Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? How Eighteenth-Century Science Disrupted the Natural Order

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? How Eighteenth-Century Science Disrupted the Natural Order

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? How Eighteenth-Century Science Disrupted the Natural Order

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? How Eighteenth-Century Science Disrupted the Natural Order

Synopsis

Since the time of Aristotle, there had been a clear divide between the three kingdoms of animal, vegetable, and mineral. But by the eighteenth century, biological experiments, and the wide range of new creatures coming to Europe from across the world, challenged these neat divisions. Abraham Trembley found that freshwater polyps grew into complete individuals when cut. This shocking discovery raised deep questions: was it a plant or an animal? And this was not the only conundrum. What of coral? Was it a rock or a living form? Did plants have sexes, like animals? The boundaries appeared to blur. And what did all this say about the nature of life itself? Were animals and plants soul-less, mechanical forms, as Descartes suggested? The debates raging across science played into some of the biggest and most controversial issues of Enlightenment Europe. In this book, Susannah Gibson explains how a study of pond slime could cause people to question the existence of the soul; observation of eggs could make a man doubt that God had created the world; how the discovery of the Venus fly-trap was linked to the French Revolution; and how interpretations of fossils could change our understanding of the Earth's history. Using rigorous historical research, and a lively and readable style, this book vividly captures the big concerns of eighteenth-century science. And the debates concerning the divisions of life did not end there; they continue to have resonances in modern biology.

Excerpt

Animal, vegetable, or mineral: today, this is a simple parlour game for children but in the eighteenth century it was a problem that exercised some of the finest minds of Europe. The question of distinguishing animal from plant from mineral may seem like a straightforward one but in fact it can very quickly lead to incredibly complex problems: how do we differentiate the kingdoms? are there different kinds of life? how does generation of life occur? What is life? It may be an easy task to say that an elephant is an animal while an oak tree is a plant, but what is a sponge, a coral, a Venus fly-trap, a fossil? These curious objects seem to combine properties from across the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms and blur the lines between them. Today, we have developed an agreed set of rules for establishing an object’s kingdom, but it wasn’t always so. The problem really came to a head in the eighteenth century: this was a time when some very strange creatures became known to naturalists; when better tools like microscopes enabled naturalists to make more minute examinations of natural objects; when a classification craze was sweeping across Europe; and when Enlightenment culture was encouraging people to rethink old ideas. This combination of . . .

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