University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Cabinet of Natural History > Hearsay, gossip, misapprehension: Alfred Newton's second-hand histories of extinction

Hearsay, gossip, misapprehension: Alfred Newton's second-hand histories of extinction

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  • UserAmelia Urry (University of Cambridge)
  • ClockMonday 03 May 2021, 13:00-14:00
  • HouseZoom.

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The study of extinction was rooted in Victorian practices of observation and collection, but presented a challenge to the discipline’s increasing emphasis on empiricism and precision. This paper traces the role of witness testimony and hearsay accounts in early studies of extinction in the notebooks of Cambridge zoology professor, Alfred Newton. Beginning in 1850s, Newton and his collaborators sought to trace the histories of species suspected to be extinct, such as the British great bustard and the great auk of Iceland. With its subjects absent by definition, the study of extinction relied heavily on hearsay and rumour, as well as evidence gleaned from past published accounts. Through his methodical attempts to collate diverse and contradictory sources, from eyewitnesses to newspapers to local folklore and gossip, Newton demonstrated the inextricability of human and social concerns from the practice of studying extinction. These attempts to resolve this social evidence into scientific certainty were time and again frustrated by the uncertain epistemic status of his sources.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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