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Peter Harrison “The Cultural Authority of Natural History in Early Modern Europe”

Harrison, Peter 2010. The Cultural Authority of Natural History in Early Modern Europe. – Denis R. Alexander; Ronald L. Numbers (eds). Biology and Ideology from Descartes to Dawkins. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 11-35.

[…] Thomas Moffett (1553-1604), who had played a role in editing Gesner’s work on insects, declared ants to be „exemplary for their great piety, prudence, justice, valour, temperance, modesty, charity, friendship, frugality, perseverance, industry, and art.” (20)

Close observation of insect behavior not only might reinforce conventional virtues but also had the potential to assist in the adjudication of such questions as whether monarchy or democracy was the more natural form of government. In The Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth (1660), the poet John Milton pointed to the organization of the ant colony as providing a clear sanction for parliamentary democracy. The polity of the „pismire” (ant), he declared: „evidently shews us, that they who think the nation undon wihtout a king, though they look grave and haughtie, have not so much true spirit and undestanding in them as a pismire: neither are these diligent creatures hence concluded to live in lawless anarchie, or that commended, but are set the examples to imprudent and ungoverned men, of a frugal and self-governing democratie or Commonwealth; safer and more thriving in the joint providence and counsel of many industrious equals, then under the single domination of one imperious Lord.” (21)

The fact is that the Cartesian hypothesis [of animals as non-sentient machines] was not widely accepted and, in any case, vivisectionists needed no dispensation from Descartes to sanction their activities. Many of those who subjected animals to unsavory procedures in vacuum chambers or on dissecting tables explicitly rejected the Cartesian view of animal insensitivity. (23)

[…] Descartes argued for a radical rupture in the hierarhy of being, positing a great gulf between human beings and all other earthly creatures – now imagined to be devoid of souls and sensations. He also rejected the idea that the behaviors of animals were analogous to our own and, indeed, attacked „reasoning by analogy” in the sciences more generally. (23)

[…] this element of Descartes’ thought is sometimes forgotten – body and soul in human beings were intimately conjoined. For this reason Descartes believed that investigation of the material and mechanical basis of animals’ inner drives – anger, aggression, fear, hunger, thirst, and so on – would lead to the discovery of therapeutic strategies that would assist human beings in the moral task of exerting control over the impulses and drives of their own mechanical bodies. (23)

„Pretext” is too strong a word, but perhaps the specter of infidelity and atheism provided a convenient way of justifying new ways of studying nature in the context of a social and intellectual climate that was not always hospitable toward novel scientific practices. […] Nieuwntijt’s emphasis on the use of exclusively modern sciences is intended to highlight the religious utility of those sciences in an era in which novelty and modernity were still not self-evidently positive qualities. (26)

The Cartesian philosopher Nicolas Malebranche observed that „one insect is more in touch with Divine wisdom than the whole of Greek and Roman history.” (26)

If the prevailing attitude toward learning in the early seventeenth century looked to promote self-knowledge and moral formation, proponents of the new sciences proposed the inclusion of additional goals, extending self-mastery to the mastery of nature, and insisting on the importance of practical applications of knowledge. Perhaps no seventeenth-century figure better exemplifies these tendencies that Francis Bacon (1561-1626) […]. Bacon insisted that „the improvement of man’s mind and the improvement of his lot are one and the same thing,” linking the accepted goal of learning – self improvement – with the broader goals that he had in mind for a reformed science of nature. (29)

Bacon believed that a systematic knowledge of the natural world would bring about „a restitution and reinvesting (in great part) of man to the sovereignty and power … which he had in his first state of creation.” Nature, he concluded, will be „at length and in some measure to the supplying of man with bread; that is, to the uses of human life.” (29)

Bacon’s insight that causal speculations and general conclusions must be grounded in large collections offacts was now widely acknowledged. If the natural sciences were to be grounded in systematic and objective observations of the world, natural history provided the first, and arguably most important, stage of the science of nature. Gradually this principle came to be enshrined in formal accounts  of the relationships among the natural sciences. The third edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1788-97) thus stated that „classification and arrangement is called NATURAL HISTORY, and must be considered as the only foundation of any extensive knowledge of nature.” (34)

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