By Dr Valerie Jeffries FLS.
Rev Gilbert White FRS (18 July 1720 – 26 June 1793) was a pioneer naturalist, who collected over 40 years’ observations of the flora and fauna in the English countryside around Selborne in Hampshire. His book “The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne” was published by his brother Benjamin in 1789 and has been in print since then, in nearly 300 editions. The book has been seen as the foundation of ecology, rich in meticulous detail and recording of the wildlife to be found around Selborne village. He discussed bird migration with his younger brother John who also had naturalist leanings and sent accounts from Gibraltar. John White’s letters to Carl Linnaeus are now held by the Linnaean Society of London. There were many amateur gentleman naturalists in 18th century England, many of them parsons like White, and they saw Nature as evidence of God’s wondrous ways on Earth.
Gilbert White planned his book as a series of letters to two of his naturalist friends, Barrington FRS (a lawyer) and Pennant, a zoologist. He wrote additional material in letter form and edited the whole work to give it cohesion and a sense of movement through time. He was in contact with other naturalists of his day, and made use of the classification systems for living organisms developed in the works of John Ray FRS and Carl Linnaeus written in the 17th century. White preferred Ray’s system of classifying animals because, as with the prevailing opinion of White’s later generation of naturalists, Linnaeus gave too little information in his binomial classification system. Pennant for example wrote to the botanist Joseph Banks in 1767: “I have no very high opinion of Linnaeus’s zoologic merits.” White himself even wrote to a relative, “it is the fashion now to despise Linnaeus” ! Perhaps it was the wider travels, beyond Europe, of 19th century naturalists including Wallace and Darwin who discovered so many new species, that clinched the now universal Linnaean system because full descriptions would be too cumbersome for species definition.
The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, or just ‘The Natural History of Selborne’, is a testament to the value of fieldwork, and has been called the first work of ecology. White’s close observation and recording of events over time even led him to develop the idea of the ‘food chain’, laying the foundations for the modern understanding of ecosystems. He was the first to identify the harvest mouse in England, he correctly realised that the species of bird known as a willow wren was in fact three separate species, and he discovered the noctule bat.
Surprisingly White was not included in The Great Naturalists (2007), a publication of the Natural History Museum. Yet Richard Mabey wrote in his 1986 biography of White: “Darwin praised [White] as one of his chief reasons for his interest in biology”, and was moved to pay a visit to Selborne.
White’s passion for the world around him, and his connection with Nature shines through some of his descriptive writing, including on bats:-
Bats drink on the wing, like swallows, by sipping the surface, as they play over pools and streams. They love to frequent waters, not only for the sake of drinking, but on account of insects, which are found over them in the greatest plenty. As I was going, some years ago, pretty late, in a boat from Richmond to Sunbury, on a warm summer’s evening, I think I saw myriads of bats between the two places: the air swarmed with them all along the Thames, so that hundreds were in sight at a time.”
And particularly birds:-
In July I saw several cuckoos skimming over a large pond; and found, after some observation, that they were feeding on the libellulae, or dragon-flies; some of which they caught as they settled on the weeds, and some as they were on the wing. Notwithstanding what Linnaeus says, I cannot be induced to believe that they are birds of prey.”
Of his pet tortoise, Timothy, he wrote in a 1781 journal:-
We put Timothy into a tub of water, & found that he sunk gradually, & walked on the bottom of the tub: he seemed quite out of his element, & was much dismayed. This species seems not at all amphibious. Timothy seems to be the Testudo Graeca of Linnaeus. Dr Chandler who saw the operation, says there is a species of tortoise in the Levant that at times frequents ponds & lakes: and my Bro: John White, affirms the same of a sort in Andalusia.”
What would Gilbert White have made of modern ecology, such as the talk by Professor Jane Hill to the Linnean Society in January, “Biodiversity Winners and Losers from Climate Warming” ? The butterfly species would be the same, but not the charts and graphs and mathematical methods of analysing their subtle shifts in range with the shift northward of warmth.
The seeming innocence of White’s Hampshire countryside is mourned by many as something lost. But the warmth of his writing and love for the beauty of Nature are still with us in countless recent newspaper and magazine articles and many books, and not least in the pages of FFON, perhaps more than ever as we assess the changes to our world, and the legacy of knowing what came before.