By Anne Secord
Are you bored yet?
Blogging has, for its detractors, almost come to represent a communal attention deficit disorder. Those who regard blogs as both the cause and consequence of an inability to concentrate for sustained periods of time equate them with quick fixes of entertainment rather than a way of fostering dialogue. Yet, as Gilbert White‘s famous Natural History of Selborne shows, bite-sized pieces of information built up over time and designed to grab the attention are nothing new. Published almost exactly two and a quarter centuries ago, on 1st November 1788, his observations of animals and plants, given in two chronological series of short letters written over a twenty-year period, present a randomly organised view of nature and rapid changes of subject. Instead of fearing that darting from topic to topic might shatter a reader’s power of concentration, White’s contemporaries, following Joseph Addison’s musings on the pleasures of the imagination, regarded it as a device to enhance attention and produce an active response.
White’s classic text can be read as a shrewd exercise to encourage readers to follow a startlingly novel approach to studying the natural world. Most naturalists at that time based their natural systems and classifications of all living beings on the study of dead specimens in collections. In contrast, White advocated “out-door” observation of the behaviour and habitats of animals in order to present nature as a process-oriented system, albeit within a providential framework and acceptance of the notion of a great chain of being. The astonishing abundance of what is seen outdoors, and the difficulty of detecting processes amongst this activity, led White to confine his natural history to the small Hampshire village of Selborne. This area reflected the limit of what he could observe in depth, not his lack of ambition. His book modestly proclaimed his much grander aim: to contribute to nothing less than a “universal correct natural history” that might be built up from many studies of small areas for which his work provided a model. “Men that undertake only one district”, he pointed out, “are much more likely to advance natural knowledge than those that grasp at more than they can possibly be acquainted with: every kingdom, every province, should have its own monographer.”White’s task was to convey how best to study nature in this new fashion so as to stimulate his readers to investigate the natural history of their own localities. Describing his observations in short letters to two different correspondents allowed him to jump from topic to topic, echoing the way an outdoor naturalist encounters natural events. Far from sapping attention, the method of using small chunks of information to convey both content and practice of natural history was seen by White as a way to develop a more concentrated focus on the natural world. His use of correspondence not only underlined the different modes of observation required by different phenomena but also emphasised the importance of exchanging information with other naturalists, presenting differences of opinion so as to encourage his readers to weigh up the available evidence, developing methods for judging between reason and superstition, recording observations over long periods of time, and recruiting observers in different parts of the country. White’s mode of fixing attention on how we observe nature in the field as well as what we observe, the methods by which we use observations to detect the processes of nature, and his emphasis on observation as a communal activity, are features essential to the success of citizen science in our own times.
The use of bite-sized pieces of information and opinion in White’s Natural History of Selborne reminds us that many of our prejudices concerning the development of mental habits derive from nineteenth-century views about individual endeavour and originality. But sustained solitary study and hard work were not valued as signs of good character until the Victorian period. In the eighteenth century, sociability was considered the most important attribute. Even though White had no neighbours who shared his natural history interests, his book is permeated with importance of sociability. Like bloggers today, White was well aware of the need to entertain through variety in order to sustain his readers’ attention for long enough to prompt them into action.
Anne Secord had edited a new edition of The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White. She is also an editor of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin and an affiliated research scholar in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. She has published on popular, particularly working-class, natural history in nineteenth-century Britain, and on horticulture and medicine in the eighteenth century.
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Image credit: Gilbert White’s house, back view, by Ludi Ling [CC-BY-SA-3.0]. Via Wikimedia Commons.