Natural history societies in Victorian Scotland : towards a historical geography of civic science
Finnegan, Diarmid Alexander
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This thesis examines the historical geography of Scottish natural history societies active during the period 1831-1900. It argues that the work of the societies described and constituted an important set of relations between science and Scottish civil society that has not been investigated hitherto. The institutional practices of natural history, including fieldwork and display, involved encounters between scientific and cultural expectations which were played out in relation to different audiences and in a variety of sites and spaces. A central concern of Scottish associational naturalists was to transpose science into the language of civic pride and progress. At the same time, members of these societies were anxious to maintain epistemic credibility in relation to a scientific culture itself in flux. The task of appealing both to a local public and to a scientific constituency took different forms in different civic and scientific contexts. The thesis attempts to detail this historical geography with reference to the societies' activities of display, fieldwork, publishing and collective scientific endeavour. The work is based on assessment of primary sources, published and unpublished, and a variety of secondary material. The thesis is organised to reflect the features central to the past geographies of Scottish natural history as associational civic science. The first substantive section (Section II, Chapters 2-5) analyses the efforts of society members to persuade local publics of the relevance and the benefits of associational natural history. Fieldwork involved a series of situated negotiations and affiliations between the language and practices of leisure, aesthetic taste, moral improvement and science. Through public events and built spaces natural history was promoted as an expression of civic culture and as a set of practices capable of transforming urban society. At an individual level, supporters of civic science championed an image of the naturalist as public servant and votary of nature, an image that linked scientific conduct to civic identity. The second substantive section (Section III, Chapters 6-7) examines the influence of the meaning and methods of later-nineteenth-century science on the organisation and activities of Scottish natural history societies. Initiatives to standardise the work of local scientific societies are considered alongside the efforts of individual members to secure a scientific reputation. In addition, the changing relations between the research activities of the societies and the emergence and consolidation of scientific disciplines are investigated alongside the maintenance of an inter-disciplinary ethos. In Chapter 7, engagement with evolutionary ideas is examined, uncovering the ways in which Darwinism was deployed to reinforce, and also to modify, an inductivist view of science and to argue for the continuing relevance of associational natural history to local civil society. In conclusion, the thesis reveals the historical geography of nineteenth-century Scottish natural history to be a dynamic narrative of intellectual and institutional activity conducted in different social and scientific spaces, and it suggests that these practices of local science were an important constituent of civic society and, in part, of national natural knowledge in nineteenth-century Scotland.