Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Review: The Wonderful Mr Willughby

Tim Birkhead is an English ornithologist and author, about whose books on bird biology and behavior I’ve written enthusiastically in the past. Now he’s back with something a little different – a biography of an underappreciated genius, Francis Willughby, whose contributions to bird study at the dawn of the Scientific Revolution helped to create a more reliable and empirical framework for studying and understanding birds than anything that had existed up to that time.

In The Wonderful Mr Willughby: The First True Ornithologist, Birkhead makes the case for reevaluating Willughby’s role within the history of natural history. Because he died at such an early age, 36, before he was able to publish his own findings his legacy was left in the hands of his friend and collaborator, John Ray, who typically receives the lion’s share of credit for the groundbreaking work, Ornithology, written after Willughby’s death. But much, if not most, of the new ground broken in Ornithology came from Willughby’s insights.

Because Willughby’s journals have been lost over the centuries, there’s less firsthand information available than one would hope. But Birkhead does a really excellent job of setting the scene: what was the state of knowledge during the middle of the 17th Century? How was science developing mere decades after Francis Bacon formulated his vision for experimental method? How did the English Civil War impact the universities and leading scholars? We’re also introduced to key figures in and around the orbit of the Royal Society, including a series of brief biographies included in an appendix.

Not to say that some additional context wouldn’t have been helpful. When Willughby and Ray embarked on a three-year collecting expedition through Europe, they were joined by Nathaniel Bacon. Bacon’s brief biography states simply that he was a Virginia colonist. In fact, he was the ringleader behind Bacon’s Rebellion, one of the most important events in colonial American history. But mostly, Birkhead connects the dots in really exciting ways. Like when he singles out certain items from Willughby’s cabinet of curiosities (including a collection of glass eyes), and traces where in his travels he was likely to have picked them up.

Even more impressive is that Birkhead was apparently able to work out what species Willughby and Ray were writing about, despite the local, now largely archaic, names they picked up along their journey. It’s a problem not dissimilar to what Willughby and Ray faced themselves when pouring over the manuscripts and artwork they collected over the course of their joint project, trying to match their own observations with those of earlier scholars.

Despite the title, Willughby wasn’t single-mindedly consumed by birds; he had energetic and wide-ranging interests and made significant contributions in a number of areas, including to the study of fish, insects, mathematics, and even games. He’s a fascinating figure, and this book is a window into a time when one person, albeit an exceptional person, could generalize across many different subjects and realistically claim expertise in all of them. Throughout The Wonderful Mr Willughby, it’s clear that his death at an early age was a huge loss for science as a whole, and for ornithology in particular.

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