A Good Read: A Scottish Plant Hunter in Nineteenth-Century Japan

The Society for the History of Natural History, or SHNH (http://shnh.org.uk/) produces a newsletter for its members three times a year. One item in the newsletter is ‘A Good Read’, where members of the society can write an article on their favourite natural history book. Past issues of the newsletter (available at http://shnh.org.uk/newsletter/) have included contributions on Mary Kingsley’s travels in West Africa and the history of herbals. When asked to step up I chose the story of a Scottish plant hunter and his adventures in Japan:

Robert Fortune’s Yedo and Peking. A narrative of a journey to the capitals of Japan and China (London, John Murray, 1863).

A surly Robert Fortune. From http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-great-british-tea-heist-9866709/?no-ist
A surly Robert Fortune. From http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-great-british-tea-heist-9866709/?no-ist

‘Having heard and read so many stories of this strange land’ recalled Robert Fortune in 1863, ‘I had long looked upon Japan in much the same light as the Romans regarded our own isles in the days of the ancient Britons.’ In a good read, it is impossible to tell where adventure ends and natural history begins. It is this quality that attracted my undergraduate-self to the Scottish botanist’s Yedo and Peking. A narrative of a journey to the capitals of Japan and China. Following centuries of isolation (sakoku), Japan had been forcibly opened to Western trade with the arrival of Commodore Perry’s fleet outside Edo (now Tokyo) in 1853. Treaties were subsequently signed between the Tokugawa shogunate, United States and multiple European powers. New trading ports were opened and travel privileges granted to foreigners.

In the wake of diplomats and merchants came Victorian plant hunters. Working on behalf of the United States patent office, Fortune was keen to not only gather ‘vegetable productions of an ornamental and useful kind’ but also ‘other objects of natural history and works of art.’ He first arrived in Japan in 1860, at a time of transition. Steam machinery and telegraph lines rested alongside temples, teahouses and gardens. Fortune’s lively description of everyday life in nineteenth-century Japan is intermingled with botanical observations and notes on garden design. A moment of hero worship appears when he meets the elderly German physician and ‘veteran naturalist’ Philipp Franz von Siebold. Yet Fortune’s Japanese guide Tomi is described as overly-fond of sake (rice wine), managing to stay only ‘largely sober’ during the daylight hours.

Following a brief sojourn in China, Fortune’s narrative continues upon his return to Japan in the spring of 1861. Fortune prepared and stored his ‘collections of dried plants, seeds, insects and shells’ and soon had cases crammed full of ‘rare species’. Yet all was not well. Fortune lived under the protection of the Tokugawa government following attacks on foreigners by disaffected rōnin (masterless samurai). Characteristically, the collector within him took the time to show his guardians his natural history books and collections, ‘with which they appeared greatly pleased .’ His rationalisation to the Japanese officials is indicative of the whole practice of imperial natural history: ‘in England we had such things introduced from all parts of the world… I was now endeavouring to add to our collection all that was useful or beautiful in Japan.’

Robert Fortune’s adventures in China are better known than his Japanese travels, perhaps unsurprisingly, as the former found him disguised in native dress and fighting off pirates. But his expeditions to Japan also have much to offer readers: a nineteenth-century shopping spree in Edo, visiting ‘garden after garden in succession’ and infectious delight on acquiring a male Aucuba japonica, the ‘Holly of Japan.’ Yedo and Peking. A narrative of a journey to the capitals of Japan and China is now freely available, along with many of Fortune’s other works, at the Biodiversity Heritage Library website.

SHNH Newsletter, No. 110, July 2016, pp. 13-14 



The Decline of Natural History & Rise of Biology in 19thc Britain

For the past few weeks, the history and philosophy of biology (HPBio) reading group here at the University of Leeds has been tackling a series of readings on a contentious historical issue: how biology came into existence and what it replaced.

E. Donovan, 1805 Instructions for Collecting and Preserving Various Subjects of Natural History. Second edition. Plate 2, Figures 5-9.

Natural history: Consisting of field observation, collection and classification, natural history consisted a grand civic and scientific project in Victorian society. Clubs and societies, with associated journals and museums sprang up across nineteenth-century Britain. Natural history was (at least in theory) open to all comers, from both genders and any social class. The field remained remarkably stable for a long period, in terms of the practices and equipment utilised. Historian of natural history David Allen remarks that in entomology, basic field equipment used in the 1950s such as the collecting tin and the vasculum were indistinguishable from their mid-eighteenth century counterparts (Allen. 1998: 362).

Its decline: Allen (1998) goes on to claim that natural history suddenly lost its preeminence in the late-nineteenth century. A rising class of professional scientists – largely based in universities – turned against amateurish natural history in favor of a new experimental biology, often based in the laboratory. These professionals derided practitioners of natural history as ‘bug-hunters’ while the latter returned fire by labeling laboratory biologists ‘worm slicers’ (Allen, 1998: 366). Attempts by naturalists to reintegrate themselves in British science were unsuccessful. In ecology, amateur naturalists initially found a role for their taxonomic expertise in biological surveys. Yet by the outbreak of the First World War, ecology adopted a physiological approach, pushing out the naturalists. Ecology remains ‘dauntingly technical’, especially following its adoption of statistics (Allen, 1998: 367).

John Richardson, 1837. Fauna boreali-americana. Volume 4.

Biology: The word biology is generally perceived to have been coined early in the nineteenth century. Joseph Caron (1988: 247) locates the emergence of a distinct science of biology in England between the 1850s and 1890s. Here, scientists such as T.H. Huxley proposed a new synthetic and general perspective on living beings and life in general (Caron, 1988: 247). These calls were backed up by action, with figures such as J.D. Hooker working to have ‘biology’ adopted at the university level. As it lacked a distinct research programme, Caron (1988: 253) describes English biology during this period as a publicist science par excellence. Controlling university teaching and examination allowed the subject to flourish – a point both Allen and Caron agree upon.

Our reading:

Allen, D.E., ‘On parallel lines: natural history and biology from the late Victorian period’, Archives of Natural History 25 (1998): 361-371

Caron, J.A., ‘Biology’ in the life sciences: a historiographical contribution’, History of Science 26 (1988): 223-268

Johnson, K., ‘Natural history as stamp collecting: a brief history’, Archives of Natural History 34 (2007): 244-258



Taxonomic Technology: Electrophoresis & Classification in Agricultural Botany (Part 1)

My second ever work-in-progress seminar at the University of Leeds introduced attendees to the second chapter of my PhD, which examines the use of laboratory machinery and biochemical methods to identify and analyse crop varieties at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) during the 1980s. By the late-twentieth century, classifying agricultural plants was a difficult task. More and more varieties were submitted to NIAB by plant breeders, while the distinguishing characteristics of varieties grew smaller and smaller. Identifying and classifying varieties had traditionally relied upon botanically-trained observers. Yet visual scrutiny of plants’ morphological characteristics was problematic, requiring both considerable expertise and grown specimens.

The problem of classifying of agricultural plants is demonstrated by these images of celery varieties. Each column here represents a distinct variety: the correct classification of these samples by eye would be a near-impossible task for the untrained observer. From G.W. Horgan, M. Talbot and J.C. Davey, ‘Plant variety colour assessment using a still video camera’, Plant Varieties and Seeds (1995) 8: 161-169.

An escape route was provided to NIAB via a form of protein fingerprinting developed in biochemistry: electrophoresis. For historians of biology, electrophoresis is best known for its use by Lewontin and Hubby to break an impasse in population genetics during the 1960s. Electrophoresis was trialed at NIAB during the same period, to little avail. Matters changed during the early years of the 1980s, when staff at NIAB’s Chemistry and Quality Assessment Branch were able to apply electrophoresis to cereal varieties. Electrophoresis works by running an electric current through a gel in which a sample sits. As different proteins carry different charges, they separate into distinct “bands” (see below).

An early image of a completed electrophoresis sample. The darker protein “bands” can be seen once the gel is chemically dyed. From R.P Ellis, ‘The identification of wheat varieties by the electrophoresis of grain proteins’, Journal of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (1971) 12: 223-235.

Electrophoresis provided a new means of classifying agricultural plants and was promoted in NIAB’s publications as an efficient and modern technique of variety identification. The experience of the Institute during the 1980s chimes with what historians of science have termed the “molecularisation movement” in the life sciences. This movement is usually associated with genetics and the role of DNA and nucleic acids. Yet historians have called for broader studies under the theme of molecularisation, not least because of the broad use of terms such as “molecular biology” by scientists themselves. Financial gain and prestige came from NIAB’s research into electrophoresis; the technique still appears in guidelines issued by international agricultural bodies today, despite the rise of DNA sequencing. Yet electrophoresis was not the only method of classification investigated by NIAB during the 1980s, as future posts will explore…



Coming in from the cold: nineteenth-century exploration and science in the Canadian Arctic

This short essay originally appeared on the UK Polar Network (UKPN) Social Sciences blog: http://socialsciences.polarnetwork.org/blog/coming-in-from-the-cold-nineteenth-century-exploration-and-science-in-the-canadian-arctic

British discoveries in the “Arctic Regions,” 1818-1826. From John Franklin’s Narrative of a Second Expedition to the Shores of the Polar Sea, in the Years 1825, 1826 and 1827 (London, 1828).

With the threat of climate change looming, the Polar Regions have never seemed so pertinent to our everyday lives. Yet historians have long considered such environments influential beyond their borders in a myriad of ways. For instance, nineteenth-century Arctic exploration and scientific work relate to broader themes of state power and expertise. For those of us in the humanities and social sciences, examining the formation of imagined landscapes and scientific knowledge is revelatory of both past and present human self-conception.

By the early nineteenth century, the appointment of a naturalist to collect and catalogue specimens had become routine in British exploration – a trend characterised by historians as part of an imperialist drive to classify, quantify and comprehend the universe. The expedition acted as a simultaneous harbinger of empire and research tool (Sörlin, 2000, p. 51; MacLeod, 2009, p. 45). Understanding a region’s fauna and flora can be seen as a form of resource assessment. Browne (1996, pp. 313-314) considered the collection of natural history specimens and their return to British soil representative of “the whole culture of imperial enterprise.”

The hostile environment of the Canadian Arctic was of great interest to Britain’s government and scientific institutions. When John Franklin’s (1786-1847) first expedition began preparations for its journey in 1818, with the ostensible aim of surveying the coastline east of the Coppermine River, a naturalist was practically a prerequisite. This role was fulfilled by John Richardson (1787-1865), a Scottish surgeon. Richardson was commanded by the British Admiralty to collect specimens of plants, minerals and birds. Naval surgeons of the period often received their training at Edinburgh University, home to renowned natural history facilities (Browne, 1996, p. 307).

Yet in an era before the word “scientist” had even been coined, “professional” came with unwanted connotations. A professional was someone who investigated the natural world without a suitable aristocratic background or financial base (Allen, 2009, pp. 15-16). Yet imperial ambitions require expertise. Sending naval personnel to far-flung corners of the globe was one means of acquiring informed experts, without associating with those who found professional employment in scientific work. As one historian (Allen, 2009, p. 17) described the situation:

The nearest thing to a paper qualification for a post in the life sciences was a medical degree and the nearest thing to postgraduate training was a journey to little-known parts of the world as the naturalist attached to a voyage or expedition, perhaps as a surgeon on a naval vessel.

Naval surgeons collected specimens which became Crown property, or published field observations with the aid of Admiralty funding (Browne, 1996, p. 310). Richardson’s zoological specimens from Franklin’s first expedition were deposited in the Edinburgh university museum and the British museum (1). Upon his return to England in 1822, Richardson found himself courted by the Linnean Society and private clubs (2). Fame and entry into the scientific establishment came in spite of repeated failings during the expedition, which faced starvation on numerous occasions. Hardship imposed by the Arctic environment warped the scientific goals imposed by the Admiralty, as Richardson was forced to abandon the specimens he had collected during the summer months (Levere, 1993, p. 108). Meanwhile Franklin manipulated Richardson’s natural-historical remit for non-scientific purposes. Upon his party experiencing a shortage of grog, Franklin wrote to the one of his officers, George Back:

Some of the mighty strong [liquor] would not only be equally acceptable to the Canadians and Indians but is necessary for preserving any specimens which the Doctor [Richardson] may have which require Such means of preservation. Ours is not sufficiently strong for that purpose, and if you have not already got a Supply, I must request you to demand two galleons from each house at Great Slave Lake, and if they demur, a statement of the reason for this demand [specimen preservation] will procure their compliance (3).

In fact Richardson only carried a few jars for preserving specimens. A tax on glass meant that British naturalists did not favour preservation in alcohol until 1845 (Larsen, 1996, p. 360). Despite harsh conditions, Richardson attempted to continue his natural history work. In lean times and during a heavy gale, he ventured down to the coast off Cape Barrow in an attempt to identify fragments of seaweed. Collection practices were shaped by external factors, including the Arctic environment itself.

Cultural and scientific beliefs were also imposed upon the Arctic by British expeditions. Exploring the geology of the Barren Lands, Richardson framed his findings in Wernerian terms, supporting existing theories of a dynamic earth (Zeller, 2000, p. 88). In other areas of knowledge, naturalists were not so forthcoming, gripped by a fear of generalising systems and theorisation (Barber, 1980, pp. 64-65). In his later career, Richardson adapted biogeographical models to represent Arctic flora, based upon the reports of other travellers, particularly fur traders (Zeller, 2000, p. 89).

From the biography of a single nineteenth-century naturalist, a plethora of historical attitudes towards the Arctic are exposed. The Canadian Arctic may have been geographically “peripheral” to centres of European power, but engaged states, science and society. In the case of natural history, the Arctic was an untapped resource, place of training for future experts and testing ground for scientific theories. Two centuries on, these same values are still attached to the Polar Regions.


1. GELL MS, LETTER #8, Franklin, “Letter to John Richardson, 24 July 1823.”

2. GELL MS, LETTER # 4, Franklin, “Letter to Richardson, 24 October 1822.”

3. SPRI MS 395/70/4, Franklin, “Letter to George Back, 31 January 1821.”


Allen, David E., “Amateurs and Professionals,” in Peter J. Bowler and John V. Pickstone (eds.), The Cambridge History of Science: The Modern Biological and Earth Sciences, Vol. 6. (Cambridge, 2009), pp. 15-33.

Barber, Lynn, The Heyday of Natural History 1820-1870 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1980).

Brown, Janet, “Biogeography and empire,” in Nicholas Jardine, James A. Secord and Emma C. Spary (eds.), Cultures of Natural History (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 305-321.

Larsen, Anne, “Equipment for the Field,” in Nicholas Jardine, James A. Secord and Emma C. Spary (eds.), Cultures of Natural History (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 358-377.

Levere, Trevor H., Science and the Canadian Arctic: A Century of Exploration 1818-1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

MacLeod, Roy, “Discovery and Exploration,” in Peter J. Bowler and John V. Pickstone (eds.), The Cambridge History of Science: The Modern Biological and Earth Sciences, Vol. 6. (Cambridge, 2009), pp. 34-59.

Sörlin, Sverker, “Ordering the World for Europe: Science as Intelligence and Information as Seen from the Northern Periphery,” Osiris 2nd Series 15 (2000), pp. 51-69.

Zeller, Suzanne, “The Colonial World as Geological Metaphor: Strata(gems) of Empire in Victorian Canada,” Osiris 2nd Series 15 (2000), pp. 85-107.

Understanding & Altering the Climate: Historical Perspectives

Tuesday evening gave me the chance to alter my geographical position on the University of Leeds campus, temporarily abandoning the Centre for the History and Philosophy of Science to visit the School of English. Here, the Environmental Humanities reading group had gathered for a discussion of the most pertinent of topics – climate history:

LOCHER, F. and FRESSOZ, J.B., 2012 Modernity’s Frail Climate: A Climate History of Environmental Reflexivity. Critical Inquiry 38(3): 579-598.  

A diagram on the distribution of vegetation on the Peak of Teneriffe in the Canary Islands, by naturalist Alexandre von Humboldt. Humboldt’s biogeography was harnessed by French thinkers to create historical vegetation data, aimed at reconstructing the climate of the past two thousand years. http://www.mappingthenation.com/blog/alexander-von-humboldt-master-of-infographics/

Some hold the assumption that our relationship with the environment has completed transformed over the course of two generations, resulting in what has been termed the “Environmental Age” or “Second Copernican revolution.” Part of our new environmental awareness is a fear of climate change – the realisation that humankind is capable of altering the makeup of our planet’s atmosphere.

Is an awareness that we can change the climate new?

According to Locher and Fressoz, no. Ptolomy (AD 90 – c. 168) conceived of climate as fixed according to latitudinal position on the globe. By the seventeenth century, perspectives of climate  had radically altered. It was now dynamic and even pliable. The Comte de Buffon declared that centuries of human habitation in Europe had produced a milder climate than that encountered in North America. Following the French Revolution of 1789, the destruction of aristocratic forests by the peasantry were blamed for unfavourable meteorological conditions, including drought.

Locher and Fressoz also link historic attempts to alter climatic conditions to existing ideas of health and degeneracy. Marshy conditions and associated diseases around the Nile were blamed upon the mismanagement of Islamic civilization. In 1826 professor of hygiene Jean-Baptiste Bérard declared that the decline of Egypt was due to its subjection to “the ignorance and barbarism of Islam… Through Turkish negligence, the Nile became a source of plague that infects or threatens the rest of the world.” In Algeria, a French colony during the 1860s, thousands of eucalyptus trees were planted to deflect harmful miasmas from marshes.

An early photograph of the Nile c. 1900. Diseases associated with the river were described by French hygienists as partly the result of poor climate – in turn the result of environmental mismanagement. http://kiva.lib.utk.edu/egypt/items/show/800

This grand “climate theory” collapsed in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. Pasteur’s germ theory, new ideas of heredity and trends in the social sciences and economics undermined the link between climate, human actions and health. Climatic determinism also emerged from the findings of earth scientists from the second half of the nineteenth century, who promoted glaciation theory and speculated upon the existence of ice ages.

Why does understanding historical thought on climate change matter?

Humanity has recently found itself beset by environmental problems, including chemical pollution, depletion of the ozone layer and global warming. How we respond to these new challenges may not be as original as we would like to think. Instead, our attitudes and approaches towards environmental problems may stem from centuries of European thought. An awareness of this ancestry could potentially alert us to pitfalls and blind-spots in our twenty-first century ways of thinking.

Yet Locher and Fressoz note that modern environmental destruction has not occurred in a world where nature is considered valueless. Instead, devastation has happened despite longstanding climatic theories, which have always cited environmental objects as the very things that produce humankind. Quite correctly, the authors label this a “strange and disturbing fact.”


Enlightenment Ghosts and Ecological Utopianism in the Scottish Highlands

Here at the Centre for the History and Philosophy of Science at Leeds, our eighteenth-century reading group has spent the last few weeks looking at Fredrik Albritton Jonsson’s Enlightenment’s Frontier: The Scottish Highlands and the Origins of Environmentalism (2013). During the eighteenth century, Enlightenment figures looked to the Scottish Highlands as an untapped source of natural wealth. Agriculture, mines, fisheries and townships emerged from the imaginations of natural historians, surveyors and agricultural improvers. Colonisation and prospecting in the Highlands occurred in conjunction with a flurry of Enlightenment ideas and values. Belief in a divinely-ordered nature led Scottish naturalist John Walker to survey the wilderness for minerals, while agricultural improver John Sinclair mapped acres of untamed land for future cultivation.


Herman Moll, “The north part of Great Britain called Scotland,” 1732. The National Library of Scotland: http://maps.nls.uk/view/74417584

By the early decades of the nineteenth century, the Enlightenment drive for Highland prosperity narrated by Jonsson had come to a close. Hopes of unlimited growth and prosperity had run into real-world obstacles. It had been thought that agriculture and land management would alter the harsh climate of the Highlands and that fixed townships would be established. In reality, the end of the Napoleonic Wars proved the bane of many Enlightenment schemes. The market for Scottish kelp and wood collapsed alongside the profitability of projects such as the Caledonian Canal. As failure followed failure, pessimism crept into natural history circles. Surveyor John Williams warned of limits to the Scottish coal supply, while Malthus’s essay on population, which cited disease, war and famine as natural checks on population circulated.


Sir Frank Fraser Darling (right), at the BBC Reith Lecture, 1969: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-13647943

Enlightenment’s Frontier closes with musing on modern population and environmental fears, from the Club of Rome’s 1972 The Limits to Growth to anthropogenic climate change. Yet an alternative vision of the Highlands was established some years before by ecologist Frank Fraser Darling in his West Highland Survey (1955). Darling claimed that excessive exploitation of the Highlands had inflicted severe ecological damage. Eighteenth-century iron smelters and nineteenth-century sheep pastures had caused unprecedented forest loss in the region. The loss of the traditional clan system and annexation of the Highlands in 1745 had, Darling suggested, upset an environmental equilibrium that Gaelic culture had achieved over centuries. His solution to the Highland “problem” of poverty and depopulation was conservation and ecological study, based upon Gaelic society and culture.

In many ways, Darling’s vision was as flawed as that of Jonsson’s actors. On the island of Tanera Mòr, where Darling was based during the 1940s, he had correlated the ecological value of woodland with long-term economic success, without actually working out the finances involved. For eighteenth-century improvers, the harsh and unyielding conditions of the Highlands doomed many of their Enlightenment-themed projects. For Darling, it was these very attempts at “improvement” which had devastated the Highlands.

From Jefferson to Genomics: The Quest for Ancient Environments

Over the past few weeks I have had the pleasure of reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s most recent book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014). At an early stage, Kolbert brings in French naturalist Georges Cuvier, who recognised the possibility of extinction on a significant scale. Even as the revelation of extinction was comprehended from the early-nineteenth century, species such as the passenger pigeon and thylacine, (Tasmanian tiger) were nonetheless driven into oblivion. Humankind has been directly responsible for the extermination of a significant chunk of global biodiversity. With this recognition has come the desire of atonement, albeit gradually, in the form of conservation programmes. When this intervention has come too late, extracting and sequencing genomes of extinct species through preserved specimens has opened up exciting possibilities in the field of “de-extinction.”

Mastodons in the New World

Mastodon specimen from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History: http://paleobiology.si.edu/history/_imgHistory/mastodon.jpg

During the eighteenth century, mysterious bones and teeth uncovered from the Ohio River Valley puzzled European intellectuals. English anatomist and physician William Hunter (who we encountered in collaboration with his brother John Hunter in a previous post) identified the remains as those of a new animal, unknown to science. William’s insight did have its limits. To him, the pointed teeth of what we now know to be mastodons suggested that the unknown creature was an enormous carnivore. Another figure who weighed in on the mastodon debate was Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and future US president. For Jefferson, the notion that an extinct species had been discovered in the Americas was unthinkable. As his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) stated:

“The bones of the mammoth [the identification of mastodons as a separate species had not yet occurred], which have been found in America, are as large as those found in the old world. It may be asked, why I insert the mammoth, as if it still existed? I ask in return, why should I omit it, as if it did not exist? Such is the economy of Nature, that no instance can be produced of her having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct; of her having formed any link in her great work so weak as to be broken.”

Cuvier eventually incorporated mastodons into his pantheon of extinct beasts, but Jefferson was not convinced. In 1804, when Lewis and Clark embarked upon their expedition across a continent that remained a great unknown for colonists (if not the native American inhabitants), it was hoped that living mastodons would be found. Sadly, Lewis and Clark did not encounter prehistoric beasts on their trip. A similar disappointment faced British naturalists later in the century, when searching for surviving populations of the great auk, the last of which had been killed some years before.


Lewis and Clark’s expedition route: http://www.economist.com/node/2669268

Resurrecting Ancient Ecosystems

Jefferson presumed that seemingly extirpated species were simply waiting in a undiscovered corner of the world, awaiting discovery, a scenario later imagined by Arthur Conan Doyle in The Lost World (1912). This illusion may have been banished by exploration – at least to an extent, as “living fossils” such as the coelacanths do crop up from time to time – but modern quests to resurrect extinct species display a similar unwillingness to accept extinction. Applying modern techniques in the extraction and sequencing of genetic information from extinct species apparently offers new hope. A raft of info for the interested reader is available of the possible resurrection of “flagship” species. Some good online resources include:


Yet of even greater interest (and sustainability) is the possibility of recreating ancient ecosystems. Steps have already been taken in this direction via restoration ecology, or “rewilding” programmes. The latter developed from conservation biology in North America, being taught as a formal theory during the 1990s. Rewilding held that the best way to conserve biodiversity was through the conservation of species near, or at the top of the food chain. Reintroducing top predators as a means of reversing environmental degradation is therefore portrayed as restoring natural processes. In reality, this method is often hampered by mammalian carnivores being culturally and socially loaded by a sense of “otherness,” as human populations have learned to live without them.


A gecko (Sphaerodactylus) and a tuft of rodent hair (possibly an ancient Hutia, genus Plagiodontia) in amber. Image 161 and 164 from the Poinar’s The Amber Forest (1999).

Even more dramatically, the desire to restore ancient environments can be combined with genetics to recreate prehistoric landscapes. Specimens preserved in amber may one day suit this purpose. In the Dominican Republic, an impressive array of animals and plants, some millions of years old, have been entombed in amber thanks to the copious resin produced by the Algarrobo tree. While extracting genetic information from amber specimens is not without (great) difficulties, the array of life present in amber from Hispaniola has already led to the “paleo-reconstruction” of an ancient forest, encompassing species history, climate and interactions between long-extinct organisms.

The restoration of past environments can (and have) occurred through multiple methods, from rediscovery to rewilding. In the near future, de-extinction, or at least the preservation of species’ genetic codes offers an alternative possibility. But before we get too excited, it is worth remembering that an age-old hunt to prove extinction-mongers wrong has always taken place against an ongoing erosion of biodiversity by humanity. Last week, one of few remaining northern white rhino, named Angalifu, passed away at San Diego Zoo. Thanks to the actions of poachers, the subspecies is now extinct in the wild. Effective conservation has proven as elusive as Jefferson’s live mastodons.

Further Reading

Jefferson, Thomas, Notes on the State of Virginia (1785).

Kolbert, Elizabeth, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014).

Lambert, Robert A., “Strangers in a Familiar Land: The Return of the Native ‘Aliens’ and the (Re)Wilding of Britain’s Skies, 1850-2010,” in Ian D. Rotherham & Robert A. Lambert (eds.), Invasive and Introduced Plants and Animals (2011).

Poinar Jr., George & Roberta Poinar, The Amber Forest: A Reconstruction of a Vanished World (1999).