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The Sparrow Question: Social and Scientific Accord in Britain, 1850–1900

Abstract

During the latter-half of the nineteenth century, the utility of the house sparrow (Passer domesticus) to humankind was a contentious topic. In Britain, numerous actors from various backgrounds including natural history, acclimatisation, agriculture and economic ornithology converged on the bird, as contemporaries sought to calculate its economic cost and benefit to growers. Periodicals and newspapers provided an accessible and anonymous means of expression, through which the debate raged for over 50 years. By the end of the century, sparrows had been cast as detrimental to agriculture. Yet consensus was not achieved through new scientific methods, instruments, or changes in practice. This study instead argues that the rise and fall of scientific disciplines and movements paved the way for consensus on “the sparrow question.” The decline of natural history and acclimatisation stifled a raging debate, while the rising science of economic ornithology sought to align itself with agricultural interests: the latter overwhelmingly hostile to sparrows.

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Correspondence to Matthew Holmes.

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Holmes, M. The Sparrow Question: Social and Scientific Accord in Britain, 1850–1900. J Hist Biol 50, 645–671 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10739-016-9455-6

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Keywords

  • Acclimatisation
  • Agriculture
  • Economic ornithology
  • Natural history
  • Species history