Article ID: CBB205617120

Names and Numbers: “Data” in Classical Natural History, 1758–1859 (2017)


The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw the transition from natural history to the history of nature. This essay analyzes institutional, social, and technological changes in natural history associated with this epochal change. Focusing on the many posthumous reeditions of Carl Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae that began to appear throughout Europe and beyond from the 1760s onward, I will argue that Linnaean nomenclature and classification reorganized and enhanced flows of data—a term already used in natural history—among individual naturalists and institutions. Plant and animal species became units that could be “slotted” into collections and publications, reshuffled and exchanged, kept track of in lists and catalogs, and counted and distributed in new ways. On two fronts—biogeography and the search for the “natural system”—this brought to the fore new, intriguing relationships among organisms of diverse kinds. By letting nature speak through the “artificial” means and media of early systematics, I argue, new and powerful visions of an unruly nature emerged that became the object of early evolutionary theories. Natural history was an “information science” that processed growing quantities of data and held the same potential for surprising insights as today’s data-intensive sciences.

Included in

Article Bruno J. Strasser; Paul N. Edwards (2017) Big Data Is the Answer … But What Is the Question?. Osiris: A Research Journal Devoted to the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences (pp. 328-345). unapi

Article Elena Aronova; Christine von Oertzen; David Sepkoski (2017) Introduction: Historicizing Big Data. Osiris: A Research Journal Devoted to the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences (pp. 1-17). unapi

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Authors & Contributors
Beckman, Jenny
Bregman, Leigh Davin
Fagan, Melinda Bonnie
Gribbin, Mary
Gribbin, John R.
Rupke, Nicolaas A.
Archives Internationales d'Histoire des Sciences
Journal of the History of Biology
History and Anthropology
Endeavour: Review of the Progress of Science
Archives of Natural History
University of California Press
Oxford University Press
Manchester University Press
University of Hawai'i Press
Natural history
Collectors and collecting
Scientific illustration
Linnaeus, Carolus
Darwin, Charles Robert
Wallace, Alfred Russel
Thunberg, Carl Peter
North, Marianne
Hooker, Joseph Dalton
Time Periods
19th century
18th century
20th century
20th century, early
17th century
16th century
Great Britain
South Africa
Bath (England)
Naturhistoriska riksmuseet
Royal College of Surgeons, London
Hunterian Museum (London)
Oxford University Museum of Natural History
University of Edinburgh

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