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Modern Nature

The Rise of the Biological Perspective in Germany

Publication supported by the Susan Elizabeth Abrams Fund in History of Science

In Modern Nature,Lynn K. Nyhart traces the emergence of a “biological perspective” in late nineteenth-century Germany that emphasized the dynamic relationships among organisms, and between organisms and their environment. Examining this approach to nature in light of Germany’s fraught urbanization and industrialization, as well the opportunities presented by new and reforming institutions, she argues that rapid social change drew attention to the role of social relationships and physical environments in rendering a society—and nature—whole, functional, and healthy.

This quintessentially modern view of nature, Nyhart shows, stood in stark contrast to the standard naturalist’s orientation toward classification. While this new biological perspective would eventually grow into the academic discipline of ecology, Modern Nature locates its roots outside the universities, in a vibrant realm of populist natural history inhabited by taxidermists and zookeepers, schoolteachers and museum reformers, amateur enthusiasts and nature protectionists.

Probing the populist beginnings of animal ecology in Germany, Nyhart unites the history of popular natural history with that of elite science in a new way. In doing so, she brings to light a major orientation in late nineteenth-century biology that has long been eclipsed by Darwinism.

440 pages | 44 halftones, 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2009

Biological Sciences: Natural History

Earth Sciences: History of Earth Sciences

History of Science


Modern Nature is a wonderful book. Lynn Nyhart’s lucid prose, breadth of scholarship, overall historical sweep, and wealth of insights combine to produce a model study. A highly original work.”

Richard W. Burkhardt, Jr., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

“Lynn Nyhart brings a dazzling range of knowledge to this rich account of German natural history and biology at the end of the nineteenth century. Museums and zoos have rarely looked so significant before. Moving fluently from the art of making animal exhibits for popular education to the rise of populist, community-based ideas that led to ecological thought, her story explores the growing conviction that a love for nature was a defining feature of the German national character. Every page adds exciting new angles to our understanding of the ways that science got done in the past.”

Janet Browne, Harvard University

“In this highly innovative book, Lynn Nyhart shows how a series of ‘practical natural historians,’ including taxidermists, museum curators, zookeepers, and elementary school teachers rejected what they deemed lifeless classificatory science in favor of a dynamic and integrated biological understanding of nature. Nyhart shows how this new perspective both ‘trickled out’ and ‘trickled up,’ and in the process transformed both scholarly and popular views of the natural world. Full of carefully considered insights into the interactions between practical naturalists, specialized scientists, and nineteenth-century German cultural institutions, Modern Nature tells a wonderfully rich and extremely important story. This exemplary contribution to the cultural history of science should also be a must-read for scholars of German history, museum studies, intellectual history, and German studies.”

Suzanne Marchand, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge

“In Modern Nature, Lynn Nyhart retrieves from the dark well of history a popular or ‘populist’ biology that flourished a century ago on the cultural fringes of German academic science—in museums, zoos, and secondary schools. Unlike elite zoology, ‘Naturkunde,’ or nature studies, depicted animals as living communities in actual environments. Its advocates—curators, taxidermists, teachers, writers—took pains to relate science to the lived experience of ordinary citizens. Their humanized, public science has much relevance to contemporary environmentalism. It’s an eye-opening and a compelling story.”

Robert Kohler, University of Pennsylvania

“Ecology, Nyhart argues in her absorbing new study, developed in German cultural institutions in the public sphere, such as museums, libraries, and botanical and zoological gardens, rather than in the elite realm of university science. Instead of treating the different facets of ‘popular’ separately, she offers us a common history that integrates them into one powerful cultural force capable of changing the face of ‘elite’ science. Setting her analysis of the practical naturalists firmly into the social and cultural context of late nineteenth-century Germany, Nyhart has produced a major contribution to our understanding of how a new biological perspective became integrated into modern science. This book is a must read.”

Bernard Lightman, York University

"[A] wonderful and important story of this epoch in German natural history [that] substantially expands our picture of biology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries."

Matthias Glaubrecht | Science

"This is a wonderful book. It is carefully researched; its claims, large and small, are meticulously documented; it introduces historians of nineteenth and early twentieth century biology to original themes, and although focused on events in Germany, it makes challenging comparisons between what happened there and parallel developments in the contemporary Anglo-American scene. The creative artist – well, I really mean historian of biology, Lynn Nyhart, – is well known for her previous work in the history of German biology, but my verbal slip in identifying her vocation is, of course, intentional. The writing of a convincing and lasting history is as much art as it is rigorous documentation. It is the construction of a narrative that is general as well as detailed, broad as well as narrow, and contains a novel combination of facts, a new interpretation, and an overview that is persuasive and important. All of this comes together in Nyhart’s new book."


Table of Contents

Introduction: The Biological Perspective and the Problem of a Modern Nature
Identity, Mobility, and Place
Popular Science and Populist Natural History
The Biological Perspective and the History of Biology
Ghosts and Shadows
Tracing the Biological Perspective
Bringing Life to Natural History
Practical and Popular Natural History
The Taxidermic Life
Against the “Terrorism of System”: Martin on Taxidermic Displays
Stuttgart: Representing Nature for the Fatherland
Commercial Displays: Nature as Spectacle
Bringing Nature’s Past to Life
Public/Private, Science/Art, Elite/Popular: Natural History Institutions and Values
The World in Miniature: Practical Natural History and the Zoo Movement
The Zoo as a Cultural Institution
Designing a World in Miniature
Caring for Animals: From Daily Life to Nature Protection
The Circulation of People and Ideas
From Practice to Theory: Karl Möbius and the Lebensgemeinschaft
Karl Möbius: Upwardly Striving Youth
Natural History in Hamburg
Natural History Activist
The Fauna of the Kiel Fjord
From Hamburg to Kiel
The Oyster and Oyster-Culture
Conclusion: Social Mobility and Ecological Theory
The “Living Community” in the Classroom
Natural History and School Reform
Friedrich Junge and The Village Pond
The Spread of the Village Pond Gospel
The Village Pond Curriculum as Heimatkunde
Reforming the Natural History Museum, 1880–1900
The Emergence of the Professional Curator
The Institutional Landscape
Dual Arrangement
The Museum as a Center for Biological Knowledge
Biological Groups, Nature, and Culture in the Museum
The Kunde Projects
The Museum für Natur-, Völker-, und Handelskunde in Bremen (1896)
The Altona City Museum (1901) and Heimatkunde
The Museum für Meereskunde (1906)
Biological Groups, Modernity, and the Representation of Nature 

From Biology to Ecology
Biologie and Secondary School Reform
Biologie as Popular Natural History
From Biology to Ecology
Pedagogical, Popular, and Professional Ecology
Museum Research and the Rise of Ecological Animal Geography
Exploring Life in the Ocean
Making Animal Geography Ecological
Ecological versus Historical Zoogeography
Ecological Animal Geography and the German Natural History Museum
Modern Nature


University of Chicago Press: Susan E. Abrams Prize in History of Science

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