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The Fowls of Heaven and the Fate of the Earth: Assessing the Early Modern Revolution in Natural History

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In recent years scholars have begun to question in various ways the traditional notion of the Scientific Revolution, which has long been seen as a fountainhead of modern Western approaches to nature. One line of questioning involves the suggestion that there were significant, and perhaps revolutionary, developments during the early modern era not only in the realms of astronomy and physics but also in the field of natural history. This article takes up this suggestion and begins by examining the seventeenth-century transformation of natural history in relation to the work of two representative English naturalists—Edward Topsell and John Ray—by looking specifically at their contrasting ornithological descriptions of cranes. It then analyzes how the different theological orientations of these two devout naturalists shaped their natural histories and contributed to the shift from a symbolic to a literalistic understanding of natural entities. This change of mind is examined in light of the phenomenon of secularization and the loss of "the dimension of depth" and in relation to the promise and problems of a utilitarian orientation to the natural environment, with observations on cranes as they have migrated through history in the thought of some leading naturalists and across some changing natural habitats.


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