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.