Selborne Ornithology: Alain de Botton on Gilbert White

  • The philosopher and writer talks to Alex Jackson about Gilbert White, a little-known 18th century curate who transformed how we view the natural world

    Swallow, RSPB illustration

    Above: Swallow illustration, courtesy of RSPB

    It’s easy to lose sight of the oddity of sharing the earth with the animals. To help us to remember, in 1789 Gilbert White, a curate in the small Hampshire village of Selborne, published The Natural History of Selborne. In it, he set out to reveal that even in the tamest English village there were some extraordinary creatures in motion. Rather than feature as incidentals to the activities of people, the creatures held centre stage. To readers who might hitherto have considered only their fellow humans, it also offered a set of implicit suggestions, which I set out in the three chapters below, as to why the animal kingdom might prove of unusual value to us.

    Other Perspectives

    White leads us to focus on the number of animals who live alongside us – but who we typically ignore. White prompted readers to abandon their usual perspective to consider for a time how the world might look through other eyes.

    In the autumn of 1771, he began a letter to his friend Thomas Pennant, a zoologist in London, informing him of some important departures from the village:

    “Swallows and martins… have forsaken us sooner this year than usual; At the dawn of the day, which was foggy, they arose all together in infinite numbers, occasioning such a rushing from the strokes of their wings against the hazy air, as might be heard to a considerable distance.”

  • Martins and swallows were but one example of the many life forms coexisting so unobtrusively alongside humans; and for which familiar objects and places had entirely different meanings (the village inn’s sign was a convenient resting place for a martin; one swallow had made a nest in a gentleman’s hat). White’s book, which rooted the observation of animals in a specific human context, naturally encourages us to consider how everything might seem to a swallow – and hence to appreciate the narrowness of our previous view of reality.

    Why might this be interesting, or even inspiring? Perhaps because unhappiness often stems from having only one perspective to play with, from the world having grown too narrow.

    When feeling out of sympathy with our era and the values of the elite, there may be relief in coming upon reminders of the diversity of life on the planet, in holding in mind that alongside the business of the great people of the land, there are also swallows who build nests and quietly set off over the English Channel for Madagascar.
    House-Martin, RSPB

    House Martin illustration, courtesy of RSPB

  • Wonder

    It seems certain things count as serious observations about animals and others don’t. It sounds highly serious to point out that hedgehogs have short posterodorsal maprocesses of maxillae, but it sounds rather less respectable to exclaim that they’re simply extraordinary-looking.

    We might blame modern science for this censorship, for it encourages patient classification rather than emotional spasms. White, living before this vision of scientific seriousness had taken root, had greater freedom: He did not speak idly in referring to animals as ‘the wonders of Creation’; like many of his contemporaries White believed God had put stripes on the tiger and the antlers on the deer.

    The belief may have been nonsense but the attitude which it inspired was less so, for it led White to express sentiments of uninhibited wonder about animals – which we have in subsequent ages grown shy of giving vent to. White’s tone of wonder is in evidence in his descriptions of a friend’s tortoise:


    “No part of its behaviour ever struck me more than the extreme timidity it always expresses with regard to rain; for though it has a shell that would secure it against the wheel of a loaded cart, yet does it discover as much solicitude about rain as a lady dressed in all her best attire.”

    It may be clear to us that God didn’t make the tortoise, but we should thank White’s belief that he did for allowing him to express wonder – and so for helping us to nurture our own.

    Above: European hedgehog 19th century engraving. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum

  • The Amateur Explorer 

    White had another advantage: much about animals was still unknown; there was no predetermined corpus of knowledge to master. So reading White evokes the excitement that all subjects take on when we feel we could move from the rank of pupil to explorer. White was struck by a host of questions: Why do cats like eating fish so much? Can bees hear anything? And because no one knew, White carried out some touchingly homespun investigations:

    It does not appear from experiment that bees are in any way capable of being affected by sounds: for I have often tried my own with a large speaking-trumpet held close to their hives, and with such an exertion of voice as would have hailed a ship at the distance of a mile, and still these insects pursued their various employments undisturbed, and without showing the least sensibility or resentment.

    It may be good for science that so many facts are now known – it may be a sadder thing for the curiosity of most mortals. We cannot return to White’s ignorance but we may still be inspired by his engaged relationship with the animal world. We may not make original discoveries in science but we still have the option to follow our own curiosity.

    Click here to enjoy more of Alain’s work, via his websitebumble-bee etching

    Above: Bumble bee etching circa 1870s