French project of biohistory

An entomologists' community shows evidence of a biodiversity erosion of butterflies in Western France and quantifies it with species-area logistic curves. They plead the recognition of the " biopatrimony " or " bioheritage " and the development of a naturalistic culture. If Humanity has a duty of memory towards the biosphere, so where are biohistorians ?

The word " biohistory " seems to appear in the 1950s with the botanist Frans Verdoorn, born in Amsterdam in 1909, specialist of Moss and Ferns. Expatriate in the United States during the Second World War, this bryologist and taxonomist of international fame turns his research towards the history of science. In 1948, he is chairman of the International Phytohistorical Committee of the International Union of Biological Sciences. Three years laters, he founds the Boston Biohistorical Club, a group of biologists, physicians, etc., with humanistic interests. In 1958, he returns to the Netherlands and supervises the Biohistorical Institute of the University of Utrecht, " for the study of the interrelationships of plants, animals and man in the history of culture, science and medicine " (SANDERS & DE VRIES 1970).

At the end of the 1980s, after an eclipse, the signification of the word changes. It is not a history of biological sciences but rather a study of the interplay between human society and the biosphere. With the UNESCO's Man and Biosphere Programme launched in 1971, Stephen V. Boyden from the Australian National University develops this conceptual approach by studying the city of Hong Kong as urban ecosystem, formalizing notably the notion of " technometabolism ". In 1987, he publishes, in Oxford, Western civilization in biological perspective : patterns in biohistory. For S. Boyden, " biohistory is defined as a coherent system of knowledge, or field of study, which reflects the broad sequence of happenings in the history of the biosphere and of civilization, from the beginning of life to the present day.[] Biohistory then moves on to the study of the history of humankind, paying attention especially to the changing patterns of interplay between cultural and biophysical systems " (BOYDEN 1992). At the same time, a biohistory appeared in Japan with evolutionary and development biology researchers. The Biohistorical Research Hall, opened in 1993, was founded by Tokindo S. Okada, professor emeritus of Kyoto University and vice-president of the International Union of Biological Sciences, and Keiko Nakamura, now a professor of Osaka University. For K. Nakamura, who proposed the concept in 1989, " biohistory refers to the creation of a comprehensive intellect based upon biology and new perspectives on the relationship between science and society " (NAKAMURA 1997).

Independently, the Frenchman Christian Perrein, then a student at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris, has a passion for the landscape ecology and archaeology. In 1987, at the end of a study on the hedgerow vegetation according to time, he wishes " a wider development of biohistorical research ", and he coins the term " technotope " (PERREIN 1987a & b, 1991a). In July 1991, he proposes a concise definition of the biohistory in a french university report (PERREIN 1991b). This text has been presented as a bilingual poster at the European congress of International Association for Landscape Ecology, in Rennes in 6-10 June 1993.

The Perrein's definition of the biohistory in 1991, translated in english by Marie-Madeleine Tanoh in 1993, is " a history of the living to the mankind scale. Though Man become an agent of speciation, it is not a new history of life evolution, but an actual history of biosphere artificialization in order to magnify art, techniques and artefactual matter, and glorify life, species and the living matter. How can Man use the artificialized living matter to his own avantage without abusing life while he is working to the detriment of biological diversity. Obviously, we must admit that Man has been and still is an essential ecological factor in the ecosystem structure and functioning. So must we learn to manage the technical operations which are done on the living matter. Last but not the least, we must understand the urgency to think an artefactual geography and a biosphere history as a symetrical complement of the biogeography and the art and technique history. In a future programme archaeologists and ecologists have a foreground intellectual concern to lead : when they come to an understanding on the concept of technotope, biohistory will be born ! ".

Beyond the history of a word and the eventful classification of academic disciplines, at the beginning of the XXIst century, there is a wide intellectual consensus of naturalists, archaeologists, geographers, historians, philosophers, etc., for recognizing the emergence of a new historical paradigm in the study of relationships between human activities and the biosphere.

The project of a biohistory of butterflies in Western France is a research programme launched in 1992 by entomologists in an associative structure : the Atlas entomologique régional (Nantes). This project is based on the idea that, in a country of old naturalistic tradition, because of the collections, butterflies are one of the rare zoological groups having so much well dated and located historical materials. To sum up, the French project of biohistory on the butterflies has been developed in an associative structure around two principal directions of work - collecting historical sources and prospecting on the field - with the aim to document three chronological periods : before 1960, 1960-1989, 1990-present (PERREIN 1998).

The Atlas entomologique régional (Nantes) has worked out a programme of enquiries on all the entomologists liable to have caught or watched butterflies in Loire-Atlantique and Vendée. Such programme has never been carried out with much systematism and exhaustivity. Its methodology borrows from history of science as well as history of art, because a collection of insects is an artefact too. Also, as other artefacts, an important part of the historical research is finding out where these collections are gone : preserved, scattered, disappeared or destroyed. In parallel, field surveys are led on a territory of 16.000 km². The European kilometric grid Universal Transverse Mercator is used for the survey of species. The size of a unit square is equal to 100 km². In Loire-Atlantique and Vendée, there are 179 square of 10 x 10 kilometers with coastal squares and those overlapping border departments. Since 1992, the members of the Atlas have spent several ten thousands hours prospecting, identificating and surveying.

The biogeography and the ecology of butterflies are the raw material of this project, bringing along a lot of totally new information on the regional distribution and the frequency of species, the phenology of larvae and adults, the hostplants and the habitats. However, it is with its methodology of biodiversity study that the project is the most innovative. Research of French biohistorical project focuses on the species richness, particularly on the number of species according to their frequency, or to different space-time scales. The most remarkable results are the possibility to accurately quantify the decline or the extinction of species in space-time, using the species-area curve.

The book entitled Biohistory of butterflies in Western France could be structured in three main parts : habitats, species and entomologists. The originality of the first part would be to present the different habitats - woodlands, heaths, grasslands, fens, coastal dunes, etc. - focusing on the history of landscape. That is to say the past and present technical geography, from agro-sylvo-pastoral systems to land-use statistical data, including habitat changes. The second part will be the most important. It corresponds to texts, illustration and diachronical referenced maps of 110 or so present, occasional or extinct species. This contemporary crisis of species' extinction, becoming more pronounced in agricultural plains of Western France, will be analysed from case to case through the monographical texts. The third part will gather together the biographical notices of all the entomologists who are witnesses, more than 320 today, incomparable gallery of two centuries of naturalistic culture. Also, introductive or synthetic chapters could be positioned in this triptych, for example : to review the project or to present the study area (1st part), studies on the biodiversity and its erosion (2nd part), history of regional entomology and museology (3rd part).


BOYDEN Stephen V. 1992. Biohistory : the interplay between human society and the biosphere, past and present. Paris,
        Carnforth and Park Ridge, UNESCO and The Parthenon Publishing Group, 279 p.

NAKAMURA Keiko 1997. Biohistory, New Perspectives on the Relationship between Science and Society. Biohistory
        Special International Edition, april 1997 : 6-8. Osaka.

PERREIN Christian 1987a. Phytohistoire : les bocages tel un grand jardin. 303. Recherches et Créations, 14 : 92-96.

PERREIN Christian 1987b. Contribution à l'archéologie des bocages : recherches méthodologiques sur l'utilisation
        des données botaniques de la haie vive. Paris-Toulouse, mémoire de diplôme de l'École des hautes études en
        sciences sociales, 181 p.

PERREIN Christian 1991a. Archéologie des bocages : phytohistoire de la haie vive. In : Guilaine J. (ed.), Pour une
        archéologie agraire, à la croisée des sciences de l'homme et de la nature. Paris, Armand Colin, pp. 223-257.

PERREIN Christian 1991b. Prodrome de biohistoire des lieux à Quercus ilex L. dans l'Ouest de la France : la
        phytogéographie et la naissance de l'écologie végétale (Diplôme d'études approfondies de l'École des hautes
        études en sciences sociales, Paris). Nantes, Imprimerie Contemporaine, sept. 1991, 58 p.

PERREIN Christian 1998. Le projet français de biohistoire. Penn ar Bed, 170 : 27-38. Brest.

PERREIN Christian 2000. Où sont les biohistoriens. Le Monde, jeudi 14 sept. 2000, 17305 :19.

SANDERS A.P.M. & DE VRIES H. 1970. Frans Verdoorn, plant scientist and biohistorian, a concise chronology. In :
        Smit P. & Ter Laage R. J. Ch. (eds), Essays in biohistory. Utrecht, International Association for Plant Taxonomy,
        pp. xiv-xxii.

Christian PERREIN, PhD in history of science

Atlas entomologique régional (Nantes)
3, rue Bertrand-Geslin
F-44000 Nantes

Created 2001 September, 11th
Updated 2006 August, 03rd