Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery, and the Genius of the Royal Society - Bill Bryson (2010)



Richard Fortey FRS is a geologist and palaeontologist and spent his career in research at London’s Natural History Museum from where he retired in 2006. His widely acclaimed books include The Hidden Landscape, Life: An Unauthorised Biography, Trilobite!: Eyewitness to Evolution, Fossils: The Key to the Past and The Earth: An Intimate History. His latest book, Dry Store Room No. 1, is a portrait of the Natural History Museum.


Safely stored behind the scenes at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington is a slightly twisted vertebrate skeleton preserved on a slab of creamy white limestone. This particular specimen was discovered in quarries near Solnhofen in southern Germany in 1861. The fine limestones of Solnhofen are ideally suited to making lithographic stones, and in the nineteenth century lithographs provided one of the most important means of book illustration – indeed lithographic stones of this quality are still in demand by artists today. Vast quantities of this lithographic limestone of Jurassic age – about 150 million years old – have been taken out of opencast workings, where the rocks can be split into convenient slabs a centimetre or two thick; the German word plattenkalk appropriately describes their lithological character. On many of these flat-surfaced pieces of rock, fossils are laid out like gifts on a salver. 

Some Solnhofen fossils are rather common, such as those of delicate little sea lilies. Others are both rare and more spectacular. There are a great variety of fish species known nowhere else, for example. The fossil horseshoe crab Mesolimulus provides evidence that its living relatives breeding each year along the Atlantic coast of America have changed little over tens of millions of years. Delicate flying reptiles – half a dozen species or so of pterodactyl – testify by contrast to creatures that have vanished from the Earth for ever. A few species of dinosaur are known, of the most delicate sort (Compsognathus), and quite unlike the monsters of popular imagination. Insects include dragonflies (Aeschnogomphus) whose every wing-vein is visible as delicate tracery. All these creatures are preserved in rocks which originated as tacky muds flooring a lagoon that lay offshore from a richly biodiverse habitat. Such special circumstances sampled and preserved a much wider variety of organisms than the usual fossil locality, and the wide range of fossils provides a rare window into an entire habitat from a very different world. Yet if the remains were not kept carefully in museums all this evidence of past life would perish, and new generations of children and scholars could not interrogate the past. Local museums at Eichstätt and Solnhofen fulfil that function for those who would come to Bavaria and marvel at its geological treasures. But some of the specimens from the Solnhofen limestone have a relevance that extends far beyond the reconstruction of the late Jurassic scene, and these specimens are treasures in the collections of museums around the world. None more so than that specimen – a mere 35 cm at its longest – safely curated in the Natural History Museum in London.

For this is the first example ever discovered of the early bird Archaeopteryx. It remains one of the most important specimens in the British national collections. The next complete fossil bird of the same species – the so-called Berlin specimen – was found sixteen years later. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this London specimen of Archaeopteryx in the history of biology.

First, the date of its discovery is only two years after the publication of The Origin of Species, the sesquicentenary of which we celebrated in 2009. Charles Darwin famously described what he called ‘difficulties on theory’ in that work, where he anticipated a number of criticisms that he expected his great idea to encounter. Prime among these was ‘the rarity or absence of intermediate forms’ in the fossil record. Second, the detailed scientific description of Archaeopteryx was an accomplishment of Richard Owen in 1863; he was later to become first director of the Natural History Museum. Owen was no Darwinian, but he was an able anatomist. It must have proved anathema to him when Archaeopteryx was recruited as probably the best example of an ‘intermediate form’ and one that had turned up with the impeccable timing usually associated with a good piece of theatre. Its amalgam of reptilian and bird features (feathers and wishbone among them) was a striking vindication of the notion of descent with modification, and a rebuttal to those who might wonder how it was possible for animals to make the transition from earth to the skies.

In this sense Archaeopteryx became a kind of talisman for evolution. Owen was enough of a ‘Museum man’ to ensure that this fossil was safely curated, and part of any museum’s function is just that – to protect material regardless of the current explanations of its importance. The old bird has now been joined by half a dozen or so subsequent examples worldwide, but its importance has not diminished over the years. Periodically, it has been taken out from storage and re-evaluated. Sir Gavin de Beer described it in great detail in 1954. Twenty years later more bits of it were manually prepared, and new details revealed, and in the last few years the brain case of the early bird has been CAT-scanned and its endocast reconstructed. All these endeavours have served to confirm the transitional nature of Archaeopteryx – but have also confirmed that in most important functional respects it is closer to the birds than to the dinosaurs. This in turn has contributed to the debate about whether birds descended from one particular group of dinosaurs: most palaeontologists nowadays concur that they did. One might say that the meaning of Archaeopteryx has changed, while the information that has been extracted from this specimen (and other new discoveries) has increased fitfully as scientific hypotheses have shifted.

I begin with the London specimen of Archaeopteryx because it is an emblem for the importance of collections in science. Collections provide the ground truth on which hypotheses are built. Physics has laboratories; systematic biology has collections. It would be misleading to claim that the millions of specimens stored in cabinets and bottles in the galleries of national natural history museums are all, individually, as important as the type specimen of Archaeopteryx. But well localised, properly documented natural history archives have been, and continue to be, central to understanding many kinds of scientific questions: the course of evolution; the relationships between animals and plants (the ‘tree of life’); biogeography and biodiversity; how climate change has affected the biota. Human memories are short and inaccurate. Our shifting perceptions need to be tested against archives which are – as near as possible – permanent records of the fauna and flora.

This concept of collections developed or evolved rather like those organisms kept in drawers or herbaria. There is evidence that humankind made collections from the earliest times, if claims about pierced snails and tusk shells from Africa are to be believed. These first collections were assuredly made for ornament, but humans evidently had a taxonomic eye from the outset, by picking out matching individuals belonging to a single species. Development of a ‘working taxonomy’ – distinguishing edible from poisonous plants, for example – is clearly of adaptive value. Collections made for cultural purposes accompanied early civilisations, and Adrienne Mayor has argued that fossil mammal collections made from the Cenozoic rocks of the Mediterranean region were displayed in Classical times as concrete evidence of the battles between races of giants and men: evidence of a kind, but mostly spectacle.

The growth of scientific collections in a more modern sense frequently also had a comparable connection with display. The major figures in the early intellectual history of collections made what were essentially personal acquisitions, and a genuine love of scholarship happily mixed with a certain showmanship. They wanted to elicit admiration from their peers as well as understanding. John Evelyn (1620–1706) was both active in the Royal Society at its inception and was one of the outstanding virtuosi of his age; he corresponded with Boyle and Wren and other scientifically minded Fellows. It would be incorrect to categorise Evelyn as a scientist (after all, the term itself did not exist) though rationalist he assuredly was. His garden at Sayes Court, Deptford, was in a sense a research laboratory, a living catalogue of plants, and Evelyn was a pioneer in recognising what would now be regarded as the balanced diet and the importance of nutrition. He was justly proud of his garden and liked to show it off to his influential friends. But the idea of a living collection of plants was a natural extension from the medicinal gardens of the herbalists, and only a step away from the botanical gardens of today. The ‘system’ of specimen arrangement might change from one of curative ‘virtues’ to one of botanical classification, but on the ground that is only a matter of moving plants from one bed to another.

As in so many other fields, Joseph Banks (1743–1820) contributed to the evolution of collections for scientific ends. When the young Banks embarked on the Endeavour under the captaincy of James Cook he was intellectually omnivorous, for all his official label as the expedition botanist. The expedition arrived in Tahiti on 13 April 1769 and stayed for three months. It is clear from the Endeavour Journal that Banks had a remarkably open attitude towards the manners and customs of the Tahitians; his observations cover the sexual mores, tattooing procedures, food and cooking, and organisational hierarchies of the native peoples, and are engagingly frank, without any sense of patronisation. The latter was to change, particularly in Victorian times, but Banks’ non-partisan approach speaks highly of the feisty aristocrat, and it was an attitude that he maintained despite several assaults that would have daunted a lesser man. One could also argue that his methods anticipated those of social anthropologists more than a century later. He even learned something of the language of the Tahitians, which is now regarded as the first thing any aspiring anthropologist must do.

Banks’ ethnological and natural history collections were displayed to a wondering public at an apartment in New Burlington Street in 1772. They caused something of a sensation. In three rooms he exhibited different collections of the objects acquired on the famous voyage: militaria and sailing paraphernalia in one room; in a second, cooking utensils, dresses, jewellery and the like, together with 1,300 new species of plants; while a third room displayed a range of natural history specimens – reptiles, amphibians, birds, insects and many more, most new to science. The exhibition was more than just showmanship and display. It established the veracity of what Banks and his colleagues had seen on Cook’s voyage. The specimens became vouchers for the truth, and as such acquired permanent value. To be sure, his written observations of native peoples do constitute another kind of ‘collection’, but Banks was also assiduously developing the routines of making scientific and permanent collections of the natural world, in the company of his faithful friend, the botanist Daniel Solander. His Journal abundantly attests to a routine, and such steady behaviour always seems to characterise the scientist – as opposed to the poet, perhaps. Because of the perishable nature of living organisms it was also necessary to preserve the animal or plant in an image, and during the voyage Sydney Parkinson was on hand (until his untimely death*) to sketch and then colour the new finds with exquisite delicacy. Parkinson provided what has been termed a ‘virtual museum’ – a testimony to biological reality that could eventually be distributed among savants throughout Europe. Australia and New Zealand’s botanical wonders could be experienced on paper. The herbarium specimens were permanent, but pallid.

Curiously, though, Banks never fully published Parkinson’s splendid drawings of the flora encountered on the Endeavour’s voyage. This is all the odder because Banks had spent £7,000 between 1771 and 1784 from his personal fortune to have copper plates of superb quality engraved from the watercolour drawings. Two centuries passed before the botanical engravings were finally published in their full glory; this happened between 1980 and 1990 as Banks’ Florilegium, produced in several parts to the highest standards by Alecto Historical Editions and the Natural History Museum. Banks eventually bequeathed both his plates and his specimens to what was then the British Museum, where they remain to this day. The reasons for Banks’ reluctance to publish are not clear; doubtless perfectionism was part of the problem. Then he was always busy with his duties as seemingly perpetual President of the Royal Society. The death of his friend Solander in 1782 did not help either – nor did the drop in share prices in the years leading up to the Napoleonic Wars.

However, an interesting idea is suggested by Banks’ removal of the collections to a permanent house in his London address in Soho Square. Here they were freely available to visiting scholars, including those from abroad. They became proper reference specimens, like the London Archaeopteryx with which this chapter began. Although not described in so many words, Banks had created a museum with pretensions for the public good. When he was taken on board the Endeavour the emphasis might have been on the discovery of commercially significant plants, or, in the words of the Council of the Royal Society ‘for the advancement of useful knowledge’. Although Banks had a good eye for business possibilities this was not the raison d’être of Soho Square, which was directed equally towards the scholar and naturalist. Maybe urgency of publication for Banks was diluted by the ready availability of his collections to those who desired to see the spoils of exploration, or make comparisons with some other plant to hand. The ‘virtual museum’ could wait.

Banks also had a central role in the promulgation of living collections. He was closely involved with what eventually became the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, and by 1773 was de facto director. He planted eight hundred trees and shrubs originating from North America. In the Thames-side soil west of London ‘useful knowledge’ of plants could indeed be turned to potential gain. The fashion for hot houses full of exotics was in turn taken up by many members of the aristocracy – often for reasons of conspicuous display as much as botanical enthusiasm. The organised collection of living plants at Kew Gardens continues splendidly to this day, and the important role of these collections in conservation of rare species is something of which Banks would doubtless have approved. However, rather like Archaeopteryx, new scientific interrogations are constantly being made of the plant collections: molecular and genetic studies are currently most fashionable, but new areas of research will continue to open as science advances into the twenty-first century.

Collections need to have a system for their arrangement; otherwise, how can an individual example be retrieved? The larger the collection, the greater is the problem of organisation. How should the plants be arranged as Kew expanded? The eighteenth century was a time when collections grew from a few cabinets to whole galleries, and gardens occupied many acres: retrieval of information became a logistical necessity. The publication of Systema Natur$$ by the Swede Carolus Linnaeus (Karl von Linné) in 1735 provided the key – for once in a rather literal sense.

It has become a popular cliché to summarise Linnaeus’ achievement as providing the binomial name for organisms – the familiar form of Albus dumbledorus. It is certainly true that the provision of a unique name for a species did provide a labelling system that has proved indispensable for more than 250 years. Linnaeus’ methods have rubbed awkwardly up against twentieth-century phylogenetics – but that is another matter. From the point of view of collections what Linnaeus provided was a system – a hierarchy – that fed into practical arrangement. The higher levels of the Linnaean system – genera, families and so on – became an effective way of organising the mass of material that was being provided by 1770 from the fruits of global exploration: herbaria, museum galleries and gardens alike. Translation of Linnaeus’ works into English in the 1760s, together with popular accounts like William Withering’s Botanical Arrangement … &c of 1776, ensured that his ideas penetrated far into educated circles. Linnaeus’ contribution was far more than that little label stuck in the flower bed beside a strange herb – he was the intellectual designer of the garden as a whole.

Linnaeus’ system was not without its conceptual antecedents. For example, no English writer should fail to acknowledge the contribution of John Ray (1627–1703) whose emphasis on morphology in plant classification in Historia Plantarum of 1686 anticipated Linnaeus in several respects. However, Linnaeus provided the impression of comprehensiveness, the authority that seemed to be able to embrace the wholeof nature into a manageable hierarchy. Museum cases could now be labelled with the names of taxa that could be understood by all savants of the age in a similar way. As the Reverend Gilbert White wrote to his friend Daines Barrington FRS on 2 June 1778: ‘without system the field of nature would be a pathless wilderness’. Linnaeus provided both ‘system’ and a basis for systematics. His higher classification of flowering plants according to the sexual parts of the flowers has not survived unscathed, but probably no scientist other than Max Planck has had so many scientific institutions named for him. The Linnean Society of London holds many of his original papers and specimens. Linnaeus himself did not adequately characterise some of his plants in relation to a particular type specimen. This job has just been completed in 2007, with the publication of Order Out of Chaos by the Linnean Society. Once more those old herbarium specimens have been revisited, like so many floral Archaeopteryx, to live again in a new scientific context.

Linnaeus was far from being an ‘ivory tower academic’. He knew how to put on a show. Perhaps the most spectacular example of his talent for display was a floral clock that he designed in Uppsala – a flower bed calibrated with species that opened hour by hour together at the appropriate time of day. He knew how to turn erudition into entertainment, and this did his patronage no harm at all. More seriously, his systematic plantings – his book written on to the earth, as it were – became a standard aid for teaching when imitated around the world. Bed after flower bed is typically planted with examples from particular families. This may sound a little mechanical, but in due season does have a certain aesthetic appeal, somewhat akin to listening to a theme and variations. There is a leisurely version of his systematic garden near the River Seine in the heart of Paris in the Jardin Botanique, and the University of Uppsala has maintained Linnaeus’ original. Of course, Kew Gardens has a fine example within its walls. 

Banks was a convinced Linnaean systematist, so the disposition of plants in Kew Gardens followed the appropriate arrangements. Even in the arboretum the system ruled by generally ensuring planting of species belonging to a single genus or family together in close proximity. Although most critics agree that Linnaeus himself believed in the fixity of species, it seems to me that the juxtaposition of sets of morphologically similar species is almost a precondition to setting a curious mind thinking about how one plant might relate to another (and the same will apply to a drawer full of congeneric butterflies or beetles). The origin of species is embodied in the arrangement of species. One observer might see discrete categories, created individually, another observer might start drawing in his mind ‘dotted lines’ between species of greater similarity. If a garden were planted out randomly, or according to some traditional system of medicinal virtue, such similarities – the fundamental ones – would scarcely be apparent. But collections systematically arranged became potential maps of relationships. Erasmus Darwin’s (1731–1802) famous assertion that animal life may have arisen from ‘one living filament’ (Zoonomia 1794–96) could be envisaged as a path, somewhat as in Gilbert White’s metaphor, connecting one organism to another in the garden of life.

Gilbert White was under no illusion that ‘system’ was the whole story. In the same letter to Daines Barrington he objected to botany as being seen as something ‘that amuses the fancy and exercises the memory, without improving the mind or advancing any real knowledge; and where the science is carried no further than a mere classification the charge is but too true’. This sounds a little like Ernest Rutherford’s famous fulminations against ‘stamp collectors’ (this being everyone except physicists). No, the interesting questions were what White termed ‘philosophical’ – which would broadly mean ‘testable hypotheses’ in present terminology. Prime among these would prove to be the mechanism for the generation of the diversity of all those species planted out in the systematic beds or gracing the hot houses of the wealthy, or shells and fossils in their ‘cabinets of curiosity’. At a time when international travel was expensive, arduous, and almost impossible to remote areas, collections provided the only access for many observers to a true picture of biological diversity.

In a book concerned with giants, some of them unacknowledged, it would be wrong to reinforce an impression that Linnaeus was a kind of lonely systematising hero, even if he himself might have fostered such a view. He did not cover the whole of biodiversity, although it sometimes seems as if his fellow countrymen conspired to do so. Erik Acharius (1757–1819) tackled lichens, for example, and Elias Fries (1794–1878) made astonishing advances with the fungi somewhat later, both aided in part by advances in microscopy. Nor was Linnaeus greatly concerned with fossils, the scientific understanding of which was advancing hugely in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, as Martin Rudwick has described so well in Bursting the Limits of Time (2005). Georges (later Baron) Cuvier (1769–1832) developed comparative vertebrate anatomy in Paris, as did William Buckland in Oxford, while stratigraphic understanding advanced throughout Europe, most famously perhaps through William Smith’s (1815) geological map of Britain. Smith regarded his fossil collection as an essential validation of his map, a solid demonstration almost as important as the printed work. This reference collection now resides a floor or two above Archaeopteryx in London. All of these different systematic endeavours generated important collections. The permanent storage of reference specimens to found public museums is possibly the most important dowry in the marriage of science and collections.

There has always been something of a tension between the private and public ownership of collections. In the seventeenth century the growing interest in antiquarianism led to many individuals of wealth acquiring collections of Classical antiquities – and, somewhat later, of artefacts from Pharaonic Egypt. Interest in more domestic European archaeology merged naturally enough with a growing awareness of prehistory, and many dilettanti also began to write up their observations in a burgeoning number of journals. Natural history ‘cabinets’ often featured conchological collections, of variable scientific value, but fossils also began to become popular objects of interest. Whether or not such collections were retained was often at the whim of the son and heir: many were not. Probably the first example of a public exhibition open to paying customers was ‘The Ark’ in Lambeth, a miscellany mostly of antiquarian import collected by John Tradescant (d. 1638) and elaborated by his son (also John, 1608–62). Unlikely though it may seem in what is now a very urban part of London, the Tradescants also ran a nursery for exotic plants, particularly from North America where the younger Tradescant visited, and they were equally known for fruit trees – they supplied ‘Cherryes’ to the royal household. So the conflation of collections of more-or-less scientific importance with ‘Botanical Gardens’ had a long pedigree. But these collections were definitely part of private enterprise. Elias Ashmole FRS (1617–92) acquired the Tradescants’ collection and added much of his own. When the doors of Ashmole’s Museum opened in Oxford on 24 May 1683 the concept of an accessible collection was something of a novelty – a ‘Publick Place for the Resort of Learned Men’ as it was described in a contemporary lexicon. The notion that qualified people and members of the public might learn from objects without expecting a fee was novel, and, even though Ashmole’s (and the Tradescants’) collections were to suffer a subsequent chequered history, the Ashmolean Museum broke new ground. Robert Plot FRS (1640–96), the first Professor of Chemistry in Oxford, was also first keeper of the Ashmolean collections (and provided early descriptions of fossils). As we have seen, this tradition of public access was followed by Joseph Banks in his house in Soho Square, and, at least within the upper classes, was commonly held among the savant classes of Europe. If not exactly sponsoring a democracy of learning, there was a growing sense that diffusion of knowledge was desirable in general, rather than its protection by an esoteric elite. Collections provided evidence, and should be carefully preserved.

Ashmole’s collections were dwarfed by those made by Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753). He could outspend most of his rivals, and outlived all of them. Sloane was, moreover, a forerunner of Banks in exotic travel. Between 1687–89 he was physician to the Governor of Jamaica, and acquired there his lifelong enthusiasm for botany – and began his own collections and herbaria. These still survive in good condition in the Botany Department of the Natural History Museum. He also established his reputation as a savant with the publication of such weighty works as A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica with the Natural History of the Herbs and Trees, four footed beasts, Fishes, Birds, Insects, Reptiles &c of the last of those islands (2 vols 1707–25). Titles have become crisper since the eighteenth century, but at least the reader knew exactly what he was getting. Sloane also encountered cacao in Jamaica, and made a tidy sum from mixing it with milk and providing it as a wholesome chocolate recipe. Sloane’s advancement through the social hierarchy depended on his great reputation as a physician, and he eventually became President of the Royal Society.

Sloane continued to recognise the close connection between living and inert collections, leasing extra land to the Chelsea Physic Garden at a nominal rent; this Thames-side garden was originally founded in 1673 to teach young apothecaries their herbal trade, and it played an important part in establishing exotic plants and in exchanging seeds internationally. Sloane had eventually moved to Chelsea when his collections outgrew his Bloomsbury address; his statue remains in the Physic Garden. By then he had a library of more than 48,000 volumes and had added Egyptian mummies and Greek and Roman antiquities to his colossal natural history collections. Many of his plants were the type specimens of species recently recognised.

Sloane had determined to keep his collection together years before he died; he regarded it as his life’s work. He offered the collection to the King for the use of the nation for the sum of £20,000 to be distributed between his daughters – undoubtedly a bargain for the nation. He evidently fretted about the fate of the collection – to the extent of having no less than forty Fellows of the Royal Society as Trustees. The 1753 British Museum Act by which Sloane’s collections were changed into a public facility includes the instruction that the collections should be ‘preserved and maintained not only for the Inspection and Entertainment of the learned and the curious, but for the general use and benefit of the Publick’. The collections were moved back to Montague House in Bloomsbury, and there the Museum officially came into existence in 1756. The head of the permanent staff was known as the Principal Librarian. With the appointment of Banks’ old friend and Linnaeus’ student Daniel Solander to the staff in 1773 the connections explored in this chapter reached consummation. The classification of the collections on scientific grounds was assured, with all the subsequent implications for discovery of the natural causes that underpinned that arrangement. The permanence of the collections in the public domain was guaranteed, and the modern notion of a scientific museum was established in Britain.

More than a century would pass before the natural history collections parted company with the antiquarian collections and found their own place in Alfred Waterhouse’s extraordinary building in South Kensington. The collecting fruits of Empire, and the gradual increase in staff, not to mention the scientific pretensions of the collections, all acted together to ensure better funding. Richard Owen was appointed in May 1856 as Superintendent of the Natural History Departments in Bloomsbury, and worked tirelessly to get separate accommodation for the scientific collections. His contacts with the Royal Family assuredly did no harm: indeed, the progressive spirit of Prince Albert still inhabits all that elegant part of London south of Kensington Gardens. At last, when important specimens were discovered money could be found to acquire them for the nation, not merely to embellish the reputation of the wealthy aficionado.

So it was with Archaeopteryx, with which this chapter began. The specimen was acquired as part of a collection put together by a Bavarian doctor, Karl Häberlein. His large collection included 23 reptiles, 294 fishes, 194 plants and more than a thousand invertebrate fossils. The price paid was £700 – which historians are always obliged to qualify with the phrase ‘a considerable amount of money in those days’. However, no price is relevant when the prize is priceless.

Collections achieved their scientific importance from three innovations: scientific purpose (including collections made on dedicated expeditions); appearance of a rational system for curation; and the museum as a permanent repository for the public good. All this happened before Charles Darwin’s birth; but even Darwin began as a collector, and only later became a ‘machine for generating hypotheses’. He spent a decade immersed in barnacles, and it is plausible that his ideas on evolution matured during those ‘forgotten’ years. Science always advances with new techniques and new ideas, but these are frequently applied to collections held for future study. Scientific collections don’t die; they are constantly re-invented.

* Sydney Parkinson tragically died of dysentry on the way to Cape Town, 17 January 1771.