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Title: The reverent eye : scientific visual culture and the origins of modern British zoology, 1815-1840
Authors: Lowther, David Andrew
Issue Date: 2016
Publisher: Newcastle University
Abstract: Between 1815 and 1840, decades of unprecedented social and political upheaval, the life sciences in Britain were transformed. What for centuries had been a single subject, natural history, fragmented into a set of related but distinct scientific disciplines, defined by their objects of investigation. This study focuses on one of them, zoology, and the ways in which its emerging, transitional practices and methodologies, prompted by the vast increase in empirical information, the emergence of new institutions, development of new audiences, and increasing colonial expansion, were codified and disseminated in some of the most stunning images ever created of life on earth. At the heart of this process was quinarianism, a now almost forgotten system of ordering the natural world which originated in the long-running and acrimonious ‘Species Debate’, the single most important issue in early-nineteenth century biology. Far from being a historical and scientific irrelevance, quinarianism was crucial to the institutional and methodological development of zoology in Britain. As developed by a small, politically-diverse group of zoologists centred upon the Linnean and Zoological Societies of London, it fused natural theology and continental Idealism in a powerful synthesis which, for twenty years, defined zoology as a British, imperial science, providing the institutional framework which made possible the great advances of the 1860s and 1870s. At a time when widespread unrest, calls for political reform, and imported European materialism seemed to threaten the stability of British society, the quinarian vision of a stable, divinely-ordained world was mobilised to both establish zoology as a discipline and promote a ‘safe’, hierarchical social order. Ornithology was one of the first biological disciplines to emerge from the broader natural history, and it was here that quinarianism made the greatest impact. It was also the most visual and ornithological works, from relatively cheap editions to the vast expensive folios of John Gould were copiously illustrated by well-known artists and engravers. These illustrated works have long been neglected as a historical resource, their images regarded as secondary to text as a source of scientific knowledge and often regarded purely on aesthetic grounds. To fully understand the genesis and appeal of quinarianism, it is crucial to consider these images not simply as art objects, but as sources of scientific authority within their wider context. Deploying an interdisciplinary methodology, and building upon recent studies by Lorraine Daston, Peter Galison, and Jonathan Smith, it is demonstrated here that, created through the manipulation of the visual conventions of natural history, images such as Gould’s were central to the epistemological and extrascientific agendas of early nineteenth-century zoologists, and crucial to our understanding of a formative, transitional period in British science that has long been shrouded in obscurity.
Description: PhD Thesis
Appears in Collections:School of History, Classics and Archaeology

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