Voyagers

James Paradis

  • Sir Joseph Banks by Charles Lyte
    David and Charles, 248 pp, £10.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 7153 7884 8
  • The Heyday of Natural History: 1820-1870 by Lynn Barber
    Cape, 320 pp, £9.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 224 01448 X
  • A Vision of Eden by Marianne North
    Webb and Bower, 240 pp, £8.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 906671 18 3

Amateur naturalists of the 19th century found their intellectual claims to the territory of nature weakened by several scientific developments. The most important development concerned the language of science. The specialists who were now writing about natural science increasingly refined their terms in order to build a literary structure of professional knowledge. By degrees, they located the authority of natural history in technical dialects removed from the vernacular of common experience. Their huge word systems – those of the botanical, zoological and geological sciences – slowly consumed the familiar objects of the landscape. The products of analysis and logic, rather than of an intuitive sense of the whole, these word systems resolved the unity of nature into classes of objects, which were further subdivided into structures whose elements were assigned standard definitions. The book of nature was thus transformed into a textbook which only the most single-minded were likely to master.

There are many examples of such technical inventory-taking among the works of the early naturalist-scientists, but the modern taxonomical beginning was made in Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum (1753). Linnaeus consolidated previous nomenclature schemes in botany by adopting an artificial classification system. He defined the system in a standard terminology derived from the sexual characteristics of plants. The basic unit of the Linnaean system was the binary name, which combined the generic name with a species epithet. The Linnaean innovation of constructing an interlocking system of classes, terms and names was so significant, William Whewell argued in his Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840), that modern systemic science could be said to begin with Linnaeus.

Whewell wrote at a time when a wide variety of new lexical systems had been accepted as the matrices of scientific discourse. Each system, whether in botany, geology or comparative anatomy, gave identity and focus to a field of scientific inquiry. Specialist languages helped to consolidate groups of inquirers who represented discrete scientific disciplines. The highly Latinate and abstract accounts of much of the specialist’s work were normally fit only for the journals of professional organisations, which were formed partly to create new reading audiences. The first specialist society was, appropriately, the Linnaean Society, founded in 1788 around Linnaeus’s remarkable botanical collection, which was purchased for £1000 by James Edward Smith in 1783 and brought to London over the protest of all Swedish science.

By the beginning of the Victorian era, the amateur tradition of the country naturalist and nature-appreciator – a tradition given great dignity and prestige by Gilbert White – had become something quite different from the activity of the professional scientist. In his Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830), Charles Babbage dismissed the amateur tradition of science as wholly inadequate to the serious advancement of scientific knowledge. As young men now applied themselves to the study of law, he argued, future scientists must devote themselves to the mastery of their respective disciplines. Responding to the call of Babbage and others for a new professionalism in the sciences, researchers and academicians from around the country gathered at York in September 1831 to form the British Association for the Advancement of Science. One important aim of the Association was to give stronger impulse and more systematic direction to scientific inquiry in England.

The predominantly rural and individualist tradition of nature-appreciation, which had long blended comfortably with the activities of the poet and natural theologian, was slowly made to seem quaint and unmethodical as urban bodies of collaborative researchers gave their disciplined professional lives to the extension of detailed systems of knowledge. Even Darwin, who drew from the traditions of both the amateur and the specialist, wrote for circles of experts. The decline in reputation of amateurs such as Sir Joseph Banks and James Audubon, both of whom had counted themselves as naturalists, was largely the result of their failure to contribute to the growing body of specialist literature.

Coleridge, a careful student of the Linnaean tradition, objected that the ‘epidemic’ application of nomenclatures to organic nature was a trivialisation of natural space. In The Friend, he warned that Linnaeus’s superficial name-arranging was so devoted to efficient causes as to leave no place for final causes – the highest contemplative realm of the mind. Philosophically reinforcing the observations Wordsworth had made in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads about the emotional sterility of the sciences, Coleridge charged that Linnaeus had reduced plant sexuality to a mnemonic principle of classification by means of which ‘one man’s experience may be communicated to others, and the objects safely reasoned on while absent’. His system failed to achieve the dimensions of a philosophy, since it did not reveal the ‘constitutive nature and inner necessity of sex itself’. The Linnaean code, he concluded, was little more than a lexical accumulation, ‘a huge catalogue’ masquerading as a science.

Equally basic to Coleridge’s objections was the challenge of scientific language to the authority of the senses. The primacy of sensation, so vital to the Romantic vision of nature, had long been suspect in the sciences. Bacon, in his Novum Organum, doubted that the senses, unaided by experiment or instruments, could arrive at exact knowledge. Some two centuries later, John Herschel, in his textbook, Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1831), warned the novice that the human sense apparatus was too crude and subjective an instrument to discover anything of scientific moment. The senses, he argued, must be disciplined by the methods and language of the scientific observer.

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