Deep Things Out of Darkness: A History of Natural History

By John Anderson

University of California Press, 2013. 

In the preface to this altogether remarkable book, John Anderson, the William H. Drury Professor of Ecology and Natural History at College of the Atlantic, relates how, as the sole undergraduate in a mammalogy course at Berkeley back in the 1970s, he came to his profession. Natural historians, Anderson learned, “got to go to interesting places, see beautiful things, meet unusual people, and ask endless questions.”

This enlightening and entertaining history of natural history bears Anderson out: many of the great figures of this discipline would fit in an Indiana Jones movie. Without advancing “an overarching thesis about the development of science or culture,” he seeks to resurrect some of these figures and the stories that “set the stage for modern ecological understanding.”

He succeeds and then some. Not only does Anderson describe the age of exploration, for example, he helps us relive it.

Anderson is expert at choosing elements of biography that bring to life the adventures—and misadventures—of his subjects,but he also offers insight into their motives, fears and challenges. His roster runs from Aristotle and Pliny up to Rachel Carson and E.O. Wilson, with special attention given to Linnaeus, Humboldt, and Darwin.

All along, Anderson describes the evolution of the study of natural history and how each individual added to the discipline in the search for a way to order organisms and species. Especially interesting is the shift from a religious/magic perspective on nature to one built on science. The motto of the Royal Society, founded in 1660, summed up this new attitude: Nullius in verba, “Take nobody’s word for it.”

Anderson has fun picking out those theories of natural history that proved to be far-fetched. For example, the British naturalist Mark Catesby suggested that migratory birds started their flight by “flying straight up until they reach an altitude from which they can see their destination and then simply glide down an inclined plane to reach it.”

Anderson is a natural historian of the first order himself, which gives this book a special perspective. He has managed several seabird research programs at College of the Atlantic, directing the tern reintroduction program on Petit Manan Island and overseeing the study of the colony of Leach’s Storm Petrels on Great Duck Island. He is a protégé of legendary COA professor William Drury, whose essays he edited for the book Chance and Change: Ecology for Conservationists (1998).

“This narrative is inevitably but a small and biased portion of the whole story of natural history,” writes Anderson, but he need not be defensive about his efforts. He has produced a lively survey and, in so doing, provided evidence of how natural history ultimately serves “as a basis for the appreciation and conservation of wild things, of wild places, and, ultimately, of ourselves.”

Carl Little’s most recent book is Irene Hardwicke Olivieri: Closer to Wildness (Pomegranate).