Species-Mongers

Steven Shapin

  • Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the Practices of Victorian Science by Jim Endersby
    Chicago, 429 pp, £18.00, May 2008, ISBN 978 0 226 20791 9

In the great adventures of botanical discovery from the 17th to the 19th century, expertise about plants was often supplementary cargo in voyages whose main purpose was to find, chart and conquer new lands. You planted the flag and then you named the plants. Making an inventory of the world’s plants, learning where they grew (and where they could be made to grow), and figuring out what they were good for, were activities hugely dependent on the navies, armies and trading companies of the big imperial powers. The mutiny on the Bounty ruined a mission in imperial botany: Lieutenant William Bligh’s task had been to secure breadfruit trees from Tahiti, then carry them to the Caribbean to provide cheap food for slaves on the sugar-cane plantations. (The trees got to the Caribbean on a second Royal Navy breadfruit voyage in 1793.) The theory of natural selection was also a by-product of empire: Charles Darwin went along for the ride on the survey barque HMS Beagle as unpaid gentleman’s companion to the captain. Hydrography, meteorology and cartography in the aid of empire were the Beagle’s missions, evolutionary theory its unintended consequence.

From the 18th century, botanists battled over the proper way to name and classify plants. The binary taxonomic system devised by Linnaeus in the 1750s was frankly ‘artificial’. That is, its classifying criteria – the number and arrangements of the sexual parts of flowers – arbitrarily focused on a small portion of a plant’s features and were not meant to reflect the patterns of relationship actually found in nature. The system was, instead, intended as a practical tool that would allow easy identification and global stability of reference. So, the shooting star I’ve got in my garden is, in Linnaean nomenclature, Dodecatheon pulchellum, where the first name is the ‘genus’ and the second the ‘specific epithet’; you can tell it’s Dodecatheon because of the number, size and pattern of petals, stamens (bearing the male organs) and pistils (the female bits), which you can check in any number of published ‘keys’. At higher taxonomic levels, my plant is a member of the Primula ‘family’, and below the species there may be varieties (or sub-species). What count as varieties to some authorities are distinct species to others – but we won’t go into that now. Common (or garden) usage, by comparison, is a mess: you can take your pick between ‘pretty shooting star’, ‘few-flowered shooting star’, ‘dark-throated shooting star’, ‘sticky shooting star’, ‘Cusick’s shooting star’, ‘southern shooting star’ and ‘prairie shooting star’. Sometimes one or more of these names are used to refer to a different Linnaean species, so you usually have a referential reliability with the Linnaean Latin binomials that you don’t have with the common names.

By the late 18th century, however, many botanists wanted to find a ‘natural’ classification – one that flowed from plants’ overall morphology. The system of expert classification then really would reflect God’s creative order; it would be objective and ‘philosophical’, not a mere pragmatic sorting device. In the first part of the 19th century, there were botanists who wished to stick with the Linnaean system and those who recommended a natural system. But there were many candidates for classificatory ‘naturalness’ and, in the meantime, even proponents of a natural system continued to use Linnaean sexual taxonomy whenever it suited them. Taxonomic purity was often announced as a goal, but plant naming and ordering was, and to a large extent remains, a hodge-podge.

Metropolitan botanists were keen to impose order on the ever expanding global stock of plant species; to establish their right, as experts, to impose order, and especially their particular conception of order; and to acquire the financial and material resources that would allow the massive project of expert ordering to proceed as quickly and efficiently as possible. The choice of taxonomic system and classificatory practice showed how insecure the social and cultural position of the botanical expert actually was: experts who couldn’t agree on the basic principles of their trade might be regarded as no experts at all.

Botany was a peculiar sort of science. There were academically trained experts, and there were people – though only a few – who made a living as botanists in the 18th and early 19th centuries. But one of the apparent cultural strengths of botany was also a source of weakness. There were too many people, of too many different sorts, who had an interest in it: physicians through materia medica; horticulturalists through economic concerns; domestic gardeners and painters through aesthetic interests; natural theologians who ransacked botanic knowledge for proofs of divine attributes and intentions (‘consider the lilies of the field, how they grow’); middle-class and aristocratic ladies for whom it was a desirable feminine ‘accomplishment’. Then there were the globally distributed worthies who wanted the richness and particularities of their local flora to be formally acknowledged, and who sought personal recognition as discoverers of new species. To have your Latinised name – or that of someone or something you wanted to honour – on a plant was a kind of immortality. The range of interest in plants was too varied, too widely dispersed and too culturally resonant for the taste of metropolitan botanists, and that heterogeneity made for problems in the stability of classification and in giving plants their proper names.

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