples (1822–91), a correspondent who introduced himself in his first letter to Darwin as 'an enthusiastic amateur-breeder of a special race of dogs'. At the time Darwin received Bran, Darwin was working on Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) and Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). Darwin's interest in deer-hounds stemmed from the fact that the sexes differed more in size than those of any other breed. In this talk, I will explore some of the themes from Darwin's correspondence with Cupples and a vast network of dog breeders, which encompassed a wide range of individuals from different social statuses in 19th-century Britain.
2 March Chris Wingfield (University of East Anglia)
Unicorn hunting? Ontologies and collecting in early 19th-century South Africa
This seminar will consider the nexus of relationships that developed around collecting on 'the missionary road' – a network of mission stations stretching north from the Cape, allowing Europeans access to the African interior. Focusing on the collections made by William Burchell, John Campbell and Andrew Smith, it will consider the complex interactions that developed between Africans and Europeans, the significance of guns in transforming local ecologies, and the implications this had for ontological framings of nature and culture.
9 March J'Nese Williams (Stanford University)
Building authority: botanical workers in the British Empire, 1770s to the 1820s
In the late 18th century, growing numbers of botanical workers toiled in government service across the British Empire. These naturalists interacted with people from many different social groups, both inside and outside the scientific community, as they managed botanic gardens or roamed to collect plants. Though backed by patrons in Britain, colonial naturalists lacked social status and found that patronage and appreciation of their skill did not always travel with them. Overcoming obstructive and sceptical local officials and elites was a persistent challenge. Because authority without elevated rank creates ambiguities, colonial naturalists were men out of place. This talk will explore how authority is built in the intertwined worlds of science and governance by uncovering how colonial naturalists carved out a space for botanical work in the empire.