The Study of Natural History

Charles Kingsley


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The Study of Natural History for Soldiers

A Lecture delivered to the Officers of the Royal Artillery, Woolwich, 1872.

Gentlemen: When I accepted the honour of lecturing here, I took for granted that so select an audience would expect from me not mere amusement, but somewhat of instruction; or, if that be too ambitious a word for me to use, at least some fresh hint — if I were able to give one — as to how they should fulfil the ideal of military men in such an age as this.

To touch on military matters, even had I been conversant with them, seemed to me an impertinence. I am bound to take for granted that every man knows his own business best; and I incline more and more to the opinion that military men should be left to work out the problems of their art for themselves, without the advice or criticism of civilians. But I hold — and I am sure that you will agree with me — that if the soldier is to be thus trusted by the nation, and left to himself to do his own work his own way, he must be educated in all practical matters as highly as the average of educated civilians. He must know all that they know, and his own art besides. Just as a clergyman, being a man plus a priest, is bound to be a man, and a good man; over and above his priesthood, so is the soldier bound to be a civilian, and a highly-educated civilian, plus his soldierly qualities and acquirements.

It seemed to me, therefore, that I might, without impertinence, ask you to consider a branch of knowledge which is becoming yearly more and more important in the eyes of well-educated civilians; of which, therefore, the soldier ought at least to know something, in order to put him on a par with the general intelligence of the nation. I do not say that he is to devote much time to it, or to follow it up into specialities: but that he ought to be well grounded in its principles and methods; that he ought to be aware of its importance and its usefulness; that so, if he comes into contact — as he will more and more — with scientific men, he may understand them, respect them, befriend them, and be befriended by them in turn; and how desirable this last result is, I shall tell you hereafter.

There are those, I doubt not, among my audience who do not need the advice which I shall presume to give to-night; who belong to that fast-increasing class among officers of whom I have often said — and I have found scientific men cordially agree with me — that they are the most modest and the most teachable of men. But even in their case there can be no harm in going over deliberately a question of such importance; in putting it, as it were, into shape; and insisting on arguments which may perhaps not have occurred to some of them.

Let me, in the first place, reassure those — if any such there be — who may suppose, from the title of my lecture, that I am only going to recommend them to collect weeds and butterflies, “rats and mice, and such small deer.” Far from it. The honourable title of Natural History has, and unwisely, been restricted too much of late years to the mere study of plants and animals. I desire to restore the words to their original and proper meaning — the History of Nature; that is, of all that is born, and grows in time; in short, of all natural objects.

If any one shall say — By that definition you make not only geology and chemistry branches of natural history, but meteorology and astronomy likewise — I cannot deny it. They deal each of them, with realms of Nature. Geology is, literally, the natural history of soils and lands; chemistry the natural history of compounds, organic and inorganic; meteorology the natural history of climates; astronomy the natural history of planetary and solar bodies. And more, you cannot now study deeply any branch of what is popularly called Natural History — that is, plants and animals — without finding it necessary to learn something, and more and more as you go deeper, of those very sciences. As the marvellous interdependence of all natural objects and forces unfolds itself more and more, so the once separate sciences, which treated of different classes of natural objects, are forced to interpenetrate, as it were; and to supplement themselves by knowledge borrowed from each other. Thus — to give a single instance — no man can now be a first-rate botanist unless he be also no mean meteorologist, no mean geologist, and — as Mr. Darwin has shown in his extraordinary discoveries about the fertilisation of plants by insects — no mean entomologist likewise.

It is difficult, therefore, and indeed somewhat unwise and unfair, to put any limit to the term Natural History, save that it shall deal only with nature and with matter; and shall not pretend — as some would have it to do just now — to go out of its own sphere to meddle with moral and spiritual matters. But, for practical purposes, we may define the natural history of the causes which have made it what it is, and filled it with the natural objects which it holds. And if any one would know how to study the natural history of any given spot as the history of the causes which have made it what it is, and filled it with the natural objects which it holds. And if any one would know how to study the natural history of a place, and how to write it, let him read — and if he has read its delightful pages in youth, read once again — that hitherto unrivalled little monograph, White’s “Natural History of Selborne;” and let him then try, by the light of improved science, to do for any district where he may be stationed, what White did for Selborne nearly one hundred years ago. Let him study its plants, its animals, its soils and rocks; and last, but not least, its scenery, as the total outcome of what the soils, and plants, and animals, have made it. I say, have made it. How far the nature of the soils, and the rocks will affect the scenery of a district may be well learnt from a very clever and interesting little book of Professor Geikie’s, on “The Scenery of Scotland as affected by its Geological Structure.” How far the plants, and trees affect not merely the general beauty, the richness or barrenness of a country, but also its very shape; the rate at which the hills are destroyed and washed into the lowland; the rate at which the seaboard is being removed by the action of waves — all these are branches of study which is becoming more and more important.

And even in the study of animals and their effects on the vegetation, questions of really deep interest will arise. You will find that certain plants and trees cannot thrive in a district, while others can, because the former are browsed down by cattle, or their seeds eaten by birds, and the latter are not; that certain seeds are carried in the coats of animals, or wafted abroad by winds — others are not; certain trees destroyed wholesale by insects, while others are not; that in a hundred ways the animal and vegetable life of a district act and react upon each other, and that the climate, the average temperature, the maximum and minimum temperatures, the rainfall, act on them, and in the case of the vegetation, are reacted on again by them. The diminution of rainfall by the destruction of forests, its increase by replanting them, and the effect of both on the healthiness or unhealthiness of a place — as in the case of the Mauritius, where a once healthy island has become pestilential, seemingly from the clearing away of the vegetation on the banks of streams — all this, though to study it deeply requires a fair knowledge of meteorology, and even of a science or two more, is surely well worth the attention of any educated man who is put in charge of the health and lives of human beings.

You will surely agree with me that the habit of mind required for such a study as this, is the very same as is required for successful military study. In fact, I should say that the same intellect which would develop into a great military man, would develop also into a great naturalist. I say, intellect. The military man would require — what the naturalist would not — over and above his intellect, a special force of will, in order to translate his theories into fact, and make his campaigns in the field and not merely on paper. But I am speaking only of the habit of mind required for study; of that inductive habit of mind which works, steadily and by rule, from the known to the unknown; that habit of mind of which it has been said: “The habit of seeing; the habit of knowing what we see; the habit of discerning differences and likenesses; the habit of classifying accordingly; the habit of searching for hypotheses which shall connect and explain those classified facts; the habit of verifying these hypotheses by applying them to fresh facts; the habit of throwing them away bravely if they will not fit; the habit of general patience, diligence, accuracy, reverence for facts for their own sake, and love of truth for its own sake; in one word, the habit of reverent and implicit obedience to the laws of Nature, whatever they may be — these are not merely intellectual, but also moral habits, which will stand men in practical good stead in every affair of life, and in every question, even the most awful, which may come before them as rational and social beings.” And specially valuable are they, surely, to the military man, the very essence of whose study, to be successful, lies first in continuous and accurate observation, and then in calm and judicious arrangement.

Therefore it is that I hold, and hold strongly, that the study of physical science, far from interfering with an officer’s studies, much less unfitting for them, must assist him in them, by keeping his mind always in the very attitude and the very temper which they require.

If any smile at this theory of mine, let them recollect one curious fact: that perhaps the greatest captain of the old world was trained by perhaps the greatest philosopher of the old world — the father of Natural History; that Aristotle was the tutor of Alexander of Macedon. I do not fancy, of course, that Aristotle taught Alexander any Natural History. But this we know, that he taught him to use those very faculties by which Aristotle became a natural historian, and many things besides; that he called out in his pupil somewhat of his own extraordinary powers of observation, extraordinary powers of arrangement. He helped to make him a great general: but he helped to make him more — a great politician, coloniser, discoverer. He instilled into him such a sense of the importance of Natural History, that Alexander helped him nobly in his researches; and, if Athenæus is to be believed, gave him eight hundred talents towards perfecting his history of animals. Surely it is not too much to say that this close friendship between the natural philosopher and the soldier has changed the whole course of civilisation to this very day. Do not consider me Utopian when I tell you, that I should like to see the study of physical science an integral part of the curriculum of every military school. I would train the mind of the lad who was to become hereafter an officer in the army — and in the navy likewise — by accustoming him to careful observation of, and sound thought about, the face of nature; of the commonest objects under his feet, just as much as the stars above his head; provided always that he learnt, not at second-hand from books, but where alone ho can really learn either war or nature — in the field; by actual observation, actual experiment. A laboratory for chemical experiment is a good thing, it is true, as far as it goes; but I should prefer to the laboratory a naturalists’ field-club, such as are prospering now at several of the best public schools, certain that the boys would get more of sound inductive habits of mind, as well as more health, manliness, and cheerfulness, amid scenes to remember which will be a joy for ever, than they ever can by bending over retorts and crucibles, amid smells even to remember which is a pain for ever.

But I would, whether a field-club existed or not, require of every young man entering the army or navy — indeed of every young man entering any liberal profession whatsoever — a fair knowledge, such as would enable him to pass an examination, in what the Germans call Erd-kunde— earth-lore — in that knowledge of the face of the earth and of its products, for which we English have as yet cared so little that we have actually no English name for it, save the clumsy and questionable one of physical geography; and, I am sorry to say, hardly any readable school books about it, save Keith Johnston’s “Physical Atlas”— an acquaintance with which last I should certainly require of young men.

It does seem most strange — or rather will seem most strange a hundred years hence — that we, the nation of colonists, the nation of sailors, the nation of foreign commerce, the nation of foreign military stations, the nation of travellers for travelling’s sake, the nation of which one man here and another there — as Schleiden sets forth in his book, “The Plant,” in a charming ideal conversation at the Travellers’ Club — has seen and enjoyed more of the wonders and beauties of this planet than the men of any nation, not even excepting the Germans — that this nation, I say, should as yet have done nothing, or all but nothing, to teach in her schools a knowledge of that planet, of which she needs to know more, and can if she will know more, than any other nation upon it.

As for the practical utility of such studies to a soldier, I only need, I trust, to hint at it to such an assembly as this. All must see of what advantage a rough knowledge of the botany of a district would be to an officer leading an exploring party, or engaged in bush warfare. To know what plants are poisonous; what plants, too, are eatable — and many more are eatable than is usually supposed; what plants yield oleaginous substances, whether for food or for other uses; what plants yield vegetable acids, as preventives of scurvy; what timbers are available for each of many different purposes; what will resist wet, salt-water, and the attacks of insects; what, again, can be used, at a pinch, for medicine or for styptics — and be sure, as a wise West Indian doctor once said to me, that there is more good medicine wild in the bush than there is in all the druggists’ shops — surely all this is a knowledge not beneath the notice of any enterprising officer, above all of an officer of engineers. I only ask any one who thinks that I may be in the right, to glance through the lists of useful vegetable products given in Lindley’s “Vegetable Kingdom”— a miracle of learning — and see the vast field open still to a thoughtful and observant man, even while on service; and not to forget that such knowledge, if he should hereafter leave the service and settle, as many do, in a distant land, may be a solid help to his future prosperity. So strongly do I feel on this matter, that I should like to see some knowledge at least of Dr. Oliver’s excellent little “First Book of Indian Botany” required of all officers going to our Indian Empire: but as that will not be, at least for many a year to come, I recommend any gentlemen going to India to get that book, and while away the hours of the outward voyage by acquiring knowledge which will be a continual source of interest, and it may be now and then of profit, to them during their stay abroad.

And for geology, again. As I do not expect you all, or perhaps any of you, to become such botanists as General Monro, whose recent “Monograph of the Bamboos” is an honour to British botanists, and a proof of the scientific power which is to be found here and there among British officers: so I do not expect you to become such geologists as Sir Roderick Murchison, or even to add such a grand chapter to the history of extinct animals as Major Cautley did by his discoveries in the Sewalik Hills. Nevertheless, you can learn — and I should earnestly advise you to learn — geology and mineralogy enough to be of great use to you in your profession, and of use, too, should you relinquish your profession hereafter. It must be profitable for any man, and specially for you, to know how and where to find good limestone, building stone, road metal; it must be good to be able to distinguish ores and mineral products; it must be good to know — as a geologist will usually know, even in a country which he sees for the first time — where water is likely to be found, and at what probable depth; it must be good to know whether the water is fit for drinking or not, whether it is unwholesome or merely muddy; it must be good to know what spots are likely to be healthy, and what unhealthy, for encamping. The two last questions depend, doubtless, on meteorological as well as geological accidents: but the answers to them will be most surely found out by the scientific man, because the facts connected with them are, like all other facts, determined by natural laws. After what one has heard, in past years, of barracks built in spots plainly pestilential; of soldiers encamped in ruined cities, reeking with the dirt and poison of centuries; of — but it is not my place to find fault; all I will say is, that the wise and humane officer, when once his eyes are opened to the practical value of physical science, will surely try to acquaint himself somewhat with those laws of drainage and of climate, geological, meteorological, chemical, which influence, often with terrible suddenness and fury, the health of whole armies. He will not find it beyond his province to ascertain the amount and period of rainfalls, the maxima of heat and of cold which his troops may have to endure, and many another point on which their health and efficiency — nay, their very life may depend, but which are now too exclusively delegated to the doctor, to whose province they do not really belong. For cure, I take the liberty of believing, is the duty of the medical officer; prevention, that of the military.

Thus much I can say just now — and there is much more to be said — on the practical uses of the study of Natural History. But let me remind you, on the other side, if Natural History will help you, you in return can help her; and would, I doubt not, help her and help scientific men at home, if once you looked fairly and steadily at the immense importance of Natural History — of the knowledge of the “face of the earth.” I believe that all will one day feel, more or less, that to know the earth on which we live, and the laws of it by which we live, is a sacred duty to ourselves, to our children after us, and to all whom we may have to command and to influence; ay, and a duty to God likewise. For is it not a duty of common reverence and faith towards Him, if He has put us into a beautiful and wonderful place, and given us faculties by which we can see, and enjoy, and use that place — is it not a duty of reverence and faith towards Him to use these faculties, and to learn the lessons which He has laid open for us? If you feel that, as I think you all will some day feel, then you will surely feel likewise that it will be a good deed — I do not say a necessary duty, but still a good deed and praiseworthy — to help physical science forward; and to add your contributions, however small, to our general knowledge of the earth. And how much may be done for science by British officers, especially on foreign stations, I need not point out. I know that much has been done, chivalrously and well, by officers; and that men of science owe them and give them hearty thanks for their labours. But I should like, I confess, to see more done still. I should like to see every foreign station what one or two highly-educated officers might easily make it, an advanced post of physical science, in regular communication with our scientific societies at home, sending to them accurate and methodic details of the natural history of each district — details ninety-nine hundredths of which might seem worthless in the eyes of the public, but which would all be precious in the eyes of scientific men, who know that no fact is really unimportant; and more, that while plodding patiently through seemingly unimportant facts, you may stumble on one of infinite importance, both scientific and practical. For the student of nature, gentlemen, if he will be but patient, diligent, methodical, is liable at any moment to the same good fortune as befell Saul of old, when he went out to seek his father’s asses, and found a kingdom.

There are those, lastly, who have neither time nor taste for the technicalities and nice distinctions of formal Natural History; who enjoy Nature, but as artists or as sportsmen, and not as men of science. Let them follow their bent freely: but let them not suppose that in following it they can do nothing towards enlarging our knowledge of Nature, especially when on foreign stations. So far from it, drawings ought always to be valuable, whether of plants, animals, or scenery, provided only they are accurate; and the more spirited and full of genius they are, the more accurate they are certain to be; for Nature being alive, a lifeless copy of her is necessarily an untrue copy. Most thankful to any officer for a mere sight of sketches will be the closest botanist, who, to his own sorrow, knows three-fourths of his plants only from dried specimens; or the closest zoologist, who knows his animals from skins and bones. And if any one answers — But I cannot draw. I rejoin. You can at least photograph. If a young officer, going out to foreign parts, and knowing nothing at all about physical science, did me the honour to ask me what he could do for science, I should tell him — Learn to photograph; take photographs of every strange bit of rock-formation which strikes your fancy, and of every widely-extended view which may give a notion of the general lie of the country. Append, if you can, a note or two, saying whether a plain is rich or barren; whether the rock is sandstone, limestone, granitic, metamorphic, or volcanic lava; and if there be more rocks than one, which of them lies on the other; and send them to be exhibited at a meeting of the Geological Society. I doubt not that the learned gentlemen there will find in your photographs a valuable hint or two, for which they will be much obliged. I learnt, for instance, what seemed to me most valuable geological lessons from mere glances at drawings — I believe from photographs — of the Abyssinian ranges about Magdala.

Or again, let a man, if he knows nothing of botany, not trouble himself with collecting and drying specimens; let him simply photograph every strange and new tree or plant he sees, to give a general notion of its species, its look; let him append, where he can, a photograph of its leafage, flower, fruit; and send them to Dr. Hooker, or any distinguished botanist: and he will find that, though he may know nothing of botany, he will have pretty certainly increased the knowledge of those who do know.

The sportsman, again — I mean the sportsman of that type which seems peculiar to these islands, who loves toil and danger for their own sakes; he surely is a naturalist, ipso facto, though he knows it not. He has those very habits of keen observation on which all sound knowledge of nature is based; and he, if he will — as he may do without interfering with his sport — can study the habits of the animals among whom he spends wholesome and exciting days. You have only to look over such good old books as Williams’s “Wild Sports of the East,” Campbell’s “Old Forest Ranger,” Lloyd’s “Scandinavian Adventures,” and last, but not least, Waterton’s “Wanderings,” to see what valuable additions to true zoology — the knowledge of live creatures, not merely dead ones — British sportsmen have made, and still can make. And as for the employment of time, which often hangs so heavily on a soldier’s hands, really I am ready to say, if you are neither men of science, nor draughtsmen, nor sportsmen, why, go and collect beetles. It is not very dignified, I know, nor exciting: but it will be something to do. It cannot harm you, if you take, as beetle-hunters do, an indiarubber sheet to lie on; and it will certainly benefit science. Moreover, there will be a noble humility in the act. You will confess to the public that you consider yourself only fit to catch beetles; by which very confession you will prove yourself fit for much finer things than catching beetles; and meanwhile, as I said before, you will be at least out of harm’s way. At a foreign barrack once, the happiest officer I met, because the most regularly employed, was one who spent his time in collecting butterflies. He knew nothing about them scientifically — not even their names. He took them simply for their wonderful beauty and variety; and in the hope, too — in which he was really scientific — that if he carefully kept every form which he saw, his collection might be of use some day to entomologists at home. A most pleasant gentleman he was; and, I doubt not, none the worse soldier for his butterfly catching. Commendable, also, in my eyes, was another officer — whom I have not the pleasure of knowing — who, on a remote foreign station, used wisely to escape from the temptations of the world into an entirely original and most pleasant hermitage. For finding — so the story went — that many of the finest insects kept to the tree-tops, and never came to ground at all, he used to settle himself among the boughs of some tree in the tropic forests, with a long-handled net and plenty of cigars, and pass his hours in that airy flower-garden, making dashes every now and then at some splendid monster as it fluttered round his head. His example need not be followed by every one; but it must be allowed that — at least as long as he was in his tree — he was neither dawdling, grumbling, spending money, nor otherwise harming himself, and perhaps his fellow-creatures, from sheer want of employment.

One word more, and I have done. If I was allowed to give one special piece of advice to a young officer, whether of the army or navy, I would say: Respect scientific men; associate with them; learn from them; find them to be, as you will usually, the most pleasant and instructive of companions — but always respect them. Allow them chivalrously, you who have an acknowledged rank, their yet unacknowledged rank; and treat them as all the world will treat them in a higher and truer state of civilisation. They do not yet wear the Queen’s uniform; they are not yet accepted servants of the State; as they will be in some more perfectly organised and civilised land: but they are soldiers nevertheless, and good soldiers and chivalrous, fighting their nation’s battle, often on even less pay than you, and with still less chance of promotion and of fame, against most real and fatal enemies — against ignorance of the laws of this planet, and all the miseries which that ignorance begets. Honour them for their work; sympathise in it; give them a helping hand in it whenever you have an opportunity — and what opportunities you have, I have been trying to sketch for you to-night; and more, work at it yourselves whenever and wherever you can. Show them that the spirit which animates them — the hatred of ignorance and disorder, and of their bestial consequences — animates you likewise; show them that the habit of mind which they value in themselves — the habit of accurate observation and careful judgment — is your habit likewise; show them that you value science, not merely because it gives better weapons of destruction and of defence, but because it helps you to become clear-headed, large-minded, able to take a just and accurate view of any subject which comes before you, and to cast away every old prejudice and every hasty judgment in the face of truth and of duty: and it will be better for you and for them.

But why? What need for the soldier and the man of science to fraternise just now? This need: the two classes which will have an increasing, it may be a preponderating, influence on the fate of the human race for some time, will be the pupils of Aristotle and those of Alexander — the men of science and the soldiers. In spite of all appearances, and all declamations to the contrary, that is my firm conviction. They, and they alone, will be left to rule; because they alone, each in his own sphere, have learnt to obey. It is therefore most needful for the welfare of society that they should pull with, and not against each other; that they should understand each other, respect each other, take counsel with each other, supplement each other’s defects, bring out each other’s higher tendencies, counteract each other’s lower ones. The scientific man has something to learn of you, gentlemen, which I doubt not that he will learn in good time. You, again, have — as I have been hinting to you to-night — something to learn of him, which you, I doubt not, will learn in good time likewise. Repeat, each of you according to his powers, the old friendship between Aristotle and Alexander; and so, from your mutual sympathy and co-operation, a class of thinkers and actors may yet arise which can save this nation, and the other civilised nations of the world, from that of which I had rather not speak, and wish that I did not think too often and too earnestly.

I may be a dreamer; and I may consider, in my turn, as wilder dreamers than myself, certain persons who fancy that their only business in life is to make money, the scientific man’s only business is to show them how to make money, and the soldier’s only business to guard their money for them. Be that as it may, the finest type of civilised man which we are likely to see for some generations to come, will be produced by a combination of the truly military with the truly scientific man. I say — I may be a dreamer; but you at least, as well as my scientific friends, will bear with me; for my dream is to your honour.

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