Attitudes Towards the House Sparrow in Victorian Britain

On Wednesday evening the Leeds Animal Studies Network ( met for the latest installment of its seminar series. For those of us intrigued by animal history, the Network’s seminars have offered some great topics: from beagle colonies to the role of elephants in the timber industry of colonial Burma.

Male and female house sparrows. From Thomas G. Gentry, The House Sparrow at Home and Abroad (Philadelphia, 1878). Available at the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

But the latest seminar featured my own (freshly published!) research on the house sparrow (Passer domesticus) in 19thc Britain. During this time, sparrows were generally perceived as “pests” or “vermin” which consumed farmer’s crops and damaged orchards. This attitude was summed up by the complaints of a farmer named Charles Newman, who wrote to his local newspaper in 1861 to protest against bird conservation. Newman, a self-proclaimed “practical farmer,” had little patience for those who wished to preserve sparrows:

“No doubt many persons are opposed to their [sparrows’] destruction, considering that this feathered race were created for some wise purpose. Such was undoubtedly the case in the original order. But the Great Creator made man to rule over the fowls of the air and the beasts of the field, leaving it to his judgment to destroy such that were found more destructive than beneficial.”

Newman was by no means alone in his hatred of sparrows, or as he termed them, “flying mice.” Arable farmers and horticulturalists regularly trapped, poisoned or shot sparrows on their land. Yet others thought that sparrows were not destructive, but useful. In 1862 the Royal Agricultural Society of England and Wales  stated that insectivorous birds like sparrows consumed as much animal [insect] as vegetable matter, acting as ‘‘faithful protectors’’ of ‘‘cultivation in general.” Some naturalists feared that destroying sparrows would upset the delicate balance of nature. As early as 1841, a letter to The Quarterly Journal of Agriculture told the tale of a horticulturalist who had exterminated sparrows in his fruit orchard, only to suffer ‘‘myriads of caterpillars, green and black-marked ugly things,’’ which stripped whole bushes of their leaves.

The English sparrow in the USA. From William Yarrell’s A History of British Birds Vol.1 (London, 1843): 474-478. 

The idea of using sparrows as a form of biological control against harmful insects was enacted across the globe. Sparrows were introduced to both Australia and the United States by acclimatisation societies during the 1860s. Yet attitudes towards the sparrow in both countries quickly turned sour. In 1878 an article in The Derby Mercury charted the rapid reversal of Australian opinion:

“For ten or fifteen years, perhaps, the Australian gardeners and farmers and the sparrows got on exceedingly well together. The busy little birds faithfully performed all that was expected of them, and the land was well nigh rid of grub and caterpillar. Presently, however, there gradually arose a feeling of uneasiness as to the increase and multiplication of the imported blessing.”

In the face of such failures, the acclimatisation movement declined. Natural history also suffered a decline during the latter half of the 19thc ( Economic ornithology, described as ‘‘the study of the inter-relation of birds and agriculture’’ by the President of the Royal Agricultural Society in 1892, took over the issue of whether sparrows were harmful or beneficial for agriculture. British economic ornithologists followed the lead of their American counterparts by condemning sparrows for consuming cereal crops. Following the outbreak of the First World War, sparrows were therefore persecuted on a systematic basis.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the sparrow in 19thc Britain, or how matters of social and scientific consequence were decided during this time, my paper “The Sparrow Question: Social and Scientific Accord in Britain, 1850–1900” has just been published by the Journal of the History of Biology. It is Open Access and you can read or download it from the journal’s website at Or you can read it and my other publications on my Academia page:

Graduate Workshop in the History of Biology: University of Leeds

I’ve spent the past few weeks organising a graduate workshop for students from Leeds and Manchester, which took place at the Centre for HPS (@hpsleeds) on Tuesday 07th June. Although I spent much of the workshop behind the scenes (preparing tea and coffee!), from what I saw graduate students from both universities were pursuing some intriguing research questions in the history of biology, biomedicine and the human sciences…


In my own panel, we had Clare O’Reilly exploring the correspondence between Charles Darwin and an Aberdeenshire farmer on crop hybridisation. Mathew Andrews (@UlceraVerminosa) investigated the history of maggots for wound treatment: including its modern revival with the use of “bio-bags.” I delivered a (work-in-progress!) account of why us Britons have been so hostile to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Other conferences and thesis writing have kept me busy (and absent from this blog for too long). I haven’t managed to write posts about some of my more recent talks, but you can find their abstracts on my academia page (

  • “Twentieth-Century Biotechnology in the British Landscape: Historical Reflections.” Technology, Environment and Modern Britain Workshop, University College London, 27th April 2016.
  • “Malthus’s Shallow Grave: The Population Bomb (1968) and British Agricultural Science.” British Society for Literature and Science, University of Birmingham, 8th April 2016.

Next week I’ll be attending the Three Societies conference in Edmonton, Canada – which I will blog about! You can follow events there on Twitter using the hashtag #3soc2016

History & Philosophy of Monsters: HPS in 20 Objects Lecture Series, University of Leeds

On the 16th February, the ‘History and Philosophy of Science in 20 Objects’ lecture series held its second event, featuring monsters. PhD student Laura Sellers introduced a large audience to a member of the Museum of HPS’s wet specimen collection: a two-headed shark (spiny dogfish, or Squalus acanthias). The spiny dogfish is an intriguing animal in its own right. Possessing two spines, when attacked the dogfish is able to flex its back to allow one to protrude as a venomous spike. Yet it was the two heads of this specimen (the result of gene overexpression) under examination.

The two-headed fish (right) and a one-eyed piglet (left). The two heads of the fish are the result of gene overexpression. The one eye of the piglet results from gene underexpression.

Emeritus fellow Dr. Jon Hodge began his lecture with an important caveat. Historians of science have long sought to overcome a temptation to tell history as a story of the triumph of modernity over traditional ways of thinking. Yet a tension runs throughout the Western history of monsters, namely between nature as studied by science and nature as interpreted as the art of god by religious traditions.

So how has the emergence of monsters been explained throughout history? Aristotle (384-322BC) viewed all natural objects as a synthesis of form and matter. Form usually imposed itself upon matter, for example turning an acorn into an oak rather than a beech tree. Monsters occurred when matter deviated from form.

Nearly two millennia later, René Descartes (1596-1650) applied his mechanical view of nature – consisting of matter plus laws of motion – to life. Rare movements accounted for the development of monsters. Yet only a generation later, the mechanical view of nature was considered inadequate to explain life: contemporaries instead turned to the divine. A popular idea was the so-called “box-within-a-box” theory; the idea that god had created all forms of life at the first moment of creation, with later forms hidden within the first plants and animals.

The “box within a box” theory was illustrated with a comparison to nesting dolls. Image from

In the early nineteenth century this theory was confronted by French morphologist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772-1844). Geoffrey experimented with animal embryos – shaking, heating or prodding them – and observed the emergence of monstrous characteristics. External influences could apparently change animals from one generation to the next.

Subsequent years saw monsters fall in and out of scientific fashion. Charles Darwin did not discuss monsters as a means of variability (1809-1882). But from the 1880s-1920s biology took a laboratory turn and adopted saltationism. Richard Goldschmidt (1878-1958) devised the theory of “hopeful monsters”: or viable deviations with an evolutionary future. Yet Ernst Mayr (1904-2005), one of the founders of the modern synthesis, thought Goldschmidt harkened back to traditional, discredited views from Plato and Aristotle. Taking a difference stance (1941-2002) was Stephen Jay Gould, who championed Geoffroy. Monsters have lived on into what we think as of modern science.

Simply put, all this reveals that straightforward, traditional to modern narratives don’t hold up. History is complex and scepticism of simple stories is part and parcel of the historians’ trade.

A video of the full lecture can be accessed at

This and other posts by students reviewing the lecture can be found at:

Herbarium, Ethics & Eels: BSHS Postgraduate Conference, University of Cambridge

A new year: another British Society for the History of Science (BSHS) postgraduate conference! The BSHS provides a friendly and relaxed venue for postgraduate researchers to present their findings. Hosted this year by Cambridge HPS, a number of biologically-themed papers and events were in evidence. It began with an outing to the Cambridge University herbarium (

Plant specimen collected by Darwin from Rio de Janeiro. Full details of Darwin’s collection can be found (with images) at the herbarium website:

Now housed in the Sainsbury laboratory, the hebarium contains specimens of great historical significance, some dating from the early-eighteenth century. The herbarium holds Charles Darwin’s plant specimens from the voyage of the Beagle, which were passed onto his friend and mentor John Henslow. Darwin’s specimens are an impressive sight, possible the result of criticism from Henslow, who asked Darwin to label his specimens correctly and refrain from sending him “scraps”. Other items of interest in the collection include plants gathered by Alfred Russel Wallace in South-East Asia (

Drawer of bird skins
Edmund Selous (1857-1934) refused to kill birds for the purposes of collection: a practice which the norm at the time.

Back at the conference, students from the University of Leeds participated in a “Evolutionary theories” panel. Clare O’Reilly introduced attendees to concepts of hybrid plants in late nineteenth-century Britain, while Emily Herring delved into the strange world of the neo-Lamarckism. Meanwhile, I was lucky enough to be the chair of the panel on zoology. Here, Mathew Andrews of the University of Manchester presented his research on Edmund Selous (1857-1934), whose scientific work on ornithology was shaped by his ethical objections to killing birds for use as specimens or for museum display. Federica Turriziani Colonna (Center for Biology and Society, ASU) then examined the work of a young Sigmund Freud on eels at the Trieste Zoological Station in 1876.

Although the BSHS annual conference will not be taking place this year, American, Canadian and British societies for the history of science will be gathering for the “Three Societies” meeting in Edmonton, Alberta from 22-25 June. Hopefully this meeting will prove to be just informative about science and the natural world!

What is a Biological Individual & Why Does it Matter?

Back in July I was invited to attend my first summer school, a gathering of young scholars at Gut Siggan in Holstein, Germany. The subject of our collective brainstorming was ‘Superorganisms, Organisms and Suborganisms as Biological Individuals’. In other words, what is an ‘individual’ in biology, how do we arrive at this definition and why does it matter? The summer school had a distinctly interdisciplinary twist, bringing in biologists, philosophers, sociologists and even a few historians – including yours truly. During the various lectures and seminars we heard varied examples from the history of microbial classification to perspectives on modern DNA testing to remind ourselves what a difficult – and often controversial – task labeling something as a biological individual can be.

Attendees of the ‘Superorganisms, Organisms and Suborganisms as Biological Individuals: First Interdisciplinary Summer School on Individuality in the Life Sciences’, 27-31 July 2015. The organisers were Marie L. Kaiser, Thomas Reydon, Christian Sachse & Marianne Schark.

Participants were pointed to one particularly interesting piece of reading by Lynn Nyhart and Scott Lidgard ‘Individuals at the Center of Biology: Rudolf Leuckart’s Polymorphismus de Individuen and the Ongoing Narrative of Parts and Wholes’ (Journal of the History of Biology 44 (2011): 373-443). Nyhart and Lidgard point out that biological individuality was as central a problem to pre-1859 naturalists as evolution. Philosophical notions followed discoveries in cell theory, discussions on compound organisms and debates over the existence of single-celled organisms (p. 374). Zoologists like Leuckart were also involved in ongoing disputes in taxonomy, dividing and creating animal groups to create new classification systems (p. 377). In the concluding paragraphs of their paper, Nyhart and Lidgard attempt to draw parallels between modern trends in biology – including interest in modular organisms and developmental modularity – and nineteenth-century discussions of individuality (p. 406). But does the latter really possess relevance today? Do seemingly arbitrary and ever changing definitions actually make a practical difference in the world?

Invited speaker Mathias Grote (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) introduces the history and philosophy of microbiology.

In a series of important contexts, yes. To take one example from my own research, getting a new breed of plant recognised as a variety can bring intellectual property protection and potentially lucrative commercial awards. Other speakers at the summer school pointed out that what we recognise as a biological individual is important in how we carry out conservation programmes; we need to know what we are actually trying to preserve. Yulia Egorova, a lecturer from the University of Durham, revealed the impact of DNA testing on cultural and religious groups. How we perceive human individuality can often have dangerous consequences for how we view ourselves and others. What constitutes a biological individual is not simply a question best left to philosophy.

Molecular Biology and Evolution at ISHPSSB 2015, Université du Québec à Montréal

The Blog is Back! Following a few hectic weeks of international travel, including the International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB) 2015 conference in Montreal, normal service can resume. ISHPSSB was the first international conference I had ever attended. With hundreds of attendees, it was also the largest! Nominally I was there to present a paper on a facet of my PhD research – the history of a largely ignored form of biotechnology know as somatic hybridisation ( But with multiple panels and sessions, ISHPSSB’s speakers were delving into everything from Darwin to embryology, ecology to agriculture. One of the most intriguing (and popular) panels discussed aspects of molecular biology and the modern synthesis in biology. As always, a few textual snapshots are provided below:

But first, some Montreal landmarks…


Vassiliki Betty: The modern evolutionary synthesis brought together botanists, geneticists and paleontologists under a single conceptual framework – one which combined evolutionary ideas and Mendelian genetics – during the mid-twentieth century. By the end of 1950s, advocates of the synthesis was arguing for evolution as the unifying theory of biology. Links between chemistry, physics and biology also grew as biologists jumped on the ‘DNA bandwagon’. Yet all was not well in the new world of biology, as rifts between the new molecular biologists and traditional organism-focused biologists occurred in American Ivy League institutions. One well-known example is found in E.O Wilson’s memoirs, which described his Harvard colleague James Watson (co-discover of the structure of DNA) as the ‘Caligula of biology’, who aggressively drove the molecularisation of biology and even blocked the appointment of ecologists to the department.

Yet other noted figures felt no such clash. Botanist George Ledyard Stebbins Jr. embraced the techniques of molecular biology by the mid-1950s, despite his training in taxonomy and museum work. Chair of Genetics at UC-Davis during the 1950s and ’60s, Stebbins encompassed developmental genetics (which challenged Mendelian genetics) and postulated new mutation processes, including the easier formation of inter-specific hybrids in plants. In a 1968 paper he stated that modern synthetic theory was based upon multiple disciplines and acknowledged there were different answers to how characteristics – for example the neck of a giraffe – developed, given by field naturalists, Darwinians, developmental genetics and molecular biologists. None were wrong. All were correct, but incomplete.

ISHPSSB President Michel Morange speaks to a packed room at the molecular biology session.

Michel Morange: Jumping to the mid-1980s, molecular biologists had accepted evolutionary synthesis, as the Luria-Delbrück experiments chased Lamarckianism out of microbiology. Molecular biologists used Darwinism in their work, isolating mutations to demonstrate the creative power of variation and selection. François Jacob (1982) stated that embryonic development had been ignored. But various molecular biologists continued to have ideas about the molecular mechanisms of evolution. Research was not always straightforward. The T-complex model, proposed by Dorothea Bennett in 1975, was supposed to demonstrate how embryonic development of mice was disrupted. Unfortunately the T-complex turned out not to exist. Yet other models, including gene regulation and  heterochronic mutation were successfully integrated. It is now acknowledged that there are different forms of evolution and progress in evolution occurs independently of the environment. The molecular biologists were largely Darwinian but did not follow the evolutionary synthesis to the letter.

The Travelling Rat (1850-1950) at BSHS Conference, University of Swansea

Last week, a surprisingly high proportion of beach-goers on the coast near Swansea were historians or philosophers of science. The British Society for the History of Science annual conference was underway, featuring subjects as diverse as science fiction, Renaissance anatomy and nineteenth-century beliefs in extraterrestrials. One panel that caught the eye of many was “The Travelling Rat, 1850-1950,” which featured three presentations on historical attitudes towards our furry neighbors:

The Rat Catcher’s Prank – Neil Pemberton 

Jack Black, rat-catcher by appointment to Queen Victoria:

It is unsurprising to see that rat-catching practices are shaped by continuous battle with the ingenuity and behavior of rats. One man who understood this was Jack Black, rat-catcher by appointment to Queen Victoria. Black paraded around Victorian London in a self-made uniform, complete with a belt covered in iron rats. One of his numerous exploits involved confronting another rat-catcher in a pub, after stealing 10 live rats from the rival’s cart. Black displayed them to his rival’s dismay, the latter being bitten as he attempted to retrieve his lost rats. In this context, rats were objects of public display and spectacle. Yet today, rats are considered vectors of disease, not a subject for humorous pub pranks. Contact with rats has not always been perceived as dangerous. Jack Black boasted of being bitten everywhere (even in places he couldn’t name). Others catchers killed rats like dogs, using their teeth. In his interview with a Victorian journalist, Black didn’t talk about the sewer-dwelling habits of rats. Such a setting was hardly suitable for spectacle. To avoid plagues of rats on London streets, Black advocated the fitting of rat-proof drain grating. Strangely, hunting rats in their natural (sewer-based) habitat would constitute a form of “animal murder”.

Rattus-Homo-Machine: Rats as Seafarers in the Nineteenth Century – Kaori Nagai

Joseph Conrad’s novel Youth (1898) describes the spectacle of rats abandoning the author’s ship following a refit. Later Conrad’s ship caught fire and sank, proving the innate wisdom of seafaring rats. During this time, it was quite normal for rats to inhabit ships, embarking and disembarking at their leisure. Alexander Selkirk, the real Robinson Crusoe, was greatly pestered by rats and cats on his island. He was forced to tame the latter to keep the rats away. With rats taken on shipping routes to countries all over the world, nineteenth-century writers characterised rats as the ultimate colonisers. These animal colonisers caused their human counterparts no end of trouble, attacking farms and plantation. Rats also preyed on both native and other introduced species. According to Joseph Hooker, the Maori of New Zealand stated that just as European rats had driven away their native ones, the same phenomenon would occur on the human level. In the Encyclopaedia of Natural History (1837), Charles Partington recognised that the alarming multiplication of rats abroad was entirely the fault of human migrants.

The ‘Modern’ Management of Rats Moving Across Farm and Field: 1900-1940 – Karen Sayer   

Rat catchers, 1900's (5) (1)
Rat-catchers in Sydney, c. 1900.

By the late-nineteenth century, rats had long been subject to population control in rural Britain. Existing attitudes towards rats as “vermin” were reinforced by a (minor) outbreak of plague in rural Suffolk in 1910. Newspapers panicked and staff from the Lister Institute were sent to examine rats and their fleas. There were also debates in Parliament, which predictably pronounced the affair a matter for the local authorities. Detractors noted that reliance upon local controls were clearly insufficient when rats are able to travel. In 1919 the rats and mice destruction act was passed, threatening fines for those who allow rats to inhabit their land. In a new era of regulated control, modern, “scientific” methods of extermination, including gas and salmonella bacterium were promoted. The Victorian-era rat-catcher was confined to the annals of history. Newspapers dismissed traditional practitioners as part of an idyllic, or “silly” illusion of the countryside.