The Adventurer and the Documentalist: Science and Virtue in Interwar Nature Protection

Raf De Bont*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterAcademic


The early twentieth century witnessed a growing sensibility about the decline of wild animal populations across the globe. In the interwar years, several international societies for nature protection were founded with the explicit goal to counter this trend by resorting to science. The societies in question set themselves the task to monitor the status of threatened animals through both fieldwork in far-away jungles and documentation efforts in the Metropolis. In this chapter, I argue that these two activities came with different scientific virtues. Preservationists associated fieldwork with ideals of endurance, truthfulness and discretion. They believed these ideals to be of utmost importance for acquiring knowledge in the wild habitats of endangered animals – which were presented as places of violent bewilderment and Otherness. In order to develop nature protection into a successful endeavor, however, fieldwork was not enough. Data coming from the field needed to be brought together, synthesized and made accessible. These activities – taking place in offices in cities of Western Europe and North America – called for other virtues. When these activities were discussed among preservationists, it was mostly stressed how they particularly required patience and precision. Thus, language of virtue was closely tied up with issues of place. The virtues of performing science in the field, after all, were not those of processing data in the documentation centre. It is by exemplifying the virtues of the field that (male) naturalist-explorers took on a public role as heroes of science. The patient and careful work in the documentation centre, to the contrary, was largely conceived as universalizing, disembodied and domestic. The people who carried out this work (mostly women) did so largely out of the public eye.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEpistemic Virtues in the Sciences and the Humanities
EditorsJeroen van Dongen, Herman Paul
PublisherSpringer Science and Business Media B.V.
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)978-3-319-48893-6
ISBN (Print)978-3-319-84040-6, 978-3-319-48892-9
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2017

Publication series

SeriesBoston Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science


  • Aims of science
  • Carl Ethan Akeley
  • Epistemic virtues
  • Fieldwork
  • Jean-Marie Derscheid
  • Nature protection
  • Scientific hunting
  • Scientific practices
  • Tordis Graim

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