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Catching Nature in the Act: Réaumur & the Practice of Natural History in the Eighteenth Century

  • Won the CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards awarded by Choice Magazine

By: Mary Terrall(Author)

275 pages, 46 b/w illustrations

University of Chicago Press

Hardback | Mar 2014 | #212271 | ISBN-13: 9780226088600
Availability: Usually dispatched within 4 days Details
NHBS Price: £32.50 $42/€36 approx

About this book

Natural history in the eighteenth century was many things to many people – diversion, obsession, medically or economically useful knowledge, spectacle, evidence for God's providence and wisdom, or even the foundation of all natural knowledge. Because natural history was pursued by such a variety of people around the globe, with practitioners sharing neither methods nor training, it has been characterized as a science of straightforward description, devoted to amassing observations as the raw material for classification and thus fundamentally distinct from experimental physical science.

In Catching Nature in the Act, Mary Terrall revises this picture, revealing how eighteenth-century natural historians incorporated various experimental techniques and strategies into their practice. At the center of Terrall's study is Rene-Antoine Ferchault de Reaumur (1683-1757) – the definitive authority on natural history in the middle decades of the eighteenth century – and his many correspondents, assistants, and collaborators. Through a close examination of Reaumur's publications, papers, and letters, Terrall reconstructs the working relationships among these naturalists and shows how observing, collecting, and experimenting fit into their daily lives. Essential reading for historians of science and early modern Europe, Catching Nature in the Act defines and excavates a dynamic field of francophone natural history that has been inadequately mined and understood to date.

"Eminently readable [...] Mary Terrall strikes a fine balance between description and explanation, enriching compelling analyses with fascinating anecdotes."
Times Literary Supplement

"A meticulously researched and beautifully written account of the observational and experimental practice of natural history during the first half of the eighteenth century in France [...] just as Réaumur gave his readers the means to see nature differently, Terrall transforms our picture of natural history with this superb and thoroughly absorbing book."
– Joanna Stalnaker, Columbia University, American Historical Review

"Should be considered essential reading for historians of science, but Terrall's narrative style and storytelling ability will make it appeal to a much broader audience."

"A lively narrative, where members of what we call today the 'scientific network' of naturalists have the spotlight, and where a large place is reserved for the story of the – at times highly amusing – experiments conducted by the learned jack of all trades and his followers."
– Odile Le Faou, Revue d'histoire des sciences (Paris)

"In this beautifully crafted study of francophone natural history in the Enlightenment, Terrall draws back the curtain on the intertwined lives and practices of the naturalists, much as they drew the curtain on the intimate lives of the insects, birds, and other animals they observed so obsessively. She ingeniously exploits every scrap of evidence to show us how science was conducted in field and foyer, with magnifying glass and sketchbook, in domestic circles and in endless exchanges of letters and specimens. The book is packed with examples of the exquisitely detailed observations at which the naturalists excelled, both in word and image. But Terrall also illuminates the grander themes of Enlightenment science, provocatively blurring the boundaries between observation and experiment, home and academy, natural philosophy and natural history."
– Lorraine Daston, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science

"Catching Nature in the Act offers a fascinating and compelling account of what it meant to practice natural history in the eighteenth century. Réaumur was one of the most disciplined and tireless advocates of the spirit of observation in the age of the French Enlightenment, and this vividly rendered study brings to life the world of this important mathematician turned naturalist, whose contributions help to explain why the eighteenth century was the age in which natural history became a science for society."
– Paula Findlen, Stanford University

"In this wonderful book, Terrall captures the skill, invention, and obsessive passion of the eighteenth-century naturalists, uncovering their world with the same attention that they used in exploring the unexpected corners of nature. The result is a new picture of the boundaries of knowledge in the Enlightenment and a fresh appreciation of the challenges of close observation in science."
– James A . Secord, University of Cambridge

"In this insightful study of the French naturalist René-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur and his circle, Terrall restores natural history to its proper place in the history of early eighteenth-century science. For Réaumur and his collaborators, natural history was not opposed to physics; rather, both were inspired by the same problem-solving spirit. Terrall offers an exemplary reconstruction of the techniques that naturalists devised to carefully observe insects, polyps, chickens, and other forms of animal life, and shows us how those observations, in turn, helped address big questions about generation, instinct, and the nature of life."
– Brian W. Ogilvie, University of Massachusetts Amherst


1. The Terrain of Natural History
2. "Catching Nature in the Act"
3. Seeing Again and Again: Illustration and Observation in Domestic Surroundings
4. Recruiting Observers and Training "Philosophical Eyes"
5. Natural Prodigies: Asexual Reproduction and Regeneration
6. A Spectacle Pleasing to the Mind: Natural History on Display
7. Chickens, Eggs, and the Perennial Question of the Generation of Animals


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Mary Terrall is professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is the author of The Man Who Flattened the Earth: Maupertuis and the Sciences in the Enlightenment, also published by the University of Chicago Press. She lives in Altadena, CA.

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