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Gilbert White, pioneer of ecology

July 1, 1993

During the recent Kiwanis pancake breakfast and book sale at Rock Valley College, I stumbled onto a real gem among the great number of used books offered for sale. As my eyes swept over the multitude of titles, they suddenly zeroed in on a copy of The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White. Though I have had a copy of this world classic in my personal library for years, I eagerly tucked this annotated edition under my arm to be re-read or given to some deserving individual.

The book was first published in 1789, and Oxford University Press last reprinted it in 1951. This masterpiece of literature records the observations of a country parson, Gilbert White (1720-1793), on his daily walks around his parish.

The format of the book is in the form of letters to the reverend’s two friends, Thomas Pennant and Daines Barrington. In each of the missives the curate records some aspect of the environment, either as an answer to a question previously posed or as an original observation.

The Natural History of Selborne may be downloaded from the Internet via the Project Guttenberg link.

The importance of Gilbert White in the history of biological science is as a pioneer of that kind of natural history that today we call ecology. As White stated, his primary purpose in writing the book was “…to observe and record the life and conversations of animals, their actions, and economy, which are the soul of natural history.”

Partially because he spent his entire life in the small village of Selborne in the County of Southampton in the south of England, White developed an intimate knowledge of the fauna and flora of that region. He had a keen insight into the interrelationships between these major groups of living things.

As a kindly and devoted parson, White was naturally interested in individuals—details of their births, marriages, death—and his concern for people was easily transferable to the animals and plants he encountered about the countryside.

He tells his correspondent in one of his letters: “On hot summer days the cattle stand for hours in the ponds of the forest, and insects are nurtured from the dung that is dropped into the pond; these afford welcome food for the fishes, for the water is hungry, and the bottoms are of sand. Thus, nature, who is a great economist, converts the recreation of one animal to the support of another.”

Whether White knew it or not, he was describing what present-day biologists term an ecological community.

Among his many contributions to biological science are included the first definitive observations on the use of protective coloration by animals, the beneficial effects of earthworms in manufacturing and improving the soil, the details of the life cycles of many birds, insects, and reptiles, and the evolutionary relationships of several groups of organisms.

His perception of the origin of species was remarkably similar to that of Charles Darwin, who followed him by several decades. The vicar wrote: “The methods of Providence are not subject to any stated mode or rule, but astonish us in new lights and in various changeable appearances.”

It is not known if The Natural History of Selborne had any influence on Darwin’s thinking. As a young man, however, Darwin did definitive research on earthworms in regard to their numbers, distribution, and importance in the building and improving of soil. Darwin and White were also similar in that both had degrees in theology, but Darwin never had a parish and never preached a sermon.

White’s book did not, of course, attain the notoriety of Darwin’s, but it was well received when published and, to a limited extent, retains its popularity today. It is highly recommended to anyone who has a love of and an interest in the natural world.

I think it is highly doubtful that, after more than 200 years, someone will find one of my books at a pancake breakfast and decide to buy and read it.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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