The Ibis: transformations in a twentieth century British natural history journal

Document Type


Publication Date


Publication Title

Journal of the History of Biology


Science, Technology and Society


The contents of the British Ornithologists' Union's journal, The Ibis, during the first half of the 20th century illustrates some of the transformations that have taken place in the naturalist tradition. Although later generations of ornithologists described these changes as logical and progressive, their historical narratives had more to do with legitimizing the infiltration of the priorities of evolutionary theory, ecology, and ethology than analyzing the legacy of the naturalist tradition on its own terms. Despite ornithologists' claim that the journal's increasing focus on "biology" represented a natural development after the preliminary phase of systematics and geographical ornithology, in fact a small group campaigned to bring the priorities of population ecology, behavior, and selection theory into the journal and British ornithology more generally. The problems involved in this transition highlight the importance of methodological and institutional context in determining and reinforcing appropriate research programs for ornithologists. Comparing the discipline-building rhetoric of moderns with the contents of the past illustrates how modern evaluations of 19th century research programs have been enmeshed in ornithologists' endeavors to forge new identities for traditional disciplines.