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A N I M A L , V EG E TA BL E, M I N E RA L ?

How eighteenth-century science
disrupted the natural order


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For Philomena and John

This book grew out of a doctoral thesis and I would like to thank
the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Darwin Trust of
Edinburgh, and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge for support-
ing me during my doctoral studies and funding a significant
portion of the research on which this book is based. I am also
truly indebted to the Society of Authors whose generosity, in the
form of the Authors’ Foundation and K. Blundell Trust Awards,
allowed me to turn that thesis into this book.
Thanks too to Jim White, Joe Cain, and Jim Secord who,
respectively, introduced me to the delights of history of science,
history of the life sciences, and history of the eighteenth century. I
have been fortunate enough to be affiliated to Cambridge’s won-
derful Department of History and Philosophy of Science; many
thanks to all there who have influenced my ideas and writing, and
taken the time to read and comment on early drafts of some of
these chapters—especially Jim Secord, Seb Falk, and Nick Jardine.
I am also grateful to the staff of the Whipple and University
Libraries for their help in locating many an obscure text over
the years, and for providing such inspiring places of work.
At OUP, Latha Menon, Emma Ma, Jenny Nugee, Kate Gilks,
Carrie Hickman, Jackie Pritchard, Carolyn McAndrew, the anonym-
ous referees, and the rest of the team have been extremely helpful

in giving comments and advice on earlier versions of this work, and

shaping it into its final form.
Finally, thanks to Melanie, Katie, and Caitlin for their shared
interest in rock pools; to Irene for knowing I would write a book;
to Alexi for introducing me to the work of Matthew Darly; to all
at the Cambridge Literary Festival; to my ever-supportive family;
to Seb for endless encouragement; and to Ridley and Amos for
being my constant companions as I completed this manuscript.


List of Figures xi

. Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? 

. Animal: The Problem of the Zoophyte 

. Vegetable: The Creation of New Life 

. Mineral: Living Rocks 

. The Fourth Kingdom: Perceptive Plants 

. Epilogue 

Notes 
Bibliography 
Further Reading 
Index 

. The fifth day of creation: God creates the birds and the
fishes. From The Ashmole Bestiary, th century, England. 
MS Ashmole , fo. r. The Bodleian Libraries, The University
of Oxford.
. How to catch a unicorn. From a bestiary, th century,
England. 
MS Ashmole , fo.  . The Bodleian Libraries, The University of
. Abraham Trembley hunting for polyps in the grounds of
Sorgvliet with his two young students, Jean and Antoine.
From Abraham Trembley, Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire
d’un genre de polypes d’eau douce à bras en forme de cornes, . 
CC  Art. Seld., p. . The Bodleian Libraries, The University of
. Drawing showing two modes of polyp locomotion: (top)
through an inch-worm-like motion and (bottom)
through an extraordinary series of somersaults. From
Abraham Trembley, Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire d’un
genre de polypes d’eau douce à bras en forme de cornes, . 
CC  Art. Seld., Pl. , Mem I. The Bodleian Libraries, The University of


. A clustered animal-flower from the West Indies. This

creature had shared roots like a plant, but ate like an
animal. 
John Ellis, ‘An Account of the Actinia Sociata, or Clustered Animal-
Flower, Lately Found on the Sea-Coasts of the New-Ceded Islands: In a
Letter from John Ellis, Esquire, F. R. S. to the Right Honourable the Earl
of Hillsborough, F. R. S.’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 
( January ), –, plate XXX, figure . doi: ./rstl...
. An illustration of the Linnean sexual system of
classification. Plants were classified based on the number
of stamens in their flowers. The first class consisted of
plants which had flowers with a single stamen (first
column); the second class consisted of plants which had
flowers containing two stamens (second column); and so
on. Order was then determined based on the number of
pistils in a flower. The plant whose flower is shown in fig. 
would have been categorized as ‘class monandria, order
monogynia’. From Carl Linnæus, Systema natura, . 
Per.  d.  (), Carloli Linnæi, Classes S. Literai. The Bodleian
Libraries, The University of Oxford.
. The popularity of Linnæus’ classification system in
fashionable society meant that it was often satirized in
the popular culture of the day. Matthew Darly, The flower
garden, . This image shows flower beds, systematically
arranged according to a particular taxonomic system
(with their own gardener), atop an elaborate and over-
sized example of the kind of wig worn by society belles. 
Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/
Scala, Florence.


. Illustrations, based on dissections of chick eggs and

other embryos, showing the formation of new parts
in an embryo. From Caspar Friedrich Wolff, Theoria
generationis, , tab. II. 
 e. , TAB. I and II. The Bodleian Libraries, The University of
. A botanical description of the man plant. This racy and
highly sexualized description of a woman would have
been instantly recognizable to an eighteenth-century
reader as a satire of the Linnean method of describing
plants. The description was in Latin to protect female
readers from the cruder references. From Prof.
Vincent Miller, The Man Plant, or, scheme for increasing
and improving the British Breed, c., –. 
Douce G. (), p. . The Bodleian Libraries, The University of
. One of the many illustrations of the Mount Eivelstadt
fossils produced by Johann Beringer. It is unusual for
soft tissues to be fossilized, and particularly unusual to
see mineralized impressions of, for example, an insect
landing on a flower. From Johann Beringer, Lithographiae
Wirceburgensis, , plate VI. 
RR. X. , TAB. V. The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford.
. William Smith’s geological map of England and Wales,
which was made possible by the study of fossils within
strata, . 
Reproduced by permission of the Geological Society of London.
. The first European image of a Venus fly-trap. ‘Each leaf is
a miniature figure of a rat trap with teeth, closing on


every fly or other insect that creeps between its lobes,

and squeezing it to death.’ From John Ellis, A botanical
description of the Dionaea Muscipila, or Venus’s Fly-Trap, . 
Courtesy of Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Carnegie
Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA.
. This illustration shows the experimental set-up used by
Stephen Hales to prove that plants absorb and release
airs. From Stephen Hales, Vegetable Staticks, . 
Savile Hh , facing p. . The Bodleian Libraries, The University of

What is this earth and sea of which I have seen so much?
Whence is it produc’d? And what am I and all the other creatures,
wild and tame, humane and brutal? Whence are we?
Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 


Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?


A nimal, vegetable, or mineral: today, this is a simple parlour

game for children but in the eighteenth century it was a
problem that exercised some of the finest minds of Europe. The
question of distinguishing animal from plant from mineral may
seem like a straightforward one but in fact it can very quickly lead
to incredibly complex problems: how do we differentiate the
kingdoms? are there different kinds of life? how does generation
of life occur? What is life? It may be an easy task to say that an
elephant is an animal while an oak tree is a plant, but what is a
sponge, a coral, a Venus fly-trap, a fossil? These curious objects
seem to combine properties from across the animal, vegetable,
and mineral kingdoms and blur the lines between them. Today,
we have developed an agreed set of rules for establishing an object’s
kingdom, but it wasn’t always so. The problem really came to a
head in the eighteenth century: this was a time when some very
strange creatures became known to naturalists; when better tools
like microscopes enabled naturalists to make more minute exam-
inations of natural objects; when a classification craze was sweep-
ing across Europe; and when Enlightenment culture was
encouraging people to rethink old ideas. This combination of


factors led naturalists to ask hard questions about how we know

whether or not something is alive, and what kind of life it pos-
sesses. These questions—so fundamental, yet so complicated—
puzzled men of science. In the wider world, their answers had the
power to incite tremendous controversy about the role of God in
the universe and about the natural order of society.
The eighteenth century was a time of Enlightenment, of empire,
and of industrialization. Social, political, economic, and scientific
changes were happening at a faster pace than ever before. Agricul-
tural societies became urban societies, farm labourers became
factory employees, new wealth was created and distributed in
different ways, Enlightenment ideas began to roll out of Germany
and France to reshape the intellectual landscape of all Europe,
empires expanded their reach into ever-further corners of the
globe, and revolutionary ideas began to ferment. These changes
were intricately interlinked, each having complex and unforeseen
repercussions across society. Naturally, they were also keenly felt
by the scientific community of the day. Increased exploration and
the expansion of European empires brought Europeans into con-
tact with peoples they had never met before, with new terrains,
new languages, new customs, and, of course, new species of plants
and animals. The mass move from rural to urban settings changed
man’s relationship with, and view of, nature. New wealth allowed
some groups more leisure time, and made scientific books and
instruments more accessible to a larger section of society. Indus-
trialization necessitated new technologies and fostered bold innov-
ations. The Enlightenment movement encouraged learning and
rational discourse, and opened the scientific world to new audi-
ences. And revolutionary sentiments allowed people to question
traditional beliefs about God, society, and nature.


This colourful century saw the creation of everything from the

piano to the steam engine, steel to the smallpox vaccination.
Simultaneous European discoveries of new celestial bodies in
our solar system and of remote Pacific islands showed how
much of the world was still to be explored and how many
questions about the natural world were still unanswered. The
search for these answers was set against the backdrop of the
music of Bach and Mozart, the poetry of Pope and Goethe,
the philosophies of Kant and Rousseau, the inventions of Watt
and Newcomen, the teachings of Smith and Hume, the courts of
the Hanoverians and the Bourbons, the revolutionary zeal of
Washington and Robespierre, the writings of Casanova and
Swift. The eighteenth century was an exciting time not just for
music, literature, or politics, but also for the sciences: Isaac New-
ton’s work on gravity, motion, optics, and calculus had inspired
new generations to devote themselves to the study of physics and
mathematics; demonstrations of the dazzling new science of
electricity attracted hundreds of spectators; chemistry, sometimes
just as spectacular as electricity, was unearthing new elements at
an astonishing rate; astronomy, powered by ever-more sophisti-
cated telescopes, caught the public imagination as high-profile
astronomers tracked the transit of Venus or discovered new
planets like distant Uranus; the life sciences exploded as strange
new creatures were brought back to Europe from distant lands
and tales of heroic exploration abounded.
This vibrant scientific milieu was the perfect breeding ground
for hard questions about how the world worked. Men of science,
particularly naturalists who focused on studying the animal,
vegetable, and mineral kingdoms, strove to uncover the secrets
of nature.1 One of the most basic questions for a naturalist


was: how were the natural kingdoms arranged? Had God

imposed a particular order on them, clearly separating animal
from vegetable? If so, how could humans begin to make sense of
this order and find workable definitions of the different king-
doms? Or was it possible, as some were beginning to suggest,
that there were no clear-cut boundaries between the natural
kingdoms and that God was far less involved in the regulation
of nature than previously believed? The stories in this book—
which feature strange creatures like Abraham Trembley’s somer-
saulting polyps, Lazzaro Spallanzani’s smartly trousered frogs, or
Jean André Peyssonnel’s blossoming corals—show how appar-
ently straightforward investigations into particular species could
quickly spiral into complex and nuanced philosophical debates
about the very meaning of life. But before we meet these eight-
eenth-century luminaries of the life sciences, we must understand
the developments that led to their work.

Aristotle’s animals
It is impossible to understand eighteenth-century life sciences
without an appreciation for the work of one central figure: Aris-
totle. More than anyone else, this man shaped the study of nature.
From his own lifetime in the fourth century BC right up until the
time of Charles Darwin in the nineteenth century, Aristotle’s teach-
ings were considered of primary importance to any student of the
natural world. Every character who appears in this book had read
Aristotle’s animal writings, and so it seems appropriate to start
where they started—with an understanding of Aristotle.
Aristotle was born in  BC in the northern Greek town of
Stagira to a wealthy and well-educated family. His father,


Nicomachus, was the personal physician to King Amyntas III of

Macedon, which may explain Aristotle’s interest in anatomy and
the natural sciences, as well as his later connections with the
Macedonian royal family. Nicomachus died when Aristotle was
young and so he was raised by his uncle before being sent to
Athens in  BC to study at Plato’s elite Academy. Aristotle spent
twenty years at the Academy where he developed an eclectic
array of research topics: his books tackled subjects as diverse as
physics, poetry, metaphysics, justice, rhetoric, the soul, pleasure,
astronomy, magnets, the River Nile, Olympic victors, political
theory, plants, and animals. Not all of these books survive
today, but of the ones that do, a quarter concern studies of living
The exact order in which Aristotle’s books were written is still a
mystery, but there is tentative agreement among historians that
he did much of his research into plants and animals when he was
in his thirties and forties. In  BC, Aristotle left Athens—his
reasons are unknown but he may have been forced to flee due to
political strife—and sailed east across the Aegean Sea with a few
companions from the Academy. They landed in Atarneus (now
in Turkey), which sits on the mainland opposite the Island of
Lesbos; here, Hermias, the local ruler, took them in. Aristotle
remained on this picturesque stretch of coast for two or three
years and cemented his friendship with Hermias by marrying his
daughter Pythias. After a few years of studying the coastline and
its inhabitants, Aristotle sailed across the strait to Mytilene on
Lesbos. There, he continued making observations of wildlife and
landscape; his favourite location for natural history fieldwork
seems to have been the peaceful lagoon at Pyrrha (now Kalloni)
but place-names from all over the eastern Aegean appear in his


work showing that he travelled extensively in search of new

knowledge. After his years on Lesbos, Aristotle sailed north-
west to his birthplace of Stagira and remained there until, in
 BC, he was summoned inland to Mieza by King Philip II of
Macedon to act as tutor to his teenage son Alexander—a boy who
would later become known to the world as Alexander the Great.
Despite his success and popularity in Macedon, Aristotle could
not resist the lure of Athens and returned there in  BC to set up
a school of his own—the Lyceum—where many of his books
were completed.
Five of his books about animals have survived: History of animals
(—æ Æ ÇøØÆ ØæØø); Parts of animals (—æ Çø æø);
Movement of animals (—æ Çø ŒØ
ø ); Progression of animals
(—æ Çø æÆ ); and Generation of animals (—æ Çø
ª ø ). We know from references by Aristotle and other
ancient writers that he also wrote books on anatomy, dissection,
and plants but no known copies of these works remain in exist-
ence. The books vary in character and display the breadth of
Aristotle’s knowledge: History of animals is a masterpiece of empiri-
cism and unbiased observation while Parts of animals takes a more
philosophical view of the animal world and Generation of animals is
an exquisite study of causation in nature. Details of how and
when the texts were written are sketchy. It has been suggested
that History of animals might be, in part, a compilation of teaching
notes and that some sections may have been contributed by
Aristotle’s colleagues or students at the Lyceum. It is probable
that History of animals and Parts of animals were written simultan-
eously and informed each other, while Generation of animals was
written later. Uncertainties about the writing of the books are
further compounded by the work of later editors and translators


who wrought subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) changes to the

Aristotle’s work was well known to his educated Greek con-
temporaries and remained important to scholars in the Roman
world who could have read it in its original language. But more
than  years elapsed between Aristotle’s death and the fall of
the Roman Empire, and in that time countless changes may have
been made to the manuscripts as they were copied and passed
from scholar to scholar. Further changes probably occurred as
the manuscripts were translated out of the original Greek: the
Aristotelian texts that have survived to the present day have done
so thanks to three particular waves of translation. The first began
around the time of the fall of the Roman Empire with Nestorian
(or Eastern) Christians in Asia Minor translating some of Aris-
totle’s works into Syriac—a project that continued through the
fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries AD. Then followed the
second wave of translation which saw the texts move from
Syriac or Greek to Arabic. Two of the most significant figures
in this movement were Abu Yahya Ibn al-Batriq and Abu Ja’far
Abdullah al-Ma’mun Ibn Harun. Ibn al-Batriq was a Syrian
physician, scholar, and translator working in the years around
. As a physician, Ibn al-Batriq took a particular interest in
Aristotle’s animal books and it is known that he translated
History of animals, Parts of animals, and Generation of animals into
Arabic. Al-Ma’mun was an Abbasid caliph who reigned from
Baghdad between  and . In the Bayt al-Hikma (or House
of Wisdom) in Baghdad, he gathered together scholars from
all over the known world as well as the most famous manu-
scripts and set about translating some key works of Aristotle
into Arabic.


The final wave of translation saw the Aristotelian corpus move

from Arabic to Latin. This movement was at its height in Sicily,
southern Italy, and Spain in the twelfth century. Sicily and south-
ern Italy had been under Islamic rule from the tenth century while
Spain had been ruled by the Moors from the eighth century; this
meant that scholars in these areas could learn Arabic as well as
Latin and, crucially, that they had access to texts that didn’t exist
anywhere else in Europe. As Islamic influence receded and Chris-
tianity prevailed, scholars began the work of translating manu-
scripts from Arabic to Latin. In Spain, under the patronage of the
archbishop, the movement centred in Toledo. It was to Toledo
that the brilliant Scottish scholar Michael Scot went to learn
Arabic, and began his translations of Aristotle’s animal books,
completing this project by about . Scot’s translation was
widely read by scholars, and it was through it that many Euro-
pean readers approached the animal books for the first time.
Indeed, some of our eighteenth-century gentlemen of science
probably read versions of Aristotle’s texts that could be traced
back to Michael Scot’s work.
But what did these readers find when they opened a copy of
one of Aristotle’s animal books? The books were the earliest
known attempt in Europe to observe and describe the individual
living being in a disinterested way; they discussed almost every
known animal from the mundane (cows, sheep, pigs, dogs, ducks,
pigeons, bees) to the exotic (elephants, camels, and crocodiles).
Thanks to his many years spent on the Aegean coast, Aristotle
was especially knowledgeable about the mysterious world of
marine animals. The books covered such topics as the compos-
ition of animals, their anatomies, their classification, their habitats
and modes of life, their behaviour, their various characters, their


diets, and their relationships to their surroundings. The books

also delved deeper and discussed the definition of an animal, the
purpose of an animal, the processes by which an animal comes
into being, and what Aristotle termed the ‘causes’ of animals. Each
book is concerned with a different aspect of zoology: in History of
animals, Aristotle set out to write a comprehensive and impartial
study of the natural world using only his own observations, or
those of trusted informants;2 in Parts of animals and Generation of
animals, Aristotle moved away from pure empiricism and sought
not just to describe the natural world as it is at the present
moment, but also considered how that world had come to be.
This interest in bigger questions took Aristotle’s work from the
physical to the philosophical.
Aristotle wished to distance himself from the earlier, pre-
Socratic philosophers who had believed in a purely material
world, seeking to explain all natural beings and events solely in
terms of their matter; for Aristotle, the world was full of purpose
and discovering this purpose was central to his philosophy. In
animals (and plants, and man) this purpose was driven by a soul,
and the soul needed to inhabit a material body in order to fulfil its
purpose. Therefore, one could learn much about the animal soul
by studying the animal body. The soul drove the development of
the animal and shaped its final form, doing so in such a way to
benefit the animal and ensure it had a certain place in the world.
The soul conferred these benefits by ensuring that the animal
could sense danger and react to it, find food and shelter, and find a
mate. Studying these elements of animal behaviour could there-
fore tell one a lot about the desires of the soul. Aristotle compared
the soul to a builder who intends to build a house: the builder
begins with the notion of a house and thinks about the essential


attributes of a house—the final notion of a functional house

guides every step of his building process. The soul does the
same when directing the formation of the animal body. So Aris-
totle’s animals are teleological: processes are always directed
towards a final end.
The soul somehow imbued brute matter with some special
property that made it ‘alive’. In Parts of animals, Aristotle wrote: ‘a
corpse has the same shape and fashion as a living body; and yet it
is not a man . . . the eye or the hand (or any other part) of a corpse
is not really an eye or a hand . . . when its soul is gone, it is no
longer a living creature, and none of its parts remain the same,
except only in shape.’3 Material alone could not make life, the soul
was essential. Animals, then, were a composite of matter and
soul. Aristotle believed that the soul was provided by the father,
and the matter by the mother. Though to us the idea of a soul has
religious connotations, Aristotle did not intend it that way. Many
of his contemporaries attributed natural occurrences to the
actions of the gods but Aristotle wished to minimize the role of
the gods in explanations of nature and so sought a purely natural
cause for change. The soul was his answer. It is akin to what we
might call the ‘nature’ or ‘essence’ of an animal, or what Aristotle
also titled the ‘final cause’.
‘Causes’ were central to Aristotle’s philosophy. He believed that
everything that existed had come to be due to the action of four
causes: the final cause; the motive (or efficient) cause; the formal
cause; and the material cause. For example, a horse might come
to be due to the four causes acting in the following way: the
motive cause is supplied by the father whose seed sets off
the process of development; the material cause is supplied by
the mother who provides physical matter and nourishment; the


formal cause ensures that the development processes result in a

correctly formed horse; and the final cause represents the end to
which the whole process is devoted—the perfect, adult horse.
Alongside Aristotle’s more abstract philosophical arguments
sat concrete examples to illustrate them. When Aristotle raised
the question ‘what is an animal?’ in the early pages of History of
animals, he turned to real flesh and blood animals, rather than
abstractions, to find an answer. In order to be called an animal, a
being needed a digestive system, a reproductive system, blood (or
a similar fluid) and blood vessels, a sense of touch, and the ability
to move.4 Aristotle dedicated much of History of animals to
minutely detailed descriptions of these attributes in real animals.
We know that he used techniques such as dissection and even
vivisection, in addition to observation, to obtain some of his
results. As far as possible, he took nothing on faith, often disput-
ing the methods and results of previous naturalists, and encour-
aged others to do the same. Aristotle’s descriptions of his
investigations are extremely graphic, indicating that he really
did undertake much dissection work himself—he commented
on the smell of a lion’s innards, the best method of strangling a
beast if you want to preserve its blood vessels, and the way a
chameleon’s heart kept beating during vivisection. He acknow-
ledged that such procedures could be distasteful but urged natur-
alists to persevere with them in their pursuit of knowledge.
Where Aristotle couldn’t carry out research himself, he relied
on an array of animal specialists for information: farmers, herds-
men, hunters, beekeepers, fishermen, and travellers. There is even
a legend that his one-time student, Alexander the Great, sent
reports of exotic beasts from the Far East to his old teacher. The
result is that History of animals is packed with a wealth of detail that


ensured that Aristotle’s philosophical musings were always

grounded in cases of real animals. Here is an amorous octopus,
there is a snoring dolphin, a scallop rushes past with a funny
whizzing sound, while over on dry land a young elephant is
figuring out how to use its trunk. In addition to vivid descriptions,
Aristotle’s manuscripts contained illustrations, but sadly none of
his original drawings have survived.
Aristotle did not give a detailed study of every aspect of every
animal as there was so much overlap between different species.
Thinking that such a methodology would be dull and repetitive
for himself and his reader, he studied common characteristics
across species instead—he wrote lucidly on general themes such
as growth, respiration, locomotion, sleep, death, and decay
(though individual species did get a special place in Aristotle’s
writings when they possessed a particularly unusual feature). As
this approach might suggest, Aristotle was not primarily inter-
ested in classifying animals. He used common-sense classifica-
tions to distinguish ‘natural’ groups such as fish, birds,
quadrupeds, and insects. Sometimes he found it useful to classify
animals based on their habitats—does the animal live in water, on
land, or in the air? Within this, he acknowledged discrepancies
such as water animals which could walk (e.g. crabs) or land
animals which could fly (e.g. bats), but he was little concerned
with minutely technical classification. He struggled to assign seals
and dolphins to a single group as they lived in water but could
breathe air. Sometimes he grouped animals based on their
appearance—do they have feathers, fins, scales, fur? or on their
physiology—do they have true blood, do they lay eggs?
Rather than rely on a rigid classification system, Aristotle
preferred the idea of a chain of being. At the bottom of this


chain were plants which, with their vegetative souls, were capable
of growing and reproducing but could not move, feel, or think.
Above plants were animals. In addition to being able to grow and
procreate, animals could move about, sense their environments,
and digest food. At the top of the chain was man who, in addition
to all of the animal attributes, was possessed of a rational mind.
Within the chain of being, an animal’s position might move up or
down according to factors such as whether it bore live young or
laid eggs, and whether it could breathe air. There were also
‘imperfect’ animals such as fishes which had fins instead of arms
or legs, and the seal which had flippers instead of ‘proper’ limbs—
these were moved down the scale according to the degree of their
‘imperfection’. And there were occasional anomalies which Aris-
totle could not neatly classify as plants or animals, including
shellfish and molluscs (a group known as testacea). He wrote:
‘The Testacea stand alone midway between animals and plants
and so, as being in both groups, perform the function of neither:
as plants they do not have male and female and so they do not
generate by pairing; as animals they bear no fruit externally like
that borne by plants.’5 Marine animals, which Aristotle had stud-
ied extensively during his years on the Aegean coast, were most
susceptible to acting like plants. Sponges, for example, were said
to have roots like plants, but also to have a sense of touch like an
animal. Humans, in their embryonic phase, were compared to
plants as they absorbed nutrients from their mothers as a plant
does from the soil.
Even when they overlapped, plants and animals did things
differently. Aristotle believed that animals reproduced sexually
while plants did not. Indeed, the idea of sexual reproduction was
central to his understanding of the purpose of an animal. As we


have seen, in Aristotle’s theory of sexual reproduction, the

mother supplied the matter of the offspring while the father
provided the soul. The male, who was naturally hotter and more
perfect than the female, concocted a substance composed of
pneuma and water that had the power to transfer certain motions
to female matter and so begin the process of forming an embryo.
Pneuma was a kind of spirit, resembling ether, which was linked to
the soul. Quite how this male seed and female matter were created
was a topic of some debate. Aristotle refuted the older theory of
pangenesis which said that children resembled their parents
because the seed and matter that formed them were produced by
representative particles from all over the parents’ bodies. This was
too materialistic for Aristotle’s tastes. Instead, he preferred to think
of essences being concocted and passed on to the offspring.
Sexual reproduction was only available to animals who had the
power of locomotion, as that power was necessary for male and
female animals to meet. For that reason, plants and the lower
animals like shellfish were excluded from this mode of reproduc-
tion. When sexual reproduction was not an option, an animal
might have to rely on spontaneous generation for the continu-
ation of its species. Different species were generated in different
materials, as Aristotle explained: ‘all the testacea arise by spon-
taneous generation in mud, though they exhibit differences
according as the mud differs: in slimy mud oysters grow, in
sandy mud cockles . . . on the eroded hollows of rocks the tethya,
barnacles, and the commoner kinds such as limpets and nerites.’6
Aristotle believed that spontaneous generation occurred when
the air, acting as a vital force, imparted a motion to putrescent soil
or mud. Thus the air acted like a father to supply initial motion
and the earth, like a mother, supplied matter.


The idea of spontaneous generation persisted until the eight-

eenth century, with naturalists frequently referring back to Aris-
totle’s works. In fact, many of Aristotle’s ideas about the natural
world endured for millennia after his death. The idea that animals
can be distinguished from plants by characteristics like motion,
sensation, and digestion is still taught in schools today. The great
French professor of natural history Georges Cuvier (–)

Aristotle, right from the beginning, also presents a zoological

classification that has left very little to do for the centuries after
him. His great divisions and subdivisions of the animal kingdom
are astonishingly precise, and have almost all resisted subsequent
additions by science.7

While a young English naturalist named Charles Darwin

(–), who was formulating a new way to explain the devel-
opment of living things, wrote in one of his notebooks: ‘read
Aristotle to see whether any [of] my views very ancient?’8 A few
decades later, reading a new translation of Aristotle’s History of
animals, Darwin wrote to the translator:

From quotations which I had seen I had a high notion of Aris-

totle’s merits, but I had not the most remote notion what a
wonderful man he was. Linnæus and Cuvier have been my two
gods, though in very different ways, but they were mere school-
boys to old Aristotle.9

As well as Aristotle’s philosophical ideas about the natural world,

his method of close, careful, unbiased observation shaped natural
history for the next , years, and is still considered a key
element of the natural sciences today. Some of Aristotle’s obser-
vations were not repeated until centuries later: it was in the seven-
teenth century that Niels Stenson (known as Steno, –)


became the first person since Aristotle to see that the dogfish gives
birth to live young; and in the nineteenth century, Cuvier redis-
covered the octopus’s hectocotylus (a special mating tentacle) that
Aristotle had once described. But perhaps more than anything else,
Aristotle’s teleological worldview was his most significant legacy.
The idea that plants, animals, and minerals had been created for a
purpose influenced European studies of nature for hundreds of
years. End-directed development was a central theme in most
studies of life-forms until Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural
selection allowed naturalists to see the development of life as a
random process with no particular aim in mind. Today, many are
uncomfortable with this idea of an undirected nature and so
seek out teleological explanations for the world around them.
Even scientists who don’t believe in teleological explanations
often use teleological language as shorthand to explain an idea:
thus a particular part of an animal’s body is said to exist for a
particular reason. But though some of his beliefs are no longer
current, still Aristotle remains the single most influential natur-
alist in history and we shall see that influence throughout
this book.

Natural history in the ancient world

Between Aristotle and the emergence of the modern life sciences
lie , years of careful and detailed investigation, bold theor-
izing, new discoveries, and, occasionally, wild speculation.
A current view of knowledge-creation is that with each successive
year, we know more about the world than before. But this has not
always been the case: in medieval and early-modern times many
thought that with each passing year they lost a little bit of the


knowledge that the ancients had once had. And so ancient texts
were revered. Though the high esteem in which ancient sources
were once held had waned significantly by the eighteenth century,
there was still a regard for ancient authorities which we have lost
today. Most of our eighteenth-century naturalists looked back to
their predecessors with respect and admiration (and a knowledge
of classical languages), and their legacy formed the background to
studies of life in the eighteenth century.
Aristotle’s heir at the Lyceum was his friend and colleague
Theophrastus (c.–c. BC). The two had met while Aristotle
was working on the eastern coast of the Aegean and they trav-
elled and studied together for several years. Theophrastus was the
author of two books that perfectly complemented Aristotle’s
animal books: History of plants (—æ çı æÆ) and Causes
of plants (—æ çı ÆØ). Just as many consider Aristotle to
be the father of zoology, Theophrastus could be called the father
of botany. History of plants was written in ten books, of which nine
survive; these books dealt with the parts of plants, plant repro-
duction, when best to sow and reap different plants, the uses of
particular plants and trees, herbs and edible plants, and useful
plant products. Plants were grouped according to a range of
factors including practical uses, mode of reproduction, favoured
environment, and size. The six surviving books of Causes of plants
touched on some of the same material, and also included detailed
discussions on how plants grow and reproduce. Alongside Aris-
totle, Theophrastus is the most frequently cited Greek source in
eighteenth-century works of natural history; and, as botany
underwent a fashionable revival and questions about classifying
plants grew more heated, his work remained relevant until the
nineteenth century.


Moving forward several hundred years from the Greek world

to the Roman one, we meet Lucretius (?–? BC). Lucretius, the
author of a philosophical poem titled De rerum natura (The nature of
things), was inspired by the beliefs of the earlier Greek philosopher
Epicurus (?– BC). Epicurus taught that the world was a
completely material place where all events could be explained
by the existence of atoms.10 Taking Epicurean philosophy as his
starting point, Lucretius could not bring himself to believe in the
kind of teleological explanations that Aristotle had advocated.
Instead he claimed that only atoms and the void exist and argued
for completely natural, god-free explanations for all events on
earth. Lucretius gave an account of the creation of life inspired by
these natural principles: first the earth and heavenly bodies were
created from atoms moving and colliding at random, next plants
appeared, and then the quadrupeds and birds were born from
wombs in the earth:

In the beginning, earth gave forth, around

The hills and over all the length of plains,
The race of grasses and the shining green;
The flowery meadows sparkled all aglow
With greening colour, and thereafter, lo,
Unto the divers kinds of trees was given
An emulous impulse mightily to shoot,
With a free rein, aloft into the air.
As feathers and hairs and bristles are begot
The first on members of the four-foot breeds
And on the bodies of the strong-y-winged,
Thus then the new Earth first of all put forth
Grasses and shrubs, and afterward begat
The mortal generations . . .
. . . First of all, the race
Of the winged ones and parti-coloured birds,
Hatched out in spring-time, left their eggs behind;


As now-a-days in summer tree-crickets

Do leave their shiny husks of own accord,
Seeking their food and living. Then it was
This earth of thine first gave unto the day
The mortal generations; for prevailed
Among the fields abounding hot and wet.
And hence, where any fitting spot was given,
There ’gan to grow womb-cavities, by roots
Affixed to earth. And when in ripened time
The age of the young within (that sought the air
And fled earth's damps) had burst these wombs . . .11

Each step in the process happened due to physical triggers; no

god shaped these developments, nor did the developments occur
with a final aim in mind. Lucretius’ aim wasn’t to give the kind of
detailed account of living beings that some other writers pro-
duced; instead, he wanted to give a wide-ranging view of a nature
driven only by the physical effects of atoms. De rerum natura was
popular in Lucretius’ own lifetime, and possibly for several cen-
turies after his death. It was then forgotten for several hundred
years until a manuscript was rediscovered by the papal secretary
Poggio Bracciolini in a German monastery in the fifteenth cen-
tury. This rediscovery ignited a new interest in materialism,
atomism, and atheism and, according to some, may have been
one of the key texts behind the Renaissance.12
Another Roman writer whose natural history books remained
influential into more modern times was Pliny the Elder (–).
Pliny was a well-off Roman living in the first century AD. His
successful military career led him to travel throughout the lands
of the Roman Empire and it was probably while campaigning in
Germany in the s that Pliny began writing books on how best
to throw a javelin while riding a horse, and on the history of the
Roman–Germanic wars (neither has survived). Over the next


twenty years followed books on grammar and rhetoric before

Pliny began his magnum opus—Naturalis historia. Pliny himself
described how he had written this encyclopedic work:

I have included in thirty-six books , topics, all worthy of

attention . . . gained by the perusal of about  volumes, of
which a few only are in the hands of the studious, on account
of the obscurity of the subjects, procured by the careful perusal of
 select authors; and to these I have made considerable add-
itions of things, which were either not known to my predecessors,
or which have been lately discovered. Nor can I doubt but that
there still remain many things which I have omitted; for I am a
mere mortal, and one that has many occupations. I have, there-
fore, been obliged to compose this work at interrupted intervals,
indeed during the night, so that you will find that I have not been
idle even during this period.13

For Pliny, the , topics to be covered included not only

animals, vegetables, and minerals, but also astronomy, mathem-
atics, geography, ethnography, anthropology, physiology, medi-
cines, magic, agriculture, horticulture, and the arts. About
two-thirds of the written sources Pliny used were by Greek
authors, with the remainder by Roman authors. Pliny certainly
read Aristotle and cited some examples directly from his History of
animals, such as the story of a dolphin’s mouth being placed
underneath its head so that it finds it difficult to feed, thus
checking its natural desire to overeat. Like Aristotle, Pliny relied
on the knowledge of farmers, fishermen, and craftsmen to supply
some of the details of his work. The result is a richly detailed and
highly readable description of the natural world.
The  books which form the Naturalis historia began with a book
which is a lengthy dedication to Titus, the son of Pliny’s good friend
Emperor Vespasian. Then follows a book on astronomy and


meteorology, four books on geography and ethnography, one

book on anthropology and human physiology, four books on
zoology, sixteen books on botany, five books on medicines,
magic, and water, and finally five books on minerals, mining, and
the arts. The work was probably begun in the early half of the s
and finished by about . We know from Pliny’s nephew, Pliny the
Younger, that the task of compiling all this information necessi-
tated the employment of a reader and a secretary who accompan-
ied Pliny everywhere and whom he supplied with a ‘particular sort
of warm gloves’ in the winter so they would be able to work even in
the cold. Pliny rarely took a break from work—he often worked
through the night and even had his reader read to him as he
bathed.14 Copies of the book probably began circulating in ;
but Pliny’s plans to revise the text were never completed as he died
while trying to rescue a friend from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius
that engulfed Pompeii in August .
Naturalis historia was intended as a work of fact, not a work of
theory, so, unlike Aristotle, Pliny did not spend any time discuss-
ing the possible definitions of animals or plants. He wasn’t inter-
ested in causes, rather in the useful information that one might
gain from studying particular parts of nature. For this reason, he
dedicated large sections of the text to discussing animals like dogs
and horses, to trees that provided high-quality timber, to shrubs
that could be used for dyeing, to grapes that produced good wine,
and to bees who provided not only honey, but a model of how
members of a society can function together for the greater good.
Pliny wanted to understand plants, animals, and minerals in
relation to man—which ones were useful and which were harm-
ful? Which ones could teach man moral lessons? Pliny believed
that nature had been created for the good of man (specifically


Roman man), and that almost every creature had some kind of
providential aim. This was an active nature that could make long-
term plans, it was also (like Aristotle’s nature) highly teleological.
Almost everything had been created for a reason, and that reason
was usually linked to a benefit for man.
Comparing Pliny’s and Aristotle’s discussions of animal repro-
duction shows two very different approaches. Where Aristotle
concerned himself with causes, and with careful consideration of
the soul, of essence, of form, of matter, of the role played by each
parent, Pliny simply listed how many young different species
produced, and at what time of year. Or compare Aristotle’s belief
that nothing in nature was done in vain with Pliny’s occasional
belief in natura ludens—a playful nature that created so many
different kinds of flowers just for fun. But Pliny shared some
similarities with Aristotle: for example, he wished to minimize
the roles of individual gods in studies of nature (though he did
believe in some kind of deity). Pliny’s book was written for a very
specific Roman audience and though Pliny relied heavily on
Greek texts, he found them overly theoretical. The Romans
were a practical people and needed practical information. More-
over, Pliny believed that a thing was only really ‘known’ when it
was known to Romans and so he was careful to record the first
examples of exotic animals like elephants arriving in Rome itself
as an important moment in that species’ history.
Another way of understanding the natural world, animal bod-
ies, and plant properties was through medicine. As might be
expected from the Romans, their medicine was a highly practical
affair and the writings of two particular physicians stand out:
Dioscorides (c.–) and Galen (–c.).15 Dioscorides, a
surgeon in the Roman army in the time of Nero, was the author


of a five-volume work about the medicinal properties of plants

and other substances. He described approximately  plants in
some detail and his writings remained in circulation in Europe all
through the Middle Ages—a testament, perhaps, to their utility.
As late as the eighteenth century, Dioscorides’ descriptions were
still widely cited by botanists. Though Dioscorides focused on
practical rather than theoretical knowledge, and though he
avoided pronouncements on abstract questions such as ‘what is
life?’, his work contributed to a view of living beings that pre-
vailed for more than a millennium.
Galen, along with Hippocrates, is one of the most famous
physicians from antiquity. He served as physician to Emperor
Marcus Aurelius, and is said to have written in excess of 
books, with more than  of them about medicine (of which 
survive today). Galen actively pursued dissection as a scientific
technique; however, most of his dissections were performed on
animals rather than humans as human dissection was prohibited
under Roman law. He substituted ape dissection for human
dissection, leading to errors in some of his beliefs about human
anatomy. In his many medical books, Galen discussed the struc-
tures of the animal body, how blood moved around the body, the
way nerves grew, how the muscles worked, and so on: his views on
these sorts of topics were held as authoritative until the sixteenth
and seventeenth centuries when some of his ideas were overturned
by the work of Andreas Vesalius (–) on human anatomy and
William Harvey (–) on blood circulation. In addition to his
observational and anatomical research for medical purposes,
Galen also pursued deeper questions about how to distinguish
the different kingdoms of nature. He opened De facultatibus natur-
alibus (On the natural faculties) with the following lines:


Since feeling and voluntary motion are peculiar to animals, whilst

growth and nutrition are common to plants as well, we may look
on the former as effects of the soul and the latter as effects of the
nature. And if there be anyone who allows a share in soul to
plants as well, and separates the two kinds of soul, naming the
kind in question vegetative, and the other sensory . . . we say that
animals are governed at once by their soul and by their nature,
and plants by their nature alone, and that growth and nutrition
are the effects of nature, not of soul.16

This is a slightly modified version of Aristotle’s theory of plants

and animals and shows that even  years after Aristotle com-
posed his ideas, philosophers were still engaging with the ques-
tion of how to distinguish a plant from an animal.
The nature of life was, for most people in the last two millen-
nia, a theological question. We have already seen that writers like
Aristotle, Lucretius, and Pliny had particular views about the
gods, but even more influential were Judaism and Christianity
which had much to say about the animal, vegetable, and mineral
worlds. The repercussions of Judaeo-Christian theories of nature
are still felt to this day. Perhaps the single most important Judaeo-
Christian text about the natural world is the opening section of
the Book of Genesis. This book came out of a long oral and
written tradition and possibly reached its current form in the
sixth century BC; it is an amalgam of several different texts and
sources, each with its own author, and so is not always internally
consistent. But the majority of its readers through the centuries
have concerned themselves more with its contents than with
debates about its coherence. The book opens with the creation
of the heavens and the earth, light and darkness, day and night,
land and sea. Once dry land had been created, vegetation could
come into being on the third day:


And God said, let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding
seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in
itself, upon the earth: and it was so. And the earth brought forth
grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding
fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it
was good. And the evening and the morning were the third day.17

The fourth day was set aside for the creation of the sun, moon,
and stars before animal life was created on the fifth and sixth days
(see Figure ):

And God said, let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving
creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the
open firmament of heaven. And God created great whales, and
every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth
abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind:
and God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, be
fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl
multiply in the earth. And the evening and the morning were the
fifth day.
And God said, let the earth bring forth the living creature after his
kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind:
and it was so. And God made the beast of the earth after his
kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth
upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
And God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness:
and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the
fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over
every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created
man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male
and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said
unto them, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and
subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the
fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the

In Genesis we see clear separation between plants, animals, and

minerals. This text existed in the Jewish tradition for centuries


Fig. . The fifth day of creation: God creates the birds and the fishes. From
The Ashmole Bestiary, th century, England.


before being promulgated by early Christians as part of their

creation story. It was this Christian use of the text that ensured
its central position in European and western beliefs about the
natural world for millennia to come. Although the idea of distinct
realms of animal, vegetable, and mineral had previously existed in
several cultures, it was Genesis that ensured the endurance of the
idea of three clearly delineated natural kingdoms. With the expan-
sion of Christianity in Europe, the creation story told in Genesis
became more and more ingrained. For centuries, most Europeans’
understanding of how the natural world had come to be was
derived directly from the Book of Genesis. The ideas of a single,
rapid creation event, easy-to-distinguish kingdoms and species,
no possibility of extinctions, and human mastery of the natural
world remained cornerstones of western science until the nine-
teenth century. It is impossible to understand the history of the
life sciences in the west without acknowledging the central
importance of the Book of Genesis.

Natural history in the medieval and

early modern world
The Scriptures were revered in medieval Europe and the Bible’s
teachings on animals and plants dominated medieval natural
history. The natural world was an object of study for religiously
trained scholars who wished to glorify God by learning more
about his creation. These scholars believed that God had two
books: the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature. Both had
to be read if a scholar were to understand God’s world, and so the
idea of ‘natural theology’ was born. Some of the earliest surviving
Christian writings on animals come from the fourth-century


theologian and philosopher St Augustine of Hippo (–).

Augustine believed that there was a complete separation between
animals and humans. For him, there was a basic qualitative
difference between a man and a beast. This was quite different
from Aristotle’s view that although man had a unique rational
soul, he shared many animal characteristics. Aristotle had further
believed that the human body could be described in the same
physical terms as those used to describe animals, and that animals
sometimes displayed ‘human’ traits such as cunning, bravery,
wickedness, or affection. Augustine and other medieval scholars
based their beliefs about the different qualities of man and animal
on the opening verses of Genesis. Had not God created man in his
own image, and was not man’s creation entirely separate from the
animals? There was also the fact that God had given man domin-
ion over ‘every living thing that moveth upon the earth’. These
factors led Augustine and others to deny that there could be any
resemblance—physical, moral, or emotional—between men and
There was another reason why the early Christians wanted to
differentiate their vision of the natural world from those of earlier
writers: even the cleverest of the ancient philosophers had been
pagan. These pagan tracts needed to be dealt with carefully if they
were to be made to fit with the new Christian worldview. One
crucial difference between Christian and earlier theories of ani-
mals revolved around the question of the soul. As we have seen,
Aristotle’s animals possessed a soul—though this was not a
strictly religious concept for Aristotle and could be interchanged
with an ‘essence’ or ‘final cause’. But in Christianity only humans
could have a soul. Medieval animals not only lacked a soul, they
also lacked rationality and intellect. Without any ability to reason,


an animal’s behaviour could only be attributed to ‘instinct’. This

worked reasonably well when explaining how an animal found
food, shelter, or a mate; the thirteenth-century Italian philoso-
pher St Thomas Aquinas (–) once wrote that an animal’s
instinct ‘is as inevitable as the upward motion of fire’.20 On those
occasions when ‘instinct’ was insufficient to explain an animal’s
behaviour, such as when a sheep runs away from a wolf even if it
has never seen one before, the concept of estimativa was invoked.
Estimativa was a kind of sixth sense which allowed an animal to
detect the intentions of another animal without any need for
thought or reason. This theory of animal behaviour was preferred
to the possibility of rational animals as it allowed for the Christian
view of man as a superior being—a view which dominated for
Though some elements of Aristotle’s writings had to be
amended for their new Christian readership, he remained a highly
respected figure. The German Dominican friar Albertus Magnus
(c.–) engaged with Aristotle’s animal books in his own
work Quaestiones super de animalibus. Albertus was especially inter-
ested in the question of the relationship between plants and
animals. Was a plant alive in the same way that an animal was?
Albertus thought not, writing that ‘branches that have been cut
can be regenerated because among animate things a plant is
closer to matter and inanimate things’.21 In that case, was a
plant a mean between living and non-living things? Albertus
argued that ‘[plants] are immobile with respect to place, just as
non-living things . . . nevertheless they are nourished and
increased just as living things. Compared to non-living things,
then, the genus of plants is living, and compared to animals it is
non-living.’22 Albertus then inserted other things into this scale of


life: the fungi and mushrooms that he knew from the woods
around his home in Cologne lay between plants and non-living
things, sea sponges lay between plants and animals, and children
fell somewhere between man and brute. This is one of the more
nuanced views of life from the Middle Ages, as Albertus acknow-
ledged that perhaps the kingdoms were not completely self-
Animals were of vital importance in the medieval world as
sources of food, clothing, and heavy labour and so they earned
themselves a prominent place in the texts of the time. One of the
earliest known catalogues of animals appears in the Etymologiae of
Isidore of Seville (–). Isidore was the Archbishop of Seville
in the early seventh century and the Etymologiae was intended as a
universal encyclopedia of knowledge based on ancient sources. It
was widely copied and read in the Middle Ages and, because it
summarized many classical writings, it was a key link between
medieval scholars and their predecessors. Of the  books of the
Etymologiae, one was dedicated to animals. Isidore relied on Pliny
and a few other ancient writers for his information but, as the
name implies, Isidore was especially interested in finding out how
things had got their names and focused on this rather than on
zoological details. The dog, for example, is called canis in Latin;
this came from the word canor meaning a sound or song, which
implies that dogs can bark. A horse, equus in Latin, gets its name
from its balance or evenness, aequalis. Though the utility of such
information can seem doubtful to the modern reader, Isidore’s
book was immensely popular in his own time, and many readers
preferred to get their information from Isidore than from the
original sources. In some cases this led to the disappearance of the
original altogether.


The encyclopedic tone of Isidore’s Etymologiae inspired others

and contributed to the rise of a new kind of specialized book
about animals: the bestiary. It has been said that bestiaries were
second only to the Bible in their popularity and distribution
during the Middle Ages.23 These books, usually lavishly illus-
trated, were collections of animal stories that blended zoology,
myth, and legend. They often contained a moral or allegorical
lesson, and drew on a variety of sources including Aesop and
other classical authors, local stories, and oral traditions to create
richly detailed animal tales. Not all of the animals they included
necessarily existed—unicorns, griffins, chimeras, and dragons
were always popular entries, alongside exotic beasts like ele-
phants. This blend of reality, myth, and moral instruction is
perfectly illustrated by one thirteenth-century English account
of a unicorn (see Figure ):

Unicornis the Unicorn, which is also called Rhinoceros by the

Greeks, is of the following nature. He is a very small animal like a
kid, excessively swift, with one horn in the middle of his forehead,
and no hunter can catch him. But he can be trapped by the
following stratagem. A virgin girl is led to where he lurks and
there she is sent off by herself into the wood. He soon leaps into
her lap when he sees her, and hence he gets caught.
Our Lord Jesus Christ is also a Unicorn spiritually, about whom
it is said: ‘And he was beloved like the Son of the Unicorns’. . . .
The fact that it has just one horn on its head means what he
himself said: ‘I and the Father are One.’
It says that he is very swift because neither Principalities, nor
Powers, nor Thrones, nor Dominations could keep up with him,
nor could Hell contain him, nor could the most subtle Devil
prevail to catch or comprehend him . . .24

As well as being a source of moral lessons, the kingdoms of

nature were also a source of medicines. Plants (with occasional


Fig. . How to catch a unicorn. From a bestiary, th century, England.

minerals) were the basis of most medical remedies and so were

carefully studied by herbalists and physicians. Just as animals had
books dedicated to them, plants were written about in detailed
‘herbals’ which included descriptions, listed all the known prop-
erties of particular species, and gave recipes for combining them
into effective treatments for a variety of diseases. Herbals have
been written all over the world since ancient times; one of the
most influential in Europe was that written by Dioscorides in the
first century AD which, unlike other classical texts, remained in
circulation through the Middle Ages. Medieval herbals were often
associated with monasteries where monks created and tended
their own herb gardens, had the ability to read and write, and
could produce illustrated books.


Though the natural world attracted the interest of scholars all

through the Middle Ages, with beautiful (and costly) books dedi-
cated to both the plant and animal kingdoms, it was almost
unheard of for plants and animals to be dealt with together in
the same treatise.25 With a few exceptions like Albertus Magnus,
most medieval scholars did not concern themselves with nuanced
definitions of the kingdoms or consideration of what makes an
animal and animal, or a plant a plant. The Book of Genesis seems
to have completely convinced scholars that the natural kingdoms
were entirely separate, their members having little or nothing in
common. Natural history in these centuries after the fall of the
classical world and before the beginning of the Renaissance
focused primarily on description, practical information, and mor-
ality tales.
With the rediscovery and translation of the works of Aristotle
and other classical philosophers in the west from the twelfth cen-
tury onwards, it was only a matter of time before students of natural
history returned to an earlier fascination with the philosophical
question about the meaning of life, the definitions of the natural
kingdoms, and complex questions about the origin and generation
of living beings. This renaissance began with careful readings of
classical texts before naturalists began to seek out new knowledge
of their own. The knowledge once contained in bestiaries and
herbals was updated, becoming more detailed, incorporating veri-
fiable information, and slowly shedding its mythological and moral
layers. Classical writings were re-thought using new observations:
one of the most famous examples of this is Andreas Vesalius’
dissections of real human corpses in the mid-sixteenth century
which caused Galen’s notions of human anatomy to be re-appraised
for the first time in almost , years. The rediscovery of


Lucretius’ philosophical poem De rerum natura in the fifteenth

century is said to have caused the re-emergence of Epicurean
materialism and atomism. New methodologies and philosophies
were allowing naturalists to ask hard questions about the natural
world once again.
In the early modern period, the most famous work on such
questions was undertaken by René Descartes (–), who set
about redefining our understanding of living beings.26 Descartes,
a French philosopher and mathematician working primarily in
the Dutch Republic, was a key figure in early modern philosophy
and science. He rejected the Aristotelian idea that animal bodies
were a composite of matter and form; he also rejected teleological
belief in a final cause directing an animal’s development. In
place of these older ideas, Descartes argued for the mechanical
theory of animals. This theory treated animal bodies as machines
made of natural materials which were governed solely by physical
laws. Animal traits such as the ability to move, digest, breathe,
and grow were all explained in mechanical terms; further, Des-
cartes sought to explain the origins and generation of plants and
animals via mechanical causes. Not being completely satisfied
with his work, Descartes did not publish many of his physio-
logical musings during his lifetime, but they appeared posthu-
mously and proved extremely influential on later thinkers.
For animals and plants, Descartes completely removed the
Aristotelian notion of a soul, but when it came to humans, he
supported a theory known as ‘dualism’. Descartes saw a clear
distinction between ‘ensouled’ humans and ‘unensouled’ animals.
This soul was equated with mind, and though it existed alongside
the mechanical body, the two were separate—hence dualism. The
soul was responsible for those things that could not be explained


mechanically: consciousness, sensation, memory, intellect. As

animals did not have a soul, they also lacked these higher facul-
ties. Descartes’s beliefs forced him to explain things such as an
animal’s apparent senses, its ability to respond to danger, or to
seek out proper food or shelter in purely mechanical terms—no
mean feat. He did this by evoking ‘animal spirits’ which ensured
the correct functioning of the brain, sensory organs, and muscles.
These animal spirits were distilled from the blood in the brain and
flowed out along the nerves to control the muscles in an appro-
priate way—thus allowing an unthinking animal to ‘respond’ to
its surroundings. Much of the time, humans also relied on animal
spirits to control their basic actions:

Now a very large number of the motions occurring inside us do

not depend in any way on the mind. These include heartbeat,
digestion, nutrition, respiration when we are asleep, and also such
waking actions as walking, singing, and the like, when these occur
without the mind attending to them. When people take a fall, and
stick out their hands so as to protect their head, it is not reason
that instructs them to do this; it is simply that the sight of the
impending fall reaches the brain and sends the animal spirits into
the nerves in the manner necessary to produce this movement
even without any mental volition, just as it would be produced in
a machine.27

This mechanization of the natural world was controversial and

there were many who could not accept Descartes’s seemingly
cold and soulless view of nature. Though Descartes maintained
that he was a practising Catholic, he was accused of being a deist
or atheist as his worldview left little or no space for God. Descar-
tes’s mechanization of the natural world simultaneously inspired
ardent believers and provoked strong anti-materialist reaction
(we’ll meet characters from both camps in Chapter ). Mechanical


theories were considerably bolstered by William Harvey’s discov-

ery in  that the heart was essentially a pump that caused
blood to flow continually around the body, and by Stephen
Hales’s (–) later work on the mechanical theory of plants.
Regardless of whether one followed his doctrine or rebelled
against it, Descartes was crucial in stimulating new ways of
thinking about how animal bodies functioned. He reopened
many age-old debates about what it meant to be alive and helped
to set the scene for investigation into the natural world for much
of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The life sciences in the eighteenth century

Life—so easy to recognize, so difficult to define—had fascinated
people for millennia, but the eighteenth century saw an explosion
in the scientific study of life. All across Europe, people enthusias-
tically threw themselves into the study of living beings. This was
not just a pursuit for elite gentlemen of science; women, children,
the middle and working classes all got involved. This new craze for
the life sciences came about due to a host of factors: the spirit of the
Enlightenment encouraged an interest in ‘rational’ pursuits, like
science; imperial expansion into new worlds resulted in thousands
of exotic species being sent back to Europe; this influx of previ-
ously unknown plants and animals necessitated the development
of better classification systems which caught the public imagin-
ation; microscopes and other instruments improved and became
more affordable; new printing techniques made books more
accessible; and it became more common to publish books in
languages other than Latin, meaning that one didn’t need a classical
education to read the latest science.


The story of Captain James Cook (–) and his ship’s

naturalist Sir Joseph Banks (–) perfectly encapsulates
the excitement and glamour of scientific investigation in the
eighteenth century; it also shows how both imperialism and
Enlightenment thinking impacted on the study of the natural
world. At  p.m. on  August , under a cloudy English sky,
Cook set sail from Plymouth on HMS Endeavour. On board the
ship were  men and enough provisions to last  months. This
ambitious voyage, commissioned by King George III, was part-
funded by the British government and Royal Navy, and part-
funded by the Royal Society of London. Reflecting this diversity
of sponsors and interests, the voyage had four objectives: to
observe the  transit of Venus from the south Pacific; to
explore and chart the Polynesian islands; to explore the waters
around the islands now known as New Zealand to see if the
mythical southern continent Terra Australis Incognita could be
found; and to collect as many botanical and zoological specimens
as possible from all over the southern hemisphere. Leaving
Plymouth behind, Cook and his crew crossed the Atlantic, sailed
down the east coast of South America, rounded Cape Horn, and
headed north-west across the Pacific until they reached Tahiti in
April .
Tahiti was to be their base until at least  June that year, for on
that date a rare astronomical event was to take place: a transit of
Venus. A transit occurs when a planet passes directly between the
earth and sun, making the silhouette of the planet visible against
the sun’s disc. By precisely recording four moments in the transit
(the time at which the planet first touches the outer edge of the
solar disc, the time at which the planet entirely enters the solar
disc, the time at which the planet reaches the far edge of the


solar disc, and the time at which the planet entirely exits the solar
disc), an astronomer can calculate solar parallax and therefore
calculate the distance between the earth and sun, and the size of
the solar system. This information was interesting in its own right
but could also be used to refine astronomical measurements; it
might also be used indirectly to calculate longitude at sea, thus
allowing for safer and faster maritime travel—vital for the
expanding British Empire. The British, and several other nations,
sent scientific observers to different locations all over the globe in
order to get as many measurements as possible: astronomical
stations were set up in Siberia, Norway, Canada, Baja California,
Istanbul, and, of course, Tahiti. On the day of the transit itself,
Cook recorded in his journal:

This day proved as favourable to our purpose as we could wish.

Not a Cloud was to be seen the whole day, and the Air was
perfectly Clear, so that we had every advantage we could desire
in observing the whole of the Passage of the planet Venus over the
Sun's Disk. We very distinctly saw an Atmosphere or Dusky shade
round the body of the planet, which very much disturbed the
times of the Contact, particularly the two internal ones.28

Though the day had perfect weather for making the necessary
observations, Cook and his two fellow observers—the astronomer
Charles Green (–) and naturalist Daniel Solander (–)—
all got slightly different readings due to atmospheric distortion.29
Banks was also observing the transit a little way away on the
island of Moorea. As a true child of the Enlightenment, Banks
took a keen interest in all kinds of science as well as his beloved
botany. He was friendly, enthusiastic, and much more open to the
people of Tahiti than some of his formal English colleagues were,
as this passage from his diary on the day of the transit shows:


[On Moorea] I could do the double service of examining the

natural produce and buying provisions for my companions who
were engagd in so usefull a work. About eight a large quantity of
provisions were procurd when I saw two boats coming towards
the place where I traded; these I was told belongd to Tarróa the
King of the Island who was coming to pay me a visit. As soon as
the boats came near the shore the people formd a lane; he landed
bringing with him his sister Nuna and both came towards the tree
under which I stood. I went out and met them and brought them
very formaly into a circle I had made . . . Standing is not the
fashion among these people, I must provide them a seat, which
I did by unwrapping a turban of Indian cloth which I wore instead
of a hat and spreading it upon the ground; upon which we all sat
down and the kings present was brought Consisting of a hog, a
dog and a quantity of Bread fruit Cocoa nuts etc. I immediately
sent a canoe to the Observatory to fetch my present, an adze a
shirt and some beads with which his majesty seemd well
satisfied. . . .
After the first Internal contact was over I went to my Compan-
ions at the observatory carrying with me Tarroa, Nuna and some
of their chief atendants; to them we shewd the planet upon the
sun and made them understand that we came on purpose to see
it. . . . I spent the rest of the day in examining the produce etc. of
the Island and found it very nearly similar to that of Otahite [i.e.
Tahiti], . . . The hills in general came nearer to the water and flats
were consequently less, and less Fertile, than at Otahite—the low
point near which we lay was composd intirely of sand and coral.
Here neither Breadfruit nor any usefull vegetables would grow; it
was coverd over with Pandanus tectorius and with these grew
several plants we had not seen at Otahite, among them Iberis,
which Mr Gore tells me is the plant calld by the voyagers scurvy
grass which grows plentifully upon all the low Islands.
At sunset I came off having purchasd another hog from the
King. Soon after my arrival at the tent  hansome girls came off in
a canoe to see us, they had been at the tent in the morning with
Tarroa, they chatted with us very freely and with very little
perswasion agreed to send away their carriage and sleep in [the]
tent, a proof of confidence which I have not before met with upon
so short an acquaintance.30


So as well as seeing the famed transit of Venus, Banks managed to

trade for food, make friends with a local ruler, fashion im-
promptu furniture from his turban, explain western astronomy
to some of his Tahitian acquaintances, examine the natural his-
tory, geography, and produce of a whole island, and convince
three Tahitian girls to spend the night with him in his tent. It was
no wonder that tales of Banks’s exploits attracted huge public
interest when they were later told and retold in the drawing
rooms of fashionable London or the salons of Paris.
Banks loved Tahiti and its people. He took the time to learn
some of the language, made friends easily, and had several roman-
tic relationships, but he never lost sight of his primary reason for
coming on this voyage and so spent most of his days getting to
know the local flora and fauna. As the official naturalist to HMS
Endeavour, Banks was expected to collect samples of as many kinds
of animal, vegetable, and mineral as possible. With the help of a
seven-man natural history team (which he had personally chosen
and financed), Banks happily passed his time finding specimens,
recording them in words and drawings, conducting experiments,
dissecting plants and animals, making observations of all manner
of natural phenomena, and writing his journal. Banks had studied
the latest ideas about classifying the kingdoms of nature while a
student at Oxford and he could now apply those ideas to a wealth
of species never before seen by Europeans. Thanks to Banks, and
hundreds of other ships’ naturalists voyaging to every part of the
world, more and more species were becoming known to western
As these new and sometimes wondrous creatures flooded back
to Europe, older classification systems needed to be adjusted to
deal with the sheer magnitude of things being discovered.


A desire for order was typical of the Enlightenment mind which

prided itself on its ability to rationalize the world. Imposing order
on the world also had practical applications: being able to group
particular minerals, plants, or animals into similar categories
would allow for more efficient mining or farming—an important
consideration in an increasingly industrialized world. But there
was an unforeseen side-effect to this desire to classify all natural
objects into simple groups: not all creatures would submit to
such obvious classifications and once again the tricky question of
‘animal, vegetable, mineral?’ arose and, with it, a host of philo-
sophical, social, and religious questions.
This, then, is the story of how the definition of life, and the
attempt to distinguish the different kinds of life, played into some
of the biggest and most controversial debates of Enlightenment
Europe. Something as simple as a spinach plant could become a
flashpoint for heated debate that, on the surface, might seem like
a narrow scientific issue but in reality had the power to tear down
centuries of religious and social orthodoxy. These debates were
not just restricted to specialists or academics, they were discussed
at every level of society: from cheap pamphlets to leather-bound
books, from public lectures to private meetings of learned clubs,
the question of odd hybrids between the animal, vegetable, and
mineral kingdoms was attracting more and more interest. The
stories that follow show just how much the distinctions between
different kinds of life mattered, to whom they mattered, and why.


The Problem of the Zoophyte

Standing on the shore

O n a cool July day on the northern shores of Cornwall, we

come to the rock pools. Like so many before us, we poke
and prod, and look for improbable forms of life: a starfish with its
strange, perfect symmetry; a blood-red anemone that turns itself
inside out at a touch; an urchin that shrinks away when you
investigate further. We’re not the first to spend a summer’s day
playing in rock pools, a feature of many a childhood recollection.
This innocent pastime has a long history: it stretches back past
our own rosy memories; to Victorian pleasure-seekers experien-
cing the thrill of the seaside holiday for the first time; to Georgian
ladies and gentlemen, caught up in the natural history craze,
making intrepid forays to unexplored realms; and back further
still, to ancient times. Aristotle himself was enthralled by rock
pools: in his writings, he described the strange animals inhabiting
the shores of Greece and his fascination with the life found in the
tidal crevices there. There is a passage in History of animals which
inspires a rather pleasing image of Aristotle’s seaside visits. In it,


he described an encounter with one of those strange shore--

beasts—a sea sponge. Curious about this unusual object, Aristotle
tried to pluck it off the rock to investigate further and discovered
something odd: when he made a tentative approach, the sponge
seemed to sense him, and clung more tightly to the rock, but
when he sneaked up on the sponge, it failed to hold so firmly to
its rock, and Aristotle could take it easily. Quite apart from giving
an image of a playful Aristotle creeping up on wildlife, this
provokes an important question: what is a sea sponge—a plant
or an animal? It doesn’t act like an animal in most respects, except
this one—it can sense things in its surroundings. For Aristotle,
that was enough to define the sponge as an animal, but the
question could not be answered conclusively; it continued to
rear its head for , years, and along the way spawned the
concept of the ‘zoophyte’.
Zoophytes, a group of strange creatures that existed some-
where on, or between, the boundaries of the plant and animal
kingdoms, were the subject of some debate throughout the cen-
turies, culminating in a flurry of scientific study in the eighteenth
century. A large number of organisms fell into the category of
zoophyte: polyps, corals, sponges, starfish, sea-urchins, and
earthworms to name just a few. They were believed by some
naturalists to be a blend of plant and animal; others considered
them to be entirely plant, albeit with some animal characteristics;
and others still argued that they were wholly animal, but con-
ceded that they occasionally behaved like plants. Zoophytes
raised a lot of questions: how do we define a plant? An animal?
What’s the relationship between the two kingdoms? Is there a
divinely ordained ‘chain of being’ that connects all living things?
How can we classify life? Are species and genera real categories?


Despite interest by Aristotle and other scholars, in ancient and

early modern times zoophytes were often seen as a rather insig-
nificant part of nature. It was in the eighteenth century, following
the discoveries of Abraham Trembley (–), that larger num-
bers of naturalists began to study them seriously and to see them
as potentially useful in answering big questions about the natural
world. Trembley, the son of a high-level politician in the Republic
of Geneva, was educated at the prestigious Academy of Calvin
before moving to Leiden to continue his studies at the university
there. He had long shown a keen interest in the sciences and the
natural world, and was quickly absorbed into the scientific circle
of Leiden. Trembley left the university on being offered a position
as tutor to the sons of Count William Bentinck at his estate at
Sorgvliet, near The Hague, but continued his association with the
scientific world of neighbouring Leiden. Trembley was to remain
at Sorgvliet for almost a decade, and it was there, in the late s,
that he began his researches on polyps. His key discoveries
centred on the regenerative powers of those tiny creatures.
A polyp is an organism, generally less than a centimetre in
length, shaped like a bell or, in the description more commonly
employed by eighteenth-century naturalists, like the severed fin-
ger of a glove. Its single opening is surrounded by tentacles and
leads to a central cavity (later discovered to be its stomach).
Polyps are generally found in stagnant ditches or similar loca-
tions, so Trembley’s location in the Netherlands—a land abun-
dant in stagnant water—was ideally suited to researching these
little creatures.
When, in March , Trembley wrote to the French savant
René-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur (–) to announce a
startling discovery about polyps, it caused consternation in the


learned circles of Europe. The dramatic language of the

announcement in the prestigious and usually sombre journal
Histoire de l’Académie des Sciences was striking. It began: ‘The story
of the Phoenix who is reborn from his ashes, as fabulous as it is,
offers nothing more marvellous than the discovery of which we
are about to speak.’31 Especially in France, where Trembley’s
report was first published, discussion of his unexpected findings
re-ignited debates about the nature of living things, and about the
underlying philosophical questions of materialism and vitalism.

Abraham Trembley and the animal in the

eighteenth century
The essential questions of what characteristics defined animals
and plants had been debated for centuries. In History of animals,
Aristotle described the four factors he would use to define an
animal—nutrition, reproduction, sensation, and physiology: in
order to be considered an animal, a creature required a digestive
system, a reproductive system, it had to experience sensations,
and, finally, it needed blood or something similar, and vessels to
contain this liquid. Aristotle also wrote an entire treatise on the
motion of animals; motion was widely considered a standard
animal property. It was not necessary for all five of these factors
to be present simultaneously; often, the presence of one or two
was enough for an object to be placed in the animal kingdom. In
the eighteenth century, Aristotle’s definition was still widely used
in zoology (as it still is in many classrooms today) and he was
frequently cited by naturalists. The concept of ‘animal’ had
changed little in , years. We can see this by looking at
Trembley’s work on polyps.


It was while working as a tutor in the Netherlands, and teach-

ing that essential subject needed to round off a gentleman’s
education—natural history—that Trembley’s interest in these
little creatures began. The early stages of this interest are recorded
in a delightful series of engravings that were later published in
Trembley’s book (Figure ). These engravings show Trembley,
accompanied by his two young students Jean and Antoine,
searching out and studying polyps in the grounds of Sorgvliet:
in one, they are collecting polyps from the stately ponds of the
estate; in another, they are in a large, modestly furnished room
with small work tables and a selection of books. By the window
are ranged a selection of jars and it is these that Trembley and the
boys are examining so attentively. Trembley became an expert at
finding polyps and, more importantly, keeping them alive in

Fig. . Abraham Trembley hunting for polyps in the grounds of Sorgvliet

with his two young students, Jean and Antoine. From Abraham Trembley,
Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire d’un genre de polypes d’eau douce à bras en forme de
cornes, .


captivity. Through trial and error, he found out what kind of

water and pondweed and worms they most like to share their jars
with, and observed them for hours to find out their habits.
From these observations, published first by the Académie des
Sciences in Paris, and later as a book titled Mémoires pour servir à
l’histoire d’un genre de polpes d’eau douce, came Trembley’s most
famous finding—the finding that would shock Europe. It resulted
from a simple experiment in which Trembley had cut a polyp in
two and watched as each half regenerated itself into a perfect,
fully functioning replica of the original. Part of his reason for
undertaking this experiment was to determine whether they were
animal or vegetable. Differences in plant and animal reproduction
meant that, by definition, plants could re-grow from cuttings but
animals could not. When the cut polyps regenerated their lost
parts, that should have allowed Trembley to place them in the
vegetable kingdom—but some of their other properties marked
them out as animal. The first of these was the movement of their
tentacles. Polyps in water moved their tentacles independently of
any motion in the liquid. The second was that they were sensitive
to touch: touching the polyp or shaking the jar in which it was
placed caused it to contract. Third, the criteria relating to nutri-
tion also indicated that polyps were animals. Aristotle had sug-
gested that the presence of a mouth and stomach were central to
the definition of an animal and this was a belief held by many
eighteenth-century naturalists. For example, in his  work
Elementa chemiae Herman Boerhaave (–), professor of
medicine and chemistry at Leiden, wrote that the principal dis-
tinction between plants and animals was their method of obtain-
ing nourishment. Trembley quoted Boerhaave’s definition in his
 book on polyps: ‘The nourishment of plants . . . is through


external roots, that of animals through internal roots.’32 Since

Trembley had observed polyps grasping food with their tentacles
and placing it in their central cavity he could prove, according to
this definition, that a polyp was an animal. Another reason to
view polyps as animals was their power of locomotion—polyps
were capable of travelling in the manner of an inch-worm or, in
one of the most fantastical modes of movement in the natural
world, by means of a series of somersaults (see Figure ). For
Réaumur, Trembley’s correspondent at the Académie in Paris,
this was the most convincing proof of the polyp’s animal nature.
On Aristotle’s fourth point—the presence of blood or an equiva-
lent fluid—experiments were inconclusive. Sometimes dissec-
tions revealed the presence of green globules in a transparent

Fig. . Drawing showing two modes of polyp locomotion: (top) through an

inch-worm-like motion and (bottom) through an extraordinary series of
somersaults. From Abraham Trembley, Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire d’un
genre de polypes d’eau douce à bras en forme de cornes, .


liquid but sometimes there were none and Trembley had diffi-
culty discovering whether this substance was really analogous to
animal blood. So, according to Aristotle’s criteria, the polyp was
an animal in its nutrition, motion, and sensation; a vegetable in its
reproduction; and ambivalent in its structure and physiology.
The strangeness of this creature confounded Trembley and he
repeated his experiments many times to confirm the truth of his
results. When he was sure, and when he had enough proof to
convince others, Trembley wrote to Réaumur. Réaumur was one
of the most significant figures in the scientific circles of Europe;
he had begun his career studying mathematics and physics before
becoming interested in meteorology and temperature measure-
ment, he published extensively on a number of scientific topics
including natural history and was particularly celebrated for his
studies of insects. In  he had become a fellow of the French
Académie des Sciences and later rose to the position of assistant
director and then director; he was also elected a fellow of several
foreign societies such as the elite Royal Society in London, and
the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Trembley had first
begun a correspondence with this French savant in  after
reading Réaumur’s Histoire des insectes. Due to Réaumur’s expertise,
and to his central position in European science, he was an obvi-
ous choice of confidant for Trembley. Réaumur, like Trembley,
was astounded by the results of the experiments on the polyps
and, in true Enlightenment spirit, decided to investigate for him-
self. Trembley sent live specimens of polyps from his workbench
in the Netherlands, carried at walking-pace on horseback in an
open container, to Réaumur in Paris. Réaumur, experimenting on
the exact same kind of polyp as Trembley, was able to replicate
his results. Seeing the polyp regenerate for himself, Réaumur was


just as astonished as Trembley had been and wrote: ‘when I saw

for the first time two polyps form gradually from one that I had
cut in two, I found it hard to believe my eyes; and this is a fact that
I cannot accustom myself to seeing, after having seen and re-seen
it hundreds of times.’33 With this proof in hand, Réaumur pub-
lished an account of Trembley’s experiments and findings in one
of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals, Histoire de
l’Académie des Sciences. That account, with its opening image of
the Phoenix, was read by thousands across Europe and caused an
overnight sensation.
Until others could examine polyps for themselves, some con-
sidered Trembley’s findings to be ‘ridiculous whims and absurd
impossibilities’.34 Trembley was quickly inundated with letters
demanding clarifications, proofs, and live specimens. And
although the Histoire de l’Académie des Sciences was a learned journal,
usually read only by the scientific elite, Trembley’s findings were
not confined to the inner circles of the sciences. The initial
account, along with passages from Trembley’s later book, was
reprinted in the popular press and translated into many different
languages. Trembley’s  Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire d’un genre
de polpes d’eau douce was published in Leiden by Jean and Herman
Verbeek, who produced a high-quality book with images by the
highly skilled engraver, and friend of Trembley and Réaumur,
Pierre Lyonnet (–). But only a few months after it first
appeared in Leiden, the Parisian publisher Laurent Durand
(–) reprinted a much lower-quality edition of Trembley’s
book. Although Trembley and the Verbeeks were outraged at this
act of piracy, it shows the high demand for an affordable telling of
the polyp story. Durand was a key publisher of Enlightenment
Paris; he worked closely with figures such as Denis Diderot


(–), and was involved in publishing the famous Encyclopé-

die—he knew that Trembley’s work would appeal to the same
readers who were lapping up the radical works of mid-eighteenth-
century Paris.
People weren’t just reading about Trembley’s work, they were
also replicating it. Trembley himself was generous with his polyps
and, having figured out how to keep them alive during transport,
he freely sent specimens to naturalists across Europe. Polyps and
other zoophytes were also easy to find in ponds, ditches, and by
the seashore, so even without a connection to Trembley, just
about anyone could try his experiments for themselves. One
such man was Henry Baker (–). Baker was interested in
natural history and chemistry and had won a medal from the
Royal Society for his skill in observing crystals through a micro-
scope. As a fellow of the Royal Society, he had access to the letters
sent by Trembley to Martin Folkes (–), the president of
that august body. Fascinated, and seeing an opportunity to
increase his scientific reputation, Baker replicated the polyp
experiments. This was before the  appearance of Trembley’s
book and Baker, acting quickly, and having read the contents of
Trembley’s unpublished letters, produced a book in  entitled
Attempt towards a natural history of the polype. Though Baker had
at least acknowledged Trembley’s work, Folkes was horrified at
his un-sportsmanlike conduct and criticized Baker heavily.
Baker’s book sold reasonably well, but he didn’t fool anyone.
Trembley was already a celebrity and everyone knew that it was
he who had first shown how the polyp could miraculously re-
grow after being cut in two. But Baker’s act of plagiarism, like
Durand’s act of piracy, shows just how great was the appetite for
Trembley’s work.


The polyp had quickly become the talk of Europe and a favourite
topic in the fashionable salons. It wasn’t long before it began to
appear in popular culture. In , Charles Hanbury Williams
(–), a politician and diplomat, but more famous as a satirical
poet and member of the Society of Dilettanti, poked fun at Lon-
don’s new obsession with the polyp in the following lines:

‘Pray, Mr Stanhope, what’s the news in town?’

‘Madam, I know of none, but I’ve just come
From seeing a curiosity at home:
’Twas sent to Martin Folkes,35 as being rare
And he and Desaguliers36 brought it there:
It’s called a Polypus’—‘What’s that?’—‘A creature
The wonderful’st of all the works of nature:
Hither it came from Holland where ’twas caught
(I should not say it came, for it was brought);
To-morrow we’re to have it at Crane-Court,37
And ’tis a reptile of so strange a sort,
That if ’tis cut in two, it is not dead;
Its head shoots out a tail, its tail a head;
Take out its middle and observe its ends,
Here a head rises, there a tail descends;
Or cut off any part that you desire,
That part extends and makes itself entire:
But what it feeds on still remains a doubt,
Or how it generates is not found out:
But at our Board to-morrow ’twill appear,
And then ’twill be consider’d and made clear,
For all the learned body will be there.’
‘Lord, I must see it, or I’m undone’,
The Duchess cry’d, ‘Pray, can’t you get me one?
I never heard of such a thing before,
I long to cut it and make fifty more;
I’d have a cage made up in taste for mine,
And, Dicky—you shall give me a design.’38

Across Europe, nobody could resist the tale of the mysterious

polyp which rose like a Phoenix even after being destroyed. But


Trembley’s experiments were not just diverting parlour tricks.

Beyond Trembley’s results lay troubling questions. Although
Trembley himself was careful to avoid philosophical speculation
in his published work, the final lines of Réaumur’s report pub-
lished in March  in the Histoire de l’Académie des Sciences hinted
at the bigger issues behind Trembley’s experiments. The report
suggested that Trembley’s results might be used to answer ques-
tions about how animals generate and how they are related to
plants, before trailing off with the line, ‘et peut-être sur des
matières encore plus élevées’—‘and perhaps about still higher
matters’. This implication of ‘higher matters’ was tantalizing to
readers whose minds would have instantly started spinning
towards questions of materialism and vitalism. The stand-off
between these two philosophies was one of the key ideological
clashes of the Enlightenment.
Materialism, in its most basic form, is the belief that all that
exists in the world is matter or energy. This philosophy has a long
history stretching back as far as Greek philosophers like Epicurus
but its most famous exponent in the classical world was the
Roman philosopher-poet Lucretius. His poem De rerum natura
(which I discussed in Chapter ) explained concepts like
atomism—the belief that the world contains only atoms and
the spaces between atoms. In the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries, materialism manifested itself in the study of life
through the idea of the ‘animal machine’ as proposed by Des-
cartes (also discussed in Chapter ). Many believed that living
beings were designed by God at the beginning of the world,
they conformed to a particular pattern, and functioned as perfect
little machines. In Descartes’s theory, the physical body worked
like a machine, but the non-material soul could act independently


of the laws of nature. But suddenly, with the results of Trembley’s

polyp experiments, there appeared some problems: did the ability
of matter to re-grow itself imply that it contained some kind of
active property, independent of God? Therefore, did Trembley’s
experiment count as a creation event without any input from
God? If God was dispensable here, was he dispensable elsewhere?
Furthermore, if you cut a polyp in two and each part re-grew into
a fully functioning individual, was the soul also split in two? Did it
then ‘re-grow’ in each new polyp?
Some more hardcore materialists had a solution to these ques-
tions. The philosopher Julien Offray de la Mettrie (–)
believed that the soul was not distinct from the matter that
made up a living being. If this was the case then it was impossible
to separate matter and the soul: the division of the polyp into two
or more parts without the loss of life seemed to prove that the
soul was inherent in matter and, furthermore, that the soul was
divisible. De la Mettrie took this idea one step further in his 
book L’Homme machine. Published just a few years after Trembley’s
book on polyps, L’Homme machine suggested that not only was the
animal soul a function of matter, but that this was also true of the
human soul. This view naturally attracted much hostility, espe-
cially from the Christian Churches which pointed out the danger
of trying to determine the nature of the soul from natural history
experiments rather than through the words of Scripture or divine
revelation. The Journal de Trévoux, run by Jesuits, was a particularly
fierce opponent of the rise of these kinds of materialist views. But
despite their opposition, materialism flourished. It was especially
popular in the salons of Enlightenment Paris and one salon in
particular stood out as a hotbed of materialism—that of Paul
Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach (–). The fabulously wealthy


d’Holbach—philosopher, encyclopedist, atheist, and associate of

Enlightenment figures such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (–)
and Denis Diderot—published Système de la nature anonymously in
. This book used scientific findings from the previous dec-
ades, alongside philosophical arguments, to argue that there was
no God, no soul, just matter obeying physical laws.
On the other side of the debate stood vitalism. This philoso-
phy, again with ancient roots, stated that there was something
special about living matter. It had a quality that made it different
from non-living matter. A living being was not, no matter what
the likes of d’Holbach said, just a collection of particles respond-
ing to physical stimuli. A living being had some kind of ‘spirit’ or
vital force that distinguished it from inanimate objects. Vitalism,
though it had been around for a long time, grew in popularity in
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in response to the views
of Descartes and the materialists. And while materialists like de la
Mettrie argued that the regeneration of the polyp showed that the
soul was not an ethereal spirit, but just a function of matter,
vitalists like Johann Freidrich Blumenbach (–) disagreed.
In , Blumenbach, who was already familiar with Trembley’s
work, cut up polyps himself and watched as they regenerated. From
his work he developed a theory of Bildungstrieb—formative drive—a
theory of vital forces. The regeneration of polyps, believed Blumen-
bach, showed that there was a vital force in living tissue. Quite what
this force was, was the subject of some debate. Questions about
whether life is best described as a mechanical process, or as some-
thing driven by an unquantifiable spark of life, endured for centur-
ies, and the debate continues today. Though it was not his intention,
Trembley’s experiments had opened the floodgates for new debates
about the nature of the world, of life, and of the soul.


The simplicity of Trembley’s experiments, the fact that they

needed neither specialist apparatus nor expensive techniques, and
the abundance of polyps (and other zoophytes) in the world,
meant that Trembley’s findings could be easily shared, under-
stood, popularized, and replicated. But still the problem of con-
clusively deciding if the polyp was an animal or a plant remained.
If physiology couldn’t answer the question, naturalists would
have to look for new ways to solve this age-old riddle. The
ideas of Aristotle, which had remained in place for , years,
were about to be challenged by a new way to define the animal
and plant kingdoms—their chemistry.

John Ellis and the chemical animal

This is the start of the story of how animals came to be distin-
guished from plants by their chemical make-up, rather than by
their movements, their senses, or their mode of life. Nowadays,
biologists call something a plant if it has chloroplasts, if it has cell
walls, or if it can photosynthesize; and if a living being does not
have chloroplasts etc. it must be an animal.39 We’ve become used
to the idea that this is the most logical way to distinguish the
kingdoms of the natural world. But for the majority of the history
of the life sciences, these would have seemed arbitrary, unnatural,
and rather narrow means of telling a plant from an animal. Most of
these methods need to be mediated through scientific apparatus—
we cannot see cell walls with the naked eye, we cannot see photo-
synthesis taking place, we can see chloroplasts insofar as they
produce the green colour present in many leaves, but there are
green things in nature that are clearly not plants (parrots and
aphids spring to mind); this way of delineating plants and animals


only makes sense if we trust the theories of invisible atoms and

molecules more than we trust our own senses. In the eighteenth
century, with the rise of the chemical sciences, this kind of thinking
was just beginning to take hold.
This part of the story also begins, like so many stories involving
zoophytes, on the sea shore. This time we are in England, where
John Ellis (c.–) is about to find some odd and beautiful
things on that shore that will lead him to question the wisdom
of Aristotle and begin the work that will come to redefine the
animal and plant kingdoms.
Ellis was born in Ireland but spent most of his life in London.
There, he began his career as an apprentice to a cloth-maker
before setting up a textile business of his own and becoming
reasonably wealthy. Ellis’s wealth allowed him sufficient time and
resources to indulge his principal interest—the popular eight-
eenth-century pursuit of natural history. Ellis was interested in
many branches of natural history and was well known to con-
temporary naturalists; in  he was elected a fellow of the Royal
Society of London and in  he published his first major work:
Natural history of the corallines.40 A coralline is another zoophyte: at
first sight, it has the appearance of a plant, but closer inspection
muddies the waters, as Ellis was to discover. Ellis’s book on these
strange objects was one of the first original British publications
on zoophytes since Trembley’s results had sparked interest in
these creatures; it set the standard for British works on zoophytes
and was still being referenced by naturalists well into the nine-
teenth century.
In the introduction, Ellis described how he had become inter-
ested in zoophytes; despite the fact that many found them ugly,
he had first been drawn to them for aesthetic reasons. In  a


friend had sent him some sea-plants and corallines. Ellis had
preserved them and arranged them in a frame to form a land-
scape, a not uncommon eighteenth-century pursuit. The natural
philosopher Stephen Hales had seen this and suggested that Ellis
make some for his patron the Princess Dowager of Wales (the
mother of the future King George III) who had an interest in such
things. Thus encouraged, Ellis began to collect seriously and to
travel in search of more specimens of coralline. As he gathered
more and more specimens, Ellis realized that he needed to classify
them to make the collection manageable, and so he set about
differentiating them. The first question to ask was ‘animal, vege-
table, mineral?’ and so Ellis began by determining whether each
specimen was a plant or an animal. Examining his specimens
more closely, Ellis found something unusual—that even though
many corallines had the apparent form of plants, when he looked
at them through his microscope, they had an unusual texture, not
known in the plant kingdom. He wrote that ‘[their] texture was
such, as seemed to indicate their being more of an animal, than
vegetable nature’.
And so Ellis stumbled upon the problem of distinguishing
animal from vegetable. He created three categories into which
to place his problematic ‘sea-plants’: those that he considered
animal; those that he considered plant; and a third class, ‘which
seemed to partake of the Nature of both’.41 Why was it that the
texture of the corallines (which wasn’t something that had fea-
tured in the definitions of Aristotle or Trembley) caused Ellis to
question the idea that corallines were plants? The answer is to be
found in the improved microscopes and more reliable chemical
analysis in this period. These two innovations allowed Ellis and
his contemporaries to develop new ways of studying organisms


and thinking about animal nature. Because the coralline was

entirely devoid of a digestive system or powers of sensation or
motion, its texture and the chemistry of its surface layer were the
only obvious non-vegetable feature, and so they became central
to its classification.
In addition to their unusual texture, caused by a problematic
layer of a calcium-based substance, corallines differed from sea-
plants due to the presence of what was then known as a ‘volatile
salt’ in their chemical make-up. In modern terms, a volatile salt is
a kind of ammonium carbonate. Though not chemically identi-
fied as such in the period, many of its properties were known and
it was an increasingly important compound: it was just beginning
to be considered indicative of animal life. The presence of this
‘animal salt’ could be confirmed through chemical analysis; but
because this analysis was an expensive and lengthy process
requiring great chemical expertise, some naturalists resorted to
a cheaper and simpler method of testing for the presence of so-
called animal chemicals—fire. Burning a small sample would
yield a very particular smell associated with animal matter; any-
one who’s ever accidently put their hair too close to a candle will
know this unpleasant scent. Ellis himself described the smell of a
burnt coralline as ‘resembling that of a burnt Horn’ and con-
cluded from this that corallines, though they looked like plants,
could not be said to be entirely vegetable.42
The idea that there were chemical distinctions between animals
and plants had been gaining ground throughout the eighteenth
century. The famous Swedish botanist and taxonomist Carl
Linnæus (–) was one notable believer. Ellis and Linnæus
were friends and frequent correspondents and they discussed this
question in their private letters, as well as in their published


works. Both men believed that all calcium-based substances were

of animal origin. In a  letter to Ellis, written just as Ellis was
publishing some of his most important results on the chemistry
of corallines, Linnæus reaffirmed his belief ‘that corallines belong
to the animal kingdom . . . on account of their calcareous crust . . .
lime is never produced by vegetables, but by animals only’.43
But what of the older definitions of the plant and animal
kingdoms? What about motion and sensation and digestion and
procreation—those old Aristotelian markers of an animal? They
weren’t abandoned entirely by the modern animal-chemists. Just
a few years earlier, in , Linnæus wrote to Ellis that he believed
that a nervous system, the ability to feel, and the ability to move
were what separated a plant from an animal. This was all well and
good when considering a horse or a beech tree, but Linnæus did
not appear to regard the corallines’ lack of a nervous system or
the absence of voluntary motion as an impediment to calling
them animal. In the case of zoophytes, so difficult to get to grips
with, different criteria of animality were applied to different
species. Corallines especially, which Ellis considered ‘the most
difficult part of all the zoophytes to explain’, were troublesome
to classify based on simple observation and so were more often
subjected to chemical and microscopic analysis than other
Not everyone agreed with Ellis that the corallines’ chemistry
indicated that they were truly animal. In , the German natur-
alist Peter Simon Pallas (–) published a work called Elen-
chus zoophytorum. Pallas believed that corallines were vegetable: he
had burned corallines and thought that they smelled like plant
matter; he performed chemical analysis and found no volatile salt.
But Ellis’s research contradicted this and in  Ellis published a


letter he had written to Linnæus in the Royal Society’s journal

Philosophical Transactions in which he directly tackled Pallas’s
This letter described how Ellis had performed several public
experiments in which he burned corallines and plants to demon-
strate the very different smells produced—when he burned a
piece of coralline ‘it filled the room with such an offensive smell
like that of burnt bones, or hair, that the door was obliged to be
opened, to dissipate the disagreeable scent, and let in fresh air’.44
Ellis continued the letter by dealing with Pallas’s claims that
corallines did not contain any volatile salt. Here, Ellis requested
the assistance of the chemist Peter Woulfe (?–). Woulfe,
like Ellis, was an Irishman living in London and a fellow of the
Royal Society. He had studied chemistry in Paris, and mineralogy
in France, Germany, Hungary, and Bohemia; he was regarded as
one of the great chemists of his day, if a little eccentric. Woulfe
was known as an inventor and improver of compound distilla-
tion apparatus45—and distillation was the key technique in prov-
ing or disproving the existence of volatile salts in a sample.
Ellis obtained a sample of corallina officinalis through another
fellow of the Royal Society, the Earl of Hillsborough, who had
estates by the coast near Harwich. Ellis then sent the coralline to
Woulfe’s laboratory in Clerkenwell for analysis; over the course
of about two months Woulfe performed a series of distillations
on samples of the corallines. The samples were distilled in three
stages: first they were heated gently for eight hours; then they
were heated at a higher temperature for six hours; finally the
temperature was increased again and the sample heated for a
further six hours. At the end of each stage, Woulfe would extract
and set aside the liquids and crystals produced by the distillations.


The liquid produced during the first stage ‘slightly effervesced

with spirit of salt, and changed syrup of violets green, certain
proofs of a volatile alkali’, said Woulfe. The distillates produced
during the second and third stages reacted more strongly with a
compound called spirit of salt, showing that they too contained
volatile alkalis. Woulfe remarked that ‘had this distillation been
conducted in a hurry, there would have been no concrete volatile
alkali; for then this would have been confounded and dissolved in
the first liquor that came over’. This explained why Pallas had not
found volatile salts in corallines. After several sets of such ana-
lysis, Woulfe felt confident in his findings and in May  sent
the results of his experiments to Ellis at his house in Gray’s Inn.
Now Ellis had the proof he needed. He included Woulfe’s work,
recounted verbatim, in his letter to Linnæus. In this letter, Ellis
also deconstructed Pallas’s arguments about the pore size of
corallines, their places of habitation, and their manner of repro-
duction. On each point, Ellis argued for the animal nature of the
organism where Pallas had insisted upon it being a vegetable. But
for Ellis, the proof regarding chemistry and texture was the most
compelling evidence for the animal nature of the corallines. He
encouraged the fellows of the Royal Society ‘to analyse these
bodies chemically, and with care; and likewise to view them
with the same attention, that I have done, in the microscope; if
so, I am perswaded they will be of our opinion’.46
But there was another obstacle Ellis had to overcome before he
could confidently claim that chemistry had solved the problem of
deciding what, exactly, a zoophyte was. Ellis may have been able
to prove that his coralline samples contained a volatile salt but,
to a naturalist who considered the presence of a digestive system
or the power of motion to be the defining characteristic of an


animal, Ellis’s results would have been utterly meaningless. The

use of chemistry to define the animal and vegetable kingdoms
was still controversial in eighteenth-century natural history. The
community of naturalists was divided on whether there was an
innate chemical difference between a plant and an animal. For
example, while the Dutch physiologist Jan Ingenhousz (–),
referring to his work on pond slime, wrote ‘only a weak argument
can be drawn from chemical analysis, a fallible conjecture, in
judging if a substance is animal or vegetable’, the Italian naturalist
Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli (–) declared that ‘chemical
analysis must terminate the question so often asked, that is, if
coral is or is not a plant’.47
But as the century progressed and chemistry developed further,
increasing trust was placed in the study of life using the fledgling
methods of chemistry. Naturalists were not about to give up
more traditional methods, such as observation, entirely but
chemistry gained respect. Even Ellis himself knew the value of
observation, and when faced with a zoophyte such as the so-
called animal-flower, recently discovered in the West Indies, he
studied it closely—its mode of life (clustered like a plant sharing
roots), its means of nutrition (through a mouth and digestive tract
like an animal)—before declaring it an animal (Figure ).48
Ellis, like Trembley, was a cautious man of science. He per-
formed many observations and experiments before publishing
any results. Based in conservative England instead of radical
France, he rarely discussed the wider implications of his work
openly. He knew what a philosophical minefield the study of
zoophytes could be, and he was aware that answering ques-
tions about the nature of life using chemical analysis could be


Fig. . A clustered animal-flower from the West Indies. This creature had
shared roots like a plant, but ate like an animal.

Just as the materialists insisted that the universe was nothing

more than matter and energy, chemistry too could be a tool in
reducing life to its mere elements. Today, we define organic
material as that which contains certain carbon-based molecules.
We marvel at the ability of carbon to form complex long-chain
structures without which life as we know it would simply not
exist. But just as materialism threatened to undermine religious
belief, and to create a world in which God was not absolutely
necessary, chemical reductionism had the power to render life
little more than a chemical process. Defining life in chemical terms,
rather than using traditional characteristics such as the ability


to grow or reproduce, was distasteful to many in the eighteenth

century; but, as chemistry increased in status and sophistication,
and as Enlightenment ideas rolled out across Europe, the new ideas
of Ellis and his contemporaries slowly began to take root.

Classifying the unclassifiable

In this century of Enlightenment, where rational thought was
prized above all, the idea of order was of paramount importance.
Ordering and classifying the natural world became an obsession
of many eighteenth-century naturalists so zoophytes, which by
their very nature were impossible to classify neatly, caused par-
ticular problems. It might be thought that the basic question of
whether zoophytes should be classed as animal or plant was
problem enough for naturalists to deal with, but it gave rise to
an even more tangled question—could any man-made system
ever accommodate all of nature? This question was of interest not
just to men of science and members of elite scientific societies,
but also to a wider public. Books by writers like the celebrated
French naturalist Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon
(–) and the well-known playwright Oliver Goldsmith
(c.–) caught the public imagination and the popularity of
these books shows the appeal of the zoophyte question, and of
taxonomy—the science of classification.
Eighteenth-century Europe, even with some Enlightenment
philosophers beginning to espouse agnostic or atheistic views,
was still a profoundly religious place and many believed that
there was a natural, God-given order in the plant and animal
kingdoms. But though this order might exist; humans, with
their imperfect faculties and inability to truly understand the


mind of God, could only ever discover a rough approximation of

that order. And though naturalists strove to describe accurately
the order of the world around them, the majority believed that
any attempt to discover that order could only result in an artificial
system. There was a natural ‘chain of being’ that connected all of
creation, but there was no easy way for humans to describe it. The
chain of being was supposed to be made of species separated
from each other by only tiny gradations. As more species were
discovered, and as new species could be shown to overlap
between two other species, the gaps in the chain were slowly
filled. Zoophytes were particularly useful in linking species
together, and particularly difficult to classify into genus, order,
or class—so, for some naturalists, they were further evidence that
there was a complete chain of being but that it was impossible to
fit this natural chain into an artificial system. The vastness of
creation, however, meant that any naturalist wishing to make
sense of the world was obliged to divide nature into workable
This led to some discord between supporters of so-called
‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ systems of classification. Artificial systems
chose a small number of characteristics of a plant or animal and
grouped species together based on those characteristics alone. For
example, the famous Linnean system of classification, first pub-
lished in , used the number of stamens and pistils in the centre
of a flower to classify the entire vegetable kingdom. The advan-
tage of this was its simplicity, but it often led to incongruous
groupings.49 Natural systems, such as that developed by French
naturalist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (–), were based on
multiple characteristics of a plant. A plant’s roots, stems, leaves,
flowers, seeds were all taken into consideration before it was


classified. This led to more sensible groupings, but the natural

method was time-consuming and required much more expertise
in botany than artificial systems.
Nowadays there are nine levels of classification in use for living
beings: domain, kingdom, phylum, subphylum, class, order, fam-
ily, genus, species. So a person, for example, is currently classified
like this: eukarya (a group whose cells have nuclei), animal,
chordate (meaning that embryos possess a notochord which
helps surrounding tissue develop in a particular pattern), verte-
brate, mammal, primate, hominoid, Homo, Homo sapiens. In the
eighteenth century, there were five levels of classification: king-
dom, class, order, genus, species. It was a reasonably popular
belief, particularly among French naturalists like Buffon, that
the lower divisions of taxonomic systems (such as species)
might be real, natural groups, but that higher divisions (such as
genus, order, and class) must be artificial constructs.
Whether it was out of a spirit of rational Enlightenment
enquiry, or to better understand the mind of God through his
creation, it was of vital importance in eighteenth-century society
to know the order of nature. Could the humble zoophyte help
solve the puzzle? Or would it just complicate things further?
The question was not just for elite academics in their studies,
laboratories, or gardens. It was a popular topic and the subject of
some of the best-selling books of the century. Classification of the
natural world was a craze that swept across Europe, particularly
after Linnæus’ easy-to-use botanical system was published in .
Linnæus’ system (which I will discuss in more detail in Chapter ),
unlike the ‘natural’ systems it competed against, did not require a
university education or knowledge of Latin or Greek, and so the
science of botany became accessible to women, children, and the


labouring and middle classes. This caused a boom in the field and
stirred interest in the big questions of natural science.
But Linnæus was not the only one with something to say about
the order of the natural world and he found a worthy rival in
Buffon. Buffon was a notable figure of the French Enlightenment.
Born in  in Burgundy, his father a lawyer in the Burgundy
parliament and a collector of salt tax, his mother the niece of
another wealthy tax collector, Buffon’s origins were avowedly
ancien régime. Educated in a Jesuit school, the young Buffon
showed an early flair for mathematics, but on leaving school
and enrolling at university in Dijon, he followed his father into
law. Although Buffon obtained a law degree in , it seems that
he had spent most of his undergraduate years pursuing natural
philosophy and mathematics and upon graduation decided to
make his name in the sciences. Buffon began corresponding
with some of the elite mathematicians of Europe, went on the
requisite Grand Tour of Europe, and by  had settled in Paris.
There, he was elected a fellow of the Académie des Sciences and
shortly afterwards began to develop his interest in natural history.
Beginning with experiments in forestry, Buffon then moved on to
plant physiology and by the end of the s had begun to make a
name for himself in botany. In  when the intendant of Paris’s
prestigious botanic garden, the Jardin du Roi, died suddenly, Buffon
was appointed to succeed him and remained in the post until his
own death in .50 The Jardin was one of the major centres of
botany in Europe, and thanks to its links with the apothecaries’
garden in Nantes (home of France’s largest seaport which was
flourishing due to the expansion of empire and increased trade,
including a major slave trade) it was able to cultivate an increasing
number of exotic species. Buffon’s position here allowed him


unprecedented access to specimens and he quickly became one of

the most respected naturalists in Europe.
As well as being an elite man of science, Buffon was one of the
most popular natural history writers of the mid-eighteenth cen-
tury. This was an accolade he shared with Linnæus. But though
both were seen as gurus of natural knowledge, the rivalry
between them was intense. Where Linnæus preached his artificial
system, Buffon, in the French tradition, argued that it was impos-
sible to truly classify nature in such a strict and constrained
system. Shortly after taking up his position in the Jardin du Roi,
Buffon began publishing his Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière
in the s and this epic, -volume work became one of the key
texts of the century. In the book’s introductory ‘Premier discours’,
directly opposing the work of Linnæus, Buffon questioned the
very idea of classification in natural history—a courageous move
in this century of taxonomy. Though the ‘Premier discours’ was
controversial, many readers were highly enamoured of Buffon’s
wonderful descriptions and illustrations of thousands of species
of mammal, bird, fish, and reptile. The work, often abridged into
more manageable editions, began to appear in translation all
across Europe and quickly became a best-seller.
Buffon began his momentous book with a discussion of the
kingdoms of nature; he was interested in the relationships, simi-
larities, and differences between plants and animals. He named
three possible characteristics for distinguishing the kingdoms: the
power of progressive motion; the ability to experience sensation;
and mode of nutrition. But each of these characteristics came
with its own problems; the oyster, for example, was incapable of
progressive motion and yet Buffon clearly couldn’t classify it as a
plant. With this and hundreds more examples in mind, Buffon


gave up his hopes of finding a clear distinction between the plant

and animal kingdoms. Instead, he wrote:

From this investigation we are led to conclude, that there is no

absolute and essential distinction between the animal and vege-
table kingdoms; but that nature proceeds by imperceptible degrees
from the most perfect to the most imperfect animal, and from that
to the vegetable.51

So this giant of natural history publishing believed that perhaps

there was no such thing as a rigidly defined kingdom. He spoke of
‘imperceptible degrees’ between the kingdoms—lots of tiny rungs
along the chain of being linking animal and vegetable. Perhaps
this was where zoophytes fitted in—they did not need to be
strictly classified as an animal or a vegetable—they could exist
happily in the grey area in between.
The more he thought about the problem, the more Buffon
became convinced that the division between animal and vege-
table was an artificial one. Animals and plants had much in
common—the need for food, the need for air, the ways they
generated and grew. Thinking about generation and growth,
Buffon could even see overlap between humans and the plant
kingdom: echoing an ancient passage from Aristotle, he wrote:
‘the foetus, in its first formation, may be rather said to vegetate
than to live.’ A bold statement, but one that is not far removed
from debates that still rage today.
Yet despite his grand theories about the nature of life, Buffon
needed a practical way to deal with the massive number of
specimens that passed through the Jardin. So in reality he had to
use the categories of animal, vegetable, and mineral to group
objects in the Jardin and its associated museums housing animal
and mineral material. Still he maintained his theory that there was


a continuum of life; later in Histoire naturelle he reaffirmed that

animation was a property common to all matter, but that it was
not equally distributed across the chain of being. Levels of ani-
mation varied slowly as one moved along the chain. Buffon used
the metaphor of sleep to convey this, saying that an oyster, seem-
ing not to possess a sense of touch or the power of motion, was
like a sleeping animal. Going one step further, he asserted that a
plant is like an animal in a very deep sleep indeed. They are not of
different kind, just possessed of different degrees of animation.
Although naturalists in England tended to shy away from such
grand theories, Buffon’s work was still popular among them—
but primarily for its descriptions rather than its theorizing. We
see this by the omission of the controversial ‘Premier discours’
from all three major English translations. Another example of this
is to be found in the work of Oliver Goldsmith.
Goldsmith, like Ellis and Woulfe, was born in Ireland but spent
much of his life abroad, mostly in London. He had studied
medicine in Edinburgh and Leiden but when his medical career
foundered he found work writing for journals such as the Monthly
Review and the Critical Review, and began to establish his reputation
as an author, poet, and playwright. He is most famous today for
the plays She Stoops to Conquer and The Good-Natur’d Man, and the
novel The Vicar of Wakefield. In  Goldsmith was commissioned
by the publisher William Griffin to write an eight-volume natural
history for a fee of  guineas. This work appeared in  under
the title An history of the earth, and animated nature. Goldsmith’s
background was more literary than scientific and he intended
the book to appeal to a wide audience. This plan clearly suc-
ceeded: the book was so popular that it was reprinted more than
 times in the next three-quarters of a century.


As was common in eighteenth-century natural history, Gold-

smith began his task by looking to the past for inspiration. He
was much taken with Pliny’s Naturalis historia. This wide-ranging
exploration of the natural world was written with warmth and
intimacy. Just as eighteenth-century writers like Goldsmith were
seeing new wonders pouring into Europe as explorers discovered
new lands, so Pliny was writing at a time when the Roman Empire
was expanding and new finds were arriving in Rome from Africa
and the East. Goldsmith’s initial intention was to simply translate
Pliny’s work. But then, as more and more volumes of Buffon’s
Histoire naturelle were published, Goldsmith changed his plan and
took inspiration to write an original work, heavily inspired by the
French savant.
There were a few points on which Goldsmith disagreed with
Buffon. For a start, like most English-based naturalists, he was not
prepared to completely abandon classification systems. But he did
concede that many systems were flawed and that these flaws
often showed up most clearly when naturalists tried to fit newly
discovered species into them. So it was with the polyp. In the
mid-eighteenth century, many naturalists found their reliable
definitions of plant and animal overthrown, and their favourite
systems unable to accommodate these strange new creatures.
Like so many before him, Goldsmith found himself debating
the nature of the kingdoms and the definitions of plant and
animal. For many readers, drawn in by his clear prose and simple
explanations, Goldsmith was the most accessible route into these
debates. Although he acknowledged that there was much overlap
between the two kingdoms, he hadn’t been able to let go of the
idea that there was, somewhere, a clear boundary that demarcated
one from the other. For Goldsmith, the lowest animal was ranked


far above the highest plant. Until, that is, he began to really think
about the problem of the zoophyte.
In his research for this book, Goldsmith studied the work of
Trembley and Réaumur. He was fascinated by the way polyps
could reproduce by dividing. This feat, which he called ‘the
astonishment of all the learned of Europe’, was still compelling
to his audience almost  years after Trembley had published his
initial findings. And it was still just as mysterious. Even the tiniest
cutting could grow into a fully functioning polyp. Goldsmith
instilled in his audience a proper sense of wonder through his
descriptions of Trembley’s work to demonstrate the animality
and vivacity of the polyp, despite their unusual means of
Goldsmith also discussed Ellis’s work on zoophytes—
particularly on the so-called animal-flower, recently discovered
in the West Indies, and on sponges. Goldsmith took Ellis’s work
on these two kinds of zoophyte, both published originally in the
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, and remoulded it for a
popular audience. Goldsmith agreed with Ellis’s findings on the
strangely beautiful animal-flowers—they were essentially an ani-
mal. But sponges were more difficult. Aristotle had long ago
declared they were a kind of animal, but still the debate was not
Aristotle, you may recall, considered the sponge to be a sta-
tionary animal endowed with sensation—‘this’, he declared, ‘is
indicated by the fact that it is more difficult to dislodge, unless the
effort to do so is made surreptitiously’.52 Two millennia later, in
the s, Ellis and his contemporaries were still struggling to
confirm if this was really the case. Ellis had examined many
sponges and yet could not give a satisfactory account of them.


He suspected, comparing them to other life-forms found in the

seas, that they might be some kind of construction made by
animals. So in the same way that the shell of a snail or bivalve
is constructed by an animal living within it, Ellis thought that
some animal was building sponges. But he was unable to prove
this or to find the creatures responsible. A decade later, in ,
Ellis revisited this problem with a paper in the Philosophical Trans-
actions about sponges. Ellis spent much of his time pursuing
fieldwork on the coasts of Britain, and had spent the summer of
 on the Sussex seashore with his old friend Daniel Solander,
former student of Linnæus and soon-to-be assistant naturalist on
HMS Endeavour’s voyage to Tahiti. Ellis and Solander would take
sponges from the sea, place them in salt-water-filled glass ves-
sels, and observe that the sponges opened and shut their surface
pores but that no smaller animals were seen to reside there. Ellis
had been busy observing sponges but despite his best efforts,
he had been unable to observe the little animals he had
once suspected of being behind their construction, so he aban-
doned that theory due to lack of evidence and developed
another. Ellis posited that the sponge itself was an animal and
that the visible pores on its surface were in fact mouths through
which it fed.53
Goldsmith, engrossed by Ellis’s work, and intrigued by the
identity of the sponge, read on. He learned that Ellis was becom-
ing increasingly convinced that sponges were ‘the lowest being
that I have yet observed to have the appearance of animal life’.54
Ellis’s fieldwork continued throughout the s and he built up
more and more observations that confirmed his theory. He saw
the pores on the surface of the sponge dilate and contract—a
form of movement, and so perhaps indicative of animal life. He


also saw sponges take in food through these small pores, and later
excrete waste through them—evidence of a digestive system and
another indication of the animal nature of the sponge. Fascinated
by this story, Goldsmith included a whole chapter on sponges in
An history of the earth, and animated nature and described the cutting-
edge research undertaken by Ellis just a few years before to
remove sponges from the plant kingdom.
Goldsmith’s study of Trembley’s and Ellis’s research meant that
he had had to rethink his belief in a distinct gap between the two
kingdoms when he came to the zoophyte problem. He came to
believe that zoophytes were neither members of the animal nor
vegetable kingdom; instead, they occupied a grey area between
the kingdoms or, as he put it, zoophytes were ‘a set of creatures
placed between animals and vegetables, and make the shade that
connects animated and insensible nature’.55 It was through Gold-
smith’s work that many readers first encountered the findings of
naturalists like Trembley and Ellis. It was Goldsmith’s readable
prose that drew the public and sought to unravel the mysteries of
zoophytes. And it was discussions like these that really got people
thinking about the order of nature and the divisions between the
Goldsmith’s book sold well enough to be reprinted many
times. It was popular not just with the reading public but also
with other natural history authors who freely borrowed Gold-
smith’s words and ideas.56 Healthy sales of the book well into the
nineteenth century, and appropriation of its contents by other
authors, show how important Goldsmith’s book was, how big a
public appetite there was for this kind of natural history, and how
intriguing the problem of the zoophyte was for the ordinary


The writings of Buffon, Goldsmith, and many others on zoo-

phytes undermined the clear-cut boundaries that had for so long
neatly separated the animal and plant kingdoms. These peculiar
creatures were not compatible with the sharp divisions of nature
that so many craved and seemed to indicate a continuum
between all species. Most zoophytes seemed small and insignifi-
cant, living as they did in pond slime or in the crevices of rocky
shores, but these odd beings had the power to dramatically
change conceptions of the natural world; they forced eight-
eenth-century thinkers to abandon centuries-old beliefs about
the essence of life and allowed people to begin to re-imagine
the relationships between living beings.
The problems thrown up by zoophytes are still intriguing
today. What child has not been fascinated by the idea of cutting
an earthworm in two and watching each half become an individ-
ual, and continue its life as though little had happened? Though
far too squeamish and soft-hearted to try this myself as a child,
I remember the sense of magic, the sense of wonder at the ability
to create new life, that I felt when I heard this was possible. That
same sense of wonder overcame the people of Europe when they
heard of Trembley’s polyp. But beyond that simple, almost child-
like sense of wonder, lurked questions that could lead to troub-
ling answers. How was life generated? Was the formation of two
beings, where once there had been one, an act of creation? If so,
how was God involved? Or might this count as an act of creation
without the involvement of God? If a being was split in two,
could its soul also be split in two? How did this affect philosoph-
ical debates about materialism? And, most troubling of all, if God
wasn’t necessary for the creation of new life, where did that leave
his universe?


The simplicity of Trembley’s experiments combined with the

potentially explosive answers to the questions his work raised
caught the scientific imagination of Europe and started a new
debate. Initially centred around the question of a boundary
between the plant and animal kingdoms, it went on to have
much bigger religious and social implications.


The Creation of New Life

Linnæus and the new order

I n Småland, an isolated and sparsely populated province in

southern Sweden, there once grew a tree so wondrous that
the local villagers believed it had magical powers. This linden tree
had three trunks, and it was thought that the fate of the tree was
tied to the fates of the families who farmed the land where it grew.
In honour of the tree, some of the local men invented new family
names for themselves. One man chose the name Lindelius.57
Another chose Tiliander. A third chose Linnæus—and so he
became known as Nils Ingemarsson Linnæus, and when his son
was born, he was christened Carl Linnæus. Carl Linnæus, named
after a magical tree, would go on to become one of the most
famous botanists of the eighteenth century, and one of the most
prolific namers of plants.
The young Linnæus grew up in his father’s parsonage in the
small town of Stenbrohult, three newly planted linden trees
growing in the garden to commemorate the family name. His
father instilled in him a love of natural history, and when he was


old enough to go to university, Linnæus chose to study medicine

rather than take the traditional family degree of theology (a fact
that had to be kept secret from his deeply devout mother for a
year). In the days before the invention of science degrees, a
medical degree was a popular choice for young men interested
in the natural world. Most of Linnæus’ medical studies were
undertaken at Uppsala and by , only in his second year, he
had impressed his professors enough to be given a teaching post
in the university’s botanical garden. When that post came to an
end, Linnæus decided to travel, but he eschewed the popular
Grand Tour of Europe for a trek into the remote northern terri-
tories of Sweden. Linnæus intended to spend six months in
Lapland learning about the native flowers, animals, landscapes,
and people. The Royal Society of Science in Uppsala sponsored
his trip. Afterwards, he produced fantastic charts, journals, and
maps detailing his adventures. Sadly, most of the documents
were fakes. Linnæus had spent only eighteen days in Lapland
and had invented most of his tales to impress his sponsors and
scientific colleagues. But this fraud wasn’t discovered until many
years later, and Linnæus’ successful scientific career continued.
After returning from northern Sweden, he next ventured to
the Netherlands—an important centre for medical teaching—
to complete his degree at Harderwijk.58
The Netherlands were the perfect place for an aspiring botanist
to make a name for himself; even with the height of the tulip
craze long past, horticulture remained a serious pursuit. Linnæus
finished his degree quickly and then turned his attention to his
true passion—botanical classification. One of the biggest prob-
lems facing botany at this time was the sheer volume of speci-
mens to be recorded, named, sorted, and arranged. Not only were


there thousands of European species (each known by multiple

names) but each day new specimens poured into the Dutch
Republic from far-flung corners of the world. Linnæus had
already been thinking for some years about how best to classify
the vegetable kingdom. As a student, he had learned Tournefort’s
‘natural’ system, but he found it unwieldy and began thinking
about other ways to group plants. In the Netherlands, Linnæus
found support for his ideas about a new classification system and
it was there, in , that he published Systema naturæ.59
This book, only eleven pages long, was one of the most
important scientific works of the eighteenth century. In it, Lin-
næus outlined a system of sexual classification for plants. The
system was based on the premise that plants, like animals, had
sexes. It was a deliberately artificial system that used just one
essential part of the organism to group whole species, genera,
classes, and orders together. Believing that the flower was the
centre of plant sexuality, Linnæus grouped the entire vegetable
kingdom solely on flower-structure. The system rested on the
belief that certain parts of the flower were responsible for repro-
duction and that this reproduction took place in a manner analo-
gous to that in animals—i.e. that both male and female elements
were necessary for the production of offspring. The number and
arrangement of these so-called male and female parts of the
flower (the stamen and pistil, respectively, according to Linnæus)
were used to define taxonomic groups. For example, flowers with
one stamen made up the first class, named monandria, flowers
with two stamens resided in the second class, diandria, and so on.
These classes were then subdivided into orders based on the
number of pistils: the first order was made up of flowers with a
single pistil and called monogynia; each subsequent order


contained an additional pistil (Figure ). This simple system made

botany accessible to many and it could be practically employed
without having to consider any of the deeper implications about
the nature of the vegetable kingdom or its similarities to the
animal kingdom. The Linnean system was prized for its utility,
its simplicity, and its easy applicability. It spread rapidly across
Europe and found a particularly welcoming home in England.
But there was one aspect of the system that raised a few
eyebrows; this was the way in which Linnæus had framed it.
He described relationships between flowers in human terms—
Linnæus’ flowers could love, court, marry, and even engage in
clandestine affairs. Linnæus had named his first class ‘monandria’
which means containing one stamen or, more literally, ‘one man’;
his first order, ‘monogynia’, contained one pistil, or ‘one woman’.
When flowers had multiple stamens and pistils, the system’s
language stretched to accommodate several ‘men’ and ‘women’
co-habiting the same flower. Linnæus went further still in his
anthropomorphism of flowers, here he described the flower as a
marriage bed:

The actual petals of a flower contribute nothing to generation,

serving only as the bridal bed which the great Creator has so
gloriously prepared, adorned with such precious bed-curtains,
and perfumed with so many sweet scents in order that the bride-
groom and bride may therein celebrate their nuptuals with the
greater solemnity.60

By describing these so-called marriages between one wife and

several husbands (or other combinations) in some detail, Linnæus
scandalized many.
Even those who believed in the system often felt the need to
tone down its metaphors. In his Botanical arrangement of British


Fig. . An illustration of the Linnean sexual system of classification. Plants

were classified based on the number of stamens in their flowers. The first
class consisted of plants which had flowers with a single stamen (first
column); the second class consisted of plants which had flowers containing
two stamens (second column); and so on. Order was then determined based
on the number of pistils in a flower. The plant whose flower is shown in
fig.  would have been categorized as ‘class monandria, order monogynia’.
From Carl Linnæus, Systema natura, .


plants, the English botanist William Withering (–) wrote

that he intended to downplay the sexual part of the system for
the benefit of any ladies who might be reading. Likewise, the
Reverend Samuel Goodenough (–) was a firm supporter
of the Linnean classification system but he made several moral
objections to Linnæus’ language.61 A very small number of natur-
alists actively embraced both Linnæus’ system and his racy lan-
guage: most famous of these was Erasmus Darwin (–).62
In , Darwin published his poem The loves of the plants in which
he dramatized Linnæus’ system and described plants as though
they were people engaged in love affairs; this poem, faithful to
many of Linnæus’ ideas and metaphors, was highly controversial.
The controversy was perhaps responsible for the significant suc-
cess and popularity of The loves of the plants.
Language and imagery were not the only controversial parts of
the sexual system; for some, its artificiality was a much larger
philosophical problem. In England, naturalists were often happy
to ignore philosophical issues. Many of the authors who trans-
lated or interpreted Linnæus for an English or British audience
were explicit about this: Withering wrote in the preface to his
Linnean arrangement of British plants that ‘all controversies
about system are here studiously avoided. Mankind are weary of
such unprofitable disputes.’63 Outside England, naturalists were
less forgiving about the artificial nature of the sexual system; the
system was particularly unpopular in France, where desire for a
more natural system was far stronger. But although the artificial-
ity of the system was seen as a great weakness by many of the
more philosophical naturalists, it was perhaps the system’s great-
est strength in the eyes of the practical naturalist. In the eight-
eenth century, natural history became increasingly popular across


broad sections of society. The study of botany was not confined

to a small number of academics, but was practised by ladies in
polite society, staff of royal gardens and cabinets, imperial explor-
ers, working-class botanists who formed and joined natural
history clubs, gentlemen showing their taste and learning, school-
boys indulging their love of collecting, and many others besides.
For these people, who may not have been able to procure or
understand many of the key natural history texts of the time
(which were frequently expensive, written in Latin, or both), the
Linnean system was an accessible route into natural history. Its
simplicity was its key strength; in order to understand and classify
the entire vegetable kingdom, a naturalist simply had to be able to
count the number of stamens and pistils in a flower. The basics of
the system were straightforward enough to be explained in short,
cheap pamphlets and field-books. So while the system may not
have given a true representation of nature, and Linnæus himself
freely admitted this, it had many practical advantages and quickly
gained popularity (Figure ).
But some naturalists asked deeper questions about this sys-
tem. Was it true that one could make a simple analogy between
the plant and animal kingdoms? If you could use analogy to
compare the way plants and animals reproduced, what other
similarities existed between the kingdoms? Did plants really
reproduce sexually? Some naturalists believed not. They set
about undermining the sexual system through ingenious experi-
ments on ordinary plants such as spinach, hemp, and pumpkins
in their gardens and greenhouses. And there were bigger ques-
tions about how new life was generated: how was the spark of
new life created and to what extent was God involved? What
started as a handy system for grouping plants couldn’t help but

Fig. . The popularity of Linnæus’ classification system in fashionable soci-
ety meant that it was often satirized in the popular culture of the day.
Matthew Darly, The flower garden, . This image shows flower beds,
systematically arranged according to a particular taxonomic system (with
their own gardener), atop an elaborate and over-sized example of the kind
of wig worn by society belles.


get tangled up in a web of complex, and perhaps unanswerable,


Do plants have sex?

The belief that plants could be male or female wasn’t entirely new:
naturalists such as Thomas Millington, Nehemiah Grew, and John
Ray in England, Sebastien Vaillant in France, and Rudolf Jakob
Camerarius in Tübingen had suggested plant sexual reproduction
in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Linnæus
built on their work and combined it with the idea of a taxonomic
system based on a single characteristic to create something
original—the sexual system of classification. From as early as
the s, Linnæus had been developing the ideas behind the
system but it was not until  that he fully explained the
reasoning and experiments that had led him to formulate it. In
that year, the Imperial Academy of St Petersburg offered a prize
for the best dissertation on the theory of the sexes of plants. Many
believed that the Academy offered the prize expressly to encour-
age Linnæus to explain his beliefs more fully. Linnæus responded
to the challenge with his Dissertation on the sexes of plants.
This Latin work was translated into English in  by James
Edward Smith (–). Outside Sweden, Linnæus found his
staunchest supporters in England and, among the English, Smith
was perhaps his most dedicated champion. Smith, who would go
on to become guardian of the Linnean collections and founder of
the Linnean Society of London, was born in Norwich, the son of a
wealthy merchant. Norfolk at that time was an active centre for
botany and horticulture and the young Smith was acquainted with
many followers of Linnæus. In , Smith moved to Edinburgh to


study medicine and began attending the botany lectures of Dr John

Hope (–), one of the earliest teachers of the Linnean system
in Britain.64 While in Edinburgh, Smith founded a natural history
society with some friends. Following his time in Scotland, Smith
went to London in  where he studied under the surgeons John
Hunter (–) and William Pitcairn (–) and was introduced
to Sir Joseph Banks, the famous explorer-naturalist and now presi-
dent of the Royal Society, by Hope.65 It was through Banks that
Smith came to own the Linnean collections; the two were break-
fasting together when Banks received a letter offering the collec-
tions for sale. Banks himself did not wish to purchase them, but
suggested that Smith might benefit from owning such a collection.
With a loan from his father, Smith purchased the collections for
£,. These collections consisted of an array of books and objects
collected by Carl Linnæus himself. The largest part of the collection
was botanical, containing over , plant specimens, but it also
contained thousands of fish, shells, insects, , books and over
, letters and manuscripts.
Among the books in the Linnean collection were almost all
of the copies of the original edition of the Dissertation on the sexes
of plants. Captivated by this little book, Smith determined to
popularize it through a translation. He was also keen to defend
his hero against those who might question the sexual system of
classification; for example, when the French naturalist Michel
Adanson (–) attacked the artificiality of the system,
Smith responded with the following tirade:

in spite of all opposition, the system of Linnæus is even now

become universal, every part of the world abounding with his
disciples; while the ‘Familles des Plantes’ of Monsieur Adanson,
professedly written to supersede it, is only occasionally read by


those who are disposed to amuse themselves with whimsical

paradoxes, presenting themselves in a preposterous orthography,
which renders them still more ridiculous and unintelligible.66

This was the kind of ridicule to which one risked exposing oneself
by questioning Linnæus’ doctrine, and yet some did question it.
But before looking at the objectors’ arguments against Linnæus, it
is worth looking at his own explanation of the theory.
A dissertation on the sexes of plants is a -page work in which
Linnæus used analogy, morphology, case studies, hybrid theory,
physiology, and  experiments to argue that plants have male
and female parts. Linnæus claimed that this was the case for every
single vegetable and that the historical record showed that many
different cultures had long been aware of this—particularly in
countries where the date palm was cultivated.67 The need to
distinguish large numbers of plants easily led Linnæus to look
at stamens and pistils in a new way. He considered these parts to
be ‘essential’—no flower existed without them.68 The ubiquity of
pistils and stamens formed the first strand of Linnæus’ argument.
The second strand of the argument was drawn from the great
chain of being—that supposed link that connected all parts of
creation, running from man at the top, down through all the
animals, and on to the vegetable kingdom. Linnæus used this
chain as a justification for analogies between plants and animals.
He argued that the bodies of humans and the higher animals
consisted of two principal parts: the nervous system (which was
made from a medullary substance69) and the vascular system
(made from a cortical substance). Linnæus insisted that an ana-
logy could be drawn with the plant kingdom: plants too had a
cortical substance that was responsible for nourishing them by
transporting fluids, and a medullary substance. There were other


analogies too: wood was equivalent to bone; the development of

a flower from a plant was likened to the development of a
butterfly from a caterpillar. Flowers and butterflies existed just
to propagate the species and the only real difference between
them, according to Linnæus, was that flowers were stationary
while butterflies could move.
A third part of the argument came from studies of generation
and hybrids. Hybrids were useful in showing what each parent
contributed to the offspring. Linnæus believed that studies of
hybrid creatures such as mules showed that the mother supplied
the medullary substance, or nervous system, while the father gave
the cortical substance, or vascular system. More important than
which parent contributed what was the fact that each parent
contributed something. Each parent was responsible for some
part of the offspring; and Linnæus believed that this was also
the case with plants. He argued that a plant’s stamens (the ‘male’
part according to the sexual system) originate from its woody
part and inner bark which are derived from a cortical substance.
Pistils, on the other hand, which were ‘female’ and located at the
centre of the flower, were derived from a medullary substance.
Therefore both pistils and stamens had to contribute something
to the seed in order for a whole plant to be produced. From these
facts he concluded that ‘the stamina are the male organs of
generation, and the pistilla the female’.70 Linnæus then went on
to explain the mechanics of how pollen, or ‘fecundating powder’,
was transferred from the stamen to the pistil, and on to the
stigma, so stimulating the production of viable seeds.
Hybrids, believed Linnæus, gave the most conclusive evidence
in favour of his theory. He listed four hybrid species—such as
the veronica spuria which ‘agrees perfectly with its mother in


fructification, and with its father in leaves’—that he believed

provided the final pieces of evidence needed to verify his theory.
All of these four plants exhibited some characteristics inherited
from each parent and so seemed to be perfectly analogous to
animals in their modes of generation; from this, Linnæus drew
his final conclusion ‘that the sexes of plants admit of a proof
a priori from experiments, appears therefore from hybrid
In addition to these three arguments—from the ubiquity of
stamens and pistils, analogy, and hybrids—Linnæus also used a
series of experiments to confirm his theory of the sexes of plants.
These experiments mostly involved removing pistils or stamens
from plants, isolating plants, or introducing foreign pollen, and
then observing whether fertile seeds were produced. For example,
the first experiment related how
one evening in the month of August, [Linnæus] removed all the
stamina from three flowers of the Mirabilis longiflora, at the same
time destroying all the rest of the flowers which were expanded;
[he] sprinkled these three flowers with the pollen of Mirabilis
Jalappa; the seed buds swelled, but did not ripen. Another even-
ing [he] performed a similar experiment, only sprinkling the
flowers with the pollen of the same species; all these flowers
produced ripe seeds.72

Most of the other experiments were along similar lines (though

each was subtly different). Linnæus was keenly aware of possible
counter-arguments to his sexual theory and used these experi-
ments to dismiss them. He knew, for example, that Tournefort
had not believed that stamens played any very significant role in
generation and so Linnæus performed several experiments to
show that generation did not occur if a plant’s stamens were


With all of these different kinds of argument, Linnæus firmly

believed that he had proved the sexual nature of plants beyond
any doubt. His certainty was not only drawn from these analogies
and scientific experiments. It was also dependent on tacit know-
ledge gleaned from nurserymen and gardeners, from common
knowledge of common plants, and from ancient sources such as
Aristotle and Theophrastus.
But not everyone was as certain as Linnæus. On the Contin-
ent, Lazzaro Spallanzani (–), Giulio Pontedera (–),
Adanson, Tournefort, and many other (particularly French) nat-
uralists rejected the idea of plant sexes. In Britain, most of the
serious objections came from Scotland. And there, Linnæus’
most vocal critics were Charles Alston (–) and William
Smellie (–). Alston was the Professor of Materia Medica
and Botany at the University of Edinburgh; Smellie was an
Edinburgh publisher, printer, and naturalist who had also stud-
ied at the university, and who had translated Buffon’s Histoire
naturelle and been the first editor of the Encyclopædia Britannica.
Eighteenth-century Scotland, much more so than neighbouring
England, was in thrall to the spirit of the Enlightenment and was
a hotbed of radical social, political, economic, and scientific
ideas. The education system was developing quickly, literacy
rates were improving, printing and publishing were fast-growing
industries, and Scotland had five universities compared to Eng-
land’s two. Philosopher David Hume, political economist Adam
Smith, natural philosopher James Hutton, and poet Robert
Burns were just some of the major figures to emerge from
this heady atmosphere. Scottish intellectuals were much more
prone to question received wisdom than their colleagues in
Oxford or Cambridge and so it was that the main assault on


Linnæus’ sexual system, quickly adopted as orthodoxy in Eng-

land, came from Edinburgh.
In , Alston published his Dissertation on botany.73 He had
several arguments against Linnæus’ sexual theory of plants, but
perhaps the most important was his attack on its foundation—
analogy. Linnæus’ theory rested on the belief that the plant and
animal kingdoms were essentially alike: bone, he said, was equiva-
lent to wood; a butterfly fulfilled the same function as a flower.
But Alston was adamant that comparisons between plants and
animals proved nothing. To illustrate this, he chose an example
where analogy clearly broke down. Those who believed that
plants had male and female parts looked to seed production for
evidence of this; the production of plant seeds was said to be
exactly analogous to animal reproduction. But this overlooked
the fact that much plant propagation took place without the need
for any seeds. Many members of the vegetable kingdom repro-
duced by sending out shoots, by budding, or by growing from
cuttings. As we saw with the example of Trembley’s polyp, the
idea of an animal generating by means of budding or cutting was
problematic indeed. Alston was familiar with Trembley’s work
and he seized on this as a way to undermine analogies between
the animal and vegetable kingdoms.
If the analogy (or lack of analogy) argument didn’t sway his
readers, Alston had an array of others up his sleeve. Though he
agreed with Linnæus that most fertile plants had stamens and
pistils and that they were therefore probably an essential part of
vegetables he pointed out that there had been little research done
on them and that botanists had yet to agree on their precise
purpose. He could cite authors such as Andrea Cæsalpinus
(c.–) and Grew who believed that the purpose of the


stamen was to fertilize a plant’s seeds, but he could also cite some
who disagreed such as Tournefort, Pontedera, and Camerarius.
Camerarius had conducted experiments on hemp, dog’s mercury
and spinach in which ‘female’ plants were isolated from ‘males’
and yet still produced fertile seeds. Therefore, asserted Alston,
stamens were not necessary for plant reproduction. To further
prove this, he conducted some experiments of his own: for
example, he placed three fruit-bearing spinach plants  English
feet away from any other spinach plants and separated them with
several hedges, but still the spinach produced viable seeds. He
repeated this kind of experiment with dog’s mercury and hemp,
increasing the separation by up to a mile, and found the same
results—the plants still bore fertile seeds. Alston also found that
many other naturalists—Tournefort, Philip Miller (–), and
Claude Joseph Geoffroy (–)—had had similar results.
Linnæus had tried to nullify these results in a  essay Sponsalia
plantarum (The marriage of plants) by claiming that ‘female’ hemp
plants occasionally carried ‘male’ flowers, but Alston disputed this
and protested that even an authority such as Linnæus could not
prevail over the results of good experiments.
Alston then began to pick apart the kinds of experiments used
by the supporters of the sexual theory of plants. The most
common was to remove a flower’s stamens. This frequently
resulted in the flower’s inability to grow fertile seeds and was
interpreted by followers of the sexual system as evidence in its
favour. But Alston had two arguments against this: the first was
that it had only been tried in a small number of species and so
could not be assumed to be a universal truth; the second was that
injured plants, due to loss of sap and vitality, were often unable to
produce seeds—and what was the removal of the stamens if not a


serious injury to a flower? As a further refutation, Alston tried

the experiment on some tulips; despite having isolated the
flowers and carefully removed the stamens before pollination
could occur, the tulips produced fertile seeds. Alston also
attacked other fundamental parts of the so-called sexualists’
argument. Some had claimed that the fact that stamens and
pistils were in close proximity and sometimes angled towards
each other was further proof of the sexual system, but for
Alston this proved nothing. Alston also attacked Linnæus’
group of cryptogamia—plants without flowers or, as Linnæus
put it, plants engaged in clandestine affairs. Where did these fit
into the sexual system?
In addition to the lack of evidence for Linnæus’ theory, Alston
criticized the confusion that the sexual system had brought to
botany. He wrote:

It would not be worth while to argue against the sexes of plants,

unless it had given occasion to the specious contrivance of a
System, or Method of plants, named sexual, which of all others,
how many soever there are, is the most intricate, and involved,
and unnatural. Because there is no system, whether it be ortho-
dox, or heterodox, in which more dissimilar things are conjoined,
and more similar separated; and the knowledge of which, by
reason of an introduced dialect unknown to the Greeks as well
as to the Latins, also by reason of the loosely changed familiar
ideas of words and names, is acquired with greater difficulty.74

Alston’s conclusion was that Linnæus had wasted his time, caused
confusion, and needlessly complicated botany with his new system.
It was really the practical elements of the system that Alston objected
to—counter-intuitive grouping and new terminology—but he
decided to get to the root of the problem by attacking the basis of
Linnæus’ system: the idea that plants had male and female parts.


Alston was a well-respected botanist, but his Dissertation gained

few supporters—the Linnean system was too firmly entrenched
by this time for his work to have significant impact. But he was
not alone in questioning the theory. Decades later, in , the
debate hadn’t entirely died out and another Edinburgh scholar
launched a fresh attack on the sexual system. William Smellie
followed up the success of his edition of Buffon with a book
called The philosophy of natural history. This was eagerly anticipated,
so much so that the bookseller Charles Elliot (–) paid ,
guineas for the copyright—an unprecedented sum. Once pub-
lished, the book sold out quickly and had to be reprinted several
times, it was also translated almost immediately into several
European languages.
Smellie had first come across the debate about plant sex while
a student at the University of Edinburgh. Each year Dr John Hope
asked four students to present a lecture on some botanical subject
and encouraged them to question or oppose commonly held
theories. To Smellie, he assigned the topic of the sexes of plants,
and so he began his research. Later, Smellie recalled how,

Being at that time a very young man, and a strict believer in the
sexual system of plants, I willingly undertook the task, because
I thought I had the chance of showing some little ingenuity in
attempting to shake a theory which I then imagined to be estab-
lished upon the firmest basis of fact and experiment. But, after
perusing Linnæus’s works, and many other books on the subject,
I was astonished to find, that this theory was supported neither by
facts nor arguments, which could produce conviction even in the
most prejudiced minds.75

Like Alston, Smellie’s real problem with the sexual theory of

plants was its reliance on analogy. And he quickly found that
even simple observation was enough to undo analogy: drawing


on work done since Trembley’s initial polyp experiments, Smellie

cited examples of animals such as ‘vine-fretters, polypi, mille-
pedes, and infusion animalcules’ which were observed to repro-
duce asexually. If so many animals could generate without the
need for males and females, why should plants require them?
Another observation showed that the seeds of plants were already
quite well developed by the time pollen was released; again, the
analogy to animals (whose eggs were usually fertilized very early
in their development) broke down. Smellie cited the experiments
of Alston, Camerarius, and Tournefort on spinach and hemp, and
the experiments of Spallanzani on pumpkins, as further proof
against both analogy and the sexual system.
Conversely, he tried to discredit experiments which gave
results that appeared to support the sexual system. There was a
famous case of a palm tree in the garden of the Royal Academy of
Berlin which never produced fruit until, one year, a branch from a
‘male’ palm tree in Leipzig was brought to Berlin and placed next
to the ‘female’; that year, the tree produced hundreds of ripe dates.
Many saw this as evidence of the sexes of plants, but Smellie
believed that factors such as the climate of Berlin, the time taken
for the acclimatization of the palm tree, and its level of maturity
had not been properly taken into consideration. He suggested
some controls that would have made the experiment more rigor-
ous and conclusive.
Likewise, Smellie questioned the experimental results of his
own mentor—John Hope. Hope was a supporter of the sexual
theory of plants and had tried to prove it with an experiment on
the Scottish plant Lychnis dioica (popularly known as campion).
This plant had two varieties, one with a white flower and one
with a red. Hope planted a white ‘female’ and a red ‘male’


together under a glass bell so that they were isolated from all
other plants. The seeds of the white ‘female’ were sown the
following season and produced red flowers. Hope interpreted
this as evidence of hybridization and, from that, inferred the
necessity of both male and female elements in plant reproduc-
tion, but Smellie disagreed. He produced five arguments against
Hope’s conclusion. First, he questioned the assumption that
white lychnis never produce red flowers spontaneously; second,
he pointed out that in order to have a proper analogy with
hybrid animals such as mules, the offspring of the lychnis should
have been a mixture of red and white; third, he showed with an
experiment of his own that red lychnis lost much of their colour
if grown without sufficient light or air (such as when grown
under a glass jar); fourth, he highlighted the need for several
control samples before any conclusion could be reached; and
fifth, he emphasized the existence of many naturally occurring
varieties and the influence of environmental factors on seed
As well as picking apart others’ experiments, Smellie also
performed some of his own. He took a seed-bearing lychnis and
isolated it indoors, away from all other plants. But, perhaps due to
insufficient light, air, or moisture, the flowers died before any
seeds could ripen. Smellie re-thought the experiment and asked
for assistance from his friend Daniel Rutherford (–) who
had succeeded John Hope as Professor of Botany at Edinburgh.
Rutherford had a small garden ‘in the heart of the city, which was
surrounded with houses of five and six stories high, and distant
from any male lychnis about an English mile’. The seed-bearing
lychnis was planted here and it was found that


she not only ripened her seeds, but these seeds vegetated, without
the possibility of any male impregnation; for the Doctor, after the
young plants were in a state of discrimination, uniformly extir-
pated all the males, and never could discover the vestige of a single
male upon the female plants. Her female progeny, however,
continued to bear fertile seeds for several successive generations.76

This experiment not only raised doubts about the philosophical

concepts behind the sexual theory but also allowed Smellie to
consider the mechanisms that allegedly drove plant sexual repro-
duction. Many flowers contained both ‘male’ and ‘female’ parts;
for these, it was relatively easy to explain how pollen might travel
from the stamen to the pistil. Gravity, proximity, a slight breeze,
or a single clumsy insect could lead to fertilization. But for plants
such as the palm tree in Berlin or the lychnis in Rutherford’s
garden, vast distances separated pistil from stamen. Here, an
external mechanism such as the wind or insects was needed by
the sexualists to explain how fertilization could take place. But for
Smellie, such an explanation left far too much to chance: the wind
was too ‘desultory and capricious’, while there was nothing ‘more
casual and uncertain than the wayward paths of insects’.77 Accord-
ing to Smellie’s worldview, nature did not take such chances:

. . . the multiplication of species is one of the most important laws

of Nature. All the laws of Nature are fixed, steady, and uniform, in
their operation: None of their effects are abandoned to those
uncertainties which necessarily result from chance, or from any
fortuitous train of circumstances. . . . The very supposition, there-
fore, that Nature has exposed the fertility of a tenth part of the
whole vegetable kingdom, and many of them too, plants of the
utmost importance to man, and other animals, to such accidental
causes, is repugnant to every sound idea of philosophy.78

Smellie believed that he had done enough to raise serious doubts

about the sexual theory of plants. He knew that his work did not


constitute a full refutation of the theory and that there were still
more experiments to be done, but he hoped that he had sufficiently
voiced his reservations, and that he had encouraged free thinking.
Not everyone was swayed by Smellie’s work. The Linnean
Society of London was anxious to defend the sexual system
against this kind of assault and shortly after the publication of
The philosophy of natural history, a fellow of the Linnean Society
published a pamphlet titled The sexes of plants vindicated; in a letter to
Mr William Smellie, member of the Antiquarian and Royal Societies of
Edinburgh; containing a refutation of his arguments against the sexes of
plants. The author was John Rotheram (c.–), who had
studied medicine in Uppsala and had the distinction of being one
of the only Englishmen ever to have studied directly under Lin-
næus. He esteemed Linnæus both personally and professionally
and could not let Smellie’s arguments against his mentor remain
unchallenged. In the pamphlet, Rotheram reinterpreted the results
of some of Smellie’s experiments so that they were in line with
Linnean orthodoxy—a project that was well received in London.
The reviews tended to favour Rotheram over Smellie.79 The Lin-
nean Society too made its feelings known; but in a more subtle
way. Their library catalogue of the time shows that Rotheram’s
work was on their shelves, but the writings of Smellie and Alston
were nowhere to be found in their headquarters on Great Marl-
borough Street.
By the end of the eighteenth century, the sexual theory of plants
was so well established in Britain that even a respected naturalist
like Smellie could not convince others to question it. But Smellie,
Alston, and others had asked some important questions about the
mechanisms of reproduction, and their work reflected some of the
bigger concerns behind the science of generation.


The chicken or the egg?

The debate about whether plants reproduced sexually was just one
small part of a much bigger question: how did generation occur?
Even if men of science could agree on a mechanism like sexual
reproduction, it didn’t explain what forces drove the creation of
life, how matter became alive, what role God played in reproduc-
tion, or how features passed down the generations of a family.
In the eighteenth century, there were two principal schools of
thought about how new life was generated. The first explanation
was known as ‘preformation theory’; this theory held that all life
had been created by God at the beginning of the world. Every
being that would ever live, through all ages of time, was formed
thousands of years ago. Then each being was folded up in serial
order and nested within its parent. Thus God created a series of
Russian dolls. The original parent contained the germ of every
child that would ever be produced in their family line. At its
appointed time, each germ would develop into a seed or foetus,
and then grow into its mature form. Though this theory raised
some logistical questions, it neatly dealt with two of the big
problems posed by the science of reproduction. First, it allowed
God to keep his central role in creation: each being was made
directly by his hand. Second, it fitted with a popular eighteenth-
century view of God which saw him as a creator who had set the
universe in motion and was now largely happy to sit back and let
it run according to the laws he had fixed for it; this meant that
God was not required to oversee every individual creation in the
plant and animal kingdoms.
In stark contrast to preformation theory, which fitted well
with orthodox Christian views, stood ‘epigenesis’. This theory


said that new life was generated from the gradual development
of disorganized matter; each embryo or seed is created uniquely
due to laws of chemistry and physics acting on inert matter.
Unlike preformation theory, epigenesis did not necessarily
require any input from God; epigenesis was a materialist, and
therefore radical, theory like those mentioned in Chapter 
which held that there was no such thing as a soul, just matter
obeying physical laws.
Epigenesis, first suggested in the writings of ancient scholars
like Aristotle and Galen, had grown in popularity during the
seventeenth century thanks to the work of William Harvey
(–)—the English physician most famed for discovering
the circulation of blood. In the mid-seventeenth century, Harvey
had made detailed observations on chicken eggs and saw chicks
develop gradually, with different organs and structures appearing
at different times and rates. At about the same time, across the
Channel, Descartes was working on epigenesis too and wrote up
his findings in a book titled De la formation de l’animal which was
published posthumously in .
The support of these high-profile men for such a radical theory
alarmed their more conservative contemporaries. From the s
onwards, in response to the rise of epigenesis, naturalists and
philosophers like Nicolas Malebranche (–), Jan Swam-
merdam (–), and Claude Perrault (–) countered by
promoting preformation theory. In his  work The search after
truth, Malebranche described experiments which showed that
dissection of a tulip bulb revealed all the parts of a tulip existing
in miniature before germination. He argued from this evidence
that the same is true for all plants and animals, but sometimes on
too small a scale to see. ‘Nor does it seem unreasonable to believe,’


wrote Malebranche, ‘that in a single apple seed there are apple

trees, apples, and apple seeds . . . for infinite, or nearly infinite
The epigenesists disagreed and thus, at the beginning of the
eighteenth century, the two theories stood in opposition. The
theories drew supporters or detractors not just because of their
scientific content, but because of their theological and philo-
sophical implications. One of the best-known examples of this
is the dispute between Albrecht von Haller (–) and Caspar
Friedrich Wolff (–); here, the two men interpreted almost
identical observations in very different ways, and for very dif-
ferent reasons.
Haller, in an age of Enlightenment, was hailed as one of the
most impressive polymaths of his day. He is remembered for his
work as an anatomist, physiologist, physician, botanist, university
professor, poet, novelist, political and theological author, bibli-
ographer, reviewer, academician, civil servant, and politician.
Born in Switzerland, Haller was tutored there as a young man
before spending a year at the medical school in Tübingen and
then moving to Leiden to study under the renowned physician
Hermann Boerhaave. After receiving his medical degree in ,
Haller spent time in England before travelling back across Europe
to his home in Switzerland, and finally settled in Göttingen where
he was appointed Professor of Anatomy, Surgery, and Medicine
in .
As a young man under the tutelage of Boerhaave, Haller
learned about preformation theory and accepted it as true. But
in the s Haller began to hear reports about the strange
discoveries of one of his countrymen. Haller was connected to
many scientific circles in Europe and news of Trembley’s


extraordinary revelations about freshwater polyps was bound to

reach him quickly. The ability of polyps to regenerate missing or
injured parts of themselves initially convinced Haller that living
matter was being generated in a way that could not be explained
by preformation theory and so he began to consider epigenesis.
Haller was not the only one drawn to epigenesis after the
publication of Trembley’s work in the s. The French savant
Pierre Louis Maupertuis (–) anonymously published his
controversial Vénus physique in  and suggested that epigenesis
occurred when attractive forces drew male and female particles
together to form a foetus. The forces he postulated acted in much
the same way as gravitational forces—reflecting the fashion for all
things Newtonian in France at that time. Likewise, Buffon, the
French doyen of natural history, posited an epigenetic theory in
the second volume of his momentous Histoire naturelle published
in .
But although Trembley’s polyps had piqued Haller’s interest in
epigenesis, Haller could not accept the theories of scholars like
Maupertuis and Buffon, with their vague forces taking the place of
an active God. Haller was a devout Christian and believed that
science was best carried out within a religious framework. For
him, any scientific theory that could form a basis for materialism
or atheism had to be rejected. And so he turned back to preform-
ation theory, but preformation theory with a difference. Haller’s
interest in epigenesis had led him to see the importance of forces
in generation, and so he continued to believe that development
occurred when forces acted on matter but that these forces were
directed by God. To explain how God achieved this, Haller
invented the concept of ‘irritability’ and presented it to the
world in . Irritability, said Haller, was the force necessary to


take a minuscule preformed person, plant, or animal and set its

development in motion. It was a force that was granted to matter
by God and operated according to his plan for the universe. Haller
gave the example of a preformed embryo contained within its
mother’s body which was stimulated when it came into contact
with male semen; in response, its inherent irritability caused the
heart to begin beating and allowed the rest of the embryo to
develop according to God’s design.
To further bolster his new theory of preformation, Haller
began to observe the development of chick eggs. He observed
that for the first few days after fertilization, the contents of an egg
appeared to be entirely liquid; only later did solid structures
appear. While many saw this as evidence for epigenesis, Haller
argued that within the fluids there were structures but that they
were transparent and so invisible to the human eye. Haller con-
tinued his observations throughout the s and published the
two-volume Sur la formation du cœur dans le poulet in  which
summarized his arguments about transparent structures, and
added much additional information about how organs like the
heart and intestines formed.
But not everyone was convinced. The following year, a young
German scholar named Caspar Friedrich Wolff published a doc-
toral dissertation titled Theoria generationis. Wolff had made almost
identical observations on chick eggs to Haller’s, but he interpreted
his results very differently (Figure ). Wolff saw the development
of the chick in epigenetic terms: an ‘essential force’ drove the
secretion of new matter which then solidified, the process
occurred in serial order so that once a new organ was formed it
could secrete the matter for the next organ. Haller and Wolff each
made careful studies of every part of the chick embryo; their


notebooks and published works reveal that they observed the

same things when they looked at the blood vessels, the heart, the
lungs, the intestines. But where one saw the work of God dating
back to the beginning of the world, the other saw simple mech-
anical, physical, and chemical processes at work. To convince

Fig. . Illustrations, based on dissections of chick eggs and other embryos,

showing the formation of new parts in an embryo. From Caspar Friedrich
Wolff, Theoria generationis, , tab. II.


Haller to reconsider epigenesis, the young Wolff sent him a copy

of Theoria generationis. This simple act sparked a ten-year feud
between the two men that resulted in a flurry of letters, reviews,
and new publications in which each became more and more
entrenched in their support of their favoured theory. The feud
was never successfully resolved but simply petered out after
Wolff moved to Russia and found himself busy as the new
Professor of Anatomy and Physiology at the St Petersburg Acad-
emy of Sciences.
Though the correspondence between Haller and Wolff
stopped, the contest between preformation theory and epigenesis
continued for the remainder of the century and countless philo-
sophers, naturalists, theologians, and others weighed in with their
theories and opinions. One of the most famous contributions
to the dispute came from Lazzaro Spallanzani (whom we have
already met as a doubter of Linnæus’ sexual theory of plants).
Spallanzani was a priest and physiologist, in  he was
appointed to the Chair of Natural History at the University of
Pavia. In this ancient Italian university with a long tradition of
studies in medicine and the natural sciences, Spallanzani found
himself drawn to the study of life. He began a series of experi-
ments to investigate the phenomenon of so-called ‘spontaneous
generation’. This theory, which could be traced back to Aristotle,
endured until the eighteenth century with naturalists such as the
Comte de Buffon and his English associate John Turberville
Needham (–) claiming that this phenomenon really existed.
Buffon and Needham conducted experiments in which they made
up a broth containing wheat, gravy, or some other nutritional
substance, boiled it, cooled it, sealed the container, and left it to sit
for a few days. As if by magic, new microscopic life would


spontaneously appear. If these results were real, they would

complicate theories of generation even further. Curious, Spallan-
zani set out to test Needham and Buffon’s results. He conducted
similar experiments but, crucially, boiled the mixture for longer
and took greater care to exclude any possible contaminants by
sealing the container sooner and more air-tightly. Spallanzani’s
samples did not show any signs of microscopic life and many
considered the matter settled.
Once he had shown that life could not simply generate spon-
taneously out of inert matter, Spallanzani turned his attention to
other questions related to the generation debate. He was inter-
ested in the mechanisms behind preformation theory and epi-
genesis and decided to investigate further. The most common
version of preformation theory at this time said that the pre-
formed germ of a person, plant, or animal was held within its
mother’s ovum. This was known as ‘ovist preformation’ and
meant that male semen either played no role at all in conception,
or that it was no more than a catalyst to start the development
process. Spallanzani’s first step was to establish whether this was
true and so he designed an experiment to test whether male
semen was necessary to create new life. Testing this on humans
or other mammals was not an easy task, so Spallanzani picked a
different experimental subject—the frog. Frogs were ideal for
such investigations for two reasons: first, the eggs can be fertilized
outside the mother’s body so one does not need to kill and dissect
a frog in order to study the developing eggs; and second, frog
eggs are large and can be studied without a microscope.
Once he had his frogs, Spallanzani set about fashioning tight-
fitting, waterproof trousers for the males. Thus encumbered,
Spallanzani allowed the frogs to mate. The male clasped the


female around her body and, as usual, attempted to fertilize the

eggs as she laid them. But, due to the trousers, none of the male
frog’s semen could reach the eggs. The eggs failed to develop into
tadpoles, instead withering away. Next, undressing his frog, Spal-
lanzani took a few drops of the seminal liquid from inside
the trousers and used it to fertilize some fresh eggs. Some of
these eggs grew into healthy young tadpoles and successfully
developed into adult frogs. With this experiment, Spallanzani
showed that the male and female were necessary for animal
reproduction—a result that could be used to undermine preform-
ation theory. As the century progressed, such experiments were
repeated and refined and the balance of evidence began to swing
away from preformation theory and towards epigenesis.
But the debate had never purely centred around experimental
evidence. Returning to the protagonists Haller and Wolff, we can
ask why Haller supported preformation theory while Wolff
defended epigenesis. This cannot be explained based on their
scientific observations, but on their philosophical and religious
worldviews. Haller was a conservative Christian, whereas Wolff
came from a radical German intellectual milieu. For Haller,
science only worked if it backed up religious orthodoxy; for
Wolff, more accustomed to materialist thinking, the simplest
physical explanation was probably the right one. The story of
Haller and Wolff neatly encapsulates so many of the problems
surrounding the study of reproduction, all of which still exist. The
discrepancy between the results of an experiment or observation,
and a philosophical standpoint or religious belief can still colour
the study of reproduction today. Philosophical and religious
beliefs are capable of affecting scientific interpretation, and there
are questions that cannot be answered simply by accumulating


more facts. Knowing what chemicals or structures exist within an

egg or embryo cannot tell us whether a god was involved in its
creation; nor can it really explain what happens at the moment in
which brute matter becomes living matter.

The man plant

These were serious issues indeed; they affected everyone, not
just men of science. Discussion of generation, preformation
theory, and epigenesis were not confined to learned circles.
The dispute about whether there were such things as male and
female plants caught the imagination of the public, and of many
a satirist. Beyond the religious or scientific implications of gen-
eration theories, here was a way to talk about the often-taboo
topic of sex in polite company. The public’s interest in these
potentially scandalous topics is seen in popular racy satires such
as The man plant published under the pseudonym Prof. Vincent
Miller and Lucina sine concubitu by Sir John Hill, both published
around .81
Fifteen years after the first publication of Linnæus’ sexual
system, it was as popular as ever across much of Europe. Botany
was a fashionable pursuit amongst men and women of all classes;
thanks to the Enlightenment culture that was spreading across the
Continent, there thrived increasingly liberal salons and clubs
where ideas could be exchanged and debated freely; and, in
these liberal times as traditional authorities were being chipped
away, frivolity abounded. Botany and Linnæus were just waiting
to be lampooned. The man plant, or, scheme for increasing and improv-
ing the British breed did just that.


Writing as Prof. Miller, The man plant’s anonymous author

claimed he had discovered something momentous—something
that would allow the human race to procreate without women
having to worry about the dangers and inconveniences of preg-
nancy and childbirth. How had he discovered this? Well, he began
with some Linnean-style thinking: he considered the analogies
between plants and animals—he compared roots to veins, skin to
bark, lungs to leaves. To show just how well the system worked
for humans, the author supplied a handy description of a woman
in Linnean terms. As Linnæus considered the reproductive parts to
be the most essential parts of a plant, Miller’s description mirrored
this. To conceal his more lascivious analogies from lady readers,
Miller did what many botanists did and wrote the description in
Latin. The parts of the flower—calix, corol, nectarium, pistillus,
pericarpium—were transformed into the parts of a woman, accom-
panied by sensuous and somewhat lewd descriptions (Figure ).
With this part of the analogy between people and plants nicely
set up, the author moved on; since it was possible to germinate a
seed in good soil in a warm greenhouse, could not the same be
done with a human embryo? Next came the question of who
could provide the embryo. Miller’s wife, he lamented, was too old
so he turned his attention to Sally, the gardener’s daughter, a
pretty, healthy -year-old. Miller encouraged young Sally into
the arms of her sweetheart at a local wedding and, when it
became apparent to her that she was pregnant, kindly offered to
help her out. After  days’ gestation, Miller procured the embryo
(the details here become a little vague) and planted it in a seed
basket with some ‘chimico-lacteal fluid’ to sustain it. Eight
months later, while visiting his hothouse, the author noticed the
basket shaking and cut it open to reveal . . . a perfectly formed


Fig. . A botanical description of

the man plant. This racy and
highly sexualized description of a
woman would have been
instantly recognizable to an
eighteenth-century reader as a
satire of the Linnean method of
describing plants. The description
was in Latin to protect female
readers from the cruder refer-
ences. From Prof. Vincent Miller,
The Man Plant, or, scheme for increas-
ing and improving the British Breed,
c., –.

little man plant. Miller grew fond of the child and decided to
adopt him as his own and make him an heir.
Thoroughly pleased with his experiment, the author wrote The
man plant to gain government support for his work, and expected
a prize as handsome as that offered by Parliament for solving the
longitude problem.82 The national benefits of such a scheme were
obvious, wrote Miller: women could produce far more children
(perhaps as many as  each) and these extra Britons would be
able to help the expansion of the empire by populating North
America, or helping with the conquest of the East and West
Indies. And it all came about through the application of the
Linnean system of botany.


In a similar vein, Lucina sine concubitu was published by Sir John

Hill under the pseudonym Abraham Johnson in . This docu-
ment, purporting to be a letter to the Royal Society of London,
was again written to poke fun at the establishment and at debates
about generation. The fictional author, like Prof. Miller, had
discovered something wonderful—that women could become
pregnant without any help from men. His first inkling of this
possibility came when, fulfilling his duties as a country physician,
he was called to attend a young lady feeling unwell. Johnson
arrived at the lady’s house, noticed instantly that the cause of
her illness was the fact that she was pregnant, mentioned this to
her father and promptly got himself thrown out. Shortly after-
wards, the physician was called to the house again and delivered a
healthy baby. But the young woman protested her innocence and
her chastity so firmly that Johnson found himself believing her,
and wondering how her child could have been conceived.
He stumbled across a possible answer one day when reading
Wollaston’s Religion of nature delineated written in . All living
beings, wrote Wollaston, are produced from preformed animal-
cula which God created and distributed around the world. These
animalcula were tiny but perfectly functioning versions of men,
women, or animals. People take them in with air or food, and the
male of the species has special strainers to separate the particles of
the correct species and store them. When transferred from the
male to the female body, the animalcules begin to develop
towards their mature form. Here was the solution: that unfortu-
nate young lady must have eaten or inhaled a human animalcule,
and it grew into a baby. This got Johnson thinking that perhaps
men weren’t necessary for procreation to occur.


Like the author of The man plant, the author of Lucina sine
concubitu wanted to test this theory. First, he had to secure a
supply of animalcules. Not knowing where to begin looking, he
did what any sensible eighteenth-century naturalist would do
when faced with a tricky problem—he turned to classical poetry.
Virgil supplied the answer with this stanza from the Georgicks:

The mares to cliffs of rugged rocks repair,

And with wide nostrils snuff the western air:
When (wondrous to relate) the parent wind,
Without the stallion propagates the kind.

So the animalcula were to be found in the west wind. Having

successfully gathered some and ascertained through the micro-
scope that there are indeed perfectly formed little men and
women, Johnson next needed a woman. He considered taking a
wife himself, but was worried that she might feel used and
unloved when she discovered the real reason for the marriage.
Instead, he decided that to use his chambermaid would be less
problematic. He convinced the girl that she was ill and gave her a
medicine (really a potion containing animalcula), then he fired the
footman and banned all men from the house. Six month later,
the girl was visibly pregnant and suitably confused. The author
feigned horror at the girl’s impurity, but kindly agreed to adopt
the child when he was born.
The experiment was a success, but it didn’t stop there. Just as
Prof. Miller knew that discovering how to grow a man plant was
an event of national importance, Johnson saw all the possibilities
of man-free procreation: the reputations of countless unmarried
women could be saved; venereal disease could be eradicated; as
could marriage. And no one need worry about a falling birth-rate,
Johnson had taken a house in London’s Haymarket where he


would ‘give attendance to all women desirous of breeding, from

the hours of seven or eight in the evening till twelve at night’.
These two pamphlets went through several editions each and
were immensely popular with the general public. Their authors
were familiar with current science—be it the intricacies of classi-
fying the natural world according to Linnean principles, or the
research being done on generation—and so were their audiences.
Esoteric debates on the origins or order of life were being used by
gentlemen to explain away the pregnancy of the chambermaid or
gardener’s daughter and readers loved it. The fact that the com-
plex problems of preformation theory and the Linnean sexual
system were entering the pop culture of the day shows how far-
reaching they were. Though the format was light-hearted, this
was more than just titillation—questions about the generation of
new life held huge importance. The public cared about questions
like: how is new life created? and what is the role of God in
reproduction, versus the role of chemical and physical forces?
What began for Linnæus as a need to logically sort and name a
large number of plants led to convoluted questions about how
reproduction works and how closely the plant and animal king-
doms resemble each other. Once you start asking these questions,
you’ll inevitably end up having to ask even bigger ones: how is life
created?; what is the essence of life, and is it the same in the
different kingdoms? ‘Where do we come from?’ and ‘how is life
generated?’ are fundamentally interesting questions that have
been the subject of enquiry for millennia. The questions posed
by Haller and Wolff were not new, but they were no less fascin-
ating for that. There are many facets to such enquiries into the
nature of life—they can be answered in physico-chemical terms,
in spiritual terms, in metaphysical terms—and the facets do not


necessarily agree with each other. The controversy plays out

afresh in each generation. In the eighteenth century, questions
like whether plants had sex, whether all life was preformed at the
beginning of the world, or whether life was reducible to mere
mechanics were dominating learned and popular debate.


Living Rocks

The mystery of coral

I n an ancient land, there lived three sisters: Medusa, Sthenno,

and Euryale. They were no ordinary women; these three,
known as the Gorgones, were demons with monstrous powers.
When young Perseus, son of Zeus, was sent to slay Medusa, he
called on the gods for help. Knowing that she was a beast with
snakes in place of hair and the gift of turning to stone anyone
who should look directly upon her, the gods armed their young
hero with a bright shield, a sharp sword, the gift of invisibility,
and winged sandals. Perseus went forth to find the demon. He
discovered her asleep, used the reflection in his shield to pick his
way towards her, and beheaded her with a single stroke. Deter-
mined to keep his prize safe, Perseus made a bed of leaves and
lined it with seaweed. Placing the gorgon’s head in this nest, he
was astonished to find that the fresh seaweed absorbed the
demon’s power and its fronds and branches hardened to stone.
Sea nymphs gathered on the shore sprinkled some of the now-
stone seeds of the seaweed in the water and were delighted to see


the strange reefs that sprouted along the coast. This, Ovid tells us,
is the origin of coral.83
Coral is an amazing object, and one that has drawn attention
since ancient times. It was an important trade item between east and
west, a popular ingredient in medical recipes (at least , according
to Pliny), and a vital charm to ward evil spirits away from children.
It was important enough to merit its own mythology featuring
some of the most powerful gods of the ancient world. The most
desirable coral in classical times came from the Stœchades Islands
near Marseilles;84 once, it was used to decorate the helmets and
weapons of the soldiers of Gaul, but when its value in India became
known, most was traded in the east in exchange for pearls.
Besides its importance in trade, coral was important to philo-
sophers trying to understand the world around them. Sometimes,
as we have seen, animals act like plants, and plants act like animals.
But what happens when animals or plants act like stone, or vice
versa? Many ancient writers retold the legend that coral was a soft,
pliable plant when it was below the water, but turned to stone on
contact with air. Some believed it was purely mineral, some
believed it was a hybrid between mineral and vegetable, and
some thought it was the dwelling or body of a mysterious animal.
The debate continued through medieval times, into the early mod-
ern period, and right into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
At the Royal Society of London, no less a figure than the natural
philosopher Robert Boyle (–) investigated the nature of
coral, both in his laboratory and on the coast near Marseilles.
Boyle, like most other scholars in the seventeenth century, believed
that coral was some kind of plant–mineral hybrid. But early in the
eighteenth century, this belief began to be undermined by new


Count Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli was an Italian nobleman,

famous as both a soldier and a naturalist. Born in Bologna,
Marsigli received a gentleman’s education before joining the
army of Emperor Leopold I in . He rose to high rank, and
travelled throughout Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Marsigli was
fascinated by the shape of the earth, and on each of his campaigns he
took careful notes on the terrains he encountered—particularly
of mountains and seas. After a disastrous battle at the Fortress
of Breisach in  (now in the south-west of Germany), Marsigli
was obliged to quit his military career and devoted the rest of his life
to natural history.85 So it was that he could come to Marseilles in
. His intention was to study the contours of the seabed and to
try to understand how the land and the sea interacted; he investi-
gated the flow of rivers into the sea, the sediments deposited, and
the creatures that lived along the shore. Marseilles, as in ancient
times, was the home of a vast array of corals, and it wasn’t long
before Marsigli started asking questions about them. At first, he
thought that corals were simply mineral growths. Wishing to
know how they came into existence, he realized that he would
have to befriend the people who knew most about them—the
coral fishermen. Most of the coral fishers in Marseilles at this
time were Italians, and most were wary of a nobleman asking
questions. But Marsigli, helped no doubt by a common lan-
guage, eventually gained their trust. By the summer of  he
was invited to accompany the fishermen out on their tiny boats
into the Bay of Marseilles.
There, Marsigli could finally see corals as they were pulled from
the waves, not just the dried and polished specimens that he had
seen in gentlemen’s cabinets. As the fishermen pulled their nets of
coral from the seabed, he was able to corroborate the findings of


his countryman Paolo Boccone (–) who had shown that

the ancient belief that corals were pliable underwater and turned
to stone on contact with the air was false. Marsigli would hold
corals just below the surface of the sea, isolated from the air, to try
to understand them in their own habitat. But there was a limit to
what he could do in a small boat being knocked about on the
surface—and so one day Marsigli created an aquarium in which
he could bring corals safely back to shore and examine them on
dry land. The next day, upon waking, he went to view his corals in
their tanks and was astonished to see them covered with blossom.
Marsigli could conceive of nothing but that these were true
flowers. He gently took a coral from the water and within an
instant the flowers disappeared. This was odd indeed. Marsigli
needed to talk to an expert and so he went and sought out the
fishermen—they too were astonished. In all their years of dealing
with live corals, they had never seen any kind of flower grow
upon them. Marsigli kept the corals in his aquarium for eleven
days, continuing to observe tiny white blossoms that would
disappear on contact with the air. After that, they rotted, leaving
only a skeleton, a pool of slime and a smell of fish.
The flowers of coral changed Marsigli’s mind. Once, he had
believed that corals were a mineral growth, but now he became
convinced that they were plants. Marsigli wrote to several fellow
naturalists in the scientific capitals of Europe to share his findings.
But one of the most important people to hear and see Marsigli’s
results was not an eminent professor or a famous author—he was
a -year-old boy, Jean André Peyssonnel (–). Jean André
was the son of Charles Peyssonnel—a renowned physician in
Marseilles, a city famous for its medical school. In , the
Peyssonnel family played host to Marsigli and under his tutelage


the young Jean André began to develop what would become a

life-long passion for natural history.
Due to Marsigli’s fame and status as a naturalist, his finding that
coral was a plant was quickly accepted. His writings were con-
sidered authoritative, and coral came to be seen more as a plant
than a mineral, though the possibility of it being a plant–mineral
hybrid had not been completely ruled out. For almost  years,
Marsigli’s conclusion remained unchallenged. Until a physician of
Marseilles discovered something new in . That physician was
Jean André Peyssonnel. He had followed his father into medicine
(a common training for those interested in natural history, as we
have seen), but never forgot his earlier interest in corals. Growing
up in Marseilles, he had ample access to specimens, and like
Marsigli before him, he befriended the local fishermen in order
to learn more and see specimens in their natural habitats.
In , a plague had struck Marseilles and Charles and Jean
André Peyssonnel were determined to help the victims. Both
boarded themselves into the hospital with the stricken to do
what they could. Charles died. Jean André survived and his
bravery was rewarded with a royal pension, putting him at the
disposal of the King of France. Knowing Jean André’s interest in
natural history as well as medicine, the King asked him to travel
to the Barbary Coast in North Africa to ‘make discoveries in
natural history’. It was there that he continued his study of corals
in earnest.
Peyssonnel began by collecting branches of coral and, like
Marsigli, keeping them in vessels of sea water where he could
observe them easily. He too saw the tiny white ‘flowers’ appear on
the surface of the corals when they were left undisturbed in their
tanks. These ‘points’, as Peyssonnel called them, correlated to the


pores on the surface of a coral. Their white and pale yellow ‘petals’
resembled the flowers of the olive tree. When Peyssonnel touched
the coral, the ‘petals’ vanished. Marsigli had never satisfactorily
explained this phenomenon; the more Peyssonnel thought about
it, the more he realized that the coral was exhibiting both a sense
of touch and an ability to move. It was an animal. Seeking further
proof, Peyssonnel carried out a series of experiments: he prodded
and poked, he poured acid, and finally he boiled samples of coral.
Each stimulus provoked a response. And boiling succeeded in
driving out tiny animals from the pores of the coral. These
animals, Peyssonnel called them insects, looked like small jelly-
fish. It was their tentacles that Marsigli had taken for petals. The
body of each animal lived inside the coral, while its tentacles
protruded through its pores. The stony structure of the coral
must, like the shell of an oyster or snail, be produced by the
animal as a protective covering, reasoned Peyssonnel.
Peyssonnel knew exactly where to send his results. In  he
had been elected a correspondent of Paris’s Académie des Sciences. It
was to this prestigious body that the young physician announced
that coral, its essence so long a mystery, was an animal. Peysson-
nel addressed his correspondence to Abbé Jean-Paul Bignon, vice-
president of the Académie. Not being an expert in natural history
himself, Bignon passed the letter on to none other than Réaumur.
But Réaumur, who would later go on to champion and support
Trembley, was unimpressed by Peyssonnel’s work. In , he
read Peysonnel’s papers at the Académie only to rubbish them.
Some believe that Marsigli was simply too famous to be outshone
by a young upstart but, for whatever reason, Peyssonnel’s coral
work was not accepted in France and he began to feel rejected by
his peers. It was around this time that he was offered another


royal commission which he gladly accepted—in  Peyssonnel

began a long journey across the Atlantic where he would take up
the post of Royal Physician and Naturalist on the island of
Peyssonnel was not the only person being carried across the
ocean to the Caribbean in the s—Guadeloupe, along with
the nearby islands of Martinique and St Christopher, was one of
the world’s largest slave colonies at this time. Thousands of young
men and women from the western coasts of Africa were being
enslaved and forcibly transported thousands of miles across dan-
gerous seas in order to supply a European demand for exotic
luxuries like cane sugar. In , France had set up the Compagnie
des Indes Occidentales. In the s, this largely state-funded body
was earning ten livres per slave transported to the West Indies. By
the s, as demand for the products of slave labour increased,
the premium rose to  livres per slave. It is estimated that in
that decade over , people were forced into slavery in the
French colonies of the Caribbean. This increase was almost cer-
tainly due to the cultivation of a new crop designed to delight
European palates—coffee.
Reading Peyssonnel’s letters and papers written in the  years
he spent on Guadeloupe, it is almost impossible to find any
indication of his feelings on the practice of slavery, or of what
life was like for most of the inhabitants of the colony. Peysson-
nel’s own life seems to have been pleasant enough: he married
within a few months of arriving on the island and fathered several
children over the following years; he travelled frequently between
the neighbouring islands in search of natural historical know-
ledge; his official duties were few and his salary generous enough
to live in comfort.


Peyssonnel’s life in the exotic surroundings of Guadeloupe was

of enormous fascination to those back home. The eighteenth
century was a time of travel and imperial expansion; the num-
bers of naval positions, ships, sailors, and voyages increased
dramatically as the decades wore on. Though life at sea was
perilous and though the colonization of distant lands was often
a brutal business, in the collective mind of Europe, travel took on
a romantic, heroic aspect. This perception was helped enor-
mously by the publication of books such as Robinson Crusoe in
. Daniel Defoe’s (–) novel, telling the story of a
shipwrecked mariner who lives for  years on a tropical Carib-
bean island, was an instant hit: it went through four editions in its
first year alone, and was translated, adapted, and retold countless
times in the following decades. It was also around this time that
the idea of the ‘noble savage’ began to take off in Europe. The
term first appeared in a late seventeenth-century play by John
Dryden (–), but became more used after the  Inquiry
concerning virtue by the third Earl of Shaftesbury (–) was
published. The Earl believed that humans had an innate moral
sense—morals were not instilled by the outside world through
civilizing forces such as religion and, taking it one step further,
perhaps excessive contact with civilization could lead to the
corruption of morals. The idea quickly became linked to Enlight-
enment ideals and is today most often associated with thinkers
like Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Throughout the eighteenth century,
tales of European encounters with enlightened, peaceable ‘sav-
ages’ (both real and fictional) abounded. As more trade routes
opened up, there was increased contact between different cul-
tures, and stories of romance and adventure multiplied. But
the reality was often far removed from these idealized tales and


the cult of the ‘noble savage’ sat uneasily alongside the growing
slave trade.
Peyssonnel in Guadeloupe was ideally placed to send home
accounts of life in the Caribbean. He wrote not just to family and
friends, but also to learned societies who could publish his letters.
Always a rigorous physician and man of science, Peyssonnel was
careful to avoid hyperbole and his letters give a lucid picture of
the daily life of a colonial official in the French-controlled West
Indies. His first assignment on arrival in Guadeloupe was not one
he relished. Peyssonnel’s superior, Monsieur Damonville, coun-
cillor and assistant judge on nearby Martinique, decided that it
was high time that someone reported on the problem of leprosy
in the islands. And who better to conduct this report than the
newly arrived royal physician? Peyssonnel began his task by
wading through a mess of colonial red tape: he had to deal with
the intendant of the islands, Monsiuer Blondel de Juvencourt;
with various courts that had already collected reports of leprosy;
with Monsieur le Mercier Beausoleil who, as the project’s treas-
urer, was in charge of the funds that had been raised by taxing
slave-owners; and with the Count de Moyencourt and Monsieur
Mesnier (ordinator and subdelegate respectively) who communi-
cated messages between Peyssonnel and the islands’ chief gen-
eral.86 Once Peyssonnel had negotiated all of these obstacles he
was free to begin his ‘dangerous commission’.
What he found horrified him. He visited  people suspected
of having leprosy. Of these, over a hundred showed symptoms
such as livid red or yellow patches of skin, swollen noses,
enlarged nostrils, tumours on the cheekbones, eyebrows, and
ears, disfigured hands and feet, dislocated joints, ulcers on the
palms of the hands and soles of the feet. ‘The patient’, wrote


Peyssonnel, ‘becomes frightful and falls to pieces.’ Perhaps the

only blessing was that the patients felt very little pain, even when
the disease advanced so far as to cause fingers or toes to drop off.
To be a leper was to be an outcast, and most who suffered from
the disease tried to conceal their symptoms. The most common
excuse for not having toes, discovered Peyssonnel, was that they
had been eaten by rats. There was no cure for the disease at
this time and there was little Peyssonnel could do for the sufferers
he met.
Most of Peyssonnel’s work on Guadeloupe was far less distress-
ing than his visits to the lepers. He spent many of his days
exploring, examining the volcanoes of the island (even venturing
inside some), getting to know its plants and animals, observing
the currents in the seas, assessing the economic potential of
newly discovered species, visiting other islands in the hope of
making ‘philosophical discoveries’, learning the medicinal prop-
erties of exotic herbs, investigating powerful poisonous plants,
trying to understand the mechanism of hurricanes, and continu-
ing the study of corals that he had begun as a boy in Marseilles.
The Caribbean was rich in the strange aquatic beings that Peys-
sonnel so loved and, with renewed vigour, he resumed his mis-
sion to convince the scientific world that corals were animals.
Access to a huge new variety of corals and his paid position as a
naturalist allowed Peyssonnel the resources and time to finally
show the true nature of the coral.
Many species of coral were easy to collect in the shallow
coastal waters of the islands, but some were harder to obtain.
Peyssonnel’s work relied on fishermen with their nets, and on
slaves with their prodigious diving abilities being sent to the
seabed in search of corals that would fetch a high price from


European collectors. Once he had his specimens, Peyssonnel set

to work. His methods were similar to those he had used in
Marseilles and on the coast of North Africa. He kept corals in
tanks of sea water, observed them, watched how they reacted to
stimuli, confirmed that they could move and feel, and examined
the little animals he found inside them. He continued to write to
his scientific colleagues at the Académie in Paris but received only a
lukewarm response. Through the s and s, Peyssonnel’s
work gained a few more supporters, and even Réaumur con-
ducted some fieldwork of his own and grudgingly conceded
that Peyssonnel’s theory might be correct. Peyssonnel knew that
his methods were sound and his results important and, needing a
forum in which his work was fully accepted, he abandoned Paris
and turned to London. Peyssonnel began to correspond with
members of the Royal Society of London and a dozen of his
letters were printed in their Philosophical Transactions. In , he
sent the Society a -page manuscript on corals—his magnum
opus. It contained descriptions of all his work on coral since his
first investigations in Marseilles and he gave a definitive answer
to the age-old question of ‘what is a coral?’ It was an animal.
The manuscript was warmly welcomed by the Royal Society: an
abridged and translated version was read aloud at a Society
meeting and later published in the Philosophical Transactions.
This final acceptance of Peyssonnel’s work was helped by a
discovery that had taken place in the s—that of Trembley’s
polyp. The animals that Peyssonnel saw in corals were salt-
water relatives of Trembley’s freshwater hydra. The interest in
polyps and their strange animal–vegetable nature meant that
people were taking a new interest in zoophytes; they were
willing to accept that the species could bridge the boundaries


of the kingdoms, and that what first had been a mineral, then a
plant, was now an animal.
Today, corals are still a source of fascination to researchers
because of their extraordinarily high number of stem cells. These
stem cells allow them to regenerate when injured and mean that a
polyp can live for up to a century. In the eighteenth century,
Charles Bonnet (a relation and confidant of Trembley’s) investi-
gated freshwater polyps and other similar creatures; his work led
him to conclude that they held within them ‘sleeping embryos’
that remained ageless until called into action. These special cells
awoke when part of the creature was injured or removed and
took the place of the damaged or missing part. Now renamed as
stem cells, these ‘sleeping embryos’ may have the power to
answer countless questions about development and ageing and
to provide new treatments for old diseases, but they still retain
many of their secrets.

Fossils and the new science of geology

Corals were not the only mystery of the mineral world in the
eighteenth century: fossils too resembled living beings, but
appeared to be made from unliving stone. Over the course of
the century, a new understanding of fossils would develop that
exploded old ideas about the age of the earth and paved the way
for evolutionary theories. But before the study of fossils could
begin in earnest, there had to be agreement about how to define a
fossil. The word ‘fossil’ comes from the Latin fossa, a ditch; its
original meaning referred to any object that had been dug from
the ground—this could include rocks, gemstones, archaeological
items, coins, or ‘figured stones’ that resembled animals or plants.


Before the eighteenth century, there was neither distinction

between fossils of organic or inorganic origin, nor between
organic fossils and those that had clearly been made by human
artifice. It was only when that distinction began to be made that
the modern definition of ‘fossil’ emerged and the word came to
refer exclusively to those ‘figured stones’ that appeared to bear the
imprints of strange animals and plants. The change in language
reflected a change in thinking about the meaning and significance
of these objects.
Since ancient times, the existence of sea-shells on mountain-
tops had been known and puzzled over. Were these real shells
that had once inhabited the oceans, or had they grown atop the
mountains? If they were true sea-shells how had they climbed
thousands of feet to perch upon these remote summits? Through
centuries of debate, many medieval and early modern commen-
tators agreed that Noah’s Flood was a likely culprit in the dis-
placement of these objects. After all, most Europeans believed
that the earth had been created according to the account in
Genesis and so the Bible doubled as a historical record of the
earliest earth history. As the Flood was the most significant
physical event known to have occurred on earth, it was likely
that it played a significant role in shaping the earth’s surface and
moving material from seabed to mountain summit. Of course,
not everyone agreed; some argued that the shells had grown in
situ through some generative force in the rocks, or had been
placed there by God for his own amusement.
There were fossils besides sea-shells that puzzled people. Giant
bones of unknown animals have been found throughout history
and were collected, measured, and displayed as objects of great
curiosity. The historian Suetonius has left a record of Emperor


Augustus’ museum of palaeontology in his villa on the island of

Capri—the earliest known collection of fossils. These enormous
bones were thought to come from mythological monsters, while
the legend of the griffin is said to have derived from nomads’
accounts of dinosaur skeletons in the deserts of central Asia.87
These fossils didn’t correspond to any living creatures and, right
up to the eighteenth century, this caused problems for scholars.
Was it possible that animals and plants had once existed that were
now entirely unknown? If so, what had happened to them? The
biblical account of creation said that all species had been created
at the same time and didn’t give any indication that God had
intended for some of his creatures to become extinct. What
would be the purpose of extinction in God’s plan?
In the late sixteenth century, the Swiss naturalist Conrad
Gesner (–) set out to solve some of the mysteries surround-
ing fossils. He published his ideas in A book on fossil objects, chiefly
stones and gems, their shapes and appearances in —the word ‘fossil’
still retained its original meaning. This short book was intended
only as an introduction, to be followed up by a more detailed
work. Sadly, the follow-up was never written as Gesner died in a
plague that struck his hometown of Zurich. But Gesner’s short
work was nonetheless influential: primarily for its systematic use
of illustrations. Gesner’s woodcuts allowed other scholars to
compare their fossils to other specimens more accurately than a
written description would have allowed. This also meant that
naturalists could begin to standardize nomenclature, and to dis-
tinguish between organic and inorganic fossils in a more coherent
way. Gesner’s illustrations were also significant in that most were
drawn from real specimens rather than being based on descrip-
tions that he had read in other books—his illustrations actually


closely resembled the original specimen (not always the case with
natural history illustration in this period). Gesner’s work insti-
gated the tradition of naturalists sharing accurate drawing of
fossils and attempting to standardize names—this was the first
step on the path to a new understanding of fossils.
One kind of fossil that particularly fascinated Gesner was the
glossopetra, meaning ‘tongue stone’. These unusual triangular
fossils had been known for centuries but Gesner was the first
person known to link them to a modern living animal—the
shark. Gesner compared modern shark teeth to these old stones
and saw several striking similarities. Did this mean that figured
stones represented parts of real animals? A century later, the
question still did not have a conclusive answer and the young
Danish naturalist Steno decided to conduct a study of his own.
Steno was working in Florence under the patronage of the Grand
Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinand II, when some fishermen caught an
enormous shark near Livorno and, thanks to the Duke’s support,
the shark’s head was presented to Steno for dissection. Steno’s
detailed observations gave conclusive evidence that glossopetra
closely resembled sharks’ teeth precisely because they had once been
sharks’ teeth. But this wasn’t a stand-alone discovery; it had
serious implications for the understanding of the earth. Why
were fossils often found deep underground or encased in solid
rock? How did something belonging to a sea-dwelling creature
come to be found inside a bed of limestone? Steno began to
consider the formation of the earth in order to understand why
fossil remains of animals and plants should end up where they
did; from these considerations emerged a theory of sedimenta-
tion. Steno believed that the layered appearance of many rock
formations was due to them being slowly laid down over time as


thin layers of sediment and gradually building and hardening over

centuries or millennia. This explained how a shark’s tooth could
become embedded in rock and, perhaps more importantly,
meant that the earth’s history could be reconstructed by looking
back at its layers of rocks. With this realization, physical evidence
(still alongside scriptural evidence) could come to play a greater
role in the understanding of the early history of the planet.
Steno was not the only one working on this kind of problem in
the seventeenth century. Across Europe, interest in the formation
and chronology of the earth grew: in Ireland, James Ussher
(–) was working on figuring out the age of the earth
and is frequently (though erroneously) credited with dating the
earth’s creation to  BC. In England, Robert Hooke (–),
John Ray (–), and Thomas Burnet (?–), amongst
others, developed theories of the earth that sought to account for
the existence of fossils. In France, René Descartes, using only his
ideas about matter and motion and natural philosophical prin-
ciples, worked out a possible scheme for the earth’s development.
Fossils were receiving more attention than ever before: in London,
John Woodward (–) further developed Steno’s theory of
fossils being laid down in sedimentary beds; while in Oxford,
Edward Lhwyd (–) was exploring the possibility that
fossils grew within rocks from seeds.
Speculation about how the earth had attained its current shape
continued through the seventeenth century and into the early
years of the eighteenth. But the following decades saw a shift in
how the earth was studied: there was a move away from specu-
lation and grand theories and towards empiricism. Mineralogy,
the mineral kingdom’s answer to botany and zoology, had trad-
itionally been a largely indoor pursuit with mineralogists focusing


on arranging specimens in different taxonomic orders. Little

attention was paid to the formation or landscape in which the
specimen had been found. But all that began to change in the
eighteenth century as a new interest in fieldwork developed. It
became more common for mineralogists to venture outside their
studies to collect specimens themselves, to appreciate how a
mineral fitted into its environment, and to see what effects rivers,
mountains, volcanoes, and other natural features could have on a
particular locale. Naturalists began to understand more about
how rocks had formed by seeing them in their original location;
they started to differentiate between primary rocks like basalt and
granite (which form due to very high temperatures) and second-
ary rocks like limestone (which form due to sedimentation). The
science of ‘geognosy’ developed—this was a science that classified
masses of rock and their relationships to other rock formations
with particular focus on spatial relations and three-dimensional
understanding of landscapes. The relative ages of different kinds
of rocks began to be worked out. By the end of the eighteenth
century, a new word had been coined: geology. Within this new
science of geology nestled several sub-disciplines: mineralogy,
physical geography, geognosy, and earth physics.88
This new geology attracted new audiences. Where once the
study of the earth had been undertaken by practical men for
practical purposes such as mining, or had been a highly specula-
tive science undertaken by learned gentlemen in elite institutions,
now geology became fashionable throughout society. Across
Europe, collectors were adding new and highly polished speci-
mens of minerals and fossils to their cabinets of curiosity. Fossils
in particular were becoming fashionable items for ordinary
people to own due to their beauty, rarity, and mysterious origins.


The central importance of fossils to many branches of geology

and their ability to draw public and scientific interest is shown by
two famous stories. The first story is that of Johann Beringer
(–), who found some very unusual (and controversial)
fossils in central Germany; the second is that of William Smith
(–), who used fossils to create the world’s first geological
map. In both cases, the question of the true nature of these odd
mineral productions was of crucial importance.

Beringer’s lying stones

On  May , two teenage boys made their way from the hills
of Eivelstadt, along the River Main, towards the city of Würz-
berg; with them, they brought three very unusual objects. Once
in the city, the boys made their way to the university and
sought out their employer—the Dean of the Faculty of Medi-
cine, Johann Beringer. The boys’ arrival and the strange parcel
they carried would dramatically alter Beringer’s career; for
wrapped carefully in their satchels was something never before
seen in nature. Though Beringer was a physician by training and
trade, his first love was the study of the mineral kingdom and
he had employed these young brothers, Niklaus and Valentin
Hehn, to search for interesting rocks and fossils on the barren
slopes of Mount Eivelstadt.89 When they unwrapped their pre-
cious cargo, Beringer could scarcely believe his eyes: staring
back at him were three fossils. The first two showed a mass of
wriggling worms; this was unusual as fossils usually showed
bones or teeth and soft tissue was rarely fossilized. The third
showed something even stranger—a fossil depiction of the sun
and its rays.


What on earth did these objects mean, how had they been
formed, and how had they come to be on this insignificant hill in
the German province of Franconia? Beringer needed more infor-
mation before he could try to answer these questions. He sent the
Hehn brothers, along with another boy called Christian Zänger,
back to Mount Eivelstadt to continue looking for specimens. He
was not disappointed by the results; the boys found, in Beringer’s
own words:

[figured stones] representing all the kingdoms of nature, but

especially those of animals and plants . . . small birds with wings
either spread or folded, butterflies, pearls and small coins, beetles
in flight and at rest, bees and wasps (some clinging to flowers,
others in their nests), hornets, flies, tortoises from the sea and
stream, fishes of all sorts, worms, snakes, leeches from the sea and
swamp, lice, oysters, marine crabs, pungers, frogs, toads, lizards,
cankerworms, scorpions, spiders, crickets, ants, locusts, snails,
shell-bearing fishes, and countless rare and exotic figures of
insects obviously from other regions. Here were leaves, flowers,
plants, and whole herbs, some with and some without roots
and flowers.90

This was the richest fossil-find ever known (Figure ). But that
was not all; alongside the stones showing images of plants and
animals were more unusual ones showing the sun, the moon,
stars, comets, and even some showing the name of God in Latin,
Arabic, and Hebrew.
News of this unprecedented find spread quickly and fossil-
hunters began to make their way towards Würzberg. As the
fame of the figured stones increased, doubts began to creep in.
Some, accustomed only to seeing the fossilized remains of natural
objects, did not believe that it was possible to fossilize the name
of God; others doubted the authenticity of the fossils that showed


Fig. . One of the many

illustrations of the Mount
Eivelstadt fossils produced by
Johann Beringer. It is unusual for
soft tissues to be fossilized, and
particularly unusual to see
mineralized impressions of, for
example, an insect landing on a
flower. From Johann Beringer,
Lithographiae Wirceburgensis, ,
plate VI.

such perfectly preserved soft tissue or captured moments such as

a butterfly landing on a flower; a few pointed out that they could
see chisel-marks on the stones and suggested that they had been
carved by human hands. The possibility of a hoax was raised but
Beringer remained resolute in his belief in the authenticity of the
Exactly what ‘authenticity’ might mean in this case was up for
debate. Even after centuries of deliberation, there was no universal
agreement on how fossils were formed. Though Steno’s work on
shark teeth had given evidence in favour of the organic origin of
fossils, several other theories were still under investigation: fossils
might have originated when the biblical Flood transported objects
away from their original locations, explaining why fossilized


sea-shells were sometimes found on mountain tops; they might be

a natural product resulting when salt and moisture in the earth
interacted with decaying matter; they might grow underground
due to a generative vapour in the earth; or they might simply be a
sport of Nature—one of God’s little jokes. Though some had
begun to use the word ‘fossil’ exclusively to describe stones that
had the appearance of plants or animals, its wider use remained
and what we now think of as archaeological finds could also be
legitimately described as ‘fossils’ in Beringer’s period. Beringer
wasn’t sure how his figured stones had been formed, but he was
confident that they were real, and not a modern fabrication.
Today, Beringer is most often to be found in the pages of
undergraduate geology textbooks as a warning against credulity
but, in fact, his methodology was sound. He spent almost a year
gathering specimens, investigating them carefully, and reading up
on the latest theories of fossil formation before presenting his
results in a measured way. These results came in the form of a
book entitled Lithographia Wircenburgensis (The Würzberg lithography),
published in . In it, Beringer discussed all possible theories for
the origins of the stones and allowed the reader to understand
them for himself without shoehorning the facts to fit with a
favoured interpretation. It should have been a model text for
the growing field of geology but, sadly, it was not to be.
When preparations for the book were almost complete, Beringer
overheard a rumour that was circulating through the city and
especially through the university: that the figured stones were
fakes, that each one had been carved recently but deliberately
made to look much older before being brought to Beringer with
the express purpose of deceiving him. Beringer was outraged at this
rumour, partly as it made him look foolish and gullible, and partly


because it implicated him in the distribution of fake specimens. He

refused to believe it, and sought out its source. He found that source
with two of his colleagues: J. Ignatz Roderick, Professor of Geog-
raphy, Algebra, and Analysis; and the Honourable Georg von
Eckhart, Privy Councillor and Librarian to the Court and University.
Beringer confronted them with the rumour and demanded an
explanation. Roderick and Eckhart replied that they had cause to
believe the fossils had been faked (though carefully avoided men-
tioning how they could be so certain of that) and that if Beringer’s
book went ahead he would become the laughing stock of learned
Europe. Beringer refused to listen to them, and pressed ahead with
the book. In response, Roderick and Eckhart hatched a plan: they
carved a stone with Hebrew letters and passed it to a stonecutter’s
helper who they paid to deliver it to Beringer as a find from Mount
Eivelstadt. Beringer willingly accepted this fake as a ‘real’ figured
stone, at which point Roderick and Eckhart admitted that they had
carved it to prove that Beringer could not tell the difference between
a genuine fossil and a fake. Beringer was even further incensed, and
though he admitted that he had been fooled this once, he main-
tained the other figured stones were genuine. He did not believe that
the hundreds of stones he had examined could all be fakes, nor did
he believe that the Hehn brothers or Zänger who dug the stones out
of the earth for him were capable of such skilled forgery and
Beringer published his book and took his two detractors to
court in order to prove the stones real and so save his honour
and reputation.91 The trial did not go according to plan for
Beringer. Proceedings began on  April  in the Würzberg
Cathedral Chapter and it quickly became apparent that Roderick
and Eckhart had been behind an elaborate hoax designed to


discredit Beringer. Only partial records remain from the first day
of proceedings, but a list of the questions put to the three young
diggers employed by Beringer reveal a lot. The questions to the
Hehn brothers are quite straightforward: did either of them know
the art of sculpting? had either of them been hired to sculpt the
figured stones? had they ever seen anyone hiding stones on the
mountain? and so on. But the questions to Zänger were not so
simple: had Roderick and Eckhart offered him  ducats if he
would say that the Hehn brothers had made the stones? had
Roderick and Eckhart promised him a new suit of clothes and
then to take him as their servant to Colbenz before Easter? had
Roderick and Eckhart given him a sketch of a mouse and Hebrew
letters? had he heard Roderick and Eckhart declare that they
would not rest until Beringer was brought down, towards
which end a Baron, carried in a sedan chair, and five other people
wished to meet? Clearly something was afoot.
The trial continued two days later in Eivelstadt’s city hall.
Again, Niklaus and Valentin Hehn were asked whether they had
carved or knew that someone else had carved the stones—both
denied any knowledge, with Niklaus adding that if they knew
how to carve such stones they wouldn’t be mere diggers. When
the magistrate turned to question Zänger, the truth began to
emerge. Roderick and Eckhart had carved most of the stones
themselves, then employed Zänger to polish them and hide them
on the hillside, or deliver them directly to Beringer. Further, they
had paid Zänger to implicate the Hehn brothers should the true
nature of the figured stones be revealed. There were further hints
that the hoax extended beyond Roderick and Eckhart to include a
mysterious Baron von Hof who was carried about in a sedan
chair. Zänger testified that once, while polishing stones at Privy


Councillor Eckhart’s house, he had heard Roderick, Eckhart, and

the Baron say that they wished ‘to accuse Dr. Beringer before his
Grace, because he was so arrogant and despised them all’.92
Petty academic jealousy had been behind this elaborate hoax.
The trial ended not, as Beringer had hoped, with his honour saved
and the rumours of his enemies exposed as falsehoods, but with
the reputations of three men in tatters. Beringer, though proved
to be honest, was seen as overly gullible—not an ideal quality in a
man of science. But he retained his post as Dean of Medicine and
gradually his reputation mended; he even returned to writing and
his later books were well regarded. Roderick and Eckhart both
lost their university positions; Roderick absented himself from
Würzberg and Eckhart died a few years later with most of his
works unfinished as he had been denied access to the University
Archives after his disgrace.
Beringer’s story is not just an amusing anecdote in the annals of
geology, nor should it be seen as a simple story of credulity to be
retold to unwary undergraduates. Using the modern definition of
a fossil as the mineralized remains of a once-living organism,
Beringer’s figured stones look ridiculous, clearly the work of a
third-rate sculptor. But by eighteenth-century definitions, Berin-
ger’s fossils could easily have been genuine. When the Hehn
brothers brought their first finds to Beringer, the organic origins
of fossils were not fully accepted: how Beringer interpreted the
fossils depended on the theories of fossil creation that were
available to him and the whole case rested on what a fossil really
was. If a fossil was a ‘sport of nature’ it didn’t matter that Beringer
was finding Hebrew or Arabic words, rays of sunlight, or depic-
tions of comets in the rocks; the same applied if a fossil was
defined as an ancient pagan piece of art. But if fossils were defined


as deriving from once-living animals or plants (as more people

were beginning to believe) then the fake fossils could seriously
damage Beringer’s reputation as a man of science. The whole
story turned on knowing the true nature of fossils.

Strata Smith’s fossil map

Later in the century, the answer to that same question—what is a
fossil?—would be used by William Smith to do something extra-
ordinary: to create a map in which one could read the history of
the earth. Smith was born in  in rural Oxfordshire to a village
blacksmith and at the age of  became apprenticed to a land
surveyor. It was the height of the Industrial Revolution and
surveyors were much in demand as coal mines were expanded,
canals and railways built, and land drained to increase its prod-
uctivity. After a few years of training, Smith moved to Stowey in
northern Somerset in  to undertake some work for a Lady
Elizabeth Jones. He was initially employed to value her estate and
to survey and landscape the area surrounding her house; but Lady
Jones owned a vast tract of land in the region, including several
coal mines, and Smith soon found himself involved in the coal
excavations at the Mearns Pit. Smith spent several years working
on different projects in this area of Somerset for Lady Jones, often
associated with her mines. This access to mines was of crucial
importance for his later work and his notebooks from the time
show a fascination with the structure of the earth.93
Smith descended into every shaft of the Mearns Pit to make
observations. At first, Smith found the rock structures of the
shafts confusing, but with some help from the miners and ‘an
intelligent bailiff ’ he began to identify the distinct layers and to


understand how they fitted together. As he descended into the

earth, he passed a thin layer of topsoil; beneath that was a bed of
reddish limestone which sloped gently to the east; lower still was
a convoluted and sharply inclined bed of grey sandstone; then
followed layers of siltstone, mudstone, rocks with non-marine
fossils, rocks with marine fossils, and finally narrow seams of
shiny black coal. Smith noted these different layers in different
parts of the mine and realized that the beds changed in the same
way even in different places. A coal seam would always have a
particular series of rocks above it, and a particular series of rocks
below it: the sequence never changed. The sequence repeated
down into the earth and more seams of coal lay below.
This new field of ‘stratigraphy’, or the study of layers of rock
and their relationships to one another, became Smith’s passion—
so much so that he was nicknamed Strata Smith. But his obser-
vations so far had centred on just one coalfield; he knew that he
needed a wider area of study to test his theory. In  he got that
opportunity when he was offered a job as surveyor on a new
canal to be built to the Somerset coalfields. Before he began work
on his own canal, Smith made a tour of several other canals and
collieries to learn about the latest methods and theories of canal-
building and managed to make a string of geological observations
along the way. On returning to Somerset he began to devise plans
for his own canal; he decided that the lie of the land, coupled with
the requirement to collect coal efficiently from all parts of the
coalfield, necessitated two parallel canals rather than just one.
Excavations began in the summer of  in two deep valleys
which ran almost parallel, and lay about two miles apart. The
double canal was needed due to the landscape but had an import-
ant benefit for Smith’s geological work: he could extend his


observations over a greater area than previously possible. As the

navvies dug deeper into the ground they exposed more layers of
rock. Smith could compare these layers both to those he had seen
in the Stowey coalfield and to those in the sister canal. Smith’s
earlier observation that rocks always occurred in the same
sequence was re-confirmed over a larger distance.
By the end of the first year of excavations, Smith had worked out
the local order of strata. One of the most difficult parts of this task
was to differentiate between different kinds of similar-looking
rock. The strata sequence, for example, contained several different
kinds of limestone which had almost identical make-up and
appearance. One of Smith’s most important discoveries was that
he could distinguish these limestones by looking at the fossils they
contained. By this point at the end of the century, it had become
quite widely accepted that fossils were the imprints of once-living
plants and animals. Naturalists were beginning to observe and
record the differences between fossils that might indicate that
they had lived in different habitats or times. As Steno had suggested
more than  years earlier, the location of a fossil inside a par-
ticular bed of sedimentary rock might be used to reconstruct how
that part of the earth’s surface had been formed, and to figure out
its age relative to the other rocks around it. Smith’s research led
him to believe that different fossils in similar limestones indicated
that although the limestones might have been produced in similar
ways, they were in fact very different in age. In January ,
confident that his use of fossils to determine the order of the earth’s
strata was fully worked out, he wrote in his journal:

Fossils have long been studied as great curiosities, collected with

great pains, treasured with great care and at a great expense, and
showed and admired with as much pleasure as a child’s rattle or a


hobby-horse is shown and admired by himself and his playfel-

lows, because it is pretty; and this has been done by thousands
who have never paid the least regard to that wonderful order and
regularity with which Nature has disposed of these singular pro-
ductions, and assigned each class to its particular stratum.94

Nature’s regularity ensured that a limestone that occurred below a

coal seam would contain one kind of fossil, the one above it
would contain quite a different kind of fossil; it was this discovery
that really allowed Smith to understand the jigsaw of rock strata
and he quickly became an expert on different fossils and their
order in the earth’s strata.
This didn’t just interest Smith for its abstract scientific value; as
a surveyor, he saw an immediate practical use for this new
knowledge—he realized that he could draw these different strata
onto maps. Since he could now clearly identify all the different
rock layers, and since he could measure the direction and angle at
which beds of rock dipped into the earth, his map could simul-
taneously tell the reader something about the creation of those
rocks, and could be used to predict where coal and other useful
minerals might be found. Nothing like this had been attempted
before. Smith made several preliminary notes and sketches while
he was excavating the canals but it was not until  that he
attempted a more ambitious project. The previous year he had
seen a map in the Somerset County Agricultural Report that showed
different kinds of soils and vegetation in the northern part of the
county; he decided to attempt something similar with rock for-
mations. Using a circular map of Bath and the surrounding areas
of Somerset he began to sketch in the different rocks that he had
observed. To make the meaning clear, Smith added a crucial
(though expensive) element: colour. The colour allowed the


map to be read easily, and when he had finished, Smith had

produced a striking, though small-scale, geological map—the
first of its kind. Later in , Smith created another document
of great importance: he dictated a table of strata to two friends,
the Reverend Joseph Townsend and the Reverend Benjamin
Richardson. This accurate and detailed table listed  distinct
kinds of rock that layered together to form the northern Somerset
landscape. These two documents began to circulate among the
learned gentlemen of Bath, and then further afield. Smith’s ideas
began to be known outside his immediate circle and his ambition
to create a grander map took flight.
It was also in  that Smith lost his position at the Somerset
coal canal; the loss of income drove him to travel throughout
England in search of new commissions and, along the way, he
was able to make more geological observations. These years were
financially hard, but productive; it was in this period that Smith
determined to make a national geological map. He would move
beyond his local observations of Somerset strata and draw a
map that exposed the foundation stones of Britain. This arduous
task was undertaken alone and it took Smith more than a decade
to slowly tour through the whole country making methodical
observations as he went. Smith received some support from
those who could see the scientific and economic merits of this
map, but he struggled to find a financial backer to help with the
huge expense of printing an enormous, and experimental, map
in full colour. Finally, in , with his scientific observations
complete and a partner to help with the printing costs, Smith’s
map was unveiled (Figure ).
This beautiful object showing different bands of rock sweeping
across Britain hangs in the Geological Society of London today


Fig. . William Smith’s geological map of England and Wales, which was
made possible by the study of fossils within strata, .


(a society which denied Smith membership for many years due

to his lowly background) and is one of the most important
documents in the history of geology. It is also one of the earliest
records of the utility of fossils in understanding the formation and
structure of the earth. Though many naturalists, geognosts, sur-
veyors, and workmen had observed and collected fossils as they
dug down through the Earth’s layers, and though many believed
that fossils were the organic remains of real creatures, it took
Smith’s map to crystallize the view that different fossils repre-
sented different periods of time and that their position in the
strata was indicative of when that part of the earth’s crust had
been created. In hindsight, it seems obvious to us today that
fossils are also indicative of evolutionary change in living things;
but, though Smith noted that fossils changed in complexity in
successive strata and even noticed a break in the continuum of
fossils between the Milstone and the Pennant Stone (which we
now attribute to the Permian-Triassic mass extinction) he focused
on documenting their positions rather than speculating on the
causes behind their differences. His solidly empirical approach
was the key to the accuracy and success of his map.
By the end of the eighteenth century, fossils were understood to
be the mineralized remains of real plants and animals. This under-
standing was immensely useful to men like Smith who could
exploit that knowledge for practical aims; it could also be used to
undermine older beliefs about the age of the earth; and to demon-
strate that living beings changed over time and that extinctions
occurred in nature. Untangling the true nature of fossils—which
seemed sometimes to be plant, sometimes animal, sometimes
mineral, and sometimes a divine joke—allowed a new understanding


of the earth to develop but caused problems for those who wished
to read the Book of Genesis literally.
In the eighteenth century, some people were beginning to
question the creation story told in Genesis, and to use new
evidence to pick holes in biblical tales such as that of Noah’s
Flood. European societies in general were becoming a little less
dogmatic, but secularism and atheism were still seen as dangerous
and new-fangled ideas; this was particularly true after France,
home to a significant number of outspoken atheists, tumbled
into a bloody revolution that terrified the ruling classes of neigh-
bouring countries. So, due to their religious beliefs, most people
had to try to reconcile the idea of a very old earth with the
seemingly younger earth described in Genesis. Geology, and
specifically the study of fossils, was the single greatest contribut-
ing factor behind this momentous shift in thinking about the
history of our planet. Eighteenth-century naturalists just asked
one simple question: what is a fossil? It might have looked just
like a plant or animal, but why was it made of rock? Had it ever
been alive? Their attempts to determine how fossils fitted into the
scheme of ‘animal, vegetable, mineral’ were not intended to have
such grave consequences for Christian teachings but, once the
question had been asked, it was impossible to avoid the ramifi-
cations of the answer.
Strange objects like corals and fossils that seemed to cross the
boundaries of the natural kingdoms show just how difficult it was
for eighteenth-century naturalists to pigeonhole natural objects,
and how finding an answer to one question could lead to dozens
more unexpected questions raising their difficult heads.


The Fourth Kingdom

Perceptive Plants

A fourth kingdom?

T he swamplands of the Carolinas, with their water-logged

soil, steamy air, ghostly trees, and resident reptiles, are
home to one of the world’s most unusual plants. Though long
known to locals, the first European colonist to notice and record
this specimen was Arthur Dobbs (–), the governor of the
state of North Carolina from  until his death. Dobbs men-
tioned this plant in a letter to his friend Peter Collinson
(–) in England and promised to send seeds; but, though
Collinson begged to know more about this fantastical plant,
Dobbs (perhaps distracted by his new young wife) failed to send
any seeds.95 During the s, news slowly spread through the
botanical community that there was something strange in the
wetlands of these southern states. For two pioneering American
botanists, the rumours proved too much; they each, separately,
planned journeys from their homes in Philadelphia along the
coast to the Carolinas. Braving dangerous sea passages, unfamiliar
terrain, the possibility of hostile locals, and fearsome wildlife,
each reached the Carolinas and found the plant, just as described.


Growing in the heavy dark soil, each man would have seen an
elegant white five-petal flower rise on a delicate stem. Though
pretty, the flower itself was not the unusual part. At the base of
the stem, a rosette of glossy, flat-stemmed leaves spread out and
at the end of each leaf sat something odd: two lobes surrounded
by stiff bristle-like hairs displaying a reddish centre. Fine hairs
grew from these red parts of the leaf. Sitting in the warm, quiet
swamp, each man would have settled down to observe the plant.
Before long, a bumbling insect would appear, be drawn to the
plant, settle on its attractive red leaves and . . . snap! Just as an
animal shuts its powerful jaws, the plant had eaten the fly. The
two lobes flew together and their stiff surrounding bristles inter-
locked, making escape impossible. The lobe would remain locked
for several days, digesting its prey, and then would open, spit out
anything indigestible, and wait for its next meal to arrive (Figure ).
These two men were John Bartram (–), the King’s
Botanist for North America, and William Young Jnr. (–),
the Queen’s Botanist for North America; and they vied jealously
for the position of premier botanist in North America. In the
employment of King George III and his wife Queen Charlotte
respectively, Bartram and Young were responsible for cataloguing
the vegetable life of the colony of North America, collecting new
and rare plants, and sending interesting samples back to the Royal
Botanic Gardens at Kew, established just a few years earlier in
. New plants could have value as food crops or in medicine
and so were an important part of the expanding British Empire;
Kew Gardens were a symbol of the growing status of botany at a
national level. Though they often had to collaborate, Bartram and
Young were not on friendly terms; in a letter to a friend, Bartram
described how Young had been seduced by London fashions and


Fig. . The first European image of a Venus fly-trap. ‘Each leaf is a mini-
ature figure of a rat trap with teeth, closing on every fly or other insect that
creeps between its lobes, and squeezing it to death’. From John Ellis,
A botanical description of the Dionaea Muscipila, or Venus’s Fly-Trap, .


taken to curling his hair and how ‘he cut the greatest figure in
town, struts along the streets whistling, with his sword and gold
lace’,96 while also hinting that Young might have spent time in
prison. The fly-trap provided another focus of competition
between the two men and each raced to be the first to tell the world.
Bartram, older and more established, was the first to get speci-
mens to his contacts in Europe. By chance, he too was a friend of
Peter Collinson’s and knew that Collinson was an important
trader in natural history objects. Once the dried plant specimens
reached Collinson in London they were sent to key botanists;
most importantly, one reached John Ellis. Ellis, whose experi-
ments on the chemistry of plants and animals were described in
Chapter , was fascinated by the idea that a plant could respond
to a stimulus and digest food—both traditionally considered
characteristics of animals. He dissected the specimen with his
friend and collaborator Daniel Solander. But there was one
problem—this specimen, sent by Bartram, was dead and dried
and so Ellis couldn’t see the fly-trap in action. The more dynamic
Young soon solved that problem; he crossed the Atlantic himself
with a box full of live plants—not a straightforward task in the
eighteenth century. And so, for the first time, Europeans could see
the dramatic fly-trap in action and marvel at its strange animal-
like habits. Ellis published the first formal description of the plant
in an open letter to the powerful Carl Linnæus, crediting Collinson,
Bartram, and Young for bringing it to his attention. His opening
words to Linnæus perfectly conveyed his excitement: ‘My dear
friend, I know that every discovery in nature is a treat to you; but
in this you will have a feast!’97
The fly-trap was still known by several names in the eighteenth
century, but most common were ‘tipitiwitchet’ and ‘Venus fly-


trap’, each of which had somewhat lewd connotations derived

from the rather suggestive appearance of the lobes. Ellis gave the
plant the scientific name of Dionæa muscipula (Latin for ‘Venus’
mouse-trap’) by which it is still known today. From its first
appearance in Europe, the fly-trap was a hit. Even  years
after its arrival, Charles Darwin said that he considered it ‘one of
the most wonderful plants in the world’.98 Its popularity con-
tinues today, and the precise mechanism that causes its astonish-
ing jaws to snap shut is still not fully understood.
Sensitive plants had been known in Europe, Africa, and the East
for centuries, but nothing quite like the Venus fly-trap had been
seen before. The fly-trap and other plants that could react to
stimulus were perfect examples of natural objects that seemed
to exist on the boundary between two kingdoms: the vegetable
and the animal. Their fabric and structure, the presence of roots,
stems, and leaves, should have allowed them to be placed within
the vegetable kingdom; but their ability to feel, move, and react to
their environment meant that they could also be considered
partially animal. Carl Linnæus had once codified the divisions
between these kingdoms in his famous maxim lapides crescunt;
vegetabilia crescunt et vivunt; animalia crescunt, vivunt, et sentiunt—
stones grow; plants grow and live; animals grow, live, and feel
(very similar to Aristotle’s views)—and many naturalists used this
formula when classifying specimens.99 But others considered this
definition too simple. Might there be species outside of these three
simple kingdoms? Might there exist a fourth kingdom that did not
obey the old rules? And if the old rules about God-given natural
order could be broken down with a single specimen, what would
the wider implications be? This was a century of change in which
fundamental questions were asked about the order of society; it


culminated in the French Revolution of . In this enlightened

time, a simple question about a plant that hunted for its supper
could quickly become a question about the order of society.

Stephen Hales and the Newtonian vegetable

With the rise of Linnæus’ system of classification, the growing
Enlightenment thirst for knowledge, and the increasing national
importance of botany, the plant sciences were expanding quickly
in the eighteenth century. Plant physiology was a newly develop-
ing field and its practitioners had to grapple with a host of
fundamental questions: what is the definition of a plant? how
do plants live? how similar is plant life to animal life? how can
such questions be answered observationally, experimentally, or
theoretically? Two of the principal ideas behind physiological
thinking in this period were mechanical philosophy and vitalist
philosophy. We have already seen how mechanical and vitalist
philosophies were used in relation to the animal soul and the
formation of embryos. When it came to the vegetable kingdom,
the same basic principles were upheld, but were formulated a
little differently. Naturalists tended towards one of two theories of
plant life: plants were most likely to be either called ‘Newtonian’
and so described as hydraulic systems that followed mechanical
laws; or they were living, feeling, perceptive beings that were
capable of a certain degree of voluntary action. Naturalists com-
peted fiercely to explain how the extraordinary characteristics of
plants like the Venus fly-trap could be understood using their
preferred philosophy.
The idea of a ‘Newtonian vegetable’ was formulated by the
natural philosopher Stephen Hales. Hales was born to a prosperous


Kent family and studied with several tutors as a boy before going up
to Cambridge aged . There, at Corpus Christi College, Hales
studied theology with the intention of becoming a clergyman.
Alongside his religious studies, Hales pursued his interests in nat-
ural history and natural philosophy; this was a common thing for a
gentleman wanting a well-rounded education. Hales graduated
with a BA in , and in  became a fellow of Corpus Christi.
In that year he met an undergraduate named William Stukeley
(–) and the two quickly became friends and collaborators.
Hales and Stukeley shared a passion for the sciences and spent
much time grappling with the most important scientific ideas of
their day: together they modelled the motion of the planets accord-
ing to Newton’s new gravitational laws; botanized in the country-
side around Cambridge; learned how to use telescopes and
microscopes; conducted experiments in the new-fangled science
of electricity and the increasingly fashionable field of chemistry;
and carried out a range of dissections on organic specimens.
It had been less than  years since another Cambridge man,
Isaac Newton (–), had published his seminal Philosophiae
naturalis principia mathematica. This book described new ways of
understanding motion and postulated the idea of a universal
gravitational force; it revolutionized the sciences and thrilled
young scholars like Hales and Stukeley. When Hales first came
up to Cambridge he attended lectures on Newton’s new theory of
the universe. The key thing about this theory, as suggested by its
title—which translated as The mathematical principles of natural phil-
osophy—was that it saw the world in terms of the mathematical
and numeric relations between things. Nowadays, we think noth-
ing of mathematizing nature—the daily activities of science centre
around counting, measuring, calculating. But in the seventeenth


century, the idea that mathematics, rather than the ancient texts of
religion or philosophy, could tell you how the world worked was a
new one. Young scholars, drawn to this somewhat radical world-
view, began to apply mathematical ideas to their own work.
Newton’s attempt to mathematize the world wasn’t the only fash-
ionable idea percolating through the scientific community at this
time. René Descartes’s theory of animal as machine, though con-
troversial in some quarters, was gaining more supporters. This
theory was bolstered by the work of the English anatomist William
Harvey who had proved that the heart is, essentially, a pump that
pushes blood around the body.
With its central pump, many hinges, levers, cords, and moving
parts, it’s not too far a stretch to see an animal’s body as a
machine. But could this theory be applied to the plant kingdom?
Hales set about doing just that. He had begun his experiments in
Cambridge, and continued them when he moved to a parish in
Teddington, west of London. In  Hales was elected a fellow of
the Royal Society and in  he began to present his results at
their meetings; there, he could share his ideas with the key
scientific figures of the day, including the Society’s president—
Isaac Newton. Finally, in , Hales presented his complete
theory and the details of his numerous experiments in a book
titled Vegetable staticks, or, an account of some statical experiments on the
sap in vegetables, being an essay towards a natural history of vegetation.
The central claim of this book was that plants were hydraulic
machines entirely explicable in terms of internal fluid (sap) flow;
because plants were simply machines, they could be described in
numerical terms and Hales’s experiments focused largely on
measuring and weighing plant fluids. Hales wrote: ‘the most likely
way . . . to get any insight into the nature of those parts of the


creation, which come within our observation, must in all reason

be to number, weigh and measure,’ before launching into the
details of his carefully designed experiments.100
Most of the experiments relied on measuring the exact amount
of moisture being absorbed and emitted from the plant. In one
such experiment, Hales described how, in July and August ,
he weighed a cabbage plant for nine consecutive mornings and
evenings. The cabbage was growing in a pot whose top was
covered with a thin plate of milled lead and all gaps were stopped
with cement. By carefully noting how much the plant was ‘per-
spiring’ each day, by controlling the amount of water entering the
system, and by calculating the exact surface area of the cabbage’s
leaves (, square inches) and its root system ( square
inches), Hales was able to estimate how much fluid was passing
through its different parts.101
Inspired by Newton, Hales wished to introduce an element of
mathematical certainty into his area of study; and in the manner
of Descartes, he wished to describe a plant as a machine. Meas-
urable changes in the sap of a plant could be used to explain how
it grows, how it propagates, or how it absorbs water, nutrients,
and air. Hales was particularly interested in the chemistry of plant
airs and designed a series of experiments which demonstrated
that plants absorb and release airs. Hales first established that
plants imbibed air by placing one end of a branch from an apple
tree in an empty glass tube. He then stood this tube in a container
of water and watched as the apple branch caused the water to rise
up the tube—implying that the branch was sucking in air, thereby
creating a vacuum and so drawing up the water.102 He next took a
birch branch with the bark still on and cemented it at z to a hole
in the top of an air-pump receiver pp. The bottom of the branch


was placed in a cistern of water x and its top was sealed with
melted cement n. Hales then used the air pump to create a
vacuum in the receiver. Even with all of the air removed from
the system, air bubbles appeared in the water cistern—implying
that the branch itself was releasing air. Hales left the experiment
running overnight and found that air bubbles were still appearing
in the water the next day. The next step was to seal off the top of
the branch: Hales did this by cementing a piece of glass yy at the
top of the branch and covering it with water so that no part of the
branch was in contact with the air. Initially, bubbles continued to
appear in the water but they gradually slowed down and, within
two hours, had entirely stopped. Hales conducted several other
experiments in this vein before concluding that, as well as taking
nourishment through their roots, plants took in air: plants could
breathe. ‘Air’, wrote Hales, ‘is admirably fitted by the great author
of nature, to be the breath of life, of vegetables, as well as of
animals, without which they can no more live, nor thrive than
animals can’ (Figure ).103
Such an important conclusion could only be properly reached
through a method that relied on precise measurement. Hales had
conceived a new way of studying the vegetable kingdom—he had
created the idea of a Newtonian Vegetable that could be explained
in mathematical and mechanical terms. With this new concept he
could perform experiments that uncovered the fundamental
workings of the plant kingdom and hinted at the similarities
between plants and animals. With strange new plants like the
Venus fly-trap appearing in Europe, and strange new methods
like that of Hales becoming accepted, the study of the border
between the plant and animal kingdoms was an intensely exciting
one in the eighteenth century.


Fig. . This illustration shows the experimental set-up used by Stephen
Hales to prove that plants absorb and release airs. From Stephen Hales,
Vegetable Staticks, .


Percival’s perceptive plant

Hales’s method of investigation had established an important
similarity between the plant and animal kingdoms. But besides
a need for air, what other traits did these kingdoms share?
Thomas Percival (–) believed not only that plants had a
life force, were capable of spontaneous motion, and experienced
sensations, but also that they had genuine powers of perceptivity.
In his work, he described plants that were aware of their sur-
roundings and able to respond to them. Thus there was little to
differentiate such plants from animals, at least according to the
Aristotelian tradition of zoology.
Percival had trained as a physician in Edinburgh, London,
and Leiden. In  he moved to Manchester and became a
central figure in the cultural and scientific life of the city; in
 he co-founded the Literary and Philosophical Society of
Manchester. There, he wrote dozens of books and articles on
topics ranging from medicine, chemistry, and the sciences to
taxation, population growth, and morality. Percival was from a
Unitarian family and, before training as a physician, had stud-
ied at Warrington Academy, one of a number of important
dissenting academies in England. Time spent in Edinburgh’s
medical school further exposed Percival to dissenting and rad-
ical views. His theories on the existence of a life force in plants
and on their ability to perceive their surroundings reflected his
radical outlook.
Vitalism and materialism in the eighteenth century were not
just scientific theories; their implications for generation theory
(such as preformation theory or epigenesis) could have import-
ant political and social resonances. Throughout the century,


mechanistic theories of life (like that of Hales) coexisted with

vitalist ones. Percival believed in a life force. In  he published
an article entitled ‘Speculations on the perceptive power of
vegetables’. His overall aim was to prove that there was little
essential difference between the vegetable and animal kingdoms
and so to demonstrate that plants were capable of perceiving
their environments and deriving pleasure from them. Percival’s
main motivation for developing this theory derived from his
belief in a benevolent God who wished to create a universe in
which ‘the greatest possible sum of happiness exists’ and, in
order to maximize this, it would make sense that all of creation
could experience happiness. So it was necessary that plants
could feel. Though the use of nature studies for the greater
glory and understanding of God was quite common in eight-
eenth-century England, Percival’s focus on the happiness of
vegetables was unusual.
Percival argued his case for the perceptive powers of plants from
five pieces of evidence: first, that they were alive; second, that they
shared certain similarities with animals; third, that they could
move; fourth, that they could choose to grow in the direction of
light or good soil; and fifth, that they exhibited irritability. On the
first point, Percival simply argued that plants possess a life force
and that ‘the idea of life naturally implies some degree of percep-
tivity’.104 On the second point, he became more expansive: he
disagreed with the idea that there was a rigidly fixed boundary
between the animal and plant kingdoms and blamed such a notion
on the rise of artificial classification systems. He rejected Linnæus’
simple formula of ‘stones grow; plants grow and live; animals
grow, live, and feel’ and claimed that no one had yet gathered
enough evidence to establish a clear boundary between animal and


vegetable. He cited his contemporaries’ works on zoophytes and

especially corallines and sponges to show how easily a boundary
could be moved; it had been only a few years since the researches
of John Ellis and others had moved certain creatures between the
animal and the vegetable kingdoms. If plants were so similar to
animals, perhaps they also shared a sense of touch.
The third argument also rested on analogy between the king-
doms. Percival was interested in plant movement and animal
movement. Many naturalists believed that spontaneous motion
was something found only in the animal kingdom but Percival
hoped that by showing that some plants also exhibited spontan-
eous motion he could more closely link the kingdoms. In this
way, he would be able to argue that plants were likely to have
other ‘animal’ characteristics such as sensitivity and perceptivity.
Percival would have been well aware of the discovery of the
exotic Venus fly-trap but he chose to demonstrate motion in a
more familiar plant: he used the example of the common water
lily to illustrate his point. Anyone who wanted to verify Perci-
val’s theory could find and study a water lily much more easily
than they could obtain a Venus fly-trap. The lily, growing in
a pond,
pushes up its flower-stems, till they reach the open air, that the
farina fecundans [pollen] may perform, without injury, its proper
office. About seven in the morning, the stalk erects itself, and the
flowers rise above the surface of the water: In this state they
continue till four in the afternoon, when the stalk becomes
relaxed, and the flowers sink and close. The motions of this
plant have been long noticed with admiration, as exhibiting the
most obvious signs of perceptivity.105

He argued that there was no essential difference between this kind

of motion and animal motion, and that to attribute special


meaning to animal motion while disregarding plant motion was

to ‘deviate from the soundest rules of philosophizing’.106 Percival
also cited the example of an East Indian plant in the order
decandria whose leaves are in a state of constant motion; even
without a stimulus ‘they are continually moving either upwards,
downwards, or in the segment of a circle’.107 Percival considered
this to be a sign of ‘vegetable animation’. For many, the idea of
‘vegetable animation’ would have been an oxymoron; an animal
was animated, a vegetable was not, and if it were shown that a
vegetable did possess animation (as in the case of sponges, for
example) then it was reclassified as animal.
The fourth point was based on two interesting phenomena: the
ability of plants to seek out sunlight; and the ability of plants to
grow their roots down and their stems up. Today, these phenom-
ena are known as heliotropism and geotropism respectively and
are attributed to the action of plant hormones called auxins. Each
phenomenon certainly gives the appearance that a plant perceives
its environment and makes decisions based on information it
gathers. Percival believed this and related some experiments he
had performed that demonstrated geo- and phototropism; in the
case of a sprig of mint that he suspended upside-down by the root,
he saw the plant’s attempt to right itself by curving its shoot
upwards as evidence of volition. Surely, wrote Percival, this was
enough to convince anyone that plants could experience sensation?
The final argument centred on irritability. The concept of
irritability, as we saw earlier, had been developed in the s by
Albrecht von Haller, who had also worked extensively on pre-
formation theory. According to Haller, irritability was simply an
unconscious reflex of muscle fibres which occurred in the exact
place where a stimulus had been applied, while sensibility


involved nervous transmission so that a reaction was observed in

places which had not been directly subject to stimulus. Sensibility
was believed by Haller to be linked to nerves, the brain, and the
soul. Percival disagreed with Haller’s belief that irritability and
sensibility were distinct from each other; he considered this view
to be ‘evidently a solecism’ because ‘the presence of irritability can
only be proved by the experience of irritations, and the idea of
irritation involves in it that of feeling’.108 Again, Percival turned to
experiment to back up his argument: he performed several
experiments in which plants exposed to volatile alkali vapour
or sulphur fumes underwent contractions in their fibres; he saw
this as evidence of irritability and, by extension, of sensitivity.
Thus Percival convinced himself of the truth of his belief, but
not everyone was persuaded. In  Robert Townson
(–), who had studied medicine at Edinburgh and natural
history at Göttingen, read a paper to the Linnean Society with the
unambiguous title of ‘Objections against the perceptivity of
plants, so far as is evinced by their external motions, in Answer
to Dr. Percival’s memoir in the Manchester Transactions’. Townson
believed that Percival’s work was overly fanciful and that his
results, if seen through the lens of mechanical philosophy, could
be reinterpreted in a more ‘scientific’ manner. Townson argued
against the kind of vitalistic explanation favoured by Percival and in
favour of a return to mechanical thinking.
Townson, like Stephen Hales, believed that plants could be
most fully understood by studying the motions of their sap and
he used this mechanical approach to counter Percival’s argu-
ments. ‘It is’, wrote Townson, ‘from [plants] not having been
explained upon mechanical principles that mind has been
resorted to. Mind is in general our last resource when we fail in


explaining natural phænomena.’ Townson had little patience for

Percival’s approach; he wrote that Percival’s theory was just the
kind of thing produced by ‘men of warm imaginations, who,
prepossessed in favour of an opinion, were grasping at every
distant analogy to support it’.
Townson did not believe that plant motion constituted a
proper locomotive faculty, and so any attempt to use it to
prove the existence of volition, mind, perception, or sensitivity
was bound to fail. Townson saw a plant’s absorption of fluids as
the primary cause of all its motions and, if he could prove this, he
could ‘exclude volition from having any causation in these phæ-
nomena’.109 It was generally agreed among physiologists at this
time that plant absorption took place by capillary action and
Townson’s theory of sap motion fitted with this.110 Townson’s
theory was based on three suppositions: first, that an inert fluid is
in motion; second, that as the fluid couldn’t begin to move by
itself, any motion it displayed must be due to some action in the
plant; and third, drawing on Newton’s laws of motion, ‘that as
action and reaction are equal, whilst the plant draws the fluid
towards itself, it must be drawn towards the fluid, and that in the
reverse ratios of their respective resistances’. So, capillary action
drew fluid into the vessels; the resulting interplay of forces arising
from the fluid’s effect on the vessels and the vessels’ effect on the
fluid not only drove the fluids through the vegetable but also
caused movement in the plant.
Townson could use these simple mechanisms to explain every-
thing that Percival had considered indicative of perception and
volition. For example, the tendency of plants to grow their roots
in the direction of good soil and their shoots in the direction of
light was ascribed to the forces involved in the absorption of


water and light, nothing more. The force caused by absorption

was small, but it was constant and so could produce these
noticeable effects. From his mechanical analysis, Townson was
able to conclude that plants were entirely explicable in hydraulic
terms and that attempts to prove that they were capable of feeling
should be numbered ‘amongst the many ingenious flights of the
imagination’. Fittingly for a paper presented before the Linnean
Society, Townson ended with Linnæus’ famous maxim, vegetabilia
crescunt et vivunt; animalia crescunt, vivunt, et sentiunt.
Townson saw the same effects Percival had seen, but ascribed
them to very different causes; Townson favoured a mechanical
explanation while Percival held firm on the idea of a vital force
unifying the kingdoms of nature. Haller and Wolff had experienced
something similar: they had both seen the same things when they
dissected chick embryos but Wolff believed that embryos devel-
oped due to mechanical forces while Haller claimed that they had
been preformed by God. A scientific result does not necessarily
lead to an agreed-upon ‘fact’; results are always subject to human
interpretation—then as now. Scientific techniques and theories
were developing rapidly in the eighteenth century, but this greater
abundance of knowledge did not always lead to agreement. Dis-
cord over fundamental questions persisted: how do plants func-
tion? how do they germinate, grow, feed and reproduce? can they
really experience sensitivity? how similar are they to animals? Both
Townson and Percival felt that their work could answer questions
about border-line species such as the Venus fly-trap, but could
there really be a simple answer about the divide between the plant
and animal kingdoms? Or would naturalists have to accept the
possibility of a fourth kingdom where creatures did not conform
to the accepted idea of either plant or animal?


The mechanical plant

Percival and Townson were not alone in seeking explanations for
the seemingly odd behaviour of some plants. In , James
Edward Smith, founder and president of the Linnean Society,
published a paper titled ‘Some observations on the irritability of
vegetables’. Smith had gone along to the Physic Garden in the
fashionable village of Chelsea, just on the outskirts of London,
one May afternoon to experiment on a barberry shrub. The
Physic Garden had been established in the late seventeenth cen-
tury as a repository of plants that might be useful in medicine and
by Smith’s time had grown into one of the largest botanical
collections in the world, filled with strange and exotic specimens.
Smith had heard that the barberry could respond to touch and
decided to investigate for himself. He described what he saw:

the stamina of such of the flowers as were open were bent back-
wards to each petal, and sheltered themselves under their concave
tips. No shaking of the branch appeared to have any effect upon
them. With a very small bit of stick I gently touched the inside
of one of the filaments, which instantly sprung from the petal
with considerable force, striking its anthera against the stigma.111

Fascinated, Smith took home three branches of the barberry to

continue his investigations. He was trying to answer two particu-
lar questions: first, in which part of the stamen did irritability
reside; and second, what was its purpose? If he could answer
these two questions, perhaps he could also figure out whether
sensitive plants had any real connection to the animal kingdom.
Smith began his experiments: he removed a petal from the
barberry flower without touching the adjacent stamen and
began his search for the seat of irritability. He described how:


with an extremely slender piece of quill, I touched the outside of the

filament which had been next the petal, stroaking [sic] it from top to
bottom; but it remained perfectly immoveable. With the same
instrument I then touched the back of the anthera, then its top,
its edges, and at last its inside; still without any effect. But the quill
being carried from the anthera down the inside of the filament, it
no sooner touched that part than the stamen sprung forwards with
great vigour to the stigma.112

Smith repeated this process many times and with many different
instruments and was able to conclude that the motion was caused
when the side of the filament nearest the centre of the flower
contracts, thus becoming shorter than the outer side, and so is
bent inwards. Despite noticing this contraction, Smith could not
discover anything strange about the structure or make-up of this
part of the plant.
Having ascertained which part of the stamen was irritable,
Smith next turned to the question of why it might be irritable.
He hypothesized that it was essential for the continuation of the
species: a clumsy insect who visited the flower in search of food
could trigger the motion of the filament and so bring the anther
and the stamen together to fertilize the flower’s seeds. So this
irritability was necessary for the propagation of a given specimen.
Smith even suggested an experiment to test this theory—if a
barberry bush isolated from insects and other stimuli was unable
to produce offspring, then his theory would be verified.
Smith was careful to point out that the irritability and subse-
quent motion of the barberry was a function only of mechanics,
he wrote: ‘we must be careful not to confound them with other
movements, which, however wonderful at first sight, are to be
explained merely on mechanical principles.’113 For Smith, a sen-
sitive plant was still a plant, and was clearly demarcated from the


animal realm. He clearly distinguished between localized irritabil-

ity (as in the barberry) and spontaneous motion (as in the Ruta
chalepensis which can move its stamens without a stimulus) and
held that these two phenomena were never observed acting
together in the same plant. He used this to draw a boundary
between animals and plants: ‘There still remains then this differ-
ence between animals and vegetables, that although some of the
latter possess irritability, and others spontaneous motion, even in
a superior degree to many of the former, yet those properties
have hitherto in animals only been found combined in one and
the same part.’114 For Smith, there was no fourth kingdom.
Where someone like Percival might see a conscious reaction in
a plant, Smith saw mere mechanical responses. But Smith
couldn’t quite explain the mechanisms behind the movement in
barberry flowers. Though Stephen Hales and others had worked
towards describing a plant as a fully mechanical system, there
were gaps in their knowledge that needed to be filled before the
mechanical theory of plants could be completely accepted. The
man who would step up to this challenge was Thomas Andrew
Knight (–). Knight had studied at Oxford but failed to
take a degree. His interest in natural history, horticulture, and
agriculture did not develop until later years. It was later still that
he began to study plant physiology. Sir Joseph Banks encouraged
him to send papers to the Royal Society and in  he was
elected a fellow of that organization. In  he was awarded
the Copley Medal for his work on plant physiology. And in 
he was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society.
In , Knight sent a paper to his friend Banks who was
president of London’s Royal Society at the time. Banks was
impressed by this elegant scientific work and had it printed in


the Society’s journal, Philosophical Transactions. It appeared under the

heading ‘On the direction of the radicle and germen during the
vegetation of seeds’.115 This article contained some of the most
sophisticated investigations into plant physiology yet conducted,
seamlessly marrying botany and physics. Knight’s central question
was the same one that many others had asked: how do plants
‘know’ to grow their roots downwards and their shoots upwards?
Many others had tried to answer this question with ideas of
volition, perception, sensitivity, and so on, while a few had ascribed
the phenomenon to mechanical causes but couldn’t quite explain
why. Did plants seek out light and water in the same way that
animals sought out food? Was this phenomenon evidence of the
relatedness of the plant and animal kingdoms? Knight determined
to find out.116
Knight believed that gravity was the key to the answer, but he
was unimpressed by previous work on the topic. Following rigor-
ous methodology, Knight set out to prove beyond dispute that
gravity lay behind the phenomenon. Gravity, said Knight, could
only cause roots to grow down, and shoots up, if a seed remained
at rest and in the same position relative to the centre of the earth.
By removing these conditions, he reasoned, he could test the truth
of his theory. He devised an experiment in which the seed did not
remain at rest through the germination process, and in which its
position in relation to a centre of gravity was constantly changing.
In order to have the seed constantly in motion and subjected to
varying forces, Knight needed to set up a centrifuge; not a par-
ticularly easy task. But with a little help from his ingenious
gardener (whose name is not recorded), and thanks to the exist-
ence of a stream running though his garden in Elton Hall, Here-
fordshire, Knight was able to solve the problem. Together, the two


men constructed a set of water wheels and set them running upon
the stream. Knight described the experimental set-up:
Round the circumference of [one of the wheels], which was eleven
inches in diameter, numerous seeds of the garden bean . . . were
bound, at short distances from each other. The radicles of these
seeds were made to point in every direction, some towards the
centre of the wheel, and others in the opposite direction; others as
tangents to its curve, some pointing backwards, and others for-
wards, relative to its motion; and others pointing in opposite direc-
tions in lines parallel with the axis of the wheels.117

Such was the force of the water that the wheel, and the attached
seeds, revolved more than  times per minute. After a few days
the seeds began to germinate and Knight reported that he had

the pleasure to see that the radicles, in whatever direction they

were protruded from the position of the seed, turned their points
outwards from the circumference of the wheel . . . The germens,
on the contrary, took the opposite direction, and in a few days
their points all met in the centre of the wheel.118

Knight then extended the experiment and left three of the plants
on the wheel. As they grew, the three shoots crossed at the centre,
reached the opposite edge of the wheel, and then turned and grew
back towards the centre. Knight repeated these experiments with
different wheels in different configurations and consistently
found that centrifugal force affected the direction of plant growth.
This proved that gravity acted on germinating plants and
caused their roots to grow downwards and their shoots upwards.
The plants didn’t have free will in this matter, they simply
responded to an external stimulus. Knight denied that there was
‘any power inherent in vegetable life’ that caused this phenom-
enon; like Townson and Smith, he argued that plants were simple
hydraulic machines. They were not capable of voluntary acts such


as sending their roots into particularly nourishing soil or their

leaves towards bright light—such phenomena were entirely
explicable in mechanical terms. Furthermore, Knight’s work was
largely dependent on rigorous experiment; thus his work was less
theoretical and speculative than that of others, and he could ele-
gantly show the effects of gravity on different parts of the growing
plant. Knight’s work was very well received in the scientific com-
munity, but his contention that the plant and animal kingdoms
were completely separate was not entirely believed in all quarters.
James Perchard Tupper (fl. –), like many of the other
characters in this book, had trained in medicine. He developed his
interest in botany while still a student at St Thomas and Guy’s
Hospital in London. There, the Botanical Chair was held by James
Edward Smith who encouraged Tupper in his botanical interests
and later admitted him as a fellow of the Linnean Society. Unlike
his mentor Smith, Tupper did not believe in mechanical explan-
ations for plant behaviour and in  he published An essay on the
probability of sensation in vegetables. Tupper was convinced that
plants could experience sensations and used this essay to argue
his case: his reasoning rested on a diverse set of arguments—he
used analogies between the kingdoms and the chain of being,
evidence relating to instinct and volition, and experiments relat-
ing to the nervous system.
In order to justify his belief in the similarity of the two king-
doms he pointed out that plants, like animals, are affected by
climate and season; that both can generate heat; that both are
damaged by cold; that both require particular nourishment; that
both require air; that both can fall victim to disease; and so on.
This viewpoint was not uncommon among naturalists, but Tup-
per added arguments about plant behaviour to make his case


more compelling. Where some believed that plants grow towards

light as part of a mechanical response, Tupper believed that the
plants were actively seeking out the beneficial effects of sunlight.
Tupper also saw a plant’s reaction to cold weather more as an act of
instinct than one of mechanics: he described how many flowers
folded up their leaves on the approach of rain or in cold cloudy
weather, and unfolded them again when ‘cheered by the reanimating
influence of the sun’. Tupper also used the example of the water lily
which raises and lowers its stalks at certain times of the day. Several
others, including Linnæus, Smith, and Percival, had written about
this phenomenon. Smith had explained the cause of this motion as a
mechanical effect but Tupper believed it was an instinct.
‘Sleeping’ plants also divided naturalists in this way. Tupper
described the night-time actions that he considered to be indica-
tive of sleep in plants:

in some plants the leaves hang down by the side of the stem; in
others, they rise and embrace it; and in some they are disposed in
such a way as to conceal all the parts of fructification. . . . Motions
of a similar kind also take place in the flowers. Some of these
during the night fold themselves up in their calices; some only
close their petals, while others incline their mouth or opening
towards the ground. The mode of sleep varies, therefore, in
different species of plants.119

Tupper acknowledged that some naturalists believed that a mech-

anical response to light was the sole cause of such actions, ‘but’,
he argued, ‘although this may have some share in producing
those effects, yet, it can only act as a partial cause, which indeed
operates in a very similar manner on animals; for the absence of
light is also favourable to their sleep’.120 Erasmus Darwin had gone
so far as to claim that sleep was indicative of volition in plants but


Tupper preferred to attribute it to instinct. On this topic, Tupper

concluded that ‘sleep probably indicates the presence of sensation
but not necessarily of volition’.121
Tupper’s final, and most original, line of argument related to
nerves. If plants could feel, he reasoned, they must have some
kind of nervous system. He knew that organs that perform the
same functions in plants and animals do not necessarily have the
same structure; we see this in the case of the organs of reproduc-
tion or respiration. Tupper determined to seek out plant nerves.
Not knowing quite what he was looking for, this was a challen-
ging piece of work and it ultimately proved impossible. Today,
scientists do not believe that plants have a nervous system.
Nevertheless, Tupper’s logic and methodology were sound and
his work hinted towards an unexplained relationship between the
animal and vegetable kingdoms. Like so many other men of
science, Smith, Knight, and Tupper saw similar results but drew
different conclusions. When it came to understanding how the
plant kingdom functioned, Smith and Knight held firm to their
mechanical principles while Tupper looked to vital forces and a
nervous system to explain how plants, and sensitive plants in
particular, worked.

Revolutionizing nature
The questions of whether so-called ‘sensitive plants’ were more
closely allied to the plant or animal kingdom, and whether they
could really feel and react to their environments, were not just
academic. The first question lets us see what might happen when
the boundaries between the kingdoms break down. In eighteenth-
century Europe, though religious orthodoxy was beginning to be


questioned more widely, most people still believed that God had
created the universe in line with the story of Genesis. In this story,
creation unfolded in an orderly fashion: first came light and dark,
sky, earth and sea; next came plants; the sun, moon, and stars
followed; next came fishes in the sea and birds in the air; they
were joined the next day by animals on the earth; finally, humans
were created. There was a clear divide between plants, fishes,
birds, land-animals, and humans; and a particularly stark contrast
between plants and the other living parts of creation. The cat-
egories of ‘plant kingdom’ and ‘animal kingdom’ were seen as
natural—created by God—rather than a human construction.
And now, after those categories had survived for thousands of
years, they were under threat from bizarre specimens like the
Venus fly-trap.
The breakdown of perceived order in nature was an interesting
problem in itself, but it also alluded to a much more significant
problem: if God had not created well-defined boundaries between
the kingdoms of nature, was it possible that he had similarly
neglected to segregate society? No human society has ever existed
without divisions: class, gender, religion, race, and countless other
categories have been used for millennia to create strata in society.
Most societies throughout history have attributed their different
strata not to human desire for order or segregation, but to a
divinely imparted system. And so it was in eighteenth-century
Europe: there were many rifts in European societies, but the one
most keenly felt by the largest number of people was class.
A huge underclass of labourers (first agricultural, later industrial)
fed society and generated a vast amount of wealth. Life on the
land was not easy and conditions in factories were harsh.
Increased urbanization through the century led to worsening


living conditions for many, but for the leaders of the Industrial
Revolution, the century brought increased prosperity and luxury.
The divide between those at the bottom and those at the top
seemed to grow each year. In France particularly, people began to
question the justness of such a system. The powerful and wealthy
ancien régime rulers believed that their privileges were given by
God and appealed to tradition and religious orthodoxy to sup-
port the divisions in society.
Enlightenment thought questioned such assumptions. Radical
eighteenth-century thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Vol-
taire re-imagined their societies. Polymaths like these kept up to
date with the sciences as well as with political, social, and
economic thinking. Society was entranced by the Venus fly-trap,
and in an age where many (both rich and poor) numbered botany
among their interests, it wasn’t long before its implications for the
natural kingdoms began to trouble people. As one late eighteenth-
century naturalist wrote:

Natural objects, for the purpose of classification, have been in

general arranged under the three grand divisions of animal, vege-
table and mineral . . . however easy it may seem, at the first glance,
to discriminate the three classes of object from each other, yet
every class of natural objects will be found to approach so nearly
in the extremes to other classes, that it is a matter of extreme
difficulty to say with precision where the one ends, and the other
begins. . . . Among animated beings, bats are the connecting link
between beasts and birds: the numerous class of amphibia conjoin
beasts and fishes; and lizards unite them with reptiles. The hum-
ming-bird approaches the nature of insects, and the flying-fish
that of birds. The polypus, the sea anemony, and the sea pen,
though of animal origin, have more the habits of vegetables than
of animals; while the fly-trap (dionæa muscipula), the sensitive
plant, and some other vegetable productions, by their spontan-
eous movements, or extreme sensibility, seem to participate more


of animal origin. Corals and corallines, from the different forms

they assume, may be more easily mistaken for mineral or vege-
table than animal productions, to which class they are now
referred by the unanimous decision of naturalists. The truffle,
though a vegetable, assumes rather the appearance of a mineral;
and there is reason to believe that the anomalous substance called
peat is actually a live vegetable, sui generis, rather than an earthy
or mineral substance.122

If the borders between the animal kingdom and the plant king-
dom could be broken down by the existence of this carnivorous
plant and other boundary-crossing creatures, if God hadn’t cre-
ated order in nature, might it be the case that there was no real
delineation between the labouring and upper classes? Revolution
was in the air in the second half of the eighteenth century and
anything that could be used to show that nature didn’t always
echo religious orthodoxy was dangerous. In the period immedi-
ately before the French Revolution, abstract scientific questions
could have all-too-concrete consequences.
The second question—whether apparently sensitive plants
could really feel and react to their environments—also raised
some difficult issues. Sensitive plants are one of the best examples
of a perceived hybrid between the plant and animal kingdoms;
just as Trembley’s polyp exhibited some animal and some vege-
table characteristics, many plants (like animals) seemed to show
awareness of their surroundings, and could sometimes even react
to them. Did this imply a nervous system or, more controver-
sially, perhaps even a soul? The men studying sensitive plants
divided themselves into materialist and vitalist camps. The
materialists—such as Townson, Smith, and Knight—believed
that plants were just machines that conformed to mechanical
laws. But the vitalists—like Percival and Tupper—believed that


plants had a special life force; this was something that marked
them out from the inanimate mineral kingdom, something per-
haps akin to an animal or human soul. The idea of a vegetable
soul wasn’t a new one, but in the eighteenth century the debate
between materialists and vitalists was heating up and such con-
cepts were adopted as part of an ideological battle about the
meaning of life itself.
The debate between so-called materialists and vitalists gets to
the heart of many of the political and religious disputes being
played out across Europe at this time: was God directly involved
in the daily running of his universe, or was the universe simply a
quantity of mass that obeyed simple physical laws? This brings us
back to the first problem raised by sensitive plants. If God allows
the universe to run along mechanical principles with little or no
direct intervention, how important are the details of human
affairs to him? Is he concerned with minutiae like social class?
In a time when talk of uprising was in the air, the question of
whether a sensitive plant should be labelled animal or vegetable
could lead to questions about the natural order of the world
which, in turn, could fuel revolutionary fires.



W hen I was at school I learned about the ‘seven signs of life’.

We carefully memorized the features said to be common
to all living beings: movement; respiration; sensitivity; growth;
reproduction; excretion; and nutrition. We were also taught how
to tell a plant from an animal: a plant could photosynthesize and
had hard cell walls while an animal needed to eat food to supply
its energy and had only a soft cell membrane instead of a rigid cell
wall. For the purpose of school science lessons, we learned that
there were three kingdoms in nature: animal, vegetable, mineral.
But then there were troublesome things like bacteria, viruses, and
fungi that didn’t quite fit into any of these categories—what were
they? Today, scientists have moved on from the idea of three basic
kingdoms and now recognize multiple groups of living things: some
describe living things as falling within three domains—archaea,
bacteria, and eukaryote—some believe that there are five
kingdoms—animalia, plantae, fungi, monera, and protista—and,
in addition, there are several disputed groups of single-celled organ-
isms.123 Today, the categories into which scientists fit species have
become much more fluid and can be updated according to the latest
findings in molecular taxonomy. These shifting boundaries show


how quickly once-solid categories can be broken down, and illus-

trate just how complex the problem of defining a living being, let
alone life, really is.
By the end of the eighteenth century, the ancient ideas about
what it meant to say that something was an animal, a vegetable, or
a mineral were becoming obsolete. New theories that defined
animals by their mechanics or their chemistry were being taken
more seriously. This changing view of nature developed even
further in the nineteenth century as the new disciplines of cell
theory, physiology, embryology, biochemistry, microbiology, and
evolutionary science matured. The theories and techniques of these
novel branches of science would dramatically alter older ideas
about what an organism was, and how different beings were
related to each other. The study of living things shifted from an
appreciation of the whole creature, to an investigation into the
tiniest constituent parts of that creature: as scientific apparatus was
refined, our view of plants and animals was, literally, transformed.
Minuscule cells within plants and animals had been discovered
in the seventeenth century following the invention of the micro-
scope but it was not until the nineteenth century that the cell
nucleus was discovered and a ‘cell theory’ of living organisms
developed.124 This theory was based on the newly discovered fact
that all known plant and animal cells had something in common—
a nucleus—and it allowed scientists to begin to understand organ-
isms in terms of the actions of their basic units. Nineteenth-century
men of science came to believe that the cell was ultimately respon-
sible for the structure and function of all living beings and that
despite their many differences, animals and plants had something
fundamental in common. Here was a new way for people to
understand the relationship between the kingdoms of nature,


completely unlike anything that had gone before. Cell theory was
fully accepted within a few decades. Furthermore, observations of
the ways in which cells divide showed that animal and plant cells
divided in essentially the same way, providing further proof of a
connection between the kingdoms.125
With the invention of cell theory, the scale on which organisms
were studied shrank dramatically throughout the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries. This was echoed in many scientific fields at
this time: some looked to the chemistry of living tissue to under-
stand how life worked and soon found that biological molecules
were not fundamentally different from those that could be syn-
thesized in a laboratory.126 Others looked to physiology—not on
the grand scale that it had previously been practised, but on the
level of organ, tissue, or cell—and discovered that there was an
internal stability within organisms that regulated their function
without the need for a special ‘life force’.127 Others still began to
investigate micro-organisms more closely. The existence of sin-
gle-celled life-forms had been known since the late seventeenth
century; some of these organisms were capable of independent
movement—like an animal—but they were clearly not really
animals in any way that naturalists of the time recognized.128
Naturalists puzzled over what these tiny things might be but it was
not until the nineteenth century that further research led to the
conclusion that micro-organisms were a group of life-forms
entirely separate from the animal or vegetable kingdom.129 It was
later discovered that these micro-organisms were responsible for
many diseases and so germ theory was developed.130 These micro-
organisms may not have fitted obviously into the old categories of
animal, vegetable, mineral, but they were alive and they were


powerful. By the late nineteenth century, a new kingdom of micro-

scopic life was beginning to be recognized: Protista.131
All of these developments—the identification of cells and their
nuclei, the invention of cell theory, the discovery that organic
chemicals can be made from inorganic ones, the idea of an internal
stability within a creature, and the unearthing of micro-organisms
that were neither plant nor animal nor zoophyte—contributed
enormously to a new view of life. Ancient definitions of ‘plant’ or
‘animal’ were no longer enough to describe what scientists were
seeing in nature. But more than any of these, one nineteenth-
century concept revolutionized our understanding of what organ-
isms are, and how they came to be: Charles Darwin’s theory of
evolution by natural selection. Evolutionary theory depended on
the idea of a common ancestor shared by certain individuals—this
allowed scientists to rethink the relationships between species,
genera, classes, orders, and even kingdoms. Scientists now believe
that bacteria were among the first organisms to evolve over three
billion years ago; then came cells with nuclei and other organelles;
and multicellular organisms including plants and animals began to
appear from about  million ago. Though these details were not
known in the nineteenth century, the idea that life had begun with
very simple creatures which had (due to small variations within
them and differences in how successful each individual was in
reproducing) gradually turned into the diverse array of life we see
around us today was a compelling one.
Darwin’s notebooks contain simple, hand-drawn ‘trees of life’.
Just like real trees, Darwin’s metaphorical ones showed a single
trunk which divided into a few major branches, these then sub-
divided into smaller branches and eventually split into lots of small
twigs. The trunk represented a common ancestor while the


branches of decreasing size and increasing number represented the

classes, orders, genera, and species that had descended from that
common ancestor. Like a family tree, the diagrams indicated her-
editary relationships between different individuals. For some crea-
tures, it was easy to guess at family relationships at the lower levels
of classification like genus and species; for example, domestic cats
had long been believed to be related to big cats, and dogs to wolves.
But as one went further back along the tree, unexpected relation-
ships revealed themselves. It wasn’t too hard to imagine a common
ancestor of all mammals, all birds, or all fish; but was it really
possible that there was a common ancestor of both plants and
animals? Certainly animals and plants had several similarities: as
well as characteristics like growth, reproduction, and respiration,
by Darwin’s time cell theory had been accepted and scientists knew
that the fundamental units of plants and animals were very similar.
The combination of cell theory and evolutionary theory allowed
people to see the relationship between these two kingdoms in a
new light. Although a common, single-celled ancestor dating back
about one and a half billion years would not be discovered until the
twentieth century, the developments of nineteenth-century biology
seemed to be moving the living kingdoms closer together.
Later in the nineteenth century, the work of an Augustinian
friar named Gregor Mendel (–) on the cross-breeding of
pea plants created the basis for genetic theory. The rediscovery
of his work in the early twentieth century and the concept of
the ‘gene’ as a unit of hereditary transmission would dramatic-
ally alter biological thinking in the coming decades.132 What’s
more, the new theory of genetics applied to both plants and
animals—here was something else the living kingdoms had in


Genetics and molecular biology became increasingly sophisti-

cated in the twentieth century; particularly after it was discovered
in the s that DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) was the chemical
that allowed traits to be passed from parent to child.133 The
structure of the DNA molecule itself was not fully understood
until the s when Francis Crick (–) and James Watson
(b. ), building on the experimental results of Rosalind Frank-
lin (–), concluded that the molecule was a double helix.
This helical structure was built around base pairs of chemicals
(guanine and cytosine, adenine and thymine) and it allowed
the molecule to split and replicate itself easily. From the s
onwards, as more research into DNA was undertaken, it
became apparent that all plants, animals, and fungi have chem-
ically identical DNA: all have a double helix made from the base
pairs. Differences in organisms occur because the four bases are
arranged differently in each species, therefore the genes vary
and different sets of proteins are produced. There are other
differences too: plants tend to have a much larger genome
(set of genetic material) than animals, though much of it is
inactive; and plants are often ‘polyploids’, meaning that they
can have extra sets of chromosomes. But, in essence, living
things are created and controlled by remarkably similar
sets of DNA. Together, results from Darwinian theory and
genetics suggest a common evolutionary origin for plants
and animals.
The ideas ‘animal’, ‘vegetable’, and ‘mineral’ have roots stretch-
ing back to ancient times. Animal, from the Latin animalis, having
breath or soul; vegetable, from vegetus, meaning vigorous or
lively; and mineral, from minera, a mine or ore, each carry mean-
ings that were once bound up with the definitions of those


kingdoms. From Aristotle’s animals, to Descartes’s animal

machine, Trembley’s polyps, Ellis’s corallines, Linnæus’ amorous
flowers, Alston and Smellie’s asexual plants, Haller’s chicken and
Wolff ’s egg, Spallanzani’s trousered frog, Miller’s man plant,
Peyssonnel’s Caribbean corals, Beringer’s lying stones, Smith’s
fossil map, Bartram and Young’s Venus fly-trap, Hales’s Newton-
ian vegetable, Percival’s perceptive plant (and Townson’s distinctly
unperceptive plant), Smith’s sensitive flowers, and Knight’s gravi-
tational garden beans, the definitions of these three kingdoms have
been debated, elaborated, investigated tirelessly by generations of
naturalists. Their definitions (and those of more recently recog-
nized kingdoms) continue to fascinate researchers today.
Nowadays, as most scientists do not believe in a divinely
ordained natural order, questions about classification have
acquired a new emphasis. As more data about species emerges,
we have begun to realize that there is not always a single correct
way to classify a given being, and that classifications are not
necessarily clear cut. The discovery of new creatures, particularly
from the relatively unknown deep sea, has led to the creation of
new categories on the level of genus and family, and even on the
level of higher divisions such as phylum.134 Scientists now look
to evolutionary theory, in combination with DNA testing, to
place plants, animals, and other living things into taxonomic
Many of the questions that Aristotle posed so long ago have
been given new answers by modern science: we have refined the
list of animal and plant characteristics, we have redefined the
kingdoms using genetics, we have explained their origins using
evolutionary theory. But do questions remain that cannot be
answered by modern science? What is life? What is death? What


is the difference between the two? In the moment between life

and death, what subtle change occurs? Though modern biology
can tell us many fascinating things about how the smallest elem-
ents of a living being function, perhaps it cannot tell us
In , before it was discovered that DNA was the chemical
factor responsible for genetic inheritance, the Nobel Prize-win-
ning physicist Erwin Schrödinger (–) published a book
called What is Life?135 James Watson and Francis Crick, among
many other scientists, read this book; it was one of the most
influential scientific treatises of its day, steering biologists and
non-biologists alike to investigate genetics more closely. Schrö-
dinger, like many physicists and chemists in the s, was
becoming interested in biological molecules as their many
strange properties were revealed. In What is Life?, he applied
what he knew from physics to questions of genetics to see if he
could figure out some of the properties of the genetic substance.
Using ideas from thermodynamics, statistics, and molecular sci-
ence, Schrödinger made some pretty good guesses about the
chemical structure of genes. For Schrödinger, the laws of physics
(and especially those of recently formulated quantum physics)
would provide the answer to the fundamental question of how
living things worked. Ultimately, Schrödinger’s attempt to
describe life in physical terms led him to conclusions similar to
those advanced by the materialists of the seventeenth and eight-
eenth centuries. Just as they had seen the animal as a machine,
Schrödinger saw life as behaving in a ‘clock-work’ manner. For
Schrödinger, the chromosome was like a cog in the organic
machine but, he stressed, ‘the single cog is not of coarse human


make, but is the finest masterpiece ever achieved along the lines of
the Lord’s quantum mechanics’.136
Schrödinger may have claimed to believe in purely physical
explanations for organic phenomena, yet he relied on an invoca-
tion of God to explain those underlying physical principles. He
struggled with the problem of reconciling a deterministic vision
of nature (one in which all of an organism’s actions are predeter-
mined by the actions of the atoms and molecules that compose it)
with the idea of free will. Undermining his professed belief in the
purely physical, Schrödinger turned to the Upanishads—the
ancient Vedic spiritual texts—to try to solve this problem and
concluded that each individual is like a god who controls the
motion of its own atoms according to the laws of nature. Like
many before and since, Schrödinger could not use science to
answer certain fundamental questions. He had described how all
organisms could be reduced to their simplest chemical or phys-
ical units, but could not fully accept the pre-determinism that this
method implied. And even Schrödinger, optimist though he was,
had to admit that there might be some things that might remain
inexplicable to science—such as human consciousness and
There is a wisdom in admitting that there are some questions
we may not be able to answer. Though scientists now believe they
have a good understanding of each element within the living cell,
we cannot yet explain why the cell is so much more than the sum
of its parts. A cell’s constituents are not alive: DNA and RNA,
protein, mitochondria, chloroplasts, and the dozens of other
organelles that can exist in a cell do not possess independent
‘life’ and yet, when combined, they produced a ‘living’ cell. How?
A plant or animal can be seen as the sum of its tissues, of the cells


within, of the organelles of those cells, or of the elements (carbon,

hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen) that comprise each unit; but simply
combining elements or cells or tissues in the correct order and
proportion does not create new life. Though the method of
biological reductionism—reducing the whole to its constituent
parts—has produced results that are both beautiful and useful, it
has not explained the vitality unique to living organisms.
What is life? This most fundamental question here arises from
the seemingly innocuous quest to create a working distinction
between the different kingdoms of nature. Humans have always
been driven by an urge to understand their environments. When
it comes to nature, it has long been believed that that understand-
ing may be facilitated by ordering and classifying natural objects;
and in the search for order, humans have found themselves faced
with subtler questions. By dismantling the apparently straightfor-
ward concept of animal, vegetable, mineral, naturalists have done
much more than just come up with dry scientific explanations of
particular phenomena. Since ancient times, their enquiries have
given society a focus for asking a set of much bigger questions
about what it meant to be ‘alive’, about the role of God in the
universe, about the existence of order in nature and in society,
and about possible political implications of redefining ‘life’ itself.
The history of science shows how people have attempted to
answer similar questions in different eras, places, and socio-
political backgrounds; it shows how particular philosophies or
religious beliefs can shape the questions people ask and the
interpretations they give to results; it shows how definitions of
living beings can change through time. Different definitions are
not necessarily right or wrong, they vary according to the needs
of the person doing the defining. Today, we have more clearly


worded definitions of ‘animal’, ‘vegetable’, and ‘mineral’ (plus all

the newer kingdoms) than ever before, but will those definitions
remain constant? Most likely not. This is not a failure on the part
of science, but a reflection of how this very human quest for
knowledge is affected by the people who practise it, the tech-
niques available to them, and the purposes it is intended to serve.
The problem of defining life, and thereby getting closer to under-
standing the meaning of life, has been a crucial question in every
age and continues to hold our attention today—Aristotle himself
said that defining life is part of the process of defining ourselves.
The problem has not been fully solved, nor should we expect it to
be. It is a question that will remain fascinating to humans just as
long as there are humans; and one on which we will never agree.


. With a few exceptions, most of the significant scientific investigators in

this period were men, so I shall use the phrases ‘men of science’ or
‘gentlemen of science’. The word ‘scientist’ was not coined until the
nineteenth century.
. The Greek word historia does not correspond exactly to our own history
but can also be translated as research or enquiry.
. Aristotle, Parts of animals, trans. A. L. Peck (), –.
. Only the first four are listed in History of animals; in the later book
Movement of animals Aristotle added locomotion to his list of essential
animal criteria.
. Aristotle, Generation of animals, trans. A. L. Peck (), . Aristotle
believed that plants did not have separate sexes. It is now known that
members of the group Testacea do have male and female, but Aristotle
believed they reproduced via spontaneous generation.
. Aristotle, History of animals, trans. A. L. Peck, book V (), .
. Cuvier, Histoire des sciences naturelles (), i. . (Translation: Pierre
Pellegrin, Aristotle’s classification of animals ().)
. Charles Darwin, . Quoted in A. Gotthelf, Aristotle’s Animals in the
Middle Ages and Renaissance (), .
. Charles Darwin, . Quoted in Gotthelf, Aristotle’s Animals in the
Middle Ages and Renaissance, .
. He also famously taught that humans should seek pleasure as their
highest goal.
. Lucretius, De rerum natura, book . (Translation: William Ellery Leonard
. Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve ().
. Pliny the Elder, Naturalis historia, trans. John Bostock and H. T. Riley
(–), book .
. Pliny the Younger to Baebius Macer. Harvard Classics, vol. , part ,
letter .


. Both Dioscorides and Galen were originally from Asia Minor and of
Greek origin but both practised medicine in Rome for Roman clients
and so I include them in the Roman medical tradition.
. Galen, De facultatibus naturalibus, book I, chapter I.
. Genesis : –. King James Version.
. Genesis : –. King James Version.
. Joyce E. Salisbury, The Beast Within (), chapter .
. Ibid. .
. Albertus Magnus, A source book for medieval science, trans. Edward Grant
(), .
. Ibid. .
. T. H. White, The Book of Beasts (), introduction.
. Harley MS , British Library. Quoted in White, The Book of Beasts, ,
pp. –.
. Significant exceptions were made for mythical beings that were both
animal and vegetable at once. For example, the mandrake combined
human and plant properties; the vegetable lamb of tartary was part
plant, part sheep; and the barnacle goose grew from a fruit.
. ‘Early modern’ denotes a loosely defined time-span in the years
between the Renaissance and the modern period, covering the six-
teenth, seventeenth, and early eighteenth centuries.
. René Descartes, Treatise on Man and Passions (.–), quoted in
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
. James Cook, Journal,  (<http://www.jamescookjournal.blogspot.co.
. In the s, these readings and others from around the world were
combined and used to produce an estimate of  million km between
the earth and sun. The actual figure is . million km. The 
observers knew their results were flawed due to atmospheric distortion
creating what was known as a ‘black drop’ effect which caused the
silhouette of Venus to appear smudged as it entered and exited the
sun’s disc, but the figure was more accurate than previous estimates.
. Joseph Banks, Journal,  (<http://www.jamescookjournal.blogspot.
. René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur, ‘Animaux coupés et partagés en
plusieurs parties, et qui se reproduisent tout entières dans chacune’,
Histoire de l’Académie des Sciences (), .
. Virginia P. Dawson, ‘Trembley’s Experiment of Turning the Polyp
inside out and the Influence of Dutch Science’, in Howard M. Lenhoff


and Pierre Tardent (eds.), From Trembley’s Polyps to New Directions in

Research on Hydra: Proceedings of a Symposium Honoring Abraham Trembley
(–) (), .
. Aram Vartanian, ‘Trembley’s Polyp, La Mettrie, and Eighteenth-Century
French Materialism’, Journal of the History of Ideas, . (), –.
. Henry Baker, Attempt towards a natural history of the polype (), .
. President of the Royal Society.
. John Theophilus Desaguliers (–): Isaac Newton’s experimental
assistant and a prominent member of the Royal Society.
. The Royal Society met in Crane Court at this time.
. Charles Hanbury Williams, The works of the right honourable Sir Chas.
Hanbury Williams, volume i (), –.
. This method of distinguishing between the plant and animal kingdoms
only applies to larger organisms; most smaller organisms without cell
walls, chloroplasts, and the ability to photosynthesize are likely to be
prokaryotes—a group of single-celled organisms.
. In modern terms, corallines are algae with calcareous jointed stems.
. John Ellis, An essay towards a natural history of the corallines (), v–vii; this
book was dedicated to the Princess Dowager of Wales.
. Ibid. .
. James Edward Smith, A selection of the correspondence of Linnæus, and other
naturalists, from the original manuscripts, volume i (), , .
. John Ellis and Peter Woulfe, ‘Extract of a letter from John Ellis, esquire,
F.R.S. to Dr. Linnæus, of Upsal, F.R.S. on the animal nature of the genus
of zoophytes, called Corallina’, Philosophical Transactions,  (),
–. Ellis was later awarded the Royal Society’s Copley Medal for
this and the following paper.
. The Woulfe bottle, bearing his name, is still in common use today.
. Ellis and Woulfe, ‘Extract of a letter from John Ellis, esquire, F.R.S. to
Dr. Linnæus’, , –.
. D. C. Goodman, ‘The Application of Chemical Criteria to Biological
Classification in the Eighteenth Century’, Medical History,  (), –,
, .
. John Ellis, ‘An account of the actinia sociata, or clustered animal-
flower, lately found on the sea-coasts of the new-ceded islands: in a
letter from John Ellis, esquire, F.R.S. to the Right Honourable the Earl
of Hillsborough, F.R.S.’, Philosophical Transactions,  (), –,
, , .


. This system was generally workable in the plant kingdom, but caused
problems when classifying the animal kingdom. There, Linnæus
grouped creatures according to their teeth, and most zoology text-
books based on the system open with descriptions of primates and bats
as these groups appeared very similar when only the teeth were taken
into account.
. Shortly afterwards, the gardens were renamed the Jardin des Plantes.
They survived the Revolution relatively unscathed.
. All the quotations from Buffon, as well as chapter and volume refer-
ences in this section, come from the second edition of William Smel-
lie’s translation which appeared in : Buffon, Natural history, general
and particular, translated into English (), ii. –, , , –.
. Aristotle, History of animals, trans. A. L. Peck (), .
. John Ellis, ‘An account of the sea pen, or pennatula phosphorea of
Linnæus’, Philosophical Transactions,  (), .
. John Ellis, ‘On the nature and formation of sponges’, Philosophical
Transactions,  (), –.
. Oliver Goldsmith, An history of the earth, and animated nature (), vii.
. For examples of other naturalists borrowing from Goldsmith see:
Samuel Ward, A modern system of natural history (), ; cf. Goldsmith,
An history of the earth, viii. ; Charles Taylor, Surveys of nature, historical,
moral, and entertaining (), –; cf. Goldsmith, An history of the earth,
viii, chapters VIII–XII; Buffon, Natural history, abridged (), vi.
. Until the twentieth century, most Swedes used patronyms and did
not have formal surnames. Linden trees are known as lime trees in
Britain—they belong to the genus Tilia, hence the name Tiliander.
. For more biographical details of Linnæus, see Lisbet Koerner, Linnæus:
Nature and Nation ().
. Some years later, in , Linnæus would also attempt to standardize
plants and animal names. His Species plantarum is the basis of the
binomial nomenclature that we still use today. This two-part system
gives the genus and species name—for example, Homo sapiens.
. Carl Linnæus, Praeludia sponsaliorum plantarum ().
. William Withering, A botanical arrangement of British plants (), xv;
Londa Schiebinger, Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science
(), .
. Erasmus Darwin was the grandfather of Charles Darwin, and a well-
known physician, gentleman of science, poet, and evolutionist.


. Withering, A botanical arrangement of British plants,  p. xv.

. Smith, a Unitarian, was unable to enrol at either of the English univer-
sities which only accepted Anglican students.
. Though Banks became an honorary fellow of the Linnean Society, he in
fact favoured French attempts at natural classification. The Linnean
Society was unique in securing Banks’s support—he opposed the
formation of other specialist societies such as the Geological Society
of London and the Astronomical Society of London for fear that they
might encroach on the activities of the Royal Society.
. James Edward Smith, Translation of Linnæus‘s dissertation on the sexes of
plants (), pp. xii–xiii.
. The example of date palms which had long required their keepers to
ensure fertilization of the female trees was frequently cited by Linnæus
and others.
. The exception to this rule was a group called the ‘cryptogams’ (things
like mosses) which contained no obvious pistil or stamen and so, in the
Linnean system, were classed as having clandestine affairs.
. Medullary comes from the Latin word for ‘marrow’ and refers to the
middle of something; cortex refers to the outside of something.
. Smith, Translation of Linnæus‘s dissertation on the sexes of plants, . .
. Ibid. .
. Ibid. –.
. Although this appeared before Linnæus’  Dissertation on the sexes of
plants, Linnæus had already written about many parts of his theory and
so Alston would have been familiar with his supporting arguments.
. Charles Alston, A dissertation on botany (), .
. William Smellie, The philosophy of natural history (), –.
. Ibid. .
. Ibid. .
. Ibid.
. Examples of these reviews can be found here: Anon. ‘Review of
Rotheram’s The sexes of plants vindicated’, The Monthly Review; or, literary
journal,  (September ), ; Anon. ‘Review of Rotheram’s The sexes of
plants vindicated’, The New Annual Register, or, general repository of history,
politics, and literature, for the year  (), .
. Nicolas Malebranche, The search after truth (), .
. Vincent Miller, The man plant, or, scheme for increasing and improving the
British breed (). John Hill, Lucina sine concibitu: how a Woman May
Conceive Without Sexual Intercourse ().


. The much-celebrated Longitude Prize was offered by the British gov-
ernment in  to anyone who could find a method to accurately
calculate longitude at sea—the prize money was £, (approxi-
mately £. million in today’s money). It was eventually awarded in
 to the clockmaker John Harrison (–) who devised
extremely accurate marine chronometers.
. Ovid, Metamorphosis, .ff.
. Now known as the Frioul Islands.
. The battle at Breisach was part of the War of the Spanish Succession
over who should become King of Spain after the death of Charles II—
the last Hapsburg ruler of Spain.
. Jean André Peyssonnel, ‘An account of a visitation of the leprous
persons in the Isle of Guadeloupe’, Philosophical Transactions,  (),
. For more on studies of fossils in the ancient world see Adrienne Mayor,
The First Fossil Hunters (), , , .
. For the most comprehensive histories of fossils and geology in this era,
see: Martin Rudwick, Bursting the Limits of Time (), chapter ; Martin
Rudwick, The Meaning of Fossils (); and Rhoda Rappapport, ‘The
Earth Sciences’, in The Cambridge History of Science, iv: Eighteenth-Century
Science ().
. Eivelstadt is today spelled Eibelstadt; I use Beringer’s original spelling.
. Johann Beringer, Lithographia Wircenburgensis, trans. Melvin E. Jahn and
Daniel J. Woolf (), .
. The court records were discovered in  by Heinrich Kirchner and
were translated and published by Beringer, Lithographia Wircenburgensis,
trans. Jahn and Woolf, , –.
. Ibid. .
. For biographical details of Smith and an account of his work, see: Hugh
Torrens, ‘William Smith’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography ()
or Simon Winchester, The Map that Changed the World ().
. Smith’s notebooks are held in Oxford University Museum of Natural
History; quoted in Winchester, The Map that Changed the World, , .
. Dobbs had married for a second time in ; he was  and his new
bride, Justina Davis, was .
. John W. Harshberger, Torrey Botanical Club Memoirs,  (), .
. John Ellis, Directions for bringing over seeds and plants, from the East Indies and
other distant counties in a state of vegetation (), –.
. Charles Darwin, Insectivorous Plants ().


. Carl Linnæus, Systema natura (), introduction.

. Stephen Hales, Vegetable staticks (), .
. Ibid. –.
. Ibid. .
. Ibid. .
. Thomas Percival, ‘Speculations on the perceptive power of vegetables’,
Memoirs of the literary and philosophical society of Manchester (), .
. Ibid. –.
. Ibid. .
. Ibid. .
. Ibid. .
. Robert Townson, ‘Objections against the perceptivity of plants, so far
as is evinced by their external motions, in answer to Dr. Percival’s
memoir in the Manchester Transactions’, Transactions of the Linnean
Society,  (), –.
. Capillary action refers to the motions of fluid in narrow tubes; because
the adhesion of the fluid to the surface of the tube is stronger than the
fluid’s internal adhesion, the fluid can move up the tube against the
force of gravity.
. James Edward Smith, ‘Some observations on the irritability of veget-
ables’, Philosophical Transactions,  (), . ‘Stamina’ is the plural of
stamen and refers to the ‘male’ part of the flower, consisting of a
pollen-bearing anther atop a filament.
. Ibid. .
. Ibid. .
. Ibid. .
. ‘Radicle’ means rootlet, and ‘germen’ means shoot.
. Thomas Andrew Knight, ‘On the direction of the radicle and germen
during the vegetation of seeds’, Philosophical Transactions,  (), .
. Ibid. .
. Ibid. .
. James Perchard Tupper, An essay on the probability of sensation in vegetables
(), .
. Ibid. .
. Ibid. .
. James Anderson, Recreations in agriculture, natural history, arts, and miscel-
laneous literature (), i. –.
. Many scientists prefer the three-domain approach (archaea, bacteria,
and eukaryote). The five kingdoms mentioned are recognized in


Europe, while in some countries scientists use six kingdoms (animalia,

plantae, fungi, protista, archaea, and bacteria)—though nowadays
such clear-cut definitions are mostly useful as teaching aids. The
mineral kingdom is now treated separately from the biological
. Cells were first seen under the microscope by Robert Hooke
(–) and described in his  work Micrographia. The nucleus
was identified by Robert Brown (–) and described in ‘On the
organs and mode of fecundation in Orchideae and Asclepiadeae’,
Transactions of the Linnean Society,  (), . This is the same Robert
Brown who first described Brownian Motion (the random movements
of particles suspended in a fluid; the mechanism behind this motion
was explained by Albert Einstein in ). Cell theory was proposed by
Matthias Jakob Schleiden (–) and Theodor Schwann (–).
. Rudolf Ludwig Carl Virchow (–) contributed a crucial idea to
cell theory: that cells are formed from other cells (or, as he summar-
ized it, omnis cellula ex cellula). This idea was one of several that
contributed to the downfall of the theory of spontaneous generation.
. The first ‘animal chemical’ to be synthesized in a lab was urea which
was created accidentally by Friedrich Wöhler (–). Following his
work and that of many other chemists on the artificial synthesis of
chemicals associated with living beings, the theory that ‘organic’
chemicals followed the exact same scientific laws as ‘inorganic’ ones
was developed.
. This internal stability (originally called the milieu intérieur) was dis-
covered by the French physiologist Claude Bernard (–). The
concept is still used in the modern life sciences and is now known
as ‘homeostasis’.
. Antonie Philips van Leeuwenhoek (–) had been one of the
first to spot micro-organisms through his homemade microscopes in
the s. He sent his findings in letters to the Royal Society of
London who, once they realized that his results were real, published
many extracts from them in their journal, for example: Antonie van
Leeuwenhoek, ‘Concerning green weeds growing in water, and some
animalcula found about them’, Philosophical Transactions,  (), .
. As each kind of micro-organism was studied in more detail, they were
reclassified: the discovery that bacteria do not possess a nucleus
excluded them from Schleiden and Schwann’s cell theory that now
united the traditional kingdoms. Some micro-organisms were even


more confusing: the entities we now call viruses were too small to be
seen through a microscope but their effect on cells could be observed.
Today, scientists still debate whether a virus is actually a living thing,
or merely a chemical entity with unusually life-like properties since it
possesses DNA and genes and evolves by natural selection—indicative
of life; but it cannot reproduce without the use of another organism’s
cells, implying that it is not really an independent life-form.
. Germ theory was developed by French chemist and microbiologist
Louis Pasteur (–).
. This kingdom was proposed by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel
(–) in . At the time, it included all known micro-organisms;
today, it is a kingdom of diverse eukaryotic micro-organisms.
. Mendel’s work was neglected for several decades before being inde-
pendently rediscovered by Hugo de Vries (–), Carl Correns
(–), and Erik von Tschermak (–) around .
. DNA had first been noticed in  by a doctor named Friedrich
Miescher (–). It was not until  that an experiment by
Oswald Avery (–), Colin MacLeod (–), and Maclyn
McCarty (–) proved that it was DNA that carried genetic
. For example, as I completed this book in autumn , a team of
Danish researchers announced the discovery of a deep-sea mush-
room-shaped creature off the coast of Australia that did not appear
to fit into any known phylum: Jean Just, Reinhardt Møbjerg Kristen-
sen, and Jørgen Olensen, ‘Dendrogramma, New Genus, with Two New
Non-Bilaterian Species from the Marine Bathyal of Southeastern Aus-
tralia (Animalia, Metazoa incertae sedis)—with Similarities to Some
Medusoids from the Precambrian Ediacara’, Plos One (). This article
is available on open access.
. Erwin Schrödinger, What is Life? ().
. Ibid. .


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Holland, Peter. The Animal Kingdom: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford
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Koerner, Lisbet. Linnæus: Nature and Nation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
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Leclerc, Georges-Louis, Comte de Buffon. Natural history, general and particular,
translated into English. Illustrated with above  copper-plates, and occasional
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T. Cadell, .
Leclerc, Georges-Louis, Comte de Buffon. Natural history, abridged. Including the
history of the elements, the earth, and its component parts, mountains, rivers, seas,
winds, whirlwinds, waterspouts, volcanoes, earthquakes, of man, quadrupeds, birds,
fishes, shell-fish, lizards, and serpents; with a general view of the insects world.


Illustrated with a great variety of copper-plates, elegantly engraved. London:

printed for C. and G. Kearsley, .
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Lucretius. De rerum natura, trans. William Ellery Leonard. London: J. M. Dent,
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University of California Press, .
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(), –.
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London: H. G. Bohn, –.
Pliny the Younger. Selected Letters, General Letters, trans. William Melmoth.
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Rudwick, Martin. Bursting the Limits of Time. Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, .


Salisbury, Joyce E. The Beast Within. London: Routledge, .

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Philosophical Transactions,  (), –.
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naturalists, from the original manuscripts, volume i. London: printed for
Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, .
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Townson, Robert. ‘Objections against the perceptivity of plants, so far as is
evinced by their external motions, in answer to Dr. Percival’s memoir in
the Manchester Transactions’, Transactions of the Linnean Society,  (),
Tupper, James Perchard. An essay on the probability of sensation in vegetables; with
additional observations on instinct, sensation, and irritability etc. London: Long-
man, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, .
van Leeuwenhoek, Antonie. ‘Concerning green weeds growing in water, and
some animalcula found about them’, Philosophical Transactions,  (), –.
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and faithful histories, of animals, vegetables, and minerals. Together with their
properties, and various uses in medicine, mechanics, manufactures, &c. London:
printed for F. Newbery, .
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to the study of botany, &c. &c. nd edn. Birmingham: printed by M. Swinnly,


I include here suggested further readings about some of the main characters
and ideas in each chapter, with particular emphasis on easily obtainable
primary sources. Full references for the sources cited in the book are con-
tained within the endnotes.

Chapter 
Many ancient books on natural history are easy to obtain in translation and
are a delight to read. For Aristotle’s animal books, I recommend the trans-
lations produced by A. L. Peck for the Loeb Classical Library Series; while for
Pliny, I have used the translation by John Bostock and H. T. Riley. In
addition to these printed versions, there are many editions of ancient natural
history books available online free of charge. Moving forward to medieval
times, T. H. White’s The Book of Beasts: Being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of
the th Century is available in a modern reproduction and gives a good idea
of what was contained in a medieval bestiary. For a twenty-first-century take
on the bestiary, see Casper Henderson’s The Book of Barely Imagined Beings.
For general background on eighteenth-century intellectual history, see
Roy Porter’s Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World. To
learn more about science and the Industrial Revolution in eighteenth-
century Britain, I recommend Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men: The Friends
Who Made the Future; while to learn about the wonders of science and
exploration in this period, Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder: How the
Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science is an excellent
book (and contains a particularly riveting account of Joseph Banks’s time
on Tahiti). As a primary source, the journals of Captain James Cook give a
remarkable overview of scientific travel in this period; they have been
published by Penguin Classics, and are also available online (<http://
www.jamescookjournal.blogspot.co.uk>)—this online version contains


comparative entries by Joseph Banks and other members of the HMS

Endeavour voyage.

Chapter 
A huge number of eighteenth-century scientific papers can now be read free
of charge online in their original versions thanks to several impressive
digitization projects. For example, all of John Ellis’s papers on corallines
can be found in the Royal Society of London’s online archive of the
Philosophical Transactions (<http://rstl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/by/
year>); and the original announcement of Trembley’s discovery of the
freshwater polyp can be read on the website of the Bibliothèque nationale de
France which has digitized past issues of the Histoire de l’Académie des Sciences
(<http://gallica.bnf.fr>). Unlike many modern scientific papers, these are
readily readable, even by the lay-person.
For a full biography of Buffon, see Jacques Roger’s Buffon: A Life in Natural
History; several paperback editions of Buffon’s Histoire naturelle are also easily
available. For an overview of French natural history in the late eighteenth
century, see Emma Spary’s Utopia’s Garden: French Natural History from Old
Regime to Revolution.

Chapter 
There are several biographies of Linnæus available, but perhaps the most
complete is Lisbet Koerner’s Linnæus: Nature and Nation. For more about
debates on generation theory, see Shirley A. Roe’s Matter, Life, and Generation:
Eighteenth-Century Embryology and the Haller–Wolff Debate. The original texts of
both Prof. Miller’s The Man Plant and Sir John Hill’s Lucina sine concubitu are
currently available online via Google Books and are well worth reading for
those interested in the art of satire.

Chapter 
Many of Peyssonnel’s scientific papers on corals and on other subjects
he studied while living in Guadeloupe are available online thanks to the
Royal Society of London (<http://rstl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/
by/year>)—for an English translation of his major treatise on corals, see the
volume of the Philosophical Transactions published in .
For more on the history of fossils and geology, read Martin Rudwick’s The
Meaning of Fossils or Bursting the Limits of Time. For more background on


Beringer and his hoax fossils (plus beautiful reproductions of Beringer’s

drawings of the fossils), see Melvin E. Jahn and Daniel J. Woolf ’s translation
of Lithographia Wircenburgensis. For a fuller (and extremely lively) account of
the work of William Smith on stratigraphy, see Simon Winchester’s The Map
that Changed the World: A Tale of Rocks, Ruin and Redemption.

Chapter 
The full text of John Ellis’s Directions for bringing over seeds and plants from the
East Indies . . . To which is added the figure and botanical description of a new sensitive
plant called Dionæa Muscipula or, Venus’s Fly-Trap is currently available on
Google Books and contains the first European description of the Venus
fly-trap. If you would like to read more about the mechanical theory of
plants, see the modern reproduction of Stephen Hales’s Vegetable Staticks
with a foreword by M. A. Hoskin.

Chapter 
To learn more about modern taxonomic practices and the current definition
of the animal kingdom, see Peter Holland’s The Animal Kingdom: A Very Short
For more on the history of the life sciences in the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries see, for example, William Coleman’s Biology in the Nine-
teenth Century or Garland Allen’s Life Sciences in the Twentieth Century—though
be aware that these are designed as textbooks rather than popular books.
Schrödinger’s What is Life? is still available in paperback and many of the
questions within it are as pertinent today as they were when he wrote it in
the s.


Académie des Sciences, Paris –, , blood –, , , , , –,
,  , , 
Adanson, Michel (–) ,  Blumenbach, Johann Freidrich
air –, , , , –, , , –, (–) 
,  Boccone, Paolo (–) 
Albertus Magnus (c.–)  Boerhaave, Herman (–) , 
Al-Ma’mun Ibn Harun, Abu Ja’far Abdullah Book of Genesis –, –, , ,
(–)  , 
Alston, Charles (–) –,  botany , , , , , , , –, –,
analogy , –, , –, , , , , , , , , , , 
,  Boyle, Robert (–) 
animal flower ,  breathing –, , , –, see also
animal salt see volatile salt respiration
animal spirits  Buffon, Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de
animalcula – (–) –, , , , –
animalia  Burnet, Thomas (?–) 
animation , 
Aquinas, Thomas (–)  Cæsalpinus, Andrea (c.–) 
archaea  calcium –
Aristotle (BC–BC) –, , , , , Cambridge , –
–, –, , , , , , , , Camerarius, Rudolf Jakob (–) ,
,  , 
artificial classification systems canal –, 
see classification cell theory –, , 
atheism , , , , , ,  chain of being –, , , , –,
atomism , ,  , 
Augustine of Hippo (–)  Charlotte (Queen) 
Augustus, Caesar  Chelsea Physic Garden 
chemical analysis –, , , , 
bacteria ,  Christianity , , –, , , ,
Baker, Henry (–)  , 
Banks, Joseph (–) –, ,  classification , , –, , , , –,
barberry – –, –, –, , , , ,
Bartram, John (–) –,  , , , , see also Linnean sexual
Bentinck, William  system of classification
Beringer, Johann (–) –,  coal –
bestiaries  coffee 
Bignon, Jean-Paul (–)  Collinson, Peter (–) , 
biochemistry  consciousness , , 


Cook, James (–) – estimativa 

Copley Medal  eukaryote 
coral , , , , , –, , ,  evolution , , , , –
coralline –, , ,  excretion , 
Crick, Francis (–) ,  exploration –, , , , 
creation of life , , , , , , , , extinction , , 
, , 
cryptogamia  fertilization , , , , –, 
Cuvier, Georges (–) ,  flood , , 
Folkes, Martin (–) 
Darwin, Charles (–) , , , fossils , –, 
, – Franklin, Rosalind (–) 
Darwin, Erasmus (–) ,  French Revolution –, , , –
De la Mettrie, Julien Offray frogs , –, , , 
(–) ,  fungi , , 
death , –
Defoe, Daniel (–)  Galen (–c.) , , 
Desaguliers, John Theophilus generation see reproduction, see also
(–)  regeneration; spontaneous
Descartes, René (–) –, , , generation
, , –,  Genesis see Book of Genesis
determinism  genetics –, 
Diderot, Denis (–) ,  Geneva 
digestion , , , , , –, , , Geoffroy, Claude Joseph (–) 
–, , ,  geognosy 
Dioscorides (c.–) –,  geological map –
dissection , , , , , , , , , geology –, 
, ,  George III , , 
distillation see chemical analysis geotropism , –, –
DNA – germ theory 
Dobbs, Arthur (–)  Gesner, Conrad (–) –
Dryden, John (–)  glossopetra 
dualism  God , , , , , , , , –, , ,
Durand, Laurent (–) – , , –, , , , , , , ,
, –, –
earth physics  Goldsmith, Oliver (c.–) –
Eckhart, Georg von – Goodenough, Samuel (–) 
Edinburgh , –, –, , , , gravity , , , , –, 
,  Green, Charles (–) 
Elliot, Charles (–)  Grew, Nehemiah (–) , 
Ellis, John (c.–) –, , –, Griffin, William 
–, ,  growth , , , , , , , 
embryo , , , , , , , , Guadeloupe –
, 
embryology  Hales, Stephen (–) , , –,
empire , –, , , ,  , , 
Endeavour, HMS –,  Haller, Albrecht von (–) –, ,
Enlightenment –, –, , , –, , –, , 
–, , , , , ,  happiness 
Epicurus (BC?–BC) , ,  Harderwijk 
epigenesis –,  heliotropism , –, –, 
essential force  herbals 


Harvey, William (–) , ,  Marseilles –, –

Hehn, Niklaus –, – Marsigli, Luigi Ferdinando (–) ,
Hehn, Valentin –, – –
Hill, John , – materialism , , , –, , , ,
Holbach, Paul Henri Thiry, Baron d’ , , –, 
(–) – mathematics , , , , –
Hooke, Robert (–)  Maupertuis, Pierre Louis (–) 
Hope, John (–) , – mechanical theory –, , , –,
Hunter, John (–)  , –, , 
hybrids , –, , , ,  medicine –, –, , , , , , ,
hydraulics –, ,  , , , , , , , , ,
, , , , 
Ibn al-Batriq, Abu Yahya (fl.–)  Mendel, Gregor (–) 
illustration , –, , – microbiology , –
Imperial Academy of St. Petersburg see Miller, Philip (–) 
St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences Miller, Vincent –, , 
industrialization , , , – Millington, Thomas (–) 
Ingenhousz, Jan (–)  mind see rational mind
instinct , – mineralogy , –
irritability –, , –, – mining , , 
Isidore of Seville (–)  monera 
motion see movement
Jardin du Roi – movement , , , , , , , –,
Johnson, Abraham (pseudonym of –, , –, , , , , , , ,
John Hill)  –, , , , 
Jones, Elizabeth 
Judaism – natural classification systems
see classification
Kew Gardens  natural theology 
Knight, Thomas Andrew Needham, John Turberville
(–) –, , ,  (–) –
nerves , , , –, , , , 
Leiden , , , , ,  Newton, Isaac (–) , –, 
Leprosy – Newtonian theories , –, 
Lhwyd, Edward (–)  noble savage 
life force see vitalism nutrition see digestion
Linnæus, Carl (–) , –, –, ,
–, , , , –, , , ,  Ovid 
Linnean sexual system of Oxford , , , , 
classification –, –, –,
,  Pallas, Peter Simon (–) –
Linnean Society of London , , , pangenesis 
, , ,  Paris , –, , ,  , 
locomotion see movement Pavia 
London , , , , , , , , –, perception , –
, –, , , , , , , , Percival, Thomas (–) –, ,
, , ,  , , 
Lucretius (BC?–BC?) –, ,  Perrault, Claude (–) 
Lyonnet, Pierre (–)  Peyssonnel, Charles (–) –
Peyssonnel, Jean-André
Malebranche, Nicolas (–) – (–) –, 
Manchester ,  photosynthesis 


physical geography  Smellie, William (–) –, 

physics , ,  Smith, James Edward (–) ,
physiology , , , –, , , , , –, , , , , , 
–, , –, ,  Smith, William (–) , –, 
Pitcairn, William (–)  social order –, 
plantae  Solander, Daniel (–) , , 
pleasure , ,  Sorgvliet –
Pliny the Elder (–) –, , , ,  soul , –, –, , , , –, –,
Pliny the Younger (–)  , , , , –, 
pneuma  Spallanzani, Lazzaro (–) ,
Poggio Bracciolini, Gian Francesco –, 
(–)  sponge , , , , –, , 
polyps –, –, , –, , ,  spontaneous generation –, –
Pontedera, Giulio (–) ,  stem cells 
preformation theory –, ,  Steno [Stenson, Niels] (–) ,
protista ,  –, , 
stratigraphy 
rational mind , –, ,  Stukeley, William (–) 
Ray, John (–) ,  suetonius 
Réaumur, René-Antoine Ferchault de sugar 
(–) –, , ,  Swammerdam, Jan (–) 
reductionism , –
regeneration , , , , , , ,  Tahiti –
religion , –, , –, , , , , taxonomy see classification
, , , , –,  teleology , , , , 
reproduction , , , , , –, , , The Hague 
, , , , , –, , , –, Theophrastus (c.BC–BC) , 
, , , , , ,  touch see sensation
respiration , , , , , see also Tournefort, Joseph Pitton de
breathing (–) , , –, , 
Roderick, J. Ignatz – Townson, Robert (–) –, ,
Rotheram, John (c.–)  , 
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (–) , transit of Venus , , –
,  Trembley, Abraham (–) –,
Royal Academy of Berlin  –, , –, , , 
Royal Society of London , , , , Tupper, James Perchard
–, , , , , , ,  ( fl.–) –, 
Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 
Rutherford, Daniel (–) – unicorn 
Upanishads 
St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences ,  Uppsala , 
satire , – Uranus 
Schrödinger, Erwin (–) – Ussher, James (–) 
Scot, Michael (–c.) 
sensation , , , , –, –, , Vaillant, Sebastien (–) 
, , , , , , –, –, Venus see transit of Venus
,  Venus fly-trap –, , , ,
sensitive plants –,  –, 
Shaftesbury, third Earl of (–)  Verbeek, Jean 
single-celled organism ,  Verbeek, Herman 
slave trade ,  Vesalius, Andreas (–) , 
sleep , , – Virgil 


virus  Withering, William (–) 

vital force see vitalism Wolff, Friedrich (–) –, ,
vitalism , , –, , –, , , , 
, –, ,  Woodward, John (–) 
vivisection  Woulfe, Peter (?–) –
volatile salt – Würzberg –
volition , –
Voltaire  Young Jnr., William –, 

water lily ,  Zänger, Christian , –

Watson, James (–) ,  zoology , , , , , , 
West Indies –, , , ,  zoophytes , , –, –, –,
Williams, Charles Hanbury (–)  , 



Letters from the Malay Archipelago

Edited by John van Wyhe, Kees Rookmaaker,
with a foreword by Sir David Attenborough

‘The book is a valuable addition to the literature on

Wallace. The editing is scrupulous and detailed but
not intrusive. The texts have been retranscribed
and corrected. The illustrations are attractive and
judiciously chosen. This is an excellent introduction
to the formative years.’ Peter Raby, Literary Review

This volume brings together the letters of the great

Victorian naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (–)
during his famous travels of – in the Malay
Archipelago (now Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia),
which led him to come independently to the same
---- j Hardback j £. conclusion as Charles Darwin: that evolution occurs
through natural selection. Beautifully written, they are
filled with lavish descriptions of the remote regions he
explored, the peoples, and fascinating details of the
many new species of mammals, birds, and insects he
discovered during his time there.

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The beauty of simplicity

-Ian Glynn

‘An erudite book . . . Well illustrated and full of

historical anecdote and background, this is an elegant
volume indeed.’ Nature

‘There is a wealth of historical information packed in

here.’ Times Literary Supplement

The idea of elegance in science is not necessarily a

familiar one, but it is an important one. The use of
the term is perhaps most clear-cut in mathematics—
the elegant proof—and this is where Ian Glynn
begins his exploration. Scientists often share a sense
of admiration and excitement on hearing of an
---- j Paperback j £.
elegant solution to a problem, an elegant theory,
or an elegant experiment. With a highly readable
selection of inspiring episodes highlighting the role
of beauty and simplicity in the sciences, this book
also relates to important philosophical issues of
inference, and Glynn ends by warning us not to
rely on beauty and simplicity alone: even the most
elegant explanation can be wrong.

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The scientific fairy tales of Victorian Britain

Melanie Keene

‘The illustrations are rather brilliant.’

Lucy Scholes, Independent

‘Keene’s material is fascinating.’

Suzi Feay, Financial Times

To the Victorians, the newly understood sciences

were the most exciting subjects of the century, and
they were eager to know more. Their enthusiasm
spread to wanting their children to learn about this
wonderful new world too, and an array of writers
set out to capture the excitement of new scientific
discoveries, and entice young readers into learning
---- j Hardback j £.
their secrets by converting introductory explanations
into quirky, charming, and imaginative fairy tales in
which scientific forces could be fairies.
Melanie Keene introduces and analyses these
Victorian scientific fairy tales, from nursery classics
such as The Water-Babies to the little-known Wonderland
of Evolution, by authors from Hans Christian Andersen
to Edith Nesbit. In doing so, she shows how these
writers reconciled factual accuracy with truly
fantastical narratives.

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A Four Thousand Year History

Patricia Fara

Winner of the  Dingle Prize, awarded by The

British Society for the History of Science.

‘Wide-ranging and provocative . . . Romps through

history at a terrific rate.’ The Economist

‘There is a wealth of historical information packed in

here.’ Times Literary Supplement

Science: A Four Thousand Year History rewrites science’s

past. Instead of focussing on difficult experiments
and abstract theories, Patricia Fara shows how
science has always belonged to the practical world
---- j Paperback j £. of war, politics, and business. Rather than glorifying
scientists as idealized heroes, she tells true stories
about real people—men and women who needed
to earn their living, who made mistakes, and who
trampled down their rivals in their quest for success.
Above all, this four thousand year history challenges
scientific supremacy, arguing controversially that
science is successful not because it is always right—
but because people have said that it is right.

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How Victorian Britain was Poisoned
at Home, Work, and Play

James C. Whorton

‘The most unlikely topics can generate books of the

utmost interest.’ The Independent

‘A highly entertaining text.’ Ambix

Arsenic is rightly infamous as the poison of choice for

Victorian murderers. Yet the great majority of fatalities
from arsenic in the nineteenth century came not from
intentional poisoning, but from accidents.
Kept in many homes for the purpose of poisoning
rats, the white powder was easily mistaken for sugar or
flour and often incorporated into the family dinner. It
was also widely present in green dyes and used to
---- j Paperback j £.
tint everything from candles and candies to curtains,
wallpaper, and clothing (it was arsenic in old lace that
was the danger). Drawing on the medical, legal, and
popular literature of the time, The Arsenic Century paints
a vivid picture of its wide-ranging and insidious
presence in Victorian daily life, weaving together the
history of its emergence as a nearly inescapable
household hazard with the sordid story of its frequent
employment as a tool of murder and suicide.

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Books and readers at the dawn of the Victorian age

James Secord

‘It is a useful reminder that science does not always

advance in straight lines.’
Dame Athene Donald, Book of the Year ,
Times Higher Education

‘Visions of Science is a wonderfully lucid account of a

complex and often misunderstood era that poses
important questions about the way we understand
both science and history.’ The Guardian

The early s witnessed an extraordinary

transformation in British political, literary, and
intellectual life. New scientific disciplines begin to
---- j Paperback j £.
take shape, while new concepts of the natural world
were hotly debated. James Secord, Director of the
Darwin Correspondence Project, captures this unique
moment of change by exploring key books, including
Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, Mary Somerville’s
Connexion of the Physical Sciences, and Thomas Carlyle’s
satirical work, Sartor Resartus. Set in the context of electoral
reform and debates about the extension of education to
meet the demands of the coming age of empire
and industry, Secord shows how these books were
published, disseminated, admired, attacked, and satirized.

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