American Elephants

Did You Know That Americans Invented Natural History? by The Elephant's Child

I have been spending a lot of time lately with Daniel J. Boorstin, especially in his book The Americans: the Colonial Experience. He points out that Americans invented natural history.

“In the old world, things were known and well established. In ancient populous England, nearly every new fact or experience was gained by effort, talent or courage. Not so in America, where novelty seemed to force itself on even the most indifferent and insensitive eye.”

The American came to believe that new knowledge came from just sharply looking at the world, and from acting in it. His contribution to knowledge was to be the recording of the scenes and experiences of daily life. This was natural history.

In England in the later 17th century, Robert Boyle, Sir Isaac Newton, and others in the flourishing Royal Society charted new laws of physics.But such additions to knowledge, far from being mere bits of information, were sophisticated generalizations. It was precisely in this realm that the stirring discoveries were made in England during the American Colonial period. The physical sciences were confirmed by experience and observation, but in their atmosphere, in their emphasis, even in their purpose they differed from natural history, which was the realm of the new world’s promise.

Wherever they cast their eyes, things were different. New birds, new fish, new plants, new fruits. The Columbian exchange had not yet taken place, or not in a manner that had changed the world. It was the beginning of natural history. And as Americans gradually expanded across the continent, it was always new and unknown and newly recorded. Eventually the explorers Lewis and Clark and all that followed. Truly a new world.

If you hike on over to the peak, and drop down the other side, that’s where I grew up!

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