The Romance of Natural History

| By on Reading the Book of Nature

“The Gigantic Trilobite,” frontispiece from the first American edition of Robert Bakewell, An Introduction to Geology (1829). Trilobites have been known since at least the fourth century, though they did not get that name until the eighteenth century. At 7½ inches in length, this engraving was “drawn the natural Size from a specimen in the Authors Collection.” Beautiful, accurate reproductions of strange creatures from a bygone age can only have helped create interest in the new science of geology. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.

Two weeks ago, while I was on vacation (blessedly) without internet or cell service, we published Rick Kennedy’s fascinating interlude on the Salem witch trials. My series on the “Baconian” approach to reading the two divine “books” in Antebellum America resumes today, as we lift the front cover of an influential early geology textbook and share the excitement of its American readers with the Romantic vision of natural history it offered them. We usually associate Romanticism with artists, musicians, and writers from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, but some scientists of the same period also responded emotionally, aesthetically, and spiritually to nature, in ways that justify speaking of “Romanticism in science.” The English geologist of Robert Bakewell, whose work was very influential in America, falls into this category.

Mixed Reactions to Early Natural History

Natural history was all the rage in the early nineteenth century. As practitioners of the emerging science of geology dug up previously unknown creatures of enormous size, readers of their books and articles responded with a mix of fascination and anxiety. When confronted with the remains of so many extinct creatures entombed in the earth beneath us or inside the hills around us, some saw conflicts with the Bible, while others felt a sense of foreboding or even dread about the future of the human race itself. 

“Skeleton of the Young Mammoth in the Museum at Philadelphia,” from Édouard de Montulé, Voyage en Amérique, en Italie, en Sicile, et en Egypte (1821). Excavated from a farm in New York by the artist Charles Willson Peale, the skeleton was later identified as a mastodon, not a mammoth. Peale displayed the improperly assembled bones (the tusks should point up, not down) in his Philadelphia museum, where it came to be seen by Thomas Jefferson and others as evidence that America was in no way inferior to Europe.

A standard example of the mixed reaction is the famous poem, “In Memoriam,” by Tennyson. First, the author wonders why God allows individual animals to perish, while preserving species:  

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;

Then, he realizes his error, seeing that so many creatures have been lost to the mists of time:

‘So careful of the type?’ but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.’

Finally, he sees the implications for “man,” wondering whether we, too, shall someday pass from the scene:

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law—
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed—

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?

Robert Bakewell’s Romantic Picture of Natural History

A further response may actually have been more important over the long haul. No less than Goethe’s poetry or Beethoven’s symphonies, the bones of long-dead monsters can generate excitement and even sublimity. Surprisingly, a geology textbook by the English surveyor Robert Bakewell did precisely this. First published in 1813, it proved popular enough to warrant five London editions. The last three were reprinted in New Haven, Connecticut, becoming the standard text in the United States.

There was nothing exceptional about using an English text in American science classes. Before the Civil War, the United States was not a world leader in science—that would come later, after the adoption of the German idea of the research university, starting with Johns Hopkins in 1876. Prior to that time, many of the textbooks and most of the ideas they contained were imported from Europe.

The first (1829) and third (1839) American editions of Bakewell’s Introduction to Geology show changes both in book publishing and geological knowledge. The first edition (top), issued in half leather over marbled boards with gilt letters, was replaced by a cloth-covered version with six more chapters, including one devoted to “a general fact, which has hitherto almost escaped the attention of geologists,” namely, the dislocation of coal strata by faults. This was the book from which the first professional geologists in America learned the rudiments of their subject. Benjamin Silliman added a lengthy appendix based on his lectures at Yale to each American edition. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.

 Who could ask for a better import than this? Bakewell’s engaging, sometimes even Romantic, first-person narrative helped make natural history an exciting topic in antebellum America. Hang on to your hat, as you read the following passage:

Geology discovers to us proofs of the awful revolutions which have in former ages changed the surface of the globe, and overwhelmed its inhabitants; it reveals to us the forms of strange and unknown animals, and unfolds the might and skill of creative energy, displayed in the ancient world: indeed, there is no science which presents objects that so powerfully excite our admiration and astonishment.  We are led almost irresistibly to speculate on the past and future condition of our planet, and on man its present inhabitant. What various reflections crowd upon the mind, if we carry back our thoughts to the time when the surface of our globe was agitated by conflicting elements, or to the succeeding intervals of repose, when enormous crocodilian animals scoured the surface of the deep, or darted through the air for their prey; –or again, to the state of the ancient continents, when the deep silence of nature was broken by the bellowings of the mammoth and the mastodon, who stalked the lords of the former world, and perished in the last grand revolution, that preceded the creation of man. (An Introduction to Geology, 1839 American edition, pp. 436-7).

Science and the Bible: Concordism, Part 1

Duria Antiquior (1830), a watercolor by geologist Henry de la Beche depicting life in ancient Dorset, offers a glimpse of Bakewell’s “enormous crocodilian animals,” just as the bones in Peale’s museum suggest “when the deep silence of nature was broken by the bellowings of the mammoth and the mastodon.”

As his references to “the might and skill of creative energy” and “the creation of man” indicate, Bakewell believed that geology revealed the works of God. A Unitarian, he did not try to relate geology explicitly to the Bible, but he didn’t hesitate to speak reverently of “the first manifestations on our own planet, of creative power displayed in the animal and vegetable kingdoms,” of the “wise provision of the Author of nature,” or “the skill of the Creator” (pp. 111, 388 and 436). At the same time, he stressed the great antiquity of the Earth and the series of revolutions that culminated in the “creation of man.” This picture of Earth history, with sequential upheavals setting the stage for the arrival of humans, was in broad outline taken from George Cuvier, the greatest paleontologist of his age. Cuvier’s work was especially admired in England and New England, where it was seen as supporting a providential, even biblical, view of natural history.


“Birds-eye View of the Falls of Niagara & Adjacent Country. Colored Geologically,” frontispiece to Charles Lyell, Travels in North America; With Geological Observations on the United States, Canada, And Nova Scotia (1845). After the great English geologist Charles Lyell visited the United States in 1841, he wrote a two-volume reflection on his trip. A second visit in 1845 included a stopover in New Haven, where he and his wife spent one night at Benjamin Silliman’s home during the first week of December. Lyell had obviously seen at least one of the editions of Bakewell’s Geology that Silliman had edited for American students, with the image of Niagara Falls drawn by Bakewell’s son displayed prominently at the front of the book (see an earlier column for a reproduction), because Lyell then used this lovely hand-colored version at the front of his own book—a connection that has not hitherto been noticed, as far as I know. The younger Bakewell, who taught art at Yale, wrote three scientific articles about the Falls and made an oil painting of the view from the American side that now hangs in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.

Looking Ahead

Bakewell’s text suited perfectly the pious purposes of Benjamin Silliman, who had been teaching geology at Yale since the opening decade of the nineteenth century. Next time, we begin exploring Silliman’s approach to that hotly contested subject.




Davis, Ted. "The Romance of Natural History" N.p., 9 Jul. 2015. Web. 19 February 2019.


Davis, T. (2015, July 9). The Romance of Natural History
Retrieved February 19, 2019, from /blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/the-romance-of-natural-history

About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

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