The best books on the history of natural history

Michael Layland Author Of In Nature's Realm: Early Naturalists Explore Vancouver Island
By Michael Layland

Who am I?

In Nature’s Realm is my third book on the theme of exploration of Vancouver Island, my home for the past thirty years, and my first focussed on the history of natural history. In it, I call upon decades of experience in mapping hitherto scarcely known parts of the world, combined with a keen fascination with the fauna and flora of the many places where I have lived and worked. I have marvelled at the work of the exploring naturalists and am fascinated with their personal histories. I find it enthralling how they each added to the sum of human knowledge of the wonders of the natural world, now so sadly threatened.

I wrote...

In Nature's Realm: Early Naturalists Explore Vancouver Island

By Michael Layland,

Book cover of In Nature's Realm: Early Naturalists Explore Vancouver Island

What is my book about?

In Nature’s Realm: Early Naturalists Explore Vancouver Island celebrates the richly diverse flora and fauna of Vancouver Island on Canada’s Pacific coast, as explored through the records of explorers, settlers, and visitors reaching back as far as 13,000 years. It gathers initial reports, recorded histories, and personal accounts left by the Island’s early naturalists who studied the region’s plant and animal life. 

The book’s text and illustrations tell how the Island’s flora and fauna appeared to the naturalists among the explorers and early settlers. It shows how their understanding was constrained by limited time and equipment, as well as the political motivations of their sponsors. Tribute is paid to the Island’s original naturalists, the Indigenous Peoples, whose knowledge is at last being ‘discovered’ and appreciated.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

The Heyday of Natural History, 1820-1870

By Lynn Barber,

Book cover of The Heyday of Natural History, 1820-1870

Why this book?

I found this delightful, well-written account of great interest and reference. It covers the widespread passion for all aspects of natural history during the Victorian era, how the collectors of ferns, seashells, birds’ eggs, and skins, butterflies, beetles, orchids, and all manner of curiosities from the natural world, pursued their hobbies. This general acceptance by society led to the formation of clubs, articles, and even specialist journals and popular lectures by amateurs and scientists.

Beautifully illustrated, this book, even though constrained in its timeframe, provides a wonderful introduction to the topic. Since I cover many of the people and motives included here, I much enjoyed another writer’s perspective on them.

Darwin and the Beagle

By Alan Moorehead,

Book cover of Darwin and the Beagle

Why this book?

A superbly written account of, perhaps, the most famous British naturalist-explorer, Charles Darwin, on his great voyage aboard HMS Beagle to Patagonia and the Galápagos in 1831-6. The author also covers the furious aftermath, the debate resulting from Darwin’s (and Wallace’s) findings and contentious, to some seemingly blasphemous, theory on the origin of species. Profusely illustrated in colour with contemporary material. I have read and long admired several of Moorhead’s books and particularly enjoyed this one as it deals with a personal hero of mine.

More Than Birds: Adventurous Lives of North American Naturalists

By Val Shushkewich,

Book cover of More Than Birds: Adventurous Lives of North American Naturalists

Why this book?

Here is an excellent introduction to the “birders,” those amateurs, professional collectors, scientists, and artists—men and women—who have investigated ornithology in North America. The author, a Canadian, covers 22 fellow enthusiasts from Wilson and Audubon through Peterson, Bateman, and Sibley. She relates how each of her subjects studied and built upon the work of their predecessors to construct what we know today. 

Her book is well-constructed, easy to follow, and delightful to read. There are a few monochrome illustrations, portraits, and maps. I discovered this fine book during my research for my most recent book, and much admired the writing style and structural plan.

Flower Hunters

By Mary Gribbin, John Gribbin,

Book cover of Flower Hunters

Why this book?

This fine book was another discovery of mine as I studied the literature on aspects of the history of natural history for my own book in this genre. Although written by two academics, this book is easy to read by a generally educated public. It covers what is to me, the engrossing topic of the early botanical collectors and illustrators, both men and women. The authors recount the lives of eleven subjects from Linnaeus through Banks, Douglas, Spruce, and Hooker, and how they, together, founded the science of botany by roaming the world in search of new species. There are 32 well-chosen illustrations, in colour and monochrome.

Humboldt and the Cosmos

By Douglas Botting,

Book cover of Humboldt and the Cosmos

Why this book?

Between 1799 and 1804 the Prussian polymath, Baron Alexander von Humboldt, explored South America and Mexico, studying and collecting from the natural world. He devoted the next 30 years to writing and publishing scientific treatises on his discoveries in physical geography and natural history. He established the concept of plant geography. In the final years of his long life, he worked to publish Cosmos, a work of enormous scope and depth—his vision of the nature of the world—and fundamental to the study of the history of natural history. I treasure in my library several of von Humboldt’s works and so found this summation of the travels and work of one of the world’s greatest natural scientists especially helpful. It is profusely illustrated.  

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in natural history, Charles Darwin, and Victorian?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about natural history, Charles Darwin, and Victorian.

Natural History Explore 27 books about natural history
Charles Darwin Explore 28 books about Charles Darwin
Victorian Explore 85 books about Victorian

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Possessing Nature, The Wisdom of Birds, and Ten Million Aliens if you like this list.