early american natural history

Colony & Empire


The Bounds of Human Empire: Naturalists as Empire-Builders and Empiricists


Sir Francis Bacon is often credited with developing empiricism, that key element of enlightenment thinking, and for championing the use of inductive reasoning as a means of studying the world.  In his work New Atlantis, he asserted, “The End of our Foundation is the Knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.” In short, knowledge should 1) figure out universal laws which govern the world and  2) exist for the purpose of benefiting mankind.


Mankind’s place at the apex of creation was clear to Bacon and most thinkers of his age. 1  God created a universe wherein a vast hierarchy placed the land, plants, and animals under the dominion of mankind, and mankind under the dominion of God (and peasants under the dominion of nobility, women under the dominion of men, etc.). This organization of the world is often described as the Great Chain of Being, a philosophy dating to the Middle Ages, but still in ascent during the Enlightenment.

Fra. Didacus Valades, "The Great Chain of Being,"  Rhetorica Christiana, 1579. British Library accessed through the “’Rank’: picturing the social order 1516 – 2009” exhibition by the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art.


Click on the image for a closer look: travel up the levels of the Great Chain of Being, from the beasts of the earth, up to humans, through the angels, and finally reaching God.


Natural History grew out of this tradition, and most early explorations of geology, biology, and botany were in service of medicine, wealth, and the building of Empire. Bacon’s views were greatly on the minds of the founders of the Royal Academy of Science in London in 1662 who saw their mission as that of understanding nature in order to bring it under human control and use through experimental observation and exploration.


Enlightenment-era naturalists often saw themselves as uncovering a divine plan, the hand of God, by looking for the order and regularity of the natural world, put there for man to discover and to use.  Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), responsible for the first modern system of taxonomy, believed that the uniformity he perceived in plant life through his classification system revealed such order.  He came to claim that uniformity and order existed in all organisms and was a sign of the Great Chain of Being. 2


Thereby, the work of naturalists was, for the most part, a work of assessing the value to humans of various environments as well as cataloging all known types of species.  Knowing and collecting all species would allow Enlightenment naturalists to amass a “book of the world” that would allow them to look for those universal principles of organization Linneaus developed.


In fact, Linnaeus was the first to give taxonomic names and descriptions to many New World species, despite never traveling to the New World.  He would work from preserved specimens, or from drawings and written descriptions. 3  In fact, of the 100 descriptions of North American birds featured in the 1758 edition of System Naturae, thirty-eight of these derived exclusively from consulting naturalist Mark Catesby’s (1683- 1749) Natural History of the Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands. 4


To the left: Birds which appear in Linnaeus' Systema Naturae of 1758 and which also appear in Mark Catesby's Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands.


The findings of naturalists and explorers of the New World were brought back as tribute to the Old, serving to enrich the prestige and power of Old World countries which maintained colonies.  One of the ways the Chain of Being continued to influence the politics of the Enlightenment was the conviction that colonies, including the colonists living there, were necessarily subordinate to their imperial Old World countries.  Transplanted Europeans were suspected of “degenerating” over time 5 while people native to the colonies were considered further subordinate to the European transplants.  The very animals and plants of the New World were similarly deemed inferior to those of Europe, and yet, paradoxically, possession of these New World specimens (whether plant, animal, or in some cases human) was an exotic sign of status and affluence. 6


Giovanni Battista Tiepolo's frescoes feature New World animals such as the parrot or alligator. 7  Animals from all over the world, as well as people, are portrayed arriving on ships, representing the bounty and the expanse of the Spanish Empire.

Giovanni Batista Tiepolo’s The Glory of Spain, Frescoes from the Throne Room of the Royal Palace in Madrid, 1762–1766.


Fig. 1 Alligator in ship

Fig 2. Ostrich as Tribute

Fig. 3 New World parrot



1.Thomas Wirth,  “‘So Many Things for His Profit and His Pleasure’: British and Colonial Naturalists Respond to an Enlightenment Creed, 1727-1777,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 131, no.2 (Apr. 2007), 130.

2. Ibid.

3. Ann Shelby Blum,  Picturing Nature American Nineteenth Century Zoological Illustration, (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1993), 17.

4. David Wilson,  "The Iconography of Mark Catesby," South Carolina Historical Magazine 4, no. 2, (Winter, 1970-71), 169.

5.  Robert Krulwich, "Thomas Jefferson Needs A Dead Moose Right Now To Defend America," Krulwich Wonders, NPR, Last modified January 16, 2014.

6. Blum, 5

7. Ibid.


Arkansas Frameworks:

 World History Strand: Economics and Trade

• Content Standard 7: Students shall analyze global interactions created through trade

• ET.7.WH.2 Research the motivations which drove European exploration (e.g., mercantilism,

colonialism, religion

• ET.7.WH.6 Investigate the role 19th century imperialism played in creating spheres of influence and

colonization (e.g., partition of Africa, East Asia, India, Latin America)

• ET.7.WH.2 Research the motivations which drove European exploration (e.g., mercantilism,

colonialism, religion)


This site  was created through a fellowship from the William Reese Company

and completed through the  Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art Library