A global history of Linnaean science

On 12 October there was a workshop at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm on “A global history of Linnaean science, 1750–1820”. My longtime collaborator Hanna Hodacs and I had organised it in cooperation with the Academy’s Center for History of Science under its director Karl Grandin. It was a small event, with a handful of invited speakers from various countries and a total of 22 participants, but it lived up to and exceeded some very high expectations. We are most grateful to the Center, to all our speakers, chairs and other participants, and of course to those who made it possible by giving us the necessary funding: the foundations of Åke Wiberg and Lars Hiertas Minne.

We had tried to put together a mix of speakers and topics that we thought would be similar enough to stay focused and diverse enough to stimulate good discussions – a difficult balancing act to be sure, but it seems to have worked out perfectly. The workshop was one full day, from 8.30 in the morning to 5.30 in the afternoon, but we only had eight papers. As usual, speakers were given about 20 minutes to present their papers, but rather than 5 or 10 minutes for discussion we had an equal 20 and that made a lot of difference. It allowed for more in-depth discussions and kept everyone engaged throughout the day, so that by the end of it we were all quite exhausted but – I think – also full of inspiration and new ideas for future work.

The following is the general outline of the workshop that we put on the front page of the conference programme:

The overarching idea of this workshop is to explore the global geography of Linnaean science. Both centres (whether cosmopolitan Paris or on the Coromandel coast) and frontiers (Norwegian as well as Venezuelan) will be discussed. Within this broad theme there are a number of other topics connecting the papers. The inclusion of many different types of naturalists, long distance travellers, clergymen botanists and collection builders will form the basis for discussions on legacy, scientific persona and how to write the biographies of Linnaean scholars. We will also discuss how an investigation of everyday practice, such as paper technologies and collection administration, can help inform our understanding of how Linnaean natural history became a global science. While the main focus is on the period from 1750 to 1820, we will take a long view on Linnaean natural history, exploring its prehistory and origins in the 17th and early 18th centuries.

Stéphane Van Damme, Sciences Po, Paris
Stéphane Van Damme, Sciences Po, Paris

The speakers were Alix Cooper (New York), Brita Brenna (Oslo), Bettina Dietz (Hong Kong), Kenneth Nyberg (Gothenburg), Stéphane Van Damme (Paris), Niklas Thode Jensen (Copenhagen), Isabelle Charmantier (Exeter) and Hanna Hodacs (Warwick). We also had some very distinguished chairs who helped us stay on track and make sense of what it all meant: Marie-Christine Skuncke (Uppsala), Otto Sibum (Uppsala) and Sverker Sörlin (Stockholm). Thank you to everyone for an incredibly intense and enriching day of discussing the global history of Linnaean science!

Update 17 October: Here is the complete workshop programme (PDF) for download, including short bios of the speakers and their abstracts.

Online-only scholarship?

On the NPS blog Mysteries and Conundrums, John Hennessy has an interesting post about how far he as a Civil War historian can get today using only online sources. More and more is becoming available, but Hennessy thinks that (at least in his field) we are not yet close to the point where digital collections are all we need:

While it’s astonishing how fast the mass of materials online is growing, we are still far from the day when new, credible, comprehensive, and definitive history can be written from the digital domain alone. Covet your Ipads, but also hang on to those rolls of dimes for the copy machines, continue to make friends in your favorite repositories, and keep those laptops ready for transcription (barbaric though it may seem), because doing really good history requires all those things.

It is difficult to argue seriously with this assessment today, but I cannot help wondering for how long that will be the case.

How revolutions are made

Speaking of the digital revolution, a few weeks ago Andrew Prescott gave a keynote address at the Digital Humanities Congress in Sheffield. I wasn’t there but the text has been posted online. In the keynote Prescott questions some widely held beliefs about revolutions both industrial, social and digital:

The Arab Spring, the arrival of printing and the Industrial Revolution all show us how change is not necessarily revolutionary or disruptive. The processes we think of as revolutionary can be lengthy, patchy in character, amorphous, difficult to measure and unpredictable, and there is no reason to think that the digital will be any different. It’s the continuities and the parallels that are often as striking as the disruptions.

In an age of rapid change were many bold claims are made, a thoughtful analysis such as this is what I call putting history to good use.

Making a difference

Speaking of 9/11, Rachel Herrmann wrote a blog post last year about how she decided to become a historian because of how that day unfolded in her classroom:

So what has stuck with me from that day has been Dr. Maskin’s behavior in our history class. Even in the face of the attacks, he retained the cool, analytical poise of a historian. On September 11th, I learned how historians have to ask those difficult questions, even when present events are shrouded in uncertainty. He made us aware that we were witnessing history in the making, an event akin to our parents’ watching the moon landing or hearing about JFK’s assassination. It was a horrible, devastating event, but it was history nonetheless, and we had to engage with it. Dr. Maskin hadn’t planned it, but that was one of the best teaching moments that I’ve seen, ever.

It is a terrific story about the difference that teachers (and historians) can make.

A curious and useful life

What follows is an abstract of the research project I am currently working on. It is scheduled to run until early 2015 and is funded by the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation (Riksbankens Jubileumsfond). The preliminary title of the project is A Curious and Useful Life: Pehr Löfling and the Globalization of Knowledge, 1729–1756. If you read Swedish, there is more information on the project blog. And if you are working on anything even remotely related I would be happy to hear from you – please contact me!

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Pehr Löfling (1729–1756) was one of the most prominent students of naturalist Carl Linnaeus. During a brief life spent in Sweden, Spain and South America, he became deeply involved in the globalization of knowledge that Linnaean natural history represented from the middle of the eighteenth century. He was directly engaged in the formulation of some of his teacher’s new principles and methods; he contributed to spreading them in the European Republic of Letters; and he was given a rare chance of applying the Linnaean ideas in a colonial context, where they both challenged and were challenged by indigenous epistemologies.

The goal of my research is to understand how different stages and aspects of the globalization of knowledge impacted on and were affected by individual lives such as Löfling’s. Based on an approach that David Livingstone has called “life geography”, I will primarily analyse three encounters and the spaces (literally situations) in which they occurred: between Löfling as a young man and the Linnaean circle in Uppsala; between him as a Linnaean “apostle” and Spanish botanists in Madrid; and between him as a European colonial naturalist and the Amerindians of the Orinoco region in present-day Venezuela.

Some of the questions I hope to address are: What do these exchanges and their outcomes tell us about the theory and practice of Linnaean natural history? How did space, location, place affect the allegedly universal science that Löfling represented? Finally, what role did the motives of curiosity and utility play in his scientific work as it evolved over the years?