Man and the Natural World: A Meticulous History

man-and-the-natural-worldIn Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800, historian Keith Thomas argued that English sentiments regarding the natural world progressed from exploitation in the sixteenth century to conservation in the nineteenth. Before 1500, the prevailing worldview in England had been that wilderness was something to be subdued and civilized. After 1800, the prevailing belief was that wilderness needed to be saved from misuse by humanity.

The English view of nature prior to 1500 was theologically-based. According to scripture, God created each animal and plant to serve man and subordinate to his wishes and needs. Animals were considered to be automaton without souls, and previously wild animals had to be broken in order to use them as labor and food. Many classical scholars also taught that human beings were unique and separate from the animal kingdom. According to Aristotle, only mankind possessed reason.

The common man used religion and morality to distinguish himself from animals. Evil spirits almost always took the form of an animal, and the devil appeared as a goat. Likewise, mankind’s bodily impulses were negatively equated with animals and considered things to be subdued. Englishmen also labeled outsiders as bestial. Anyone who wasn’t Christian was considered worse than a beast and in need of civilizing. The aristocracy also put the poor into this category. However, Thomas was careful to point out that this “uncompromisingly aggressive view of man’s place in the natural world… was by no means representative of all opinion in early modern England.”

Many new developments gradually challenged the prevailing view. One of those developments was the scientific study of the natural world. Instead of learning about plants and animals for their usefulness, naturalists began to study them in and of themselves and categorized them accordingly. They began to see nature not as ugly, but as beautiful. According to Thomas, those naturalists, as their knowledge increased, sought to rename all of the plants and animals they studied into more useful categories. In this endeavor, Latin names replaced local ones, which changed the content of natural history. Many previously held notions about plants and animals were proven false, and naturalists returned to the belief that the human and natural world was distinct. The natural world existed for its own sake, independent of the needs of humans.

Of course, human’s day-to-day experiences with animals conflicted with the theological view of nature. In reality, Thomas wrote, there was no strict separation between man and nature. Englishmen lived and worked with animals on a daily basis, not just because there were much more of them at the time, but also because they depended on them so much for food, labor, and companionship.

There were certain animals that were favored above all others. At the end of the seventeenth century, horses were used excessively in England and they only increased in value as time went on. The English were also obsessed with dogs, and even the poorest person owned one or more. Cats, birds, and other small critters found their way into homes, and all of those pets were excluded from the list of edible creatures, even if they had been eaten in earlier times. Keeping household pets “buttressed the claims for animal intelligence and character.”

The idea of materialism brought man and beast closer together, suggesting that the two may have had common origins. The observance of feral children and aborigines seemed to confirm that idea. As geology began to push back the timetable for the history of the earth, Thomas argued, the idea that mankind had time to evolve from animals became more plausible. The rise of racialism put civilized white men at the top of this new continuum of animals to man, but he still retained the idea that animals had no immortal soul. Gradually however, “the acceptance of evolution posed the dilemma more sharply, for if men had evolved from animals then either animals also had immortal souls or men did not.” Faced with that possibility, many Englishmen chose to extend souls to their animal companions.

Since scientific discovery pushed the boundaries of our understanding of the universe, both in space and under the microscope, the role of man at the center of it all came under attack. By the end of the eighteenth century, Thomas wrote, “it was comically vain on man’s part to imagine that it was for him that the earth had been made.” Animals slowly became man’s fellow creature, and as such, their pain could be emphasized with.

The eighteenth century saw new sensibilities in regards to the treatment of animals. Some Englishmen even questioned the wanton destruction of animals that were considered vermin. Sensation had been ascribed to animals themselves, and the more ‘human’ they acted, the more compassion was felt towards them. This new attitude was linked with the growth of towns and the replacement of animals as a means of production. “The industrial order first emerged in England; as a result, it was there that concern for animals was most widely expressed,” Thomas argued. This concern was most widely predominant among the upper classes who didn’t need to use animals on a daily basis. The poor sometimes lashed out at the animals that represented social privilege like hounds, horses, and deer. “Kindness to animals was a luxury which not everyone had learnt to afford.” It was at this time that human needs and human sensibilities became two distinct entities.

Growing compassion for animals also extended to the plant world. By the late Middle Ages, England had largely been deforested in the effort to eliminate wilderness, but by the seventeenth century trees were being replaced for practical and industrial purposes. Finally, trees were seen as aesthetically pleasing and a symbol of royalty. By the eighteenth century there was a conscious effort to replant the forests of England.

Finally, Thomas argued that the growth of pollution and overcrowding in the cities changed the English perspective that cities were benevolent places of civilization. By 1800 it became a widespread belief that cities were unholy and the natural countryside was pure.

Man and the Natural World was a meticulous examination of Englishmen’s changing attitudes in regard to the natural world. As a broad subject, Keith Thomas did an excellent job of providing specific examples to illustrate his thesis. This anecdote-driven writing style had its advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, the examples were often entertaining and they provided a broader look into society in England at the time. On the other hand, reading such a long bullet-list of examples was tiring and it kept his argument largely dependent on the opinions of a few. While having solid, specific examples to illustrate his point, he missed out on providing a concrete sense that these opinions extended to the wider society at large. In fact, Thomas often reminded the reader that not everyone felt the same way, to protect himself from criticism.

Overall, Man and the Natural World is an excellent work and an interesting read. It shows how our contemporary debate over conservation and exploitation of the natural world is not unique to our time.

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