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Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose

Natural History in Early America

by Lee Alan Dugatkin

Hardcover, 166 pages, Univ of Chicago Pr, List Price: $26 |


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Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose
Natural History in Early America
Lee Alan Dugatkin

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Capturing the essence of the origin and evolution of the so-called "degeneracy debates," over whether the flora and fauna of America (including Native Americans) were naturally weaker and feebler than species elsewhere in the world, this book chronicles Thomas Jefferson's efforts to counter French conceptions of American degeneracy, culminating in his sending of a stuffed moose to Buffon.

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Excerpt: Mr. Jefferson And The Giant Moose

Chapter One

"Dictatorial Powers of the Botanical Gentlemen of Europe"

To recant the degeneracy tale with the proper panache, we first need to understand who was involved in gathering information on American natural history in the eighteenth century, why they gathered this information, and how the study of natural history was conceptualized at the time.

In the Colonial era, as in every era, natural history information was, in part, passed along in what are known as travelers' tales. These tales could be quite astonishing. In one, John Brickell, an Irish physician living in North Carolina, described how bear cubs were initially lumps of white flesh, "void of form," and only took on the shape of a bear as the result of their mother licking them, essentially molding a cub from a lump of formless flesh. For good measure, though, the same description noted that "the young cubs are a most delicious dish."

Tales of North American beavers were equally incredible. A Louisiana engineer fascinated with dam building hid in the brush one night, and by the light of the moon watched beavers to see if he could pick up some tricks of the trade. Some of the beavers he observed made mortar from the mud, others lined up head-to-tail, loaded the newly made mortar on their tails, moved the mortar down this living assembly line, and applied it to the levee.

Other travelers recorded sixty-three-pound turkeys as tall as a small man, and rattlesnakes that were twenty feet long and could, according to Jean-François Dumont, "bite off the leg of a man as clear as if it had been hewn down with an axe." As late as 1770, the Essex Gazette newspaper published a letter reporting the discovery of a two-headed snake, with the head of a "yellow rattlesnake" on one end of its body and the head of a "black snake" at the other. The author, however, could not provide Gazette readers with as much detail as he had hoped because "the horrid form of the described creature urged the spectators to throw it precipitately into the river, which prevented a more critical examination."

There were reports of lizards that, on their own volition, acted as reptilian guardians, protecting weary travelers: "If a person lies asleep, and any voracious beast, or the alligator ... is approaching the place where you lie," wrote William Chetwood, "[the lizards] will crawl to you as fast as they can run, and with their forked tongues tickle you till you awake, that you may avoid by their timely notice the coming danger." But such embellished folk stories of strange creatures made up only a small portion of the natural history data circulating in eighteenth-century America. People of that day were interested in learning about natural history because it could have the immediate and utilitarian impact of improving everyday life. Travelers' tall tales were clearly useless in this regard, and were more entertaining than functional.

* * *

Natural history information was valuable to early Americans for many reasons. Learning about the habits of prey such as rabbits, squirrels, deer, and partridge could make the difference between feast and famine. Information on which species of snakes were venomous might be a matter of life and death. The function of natural history was especially evident in the area of botany, where new information could lead to healthier crops, better tasting foods, possible cures for illness, or even a combination of these effects. Paul Dudley, in a 1720 paper published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, described the process of removing sap from maple trees in New England, noting that the sugar from this sap had medicinal value that was greater than that associated with sugar from the West Indies.

Many of the medicinal applications of botanical natural history were gathered together by Philadelphia's Benjamin Barton in his 1788 textbook, Collections for an Essay toward a Materia Medica of the United States. Of course, some of these practical applications of natural history were misguided or plain wrong, and some were even unintentionally dangerous.

For the most part, America's knowledge of plants and animals was gathered by men who were natural historians by avocation, but not by profession—men such as Dudley, Barton, Henry Muhlenberg, Manasseh Cutler, James Logan, and Cadwallader Colden. They almost always lacked royal patrons or other moneyed contacts, and they often held other jobs—teacher, minister, businessman, politician, and very often physician—gathering information about the natural history of America when time permitted (and sometimes when it didn't). They were passionate about the pursuit of natural history, collecting when they traveled, imploring their colleagues, both at home and abroad, to send them any information they may have acquired, and, on the botanical end, occasionally keeping their own herbaria.

At the start, American natural historians were at a severe disadvantage, lacking the royal gardens, the zoological collections, and the ancient university system that were available to their European counterparts. What's more, the ultimate accolade for a natural historian—membership in the prestigious Royal Society of London—was also unavailable to these men. While some American natural historians were elected to the Royal Society, policy dictated that the names of Colonial members were not printed on the list of "Fellows of the Royal Society."

Many natural historians in the colonies (and early states) were driven, in part, to see that the authoritative works on American natural history would one day be seen as having been penned by Americans. They were tired of their European counterparts looking down on their efforts: what was needed was an end to what one American naturalist, with the wonderful name of Alexander Garden, called "the dictatorial powers" of the "botanical gentlemen of Europe." Along these lines, Henry Muhlenberg implored his friend Manasseh Cutler to "let each one of our American botanists do something and soon the riches of America will be known." But at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the state of natural history in America, at least in Mulhenberg's eyes, was still far from where it needed to be: "The study of natural history in this country is in its infancy.... We have no cabinets of natural history in America, excepting one in Philadelphia and another in Boston. These consist of small collections without any systematic arrangement. They are kept merely for the purpose of getting money by showing them to common people, and consist primarily of exotics." This may not have been a completely fair representation, at least with respect to Charles Peale's Philadelphia natural history museum—which contained thousands of animal samples and was a tourist attraction—but it was an accurate representation of the overall state of affairs.

Eventually, and in particular after the War of 1812, the study of American natural history would blossom under the eyes of such men as Asa Gray, John James Audubon, Thomas Nuttall, and William Maclure, many of whom followed in the footsteps of the great ornithologist Alexander Wilson. These men and others associated with the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences would produce volume after volume of beautiful tomes on the natural history of the United States. But, before the nineteenth century, the systematic study of natural history was primarily a European affair and was associated with two of the continent's most famous natural historians: Buffon and Linnaeus.

The fact that most of the work on eighteenth-century natural history was coming out of Europe tends to overshadow an important point about the way that Americans conceptualized the study of nature. From the few rich enough to own books on this subject to those dependent on knowledge of it for survival, when Americans thought about nature, when they talked about natural history, they did so with supreme confidence that the life they saw around them—the animals and plants—were designed by God, and just as importantly, were a manifestation of God's perfection.

To understand natural history was as close as humans could come to understanding something about the divine. More than a century before Darwin would posit a purely naturalistic theory for understanding life on earth, the view that natural history was a reflection of God's wonder was not just one way to think about the world; it was the predominant way.

This idea of nature as a reflection of God's power has a long history. When Plato contemplated both the organic and inorganic worlds around him, he could not accept that they were the result of chance, for they displayed what appeared to be order and complexity; the world appeared to be designed. This implied a designer—Plato used the term demiurge. To understand the world, then, was to understand something about its designer. This religious/philosophical position is often called the argument from design.

Over the next few centuries, the argument from design was adopted by major thinkers of the day, such as the Roman statesman Cicero (106–43 BC), who asked how anyone could doubt that the world, and all the species that occupied it, were the result of "conscious intelligence," to Galen (circa AD 129–200), one of the founders of modern medical thinking, who wrote that animals were "fully equipped with the best possible bodies" and was impressed with "the skill employed in the construction of each."

The argument from design became linked with a Christian god in the work of Saint Augustine (AD 354–430). In book 11, chapter 4, of his City of God, Augustine proclaimed "The world itself, by the perfect order of its changes and motions, and by the great beauty of all things visible, proclaims by a kind of silent testimony of its own both that it had been created, and also that it could not have been made other than by a God ineffable and invisible in greatness and invisible in beauty." Similar sorts of proclamations can be found in the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas (AD 1224–1274). The study of natural history—of the wonders of animals and plants—was now linked with a better understanding of divine inspiration.

Though the argument from design would eventually draw some detractors—men like David Hume23—its allure was powerful. Even Francis Bacon, who in general advocated a strong separation between science and religion, was a firm believer that natural history was a window to God. Bacon argued that we have two sources to comprehend the divine plan, "The Scriptures, revealing the Will of God; and then the creatures expressing His Power; whereof the latter is a key unto the former."

The argument from design that would eventually set sail for America came to maturity in Englishman John Ray's 1691 treatise entitled The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation. Though other Brits in Ray's time described how natural history was a reflection of God's plan, The Wisdom of God stood out for two reasons. First, Ray was not only an ordained minister, but also one of England's leading naturalists. Just as important, though, Ray wrote a book that was meant for public consumption. His message to the reader was clear:

to illustrate some of His principal attributes; namely, His infinite power and wisdom. The vast multitude of creatures, and those not only small, but immensely great ... are effects and proofs of His Almighty power.... The admirable contrivance of all and each of them, the adapting all the Parts of animals to their several Uses, the provision that is made for their sustenance, which is often taken Notice of in Scripture.... And, Lastly, their mutual subserviency to each other, and unanimous conspiring to promote and carry on the public good, are evident demonstrations of His sovereign wisdom.

For John Ray, the evidence that natural history reflected God's greatness could be seen everywhere. How else could one explain the vast number of different life forms? What other possible explanation could there be for the beautiful architecture of a bee's nest, the craftsman-like skill of the beaver's dam, the uncanny ability of the chameleon to match its environment? None of these incredible observations made any sense without the hand of God. "In Wisdom hast thou made them all," Ray wrote; "... the Works of God, they are all very wisely contrived and adapted to Ends both particular and general."

In early Colonial America, this idea of natural history as a window into the divine was championed by the Reverend Cotton Mather, the most famous clergyman of his day. Mather had his hands in virtually every component of life in New England: from the Salem witch trials of the 1690s to the 1721 smallpox epidemic, where his championing of inoculation as a means of protecting people was viciously attacked by many. A Puritan Congregational leader, Cotton Mather was a prolific author, writing some four hundred works, including Essays to Do Good (1710) and a seven-volume magnum opus on the history of religion in New England entitled Magnalia Christi Americana (1702).

All life reflected God's glory in Mather's writing. In his 1693 book, Winter Meditations, he summarized a lifelong view that the almighty was "in all the creatures ... directing all their motions ... to God himself as the last end all." But it was in his 1721 book, The Christian Philosopher: A Collection of the Best Discoveries in Nature with Religious Improvement, where Mather most powerfully linked an understanding of natural history with religion.

Mather was a not a natural historian himself; he rarely went out into nature to collect and describe species. The Christian Philosopher, then, was not a religious interpretation of Mather's personal interactions with nature. Instead, Mather relied heavily on the most up-to-date information he had read or heard, and interpreted it in the context of what it revealed about the divine architect of the world. And he made no apologies for using the findings of others, such as John Ray. Indeed, Mather believed that he was spreading the name of God by doing just that, for "it appears also but a piece of justice, that the names of those whom the great God has distinguished, by employing them to make those discoveries, which are here collected, should live and shine in every such collection." His reliance on the work of others certainly did not limit the scope of the topics Mather would cover in The Christian Philosopher, whose chapters included everything from "Of Light" to "Of Insects," "Of Reptiles, "Of Fishes," "Of Birds," "Of Four-footed Animals," and "Of Man."

Mather had both a goal and a strategy in The Christian Philosopher. The goal was to demonstrate that "the whole world is indeed a temple of God, built and fitted by that Almighty architect." And, of course, the whole world included all those species with which humans share the planet. The strategy he would adopt to prove this was to assure his readers that the findings of natural historians—men who were often called "natural philosophers" in his time—were not a threat to religion, but, rather, when properly construed, evidence of God's perfection. "The essays now before us," Mather wrote in the introduction to The Christian Philosopher, "will demonstrate that philosophy is no enemy, but a very great incentive to religion." Mather saw scripture as just one of the twofold books of God. The second, "the book of the creatures," was what he would focus on in The Christian Philosopher.

Cotton Mather was genuinely amazed by the world around him. This was evident in every chapter of The Christian Philosopher, including the chapter concerning birds, which read more like a tribute to all things avian. People had long been awestruck by the ability of birds to fly, but for Mather, there was so much more to flight than met the eye, and all that he learned pointed to evidence of divine handiwork. "How commodiously their wings are placed!" Mather told his readers, and no doubt his parishioners as well: "They that fly much, or have most occasion for their wings, have them in the very best part imaginable, to balance their body in the air, and give them a swift progression.... The incomparable curiosity of every feather!"

Excerpted from Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose by Lee Alan Dugatkin Copyright © 2009 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.