Early American History Seminar: Gregory Nobles, Georgia Institute of Technology

Thursday, May 27, 2004

3:30 pm to 5:30 pm

Early American History and Culture Seminar

“Common People, Common Knowledge: The Folkbiology of Birds in Audubon’s America”
Gregory Nobles, Georgia Institute of Technology

This essay stems from a chapter of my book, “Naturalist Nation: The Art and Science of Birds in Audubon’s America,” and deals with the ways nineteenth-century naturalists, most notably John James Audubon (1785-1851), incorporated common people into the discourse of natural history. People were never far from view in the works of Audubon and others, and by including them in their descriptions of birds, naturalists made an important, if inadvertent, point: that common people demonstrated a deep, surprisingly detailed understanding of birds that rivaled - or certainly supplemented their own. At a time when American naturalists were trying to define both natural history and even nature itself in distinctively American terms, their reliance upon, even alliance with, common people seemed central to the scientific enterprise. By embracing this reciprocal relationship, naturalists not only engaged common people in the scientific enterprise, but they popularized and enhanced the standing of science - and therefore their own standing - in the new republican society.