Monday, November 21, 2011

William Temple Hornaday and the Progressive Era Nature Study Movement

Finally clearing out some of the books I bought at the ASEH conference in April, and just finished Kevin Armitage's The Nature Study Movement: The Forgotten Popularizer of America's Conservation Ethic (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009).

Armitage examined the Progressive Era nature study movement and concluded that it was a primarily a romantic movement (not a scientific one), that questioned modernity. I see that this is especially true of men like Thornton Burgess, William Temple Hornaday, and Ernest Thompson Seton, just to name some of those I am more familiar with. Although Hornaday was the dean of American zoologists during the thirty years he served as director of the Bronx Zoo (1896-1926), he was hardly a devoted scientist. In fact, he waged a personal war against what he considered the corrupting influences of the Teutonic scientific method. He criticized the academic scientists for removing nature study from the field and taking it to the laboratory, and for replacing buckskins and guns with lab coats and microscopes. Hornaday's scientific ideal was more grounded in a 19th century generalist movement. He felt the proper experience of wildlife took place in the outdoors where one observed animals whole, not in parts.

Yet, Hornaday had a very quirky attitude. While denying a certain fashion of science, he still maintained he followed the scientific principles and methods. He strongly criticized Reverend William Long and the nature fakers for ascribing unnatural skills to animals. But, no one anthropomorphized animals more than Hornaday himself. He ascribed a wide variety of human emotions to animals. Wolves were criminals, for example. Read his Wild Animal Interviews (1928) for a series of fictional conversations he had with animals. It is great stuff, and quite humorous (he was a funny man, a trait often overlooked in accounts of him), but it is not science. In Minds and Manners of Wild Animals (1922) he attempted to rate animal intelligence. Although maintaining he followed the scientific method, it is obvious that his data resulted not from verifiable tests, but from a lifetime of accumulated observations and anecdotes repackaged as objective truth. All this could be overlooked more easily if he had not spent much of his career attacking other people's views of science.

Hornaday's entire wildlife conservation program was based on the assumption that modernity, through improved firearms (pump and automatic shotguns) and transportation (automobiles) improved humanity's killing exponentially, while animals breeding remained an arithmetical calculation. Yes, that was a Malthusian view. Hornaday believed there would be no wildlife by 1950 at the rate at which human killing capacity improved.

Armitage does an excellent job of tying together various strands of the nature study movement. Back to rural living, bird day, gardening, woodcraft, etc., all receive their due. And he also explains how this nature study movement fit so well with the new curriculum of progressive education, as developed by John Dewey and others. Our generation is not the first to feel their children do not spend enough times outdoors. Hornaday had little interaction with Dewey or the progressive educators, but followed some of their ideas. Over 44 million people visited the Bronx Zoo during Hornaday's tenure as director. Many of them were school children who came on field trips. In this way Hornaday's zoo was one of the greatest contributors to the nature study movement.

1 comment:

  1. Neat take on this. It's interesting how some critics of the nature-study movement attacked the real "science" of it, yet it shaped how ecology is taught in colleges today. I blogged about this, too, in Strange Wetlands: Are we sons & daughters of the Nature-study movement?