The History of Environmental Science before Darwin

The History of Environmental Science before Darwin

by Peder Anker
Fall 2015

Natural Environments, Digital Discussions

The History of Environmental Science before Darwin is an interdisciplinary seminar taught in the fall semester by Peder Anker. This seminar provides an overview of the history of the environmental sciences from ancient times up until the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Its objective is to create an opportunity for students to learn something about the history of our complicated relationships with the natural world from ancient times to the times of nineteenth-century naturalists. The students explore the ways in which naturalists and lay people came to know the environment and also examine how nature could mobilize social and moral author­ity. With a focus on the history of the European environmental problems, from ancient Greek society and the Middle Ages, to colonial and Modern experiences, the students survey different ways of understanding nature. Where did the idea of nature as “designed” come from? How did natural historians and philosophers unveil nature’s secrets? What role did scientists play in colonial experiences? How could Modern scholars imagine “improving” the face of the Earth? These broad questions guide the students in their reading of a series of primary sources, including great and not-so-great books by Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle, Pliny, St. Francis, Evelyn, Grew, Bacon, Linnaeus, Buffon, Jefferson, Rousseau, Malthus and Darwin, as well as largely forgotten texts by anonymous authors and colonial explorers.

Screenshot of Course Site.
Screenshot of Course Site (Image downloaded from and used in accordance with Creative Commons CC0.)

Like in many other courses at Gallatin, the students meet twice a week, and for each meeting they read a text to be discussed in class. They are evaluated on three ten-page papers which have to engage the primary sources, plus class participation. For the primary purpose of facilitating participation and discussion outside the classroom, we created a course site using NYU’s Web Publishing platform, which is powered by WordPress. For a number of reasons, some students are more familiar with expressing themselves through social media than verbally among peers. Students also benefitted from being able to see the comments posted by their classmates, so the discussion blog promoted a sense of transparency and the development of a learning community. The website has been a place where they can excel, in addition to being able to find relevant course information such as the readings and the syllabus. Contributing to the discussion section of the site is also a way for students to make up for having missed a class. Students are weary about stating their opinions on the web for all to see. It is therefore important to them that the Gallatin School has full control over the access to the site. Only students in the class could see and participate in the discussion and all the contributions were deleted from the site at the end of the semester.

The site picture is from a sculptural installation entitled “The Guardians of Time” by the artist Manfred Kielnhofer. It is meant to capture the ways in which the ideas of long gone scientists are still with us like ghosts wrapped in old texts. And these scientists are not necessarily friendly ghosts.  Alternatively, the sculpture encourages our Gallatin students to wrap themselves up in old arguments and find a hiding place within them (as if they were hiding in one of Joseph Beuys’ felt blankets), thus allowing themselves to learn from these arguments and build on them in new ways.