New(ish) book: Linnaeus, natural history and the circulation of knowledge

Linnaeus, natural history and the circulation of knowledgeAlthough six months late, here is a brief post to introduce a new(ish) book I am both excited and proud to be a part of: Hanna Hodacs, Kenneth Nyberg and Stéphane Van Damme (eds.), Linnaeus, natural history and the circulation of knowledge, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment 2018:1 (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2018). Published last January, this volume – with contributions by ten scholars from almost as many countries – examines the circulation of knowledge about nature in the long eighteenth century. As the back cover puts it, in the book we ”argue for the need to re-centre Linnaean science and de-centre Linnaeus the man by exploring the ideas, practices and people connected to his taxonomic innovations”. (See below for the table of contents.) Apparently this is just what many people had been waiting for, because a few days ago I and my co-editors received word that the volume has already sold out of its (admittedly modest) first print run with a second printing now underway.

More information about Linnaeus, natural history and the circulation of knowledge is available on its page at the Voltaire Foundation’s website and in the blog post written by the volume editors at the time of the book’s release. Shortly after, both Dalarna University and the University of Gothenburg interviewed Hanna Hodacs and me, respectively, for online articles in Swedish on the aims and arguments of the volume. Finally, as a matter of historical record (as it were), I have also published blog posts here about the workshops in Stockholm in 2012 and Florence in 2014 where early versions of the contributions to the volume were presented and discussed. More than five years from first drafts to finished book is a very long time, but in this case it was definitely worth the wait.

Update 14 August 2018: If you want to order the book, the purchase link on the Voltaire Foundation page mentioned above does not work. Instead, go to this page at Liverpool University Press.


LNHCK contents

Research project on Pehr Löfling concluded

Much of my research during the last few years has focused on the eighteenth century botanist and traveller Pehr Löfling, a student of Carl Linnaeus. I am not yet done with him, I think, but last week I submitted the final report on ”Pehr Löfling and the globalization of knowledge, 1729–1756”, a project that ran from 2011 to 2014 and was funded by the Riksbankens Jubileumsfond. Below is the English version of the report’s summary of objectives and outcomes, followed by the list of publications resulting, directly or indirectly, from the project.

Over the next month or two I will reorganise a now defunct Swedish-language research blog on Löfling into a permanent project archive with a variety of documentation and resources. While most of the information will be in Swedish, I plan to include a few pages of overviews on Löfling and the project in English, as well as an extensive list of references and links to related material in Swedish, Spanish and English.

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Objectives and outcomes

The overall objective of this project has been to use the life and travels of Swedish botanist Pehr Löfling (1729–1756), who worked in Spain and South America in the 1750s, to explore and analyse the early wave of knowledge globalisation that Linnaean botany represented. The research has focused on three encounters in the “life geography” of Löfling: between him as a young student and Linnaean taxonomy, between him as a Linnaean “apostle” and the world of Spanish science, and between him as a European (colonial) scientist and indigenous American populations.

In essence, this basic premise has not changed as the project has run its course, although over time I have revised parts of the theoretical framework. In the application I used ideas about centre/periphery and the relationship between concepts like local, national and global to organise the contexts in which Löfling moved. While they were never meant to be applied uncritically, in view of recent discussions within the global history of science about the “circulation of knowledge” and “go-betweens” these notions grew increasingly problematic and have been gradually toned down.

This shift aligns well with my own previous work on the global travels of Linnaeus’s students, where I have challenged what I call Linnaeus’s perspective on these journeys and argued that they should be understood in a broader context where there were many stakeholders with different motives. One of the main results of the project has been an example of this in practice as Löfling, during his time in Spain and South America, did not only try to lay the foundations for a future career by cementing his relationship with Linnaeus and other key figures in Sweden, but also actively worked to make himself known to internationally prominent botanists. Meanwhile, in Madrid he did everything he could to build trust and good relations with Spanish scientists and politicians, on whom he depended for the journey to Cumana and Guayana that might be decisive for his prospects as a naturalist.

The second major finding concerns Löfling’s role in the process by which Linnaean natural history evolved from a national enterprise – albeit one with global roots, as it were – into an endeavour on a European and eventually global scale, often in the service of colonialism. Based on both primary and secondary sources I have been able to significantly deepen our understanding of the implications of a previously known simple fact: that Löfling was one of the first examples of this development. Before any other Linnaean traveller he took part in an actively ongoing colonisation operation, that of the Spanish empire in Cumana province. In the close examination of this aspect of his life and work, I have also been able to engage the discussion about the go-betweens and their role in the global circulation of knowledge, arguing that depending on circumstances European scientists like Löfling could also clearly assume such a role.

The third and last main conclusion also relates to Löfling’s position as a quintessential middleman, situated as he was at the intersection of multiple traditions, cultures and identities in Madrid as well as New Andalusia. Analysing this position by the use of letters written to various types of recipients – family, friends, Linnaeus and other Swedish benefactors, Spanish botanists and officials – I have been able to show how Löfling’s identity was continually being renegotiated based on changing situation(s) and relations. In him, loyalties based on nationality, ethnicity and religious belief were often deeply connected to and entangled with his strong sense of what it meant to be a Linnaean botanist. Thus, qualities that he associated with ‘other’ (and competing) traditions of natural history he also ascribed, to some extent, to the Spanish as a nation; and in his mind this latter category was, in turn, closely associated with the inherent ‘otherness’ of their predominant religion, Roman Catholicism.

In the course of the project new questions have arisen that point to the broader context of Löfling and his work. Firstly, it would be interesting to relate the study of Löfling in more detail to the other stakeholders in his journey and their varying motives, and to explore what this says about the relationship between science, colonialism and politics during the eighteenth century. Such issues have been touched upon within the project, but could be developed significantly based on both primary sources and an extensive literature in Spanish that is rarely cited in Swedish- or even English-language scholarship. Secondly, the work on Löfling has made me more aware of the little-known history of Spanish-Swedish relations from a colonial perspective. A study of the repeated Swedish efforts throughout much of the eighteenth century to acquire a colony from Spain in the Caribbean or on the South American coast could be a very interesting contribution to the globalisation of Swedish history.


Main publications

1) Kenneth Nyberg, ”Forskare är också människor: Om global historia och forskarbiografiers värde,” in Henrik Alexandersson, Alexander Andreeff & Annika Bünz (eds.), Med hjärta och hjärna: En vänbok till professor Elisabeth Arwill-Nordbladh (Göteborg: Institutionen för historiska studier, Göteborgs universitet, 2014), pp. 65–74; available online at (accessed 23 March 2015).

2) Kenneth Nyberg, ”Från Tolvfors till Orinoco: Pehr Löflings resa och den globala historien,” Historielärarnas förenings årsskrift 2015 (forthcoming, summer 2015), c. 10 pp.

3) Kenneth Nyberg & Manuel Lucena Giraldo, ”Lives of useful curiosity: The global legacy of Pehr Löfling in the long eighteenth century,” in Hanna Hodacs, Kenneth Nyberg & Stéphane Van Damme (eds.), Empire of Nature: A global history of Linnaean science in the long eighteenth century (forthcoming, spring 2016), c. 25 pp.

4) Kenneth Nyberg, ”A world of distinctions: Pehr Löfling and the meaning of difference,” in Magdalena Naum & Fredrik Ekengren (eds.), Encountering the ‘Other’: Ethnic diversity, culture and travel in early modern Sweden (forthcoming, spring 2016), c. 25 pp.

5) Kenneth Nyberg, ”Linnaeus’s apostles and the globalization of knowledge,” in Pat Manning (ed.), Works of Nature (forthcoming, spring 2016), c. 22 pp.

Other project-related publications

6) Kenneth Nyberg, ”Anders Sparrman – konturer av en livshistoria,” in Gunnar Broberg, David Dunér & Roland Moberg (eds.), Anders Sparrman: Linnean, världsresenär, fattigläkare (Uppsala: Svenska Linnésällskapet, 2012), pp. 13–34.

7) Kenneth Nyberg, [review of] ”Torkel Stålmarck, Ostindiefararen Carl Gustav Ekeberg 1716–1784, Acta Regiae Societatis Scientiarum et Litterarum Gothoburgensis, Humaniora 44 (Göteborg: Kungl. Vetenskaps- och Vitterhets-Samhället, 2012). 94 s.,” Sjuttonhundratal 2013, pp. 235–237.

8) Kenneth Nyberg, [review of] ”Gösta Kjellin och Johanna Enckell, Sissi-Jaakko. En klassresa i svenskt 1700-tal (Helsingfors: Schildts 2011). 176 s.,” Historisk tidskrift 2013:1, pp. 93–95.

9) Kenneth Nyberg, ”Anders Sparrman och Stilla havets utforskning,” in Katarina Streiffert Eikeland & Madelaine Miller (eds.), En maritim värld – från stenåldern till idag (Lindome: Bricoleur Press, 2013), pp. 186–192. [Textbook chapter.]

10) Kenneth Nyberg, ”En linneansk forskarkarriär i ett globalt perspektiv: [Review of] Marie-Christine Skuncke, Carl Peter Thunberg – Botanist and Physician: Career-building across the oceans in the eighteenth century (Uppsala: Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study, 2014),” Respons 2014:6, pp. 62–64.

11) Kenneth Nyberg, ”En linneansk karriär [review of Marie-Christine Skuncke, Carl Peter Thunberg – Botanist and Physician: Career-building across the oceans in the eighteenth century (Uppsala: Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study, 2014)],” Svenska Linnésällskapets årsskrift 2014, pp. 161–163.

12) Hanna Hodacs, Kenneth Nyberg & Stéphane Van Damme, ”Introduction,” in Hodacs, Nyberg & Van Damme (eds.), Empire of Nature: A global history of Linnaean science in the long eighteenth century (forthcoming, spring 2016), c. 30 pp.

A global history of Linnaean science (II)

Some two years ago, Hanna Hodacs and I co-sponsored a workshop called ”A Global History of Linnaean Science” at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, where we were hosted by the Director of the Academy’s Center for History of Science, Karl Grandin. It was a small event, with eight presentations and a total of 22 participants, but we thought it a great success and decided we should try to publish the papers as a collected volume. One of the participants that day, Stéphane Van Damme, agreed to edit the collection together with us, and we began to plan for a second workshop more focused on discussing draft chapters than oral presentations.

Nature's EmpireAfter a long time of preparation we finally reconvened last week, on 14 November, for an intense day of discussions at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. Stéphane is now a Professor of History of Science at the Institute, which graciously provided all the local arrangements and facilities as well as lodging for those who attended. Karl Grandin and the Swedish Academy of Sciences once again generously supported us, this time by helping with the cost of travel for some of the participants flying in from various countries in Europe and elsewhere. The full title of this second workshop was ”Nature’s Empire: A Global History of Linnaean Science in the Long Eighteenth Century” and the programme including a list of contributors can be downloaded here (PDF, 643 Kb).

It turned out to be an extraordinarily productive day of rich, stimulating discussions about many aspects of Linnaean natural history and, more broadly, the early modern global history of science in which Linnaean ideas, practices, objects and people played an important role. It is not possible here to even try to summarize these discussions, especially as they were often linked – in one way or the other – to specific aspects of the pre-circulated papers that we had all read. However, the statement of aims in the programme gives a good general idea of the issues and questions covered in the course of the day:

This conference addresses a topic at the forefront of many discussions today, the global circulation of knowledge. Few eighteenth century figures can have contributed as much to the globalisation of natural history knowledge as the naturalist Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778). The publication of Species Plantarum in 1753, Linnaeus’s global flora where he launched his new scientific nomenclature to an international audience, is often referred to as year zero in the history of modern botany. Published at a time that saw an escalation of contacts between different parts of the world, Linnaeus’s work promoted global communication and exploration of the species of the planet.

The argument of this conference is that in order to understand this process we need to move beyond the individual intellectual contributions of Linnaeus to focus on processes that involved circulation and modification of knowledge. This […] includes discussions on early modern information storing technologies and the use of landscapes for pinning names to nature and establishing orders and systems. It also focuses on the creation of collective and individual identities through reading and corresponding, and the role of journeys, in and between landscapes, shaping knowledge gathering and the lives of knowledge gatherers.

[The] conference aims also to offer a historiographical perspective on this process, including a discussion of pre-Linnaean natural history, and the legacy of Linnaean natural history in modern scholarship. Linnaeus’s interest in natural history was largely aimed at exploring resources at home in Sweden, or enriching domestic flora and fauna with exotic plants and animals. His taxonomy and nomenclature were of course to have more far ranging impacts than that, and as such [the book in preparation] will also offer a way of thinking of the connections between local and global and knowledge and power, and thereby contributing to current debates about the relationship between science and European expansion.

Producing a book is often a protracted affair and much work clearly remains; while the workshop resolved some issues and enhanced our understanding of others, it also raised new questions that need to be answered before we are done. Still, I think we all felt that this one, long day of conversations about the global history of Linnaean science brought us quite a bit closer to our goal. The next step, for authors and editors alike, is as expected as it is familiar to all of us: Revise and resubmit. And that, of course, has always been what both scholarship and science is all about.

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.