Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads


#StevesLibrary: Sex, Botany and Empire

After reading The Naming of the Shrew recently, I was eager to find our more about Carl Linnaeus in an easily digestible format. That is where Sex, Botany & Empire comes in. The author, Patricia Fara is a historian of science at the University of Cambridge, which is right up my alley! In this fairly easy read, Fara reveals how Enlightenment botany was used to strengthen the might of the British Empire. Linnaeus may have trained his disciples to spread the gospel of his new taxonomical system (as well as sending him plant specimens from around the world), but he also opened the door to Enlightenment Britain to conquering the world. This was through correspondence with Joseph Banks, a keen admirer of Linnaeus who later became the president of the Royal Society, a position he held for more than 40 years. Using this position of power, Banks encouraged a revolution in trade and politics, as well as British science.

At the time, Enlightenment botany was replete with sexual symbolism due to the controversial new system that Carl Linnaeus introduced. With his myriad of terms relating the marriage and pariahs, to describe the reproductive anatomy of flowers, many saw botanical textbooks as pornographic materials. It was this controversy though, that helped set the seeds of what was to come. We all know that a good scandal helps to promote an idea, as it assists it in reaching a wider audience. Linnaeus was also an expert in self-promotion which meant that once his ideas had reached the world, he was able to influence people in power to start using them, therefore helping to cement the taxonomical nomenclature that we use today. I can’t imagine being a scientist in a world where there were was no single consensus on how to go about naming a species. Banks was also renowned for a scandal or two, having reported that his trousers were stolen while he was inside the tent of Queen Oberea of Tahiti. I’m not sure I believe that one. Both men became powerful political and scientific figures, ones that worked hard to promote who botanical exploration alongside the exploitation of territories and peoples. After all, there must have been some potential crops or other useful plants growing in unexplored territories that could be exploited for profit!

Sex, Botany & Empire follows the story of Linnaeus and Banks, the problems they faced along the way, but also how they managed to secure their power in the face of uncertain odds. Unsurprisingly, Banks was quite wealthy, which is one of the reasons why he was able to assert the dominance that he did. Having friends high up in the navy, as well as being a personal friend to King George III also helped. Looking back at everything, there is no doubt that what Banks promoted would be frowned upon today. However, the world would been a much different place if he had not used his knowledge and influence to revolutionise centres such as Kew Gardens, as places where botanical research could be conducted in order to understand the usefulness of various plants. A large number of our medicines for examples, are botanical in origin. Banks may not have discovered these properties himself, but it is clear that he along with Linnaeus, helped to put botany on the map.

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