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Richard CrockettLets hear it for the “Natural Historian” says Richard Crockett*

Geoscientist 19.6 June 2009

In The Voyage of the Beagle and his later Geological Observations, Charles Darwin demonstrated an astonishing breadth of interest in the natural world through which his travels had taken him. Long before the insights given by the discovery of double helices and wandering lithospheric plates made sense of Galapagos finches and structural deformation in the Andes, his meticulous observations represented an impressive commitment to pure science.

The practice and forward development of Earth science flourishes best, I suggest, when pursued within the wider context of interest in all that makes up our planet and what is to be found on its surface. The battle of El Alamein had still to be fought when William Collins - perhaps following a related line of thinking - took the far-sighted decision to commit his publishing house to a series of well written and illustrated books covering all aspects of the natural history of the British Isles and its adjacent seas. However the New Naturalist series still flourishes; and now, well over a hundred volumes later, it has covered everything from lichens to Loch Lomond and bats to botanical illustration.

Although geology features incidentally in many – particularly the regional accounts, until very recently the only purely geological texts were Dudley Stamp’s Britain’s Structure and Scenery (1946) and Fossils by H H Swinnerton, the first edition of which came out in 1960. These dates were, of course, some time before the revolution in our science brought about by plate tectonics and the books should not be faulted for that. Nevertheless the caption to the coloured frontispiece provided for the fossils book “An English landscape in Coal Measure times” has a faintly risible feel in that it conjures up a picture of chunks of lithosphere each sporting a St George flag that were eventually to merge to form the land of Magna Carta.

With a stunning jacket by Robert Gillmor based on the Hunstanton cliff section, Peter Friend’s Southern England (just published - 2008) is a triumphant vindication of geology as an essential cultural tool within a broad understanding of the natural world in which we live and our care for it; perhaps even to be thought of as essential reading for land use planners in this increasingly developed corner of our nation. The need for better understanding of the possible effects of coastal erosion upon nearby farms and the growing flood risks to built-up areas are just two examples of current anxieties that would be assisted by attention to Friend’s writing.

Although largely empirical at the time, it might be argued that Darwin’s work paid eventual dividends to society through agricultural improvement, advances in medical science, earthquake risk and much else besides. In their encouragement of a similar multicultural approach to the gathering of scientific data, it may be that the New Naturalists will sow the seeds of benefits that are yet to germinate; they are certainly an argument against narrow specialisation in the education of a new generation of scientific practitioners.

* Richard Crockett is a recent President of the Mining Institute of Scotland