Intellectual histories of the natural sciences?
July 12, 2009 12:18 PM   Subscribe

Any recommendations for books giving a general history of any of the natural sciences, with a particular attention to how the great biologists, botanists, and zoologists, etc. approached problems of classification and conceptualization of their phenomena (e.g. like how Linnaeus came up with his taxonomy)? Not looking for great technical detail so much as how these scientists thought and responded to each others' thoughts.
posted by shivohum to Science & Nature (17 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
"Your Inner Fish" Neil Shubin
"The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" Thomas Kuhn
"Issac Newton: The Last Scorcerer" Michael White
posted by effluvia at 12:28 PM on July 12, 2009

Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything has lots of fascinating tidbits about a lot of natural historians. This is not an in-depth look at any one person or topic, but an over-all pretty neat look at how a great many subject fit together.
posted by thebrokedown at 12:42 PM on July 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, I guess Foucault's The Order of Things is the go-to text for the theory of classification in the Linnaean period. But that's quite technical.
posted by nasreddin at 12:56 PM on July 12, 2009

This excerpt/adaptation of the book The Biblical Flood may fit the bill. It details the science of geology from about 1700-present day, specifically in the context of Noah's flood.
posted by Orange Pamplemousse at 1:25 PM on July 12, 2009

Right here: The Discoverers. Amazing book.
posted by vito90 at 1:35 PM on July 12, 2009

Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads, by Stephen Asma, is more about natural history museums, but it has a lot about the history of biological classification. It is also an entertaining, non-technical read.
posted by Dilemma at 1:36 PM on July 12, 2009

Citing Borges is always fun, and in his "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins" there's a famous classification of animals that'll inject a little humility into any taxonomic project. It was definitely inspirational for Foucault.
posted by drdanger at 2:07 PM on July 12, 2009

- The Monk in the Garden is sort of a short pop history explainins about Mendel and his pea experiments.
- Savage: The Life and Times of Jemmy Button is a book about some Tierra del Fuegans who were taken from their native land and shown off and displayed in England in the 1830s. Not so much a naturalist's tale but Button was returned on the HMS Beagle so there is a lot of contemporary Darwin information there.
- Amazing Rare Things by David Attenborough has some very interesting chapters on the evolution and exploration of natural history illustration and some specific illustrators, plus it's incredibly beautiful.
posted by jessamyn at 2:55 PM on July 12, 2009

At The Waters Edge is about evolution and of necessity it deals quite a bit with classification from morphological based methods (Linneaus) up to modern gene based research. It's also a very engaging read.
posted by fshgrl at 3:34 PM on July 12, 2009

Oops, hit post too soon. Couple more books I have read and can recommend:

Embryos and Ancestors is kind of a classic of the field, although I'm not sure it's what you're looking for. There is an new updated 2008 version that I haven't read.
Ontogeny and Phylogeny is a more recent and Stephen Jay Gould-ish (ie pop science) approach to the same topic.
Taking Wing deals mostly with Archaeopteryx but it has a lot of general background on classification and fossil hunting and the personalities and politics involved. It's also very well written, very engaging book.
Beak of the Finch is limited in scope but very interesting and contains a fair bit of background on Darwin as you can imagine.
The Story of the Dodo is about island biogeography but contains an enormous amount of information on natural historians too. It is a drier read than the others but covers a lot of the major voyages of the Victorian era collector-style biology.
posted by fshgrl at 3:54 PM on July 12, 2009

The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession is an entertaining and approachable history of the English garden, highlighting the roles of John Bartram, Peter Collinson, and Carl Linnaeus.

[Check out the NPR interview with author Andrea Wulf for a good overview of the book.]
posted by skenfrith at 5:29 PM on July 12, 2009

Nature's Economy is a history of the science of ecology, tracing it from the earliest considerations of organisms' relationships with each other, including Linneaus, and their environment, through Darwin, through Haeckel actually coining the term 'ecology, through the developments of the distinct branches of population, community, and ecosystem ecology, and through the modern era as ecology has been transformed along with the world it seeks to study. I had to read it for my doctoral prelims, but I actually really found it fascinating.

A History of the Ecosystem Concept in Ecology is a much shorter book with just that narrow focus, which is an intriguing concept, and very well written.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:55 PM on July 12, 2009

Seconding The Discoverers--absolutely fascinating from beginning to end.

Also Bryson's Short History, which very readable and enjoyable. Be warned that the book was not meticulously fact-checked and occasionally errors creep in. I used to give the chapter on atoms to my Chem 101 students as a supplement to the less-enjoyably-written chapters in their text. However, Bryson makes an assumption/error that is very common among newcomers to chemistry and I had to lean extra-hard on the issue to make sure that the mistake didn't get entrenched. (Sorry, Bill, the type of atom is determined by the number of protons, not electrons, which really is not the same thing.)

Also very enjoyably readable is The Microbe Hunters by Paul DeKruif. Who knew the history of microbiology could be so gripping? The book was written in the ?1940s? or so and does have some rather offensive racial characterizations, which is a real shame, but it does trace the development of the field and how scientists' work influenced others in the field, as the OQ asks.
posted by Sublimity at 7:56 PM on July 12, 2009

If you're into Earth Sciences and not just flora and fauna, I suggest "the map that changed the world" by Simon Winchester. It's about William Smith, a British dude that is known as the father of modern geology. It's pretty interesting.
posted by bellbellbell at 8:16 PM on July 12, 2009

Dry Storeroom No. 1 - The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum by Richard Fortey has a few chapters about the taxonomic process.
posted by Rora at 8:41 PM on July 12, 2009

nthing The Discoverers, sounds like just what you are looking for, and by far the best of the three Boorstin books.
posted by OHenryPacey at 8:42 PM on July 12, 2009

Response by poster: Wonderful answers. Thanks everyone!
posted by shivohum at 8:01 PM on July 13, 2009

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