Dressed-up fleas, devil butterflies and the Thames whales: the strange ways nature has influenced human history

A new series exploring the weird and wonderful impact of nature on culture and society over the course of human history is to air on Radio 4 this week


Presented by wildlife expert Brett Westwood, the weekly Natural Histories series will explore how creatures such as butterflies, apes and even fleas have become embedded in human culture – thanks, in part, to the likes of Damien Hirst, Anton Chekhov, Harry Potter and Finding Nemo.


The 25-part series is the result of a collaboration between Radio 4 and the Natural History Museum in London.

We caught up with series producer, Mary Colwell, who gave us a sneak preview…


Q: What is the aim of the Natural Histories series?

A: It’s a look at how nature has become interwoven into our culture and society. People have, through history, used nature to enrich culture.

The series will explore 25 different species and objects from the Natural History Museum. We will look into how different animals have inspired human history.


Q: We understand the series features the Thames whales – the one that found itself stranded in 2006, and the one that was butchered by a boatload of sailors in 1791. Can you tell us about that?

A: The northern bottlenose whale that swam up the River Thames in 2006 sparked huge public interest. People tried to save it, but sadly it died.

The whale so moved people that a fundraising campaign was launched to preserve its skeleton. But what’s interesting is we did not always love whales. In previous centuries they were harpooned.

What changed our perception of whales was biologist Roger Payne’s discovery in 1967 of whale song among humpback whales. In 1970 he put out an album called Songs of the Humpback Whale.

At this point, we started to see whales as being like ourselves. [The album prompted a movement to disallow hunting whales, and to preserve marine habitat for whales]. Our perception of whales was changed also by the wealth of natural history filming in the 1970s.

Q: What were your personal series highlights?

A: Many of the discoveries were very surprising – I was amazed by the dual aspect of many creatures. For example, we love butterflies today and consider them beautiful, but in times gone by, bright butterflies were considered to be a symbol of death and the devil.

Therefore, in many paintings of flowers – the most famous being the Dutch Flower Still Life (1669, Cincinnati Art Museum) – you’ll see butterflies such as the Red Admiral feeding on dead flowers. They are supposed to represent sin and evil.

Also, I discovered the word ‘butterfly’ comes from the fear that the creatures stole milk from the dairy.

I was also fascinated by the burbot – the only freshwater cod, common in eastern rivers in England, which became extinct in the 1960s for reasons unknown. They were big and slimy and flabby, yet they were popular enough to feature on cigarette cards, and they featured in a Chekov play [The Burbot by Anton Chekov, 1885].

I found it so interesting that the burbot became extinct only in the 1960s, yet we have all but forgotten about them.

The Burbot: hand-coloured engraved plate 70 by F W Schmidt Jr, drawn by Kruger Jr, after a drawing by Marcus Bloch (1723-1799), from his Ichthyologie – a work on the natural history of fish (Berlin, 1785-1788). (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Another interesting aspect of the series is the exploration of coral reefs. Many people love them now, but for so long they were treacherous for ships when they were made of wood. For example, between 1848 and 1859 more than 600 ships were wrecked on the Florida coral reef alone. The coral reef just shredded them.

Q: How would you describe the impact of nature on society?

A: It’s amazing how nature has impacted upon the world. It has infiltrated our minds all through time.

We take it almost for granted that nature is this huge force that has changed how we think about the world – religion, art and our belief systems have all been influenced by nature.

Q: Why has our perception of nature, and of different species, changed so dramatically over time?

A: Firstly, knowledge. This is largely down to the media. For example, most people will never see a whale in their lifetime, yet we’ve witnessed huge ‘save the whale’ campaigns.

Secondly, ideas and tastes have changed. We are now more aware of nature, and we have a different idea of things.


The first episode of Natural Histories airs on Radio 4 on 2 June at 11am. To find out more, click here.