Article ID: CBB385478624

Alfred Newton’s second-hand histories of extinction: Hearsay, gossip, misapprehension (2021)


The study of extinction was rooted in Victorian naturalists’ practices of observation and collection, but presented a challenge to the discipline’s increasing emphasis on empiricism and precision. This paper traces the role of witness testimony and hearsay accounts in early studies of extinction, as preserved in the notebooks of Cambridge zoology professor, Alfred Newton. Beginning in 1850s, Newton and his collaborators sought to trace the histories of suspected extinct species such as the British great bustard and the great auk of Iceland. With its subject absent by definition, the study of extinction relied on hearsay and rumour as well as evidence gleaned from past published accounts. Through methodical attempts to collate diverse and contradictory sources, from eyewitnesses to newspapers to local folklore and gossip, Newton demonstrated the inextricability of human activities from the practice of studying extinction. These attempts to resolve social evidence into scientific certainty were time and again frustrated by the uncertain epistemic status of his sources.

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Authors & Contributors
Bloch, D.
Grouw, H. Van
Thode, Simon
Pfennigwerth, S.
Fontes da Costa, Palmira
Barrow, Mark V., Jr.
Archives of Natural History
British Journal for the History of Science
Victorian Studies
Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Ambix: Journal of the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry
Cambridge Scholars Publishing
University of Chicago Press
Island Press
University of Pennsylvania
University of Pittsburgh Press
University of California, Berkeley
Extinction (biology)
Natural history
Conservation biology
Baudin, Nicolas
Lesueur, Charles Alexander
Péron, François
Lyell, Charles
Darwin, Charles Robert
Newton, Alfred
Time Periods
19th century
20th century
18th century
21st century
20th century, early
17th century
Great Britain
New Zealand
United States
Royal Society of London

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