How the Great Chain of Being Fell Apart: Diversity in Natural History 1758-1859
Thema: La revue des Musées de la civilisation
Musées de la civilisation
In the historiography of the life sciences, the period around 1800 plays a crucial role as a watershed moment that saw the transition from natural history, which was focused on the description and classification of organisms, to the history of nature, which studied the temporal development of life on earth. In this essay, I will argue that this period saw crucial changes in the practices and institutions devoted to collecting information on plants and animals, changes that led to the demise of the ancient idea that nature’s products could be arranged on a scale of perfection from the lowest, most deprived forms of life to the highest, most complex and autonomous beings – a “Great Chain of Being,” as the historian of ideas Arthur O. Lovejoy put it. Instead, the diversity of life forms was increasingly perceived as fragmented and contingent, thus creating the conditions for the temporalization of life. The following essay attempts to outline some of the major conceptual developments in the history of natural history – the old-fashioned name for what today is hailed as “biodiversity research” – in the wake of the thorough reform to the way organisms were named and classified that was initiated by the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778). The paper presents first thoughts on this subject, and it is hence structured in a rather aphoristic manner. Section i presents some reflections on the concept of diversity and formulates the claim that diversity, as we know it today, includes the curious idea that it is something that can be measured or quantified. Sections ii to v then make some very general and sometimes perhaps overly apodictic claims about what I think happened in natural history around 1800. What follows (sections vi to ix) is a detailed case study drawn from this period in support of these claims. The last section (x) offers some tentative conclusions.
Vol. 2, pp. 85 - 95
Place of publication