Science blog

1 posts from July 2020

17 July 2020

Gilbert White's influence on science

18th July 2020 is the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of Gilbert White, the "parson-naturalist" best known for his pioneering work on the natural history and history of his parish of Sherborne, Hampshire. A number of posts are appearing on different British Library blogs to celebrate, but this post will discuss his influence on science to this day.

A stained glass window showing a man in a brown habit with a halo, in a country landscape surrounded by birds
Stained glass window commemorating White in Selborne church, showing St Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds. All the birds shown in the window are mentioned in White's writings. Photograph by Si Griffiths under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.


Prior to White's work most scientific biology was based around the study of dead or captive animals in scientists' studies. White, who has been described as "the first ecologist" preferred to observe the animals and plants around his home, over long periods of time. These practices inspired Charles Darwin, whose observations of the finches of the Galapagos Islands initially inspired his thoughts about evolution by natural selection. On a more popular scale, White's influence is seen by some as creating birdwatching as a hobby.

Although more laboratory-centric biologists have occassionally dismissed White-style naturalism as dilatanttish or twee, it has become increasingly important since the mid-twentieth-century, especially in the study of environmental conditions, and of animal behaviour - "ethology".

One of the oldest sites of long-term nature-observation studies in Britain has been Wytham Woods in Oxfordshire. Nicknamed the "laboratory with leaves", it was donated to Oxford University in 1942 by Colonel Raymond ffenell, although some observation had been carried out there since the 1920s. Colonel ffennell was a member of the wealthy and socially prominent German Jewish Schumacher family, who had become rich through his involvement in the South African gold-mining industry, and adopted his wife's surname to avoid anti-German prejudice during World War I. Ever since, a host of research projects have been carried out there on all kinds of animals and plants, as well as climate and soil conditions.

One of the most important discoveries to have been made through long-term environmental observation was the discovery of the damage caused to the environment by acid rain in North America, which came from Gene Likens' observational work at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire, beginning in the 1960s. 

A wooden cabinet containing scientific equipment, on a wooden stand, stands in a sun-dappled forest
Equipment cabinet at Hubbard Brook containing apparatus used for continuous monitoring of a stream's pH. Used non-commercially with permission of USDA Forest Service.


A listing of current long-term environmental observation sites is maintained by the International Long Term Ecological Research Network (ILTER) on their database DEIMS-SDR (Dynamic Ecological Information Management System - Site and Dataset Registry). See also the review article by Hughes and others with links to many examples.

The modern science of animal behaviour, or ethology, was developed in the 1930s by Nikolaas Timbergen, Konrad Lorenz, and Karl von Frisch. All three did most of their research on domestic or captive animals, but the discipline would later see the importance of long-term observation of the behaviour of wild animals in their natural habitats. Three of the most famous practitioners of this were the so-called "Trimates", known for their observations of wild apes - Jane Goodall with chimpanzees in Tanzania, Dian Fossey with gorillas in Zaire and Rwanda, and Birute Galdikas with orang-utans in Indonesia. Another example which has achieved fame outside science, although not yet enough, is Dave Mech's disproof, from observations of wild wolves in Minnesota, of the outdated "alpha wolf" model of social dynamics in wolf packs, which has influenced a great deal of beliefs about dog-training and even human interactions, but was derived from observations of what turned out to be disfunctional behaviour in captive animals.

It is also possible to follow in White's footsteps yourself, by taking part in a citizen science project based on observing nature in your garden or in your wider local area. The Countryside Jobs Network maintains a list of opportunities, which aren't just in rural areas.

We hope that you look a bit more closely at the nature around you this weekend!