Plant science people
How important are individual people in shaping the course of history?
When is history following a predictable path, and when is it just a matter of chance events and random outcomes? Can we rank in importance the many factors that have determined the course of history, the network of influences that have brought us to now – material factors like climate, topography, geography, natural resources, and technology . . . social factors like great men and women or the ideas and ideals embedded in science, medicine, culture, art, and religion . . . maybe ideologies like socialism or capitalism? This is a tall order.
History is more than the study of kings and queens but we cannot ignore the legacy of influential people. Until recent times urban societies were strongly hierarchical. People had a relatively fixed station within society and that determined the way you dressed, spoke, and related to other people. Decisions affecting peoples’ lives flowed from relatively few important individuals ‘downwards’ to the general population. As liberal democracies have become more entrenched across the world, so major decisions have tended to flow ‘upwards’ from the people (though simplistic recent times have shown that voting can elect unusual people during times of disenchantment). No doubt school history was largely a narrative about elites of various kinds because they determined what would affect everybody else. Whatever your view on these matters (and as just presented it is a very simplistic one) the people described here lived in times that were more strongly structured socially. Today leading academics are distributed across the world when once they came from narrow geographic regions. Fathers are no longer the sole decision-makes in the family, and so on.
Though any choice of influential people is subjective, those I have described in this series of articles were carefully chosen for their influence on the world of plants, mainly the botany and horticulture of the West. This introduction to the series sets the scene for the more detailed accounts to follow.
Science, botany, sustainability
Ancient Greek philosophers are not popular today and might seem over-represented in the list of people discussed in this section. Perhaps there is a Eurocentric bias here with the great minds of India and the Orient ignored although it does seem that the sciences are more a Western phenomenon as evidenced by the history of medicine, mathematics, botany, and physics. Ancient Greek culture seemed to have absorbed and synthesized the wisdom of the ancient world like that of Egypt to its south and Mesopotamia and its developments to the East, and expressed most fluently in the work of the pre-Socratic philosophers.
Unlike Australian Aborigines, whose world revolved around their spiritual and physical dependence on the land, the Greek world was increasingly urban, many of its problems relating to the diversity of religious and other beliefs, and the many ways of structuring of society. This period was surely unprecedented for its intellectual honesty as all life and existence was pared back to its very basics to find solutions to the great problems of the universe and human existence. To do this would have required an extraordinary independence of mind in the face of customary beliefs and social traditions. We might not approve of ancient Greek society or even the mental detachment needed to delve into the questions of existence – but the Greek thinkers and their obsession with reason delivered unprecedented results in mathematics, science, law, art, literature, architecture, astronomy, psychology, politics, ethics, science and more. Though they too stood on the shoulders of others: if we want to know what makes Western science and society tick then we must look to these people and this period in history, and this was a truth recognised by the massive Roman Empire that was to follow. This was also appreciated by our educated forefathers weaned on the classics.
Today our education must address much more than our Greco-Roman heritage. Some might even feel that they must accept responsibility for some of today’s pressing problems. But we should all be aware of the profundity of their thought, their independence of mind, and the legacy to European culture.
For botanists all this begins with the legacy of plant science coming down to us from Aristotle and Theophrastus that for a brief period was studied alongside the folk-medicine that held sway before them and for 1200 years after. The Greek philosophers were a particularly analytic branch of introspection and religious blossoming that swept world civilisations in the Axial Age and their educational institutions, notably Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, are prototypes of our current universities as places of learning and research based on libraries of manuscripts.
Ancient Greek philosophy and traditions synthesized much of what was known in the ancient world – adapted by the more practical and less theoretical Roman society which, through its empire, laid the foundations for European society, then through European society to the European colonies, to form a Western tradition established during the Age of Discovery which culminated in European colonization and the Westernization of much of the world.
Naturalistic (non-supernatural and therefore proto-scientific) explanations of the world were explored by pre-Socratic philosophers (physiologoi) in western Anatolia (today’s Turkey) mostly at Miletus and Ephesus and other communities in coastal southern Italy including the famous Pythagorean school. Their ideas probably harked back in part to the early civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia but it was the musings of the pre-Socratics that served as challenges for the philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle of ancient Athens in the Golden Age of Greece.
For many years study of ancient Greece and Rome formed the core of the Western education system known as the ‘classics’, influencing European leaders for many generations through its literature, science, philosophy, heroic military triumphalism. ethos of the classical world and their overall influence can be felt today in our science, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, logic, engineering, ethics, politics, economics, law, architecture, sculpture, literature, art, education and much more.
Plato believed in a transcendental or subjective world independant of the material world, a world of ideas or Forms (eidos), what later became known as Platonic Idealism. His ideas would be united with those of Christianity by Medieval theologian St Augustine and later by Florentine Marsilio Ficino who translated his works into Latin at the Platonic Academy in Florence. Plato’s careful reasoning produced a roadmap for philosophical debate that has continued to this day including a carefully crafted metaphysics, epistemology, ontology, ethics, political theory, and theory of education. It even included a mystical four-step path to transcendental enlightenment. His student, Aristotle, used the term ‘Form’ in amore natural way to mean that which defines things, especially living organisms, the life principle that gives them both ‘potentiality’ (today we might call this the genetic make-up) but also ‘actuality’ or changing functionality through nutrition, motion, growth, ageing, sensation and all those processes that enable survival and reproduction including, in conscious organisms, emotion, the will and intellect (nous). This was all directed at what he called the ‘final cause’ of the organism … its goal, purpose, or meaning … the reason for its existence. His thinking would be incorporated into Christianity by the Medieval theologian St Thomas Aquinas. Aristotle is often said to be the first true scientist. For biologists it is not his ethics, logic, and politics that attracts so much as his ‘Invitation to Biology’.
For our purposes, it was Plato’s successor Theophrastus, the originator of plant science, who is of special interest. Theophrastus was part of a Greek culture that was part of the world-wide introspection of the Axial Age. Theophrastus’s curiosity led him to study plants for their intrinsic interest not just for the use that could be made of them. He worked on their classification, structure, function, reproduction, relationship to the land, and geographic distribution in addition to their various uses. The botany of Theophrastus and zoology of Aristotle represent the climax of natural history in antiquity. At the Lyceum (which, with Plato’s Academy, served as the model for today’s universities) Theophrastus inherited Aristotle’s garden and plant collection. The garden was associated with an educational institute with a library where there was research and lectures; it was situated within a designed sacred landscape (of a kind that probably dated back into prehistory) dedicated to the God Lykos. Some of the cultivated plants had been collected in foreign lands, like those returned from military campaigns by Alexander the Great (the first ‘Westerner’ to observe tropical vegetation) who had been tutored by Aristotle. As a living collection it was used by Theophrastus for botanical instruction and, although similar gardens had been developed elsewhere in the ancient world, its combination of characteristics mean that it can legitimately claim to be the forerunner of the botanic gardens familiar to us today. Though plant and animal trophies had been collected from distant lands in former times, those sent to Greece likely stimulated the later establishment and goals of zoos and botanic gardens
Theophrastus observed the changes that can occur to plants when under human care and selection, his writings Causa Plantarum and Historia Plantarum (presumed to be his lecture notes) suggested almost every aspect of modern botany including observations on plant sexuality and what we might today call genetypic and phenotypic variation, the way cultivated plants had sometimes acquired characteristics that differed from those of wild plants.
Libraries in Greece were among the earliest stores of knowledge being also places of learning and research. From the gymnasia of ancient Greece , the Academy of Plato and the Lyceum of Aristotle, have evolved the modern university.
Alexander was; encouraged the distribution of plants and animals by sending back specimens from his military campaigns.
Greek thinking influenced social behavior of later Europeans and the attitudes to plants of the early Australian settlers. Persian gardens seen by Alexander and his generals inspired the creation of luxurious Hellenistic gardens that were later emulated and developed by wealthy Romans who passed on their gardening traditions to Europe through their vast empire, and eventually to Britain during the Roman occupation from 45-410 CE.
Botanists of both the early Herbals and Enlightenment were well aware of Theophrastus and his work. At first this was descriptive medicinal botany but during the Enlightenment it would include aspects of his acquisitive economic botany by which he had hoped to serve the people of ancient Athens. Through people like Linnaeus (who honoured Theophrastus with the title ‘Father of Botany’) the botanic gardens of Leiden and Amsterdam, Joseph Banks at Kew, and Andre Thouin at the Jardin des Plantes the social value of plants for economic botany would playing an important role in European empire-building.
While Theophrastus was mostly an academic botanist Philosopher Epicurus was eccentric outsider who designed a beautiful ‘home garden’ on the outskirts of ancient Athens as a ‘pleasant and peaceful place’ referred to by the later Roman pastoral poets as a locus amoenus. Greek society was directed towards wealth, acclaim, fame, and power. Much more than today masculine heroism played a large part in all this – the pursuit of a peaceful life was contrary to all these values. Instead Epicurus valued close friendship, the freedom that comes with financial independence and self-sufficiency, and the rejuvenation we gain from meditation and reflection. The Garden was a retreat from the clamour of clashing human egos and a sanctuary from the rat-race. His own age was ravaged by warfare and undoubtedly the Epicureans were followers of the utopian and romanticised theory of the past as outlined in Hesiod’s Works and Days (c. 750 BCE) in which ‘The first humans were a golden race who lived in harmony with one-another in perfect peace and leisure in an eternal spring, and were beloved of the gods‘. When all have gained wisdom cities themselves will be unnecessary and laws will become redundant as all people will naturally cultivate justice. His age, he believed, sought unnecessary luxuries in distant lands, drowning in abundance as gold was chased and money invented. Cities, so much admired by Aristotle, were perceived by Epicurus as imperfect places where people sought wealth and power until, exhausted by strife and motivated by fear, they had ‘agreed to be bound by restrictive laws and coercive justice‘ and, as Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius (99-55 BCE) later said, ‘hence fear of punishments taint the prizes of life‘. For all his skeptical Romanticism Epicurus has struck a chord to the present day.
Theophrastus studied plants for their own interest as well as their utility – investigating their classification, structure, function, reproduction, relationship to the land, and geographic distribution as well as their medicinal, agricultural and other practical uses. He observed plant variation under human care and selection distinguishing what today we might call genetic and phenotypic variation, while foreshadowing almost every aspect of modern plant science. This detached curiosity so evident in western science – the desire to extirpate the least subjective bias – does seem to be a paricularly ancient Greek theme and is not always regarded as a virtue, Romantic movements in particular seeing it as a lack of humanity.
Theophrastus inherited Aristotle’s garden and plant collection at the Lyceum, some collected from military campaigns such as those of Alexander the Great (the first ‘Westerner’ to observe tropical vegetation) and his generals or introduced by other people. Used by Theophrastus for botanical instruction this collection, though similar gardens had been developed elsewhere in the ancient world, can claim to be a major forerunner of the modern botanic garden. Persian gardens seen by Alexander and his generals inspired the creation of luxurious gardens that were later emulated and developed by wealthy Romans who passed on their gardening traditions to Britain during the Roman occupation.
Theophrastus’s description of the social value of plants for economic botany and the methods of their collection were likely emulated by later botanists and explorers notably Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks.
Socrates, Plato, Aristotle
The intellectual world of the ancient Greeks, as exemplified by our five great thinkers Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Theophrastus and Epicurus was later adapted by the more practical Roman society which, through its empire, laid the foundations for European society, its colonies, and eventually Western society as a whole. European leaders-to-be were for many generations educated in the classics, the literature, science, philosophy and ethos of the classical world. Europe inherited from the Greeks and later Romans not only a tradition of intellectual rigour but their system of economy, justice, and politics, even social attitudes concerning the role of women and sexuality, education, the structure of society, and sport.
These men are Greek representatives of a stream of intellectual exploration that was taking place across Afro-Eurasia during the Axial Age (c. 800-200 BCE). In an unprecedented period of introspection the known world was taking mental stock in a movement that included not only the Mediterranean philosophers and developing Abrahamic religions but, in China, Taoism and Confucianism, in India Buddhism, and in Persia Zoroastrianism.
In The Republic and Timaeus Plato constructed an intricate and compelling edifice of thought, a toolbox for understanding and coping with the world, his intellectual architecture being something that could be further worked by subsequent generations. Much of the foundation of Western science came to us through ancient Greek thinking and Plato especially would provide the bedrock of all subsequent Western philosophy including those aspects of his thought incorporated into Christianity by St Augustine. We may not agree with his overall thesis today but the clarity, depth and breadth of thought expressed in The Republic over 2000 years ago is truly stunning: it laid out a roadmap for philosophical debate that has continued to this day with its carefully crafted metaphysics, epistemology, ontology, ethics, political theory, and theory of education. It even included a mystical four-step path to transcendental enlightenment.
Plato was a Rationalist. The world of Being, the world of Forms, could only be accessed through reason and logic. He is also associated with what became known as ‘idealism’, maintaining that ‘truth’ was abstract and transcendental (like the truths of mathematics, and the idea of the Forms) and it existed more clearly in our minds than in the natural world and only insofar as it approximated the ‘idea of the Good’. The world of sense experience was unreliable and illusory. It would take the genius of Aristotle to provide an alternative more earthly and scientific ourlook on the world.
Following the decline of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity Christian medieval scholastic theologians transposed Plato’s ideas into Christianity aligning his adeas with the world of Christian revelation. Saint Augustine (354-430 CE) in a school of thought that later became known as Neoplatonism, converted Plato’s worlds of Being and Becoming into the worlds of Heaven and Earth and the Form of the Good into God. Plato’s ‘soul’ (his tripartite mind) also belonged to the world of Forms because though invisible and capable of self-reflection it ruled the body. As ideas are not physical things they must belong to a spiritual realm which is more real than the material realm. As Forms were immutable then the soul too must be immortal, passing from the world of Becoming into the world of Being at death. For St Augustine Plato’s eternal world of Being, or heaven, was the place in the afterlife supporting the immortality of the soul. Plato’s objective morality became God’s law. Following Plato’s conviction that the world of sense-experience was unreliable, Christianity portrayed the physical world of experience as an inferior, imperfect or ‘fallen’ world, a wretched place totally unlike the perfect, eternal and transcendental world of God. Similar analogies were made in Islam and Judaism.
Plato’s works remained available after the fall of Rome while Aristotle’s thought was temporarily lost. Transcribed into Arabic by Islamic scholars Aristotle’s cogitations were later recovered by Christians during the Crusades, the depth of Aristotle’s thought being immediately recognised. Early Christian thinkers maintained that the consequence of reason had been a rag-bag of different viewpoints on all aspects of life resulting in chaos and confusion. Only faith could provide certainty and be our true support in life. Reason was condemned. When Aristotle’s works were rediscovered in th West they too were reconciled with the gospels through the ‘scholasticism’ of St Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274 CE) and his monumental work Summa Theologica that would become so influential in Christianity. Aquinas pointed out that God created not only the natural world but also the human faculty of reason. With St Thomas Aquinas reason was once again permitted a place in intellectual life, Aquinas supporting his position by noting that reason could be used to discover and celebrate the order and wonder of God’s Creation (a view that became known as ‘natural theology’). Only through Aquinas’s admission of reason did science become acceptable within that early Christian world. Christianity then incorporated Aristotelian ideas (he was known as ‘The Philosopher’) like his teleology, into the Christian idea of God’s purpose or plan.
For both Plato and Aristotle existence entailed a plan and therefore a supernatural agency. Plato thought that the order we see around us in the universe must have an ‘organising principle’. Aristotle also saw purpose and design in everything around him and referred to this as telos (see Meaning & purpose) with God the prime mover or initiator of the universe.
Though acknowledging a spiritual world, Aristotle is most closely associated with ‘analytic empiricism’ which maintained that it was possible to obtain true statements about the natural world by means of careful observation and analysis (break-down and classification) combined with the use of rigorous logic. He did not share Plato’s disdain for the material world. A scientifically-based bitter resentment of Plato for his transcendental religiosity, philosophical idealism and subjectivity, and authoritarian politics is not helpful as I hope you agree. Without Plato we would almost certainly have not had Aristotle.
Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, & Enlightenment
After the ancient Greeks open-minded philosophy would not return to the West for about 1200 years until the Renaissance when the intellectual battle-lines were clearly drawn. There were those following the transcendental Platonic tradition of innate ideas (the Rationalists) and those who followed Aristotle’s tradition of earthly observation (the Empiricists). These two schools of thought arrived at a stale-mate. Rationalists needed to generate objective truths from ideas untainted by experience (that is, from a priori ideas) this was a tall order). Meanwhile empiricists like John Locke and David Hume, who maintained that all meaningful ideas must be traced back to experience, had to confront the subjectivity of sense-experience, the ‘egocentric predicament’, an equally difficult problem. Only with Immanuel Kant would come the suggestion that our brain structures, or filters, our sensory input and that this is why we perceive the world the way we do – this filter was the a priori aspect of our ideas: it was a fusion of the Rational and Empirical positions so philosophy could move on.
So we can now see how Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the other ancient Greek philosophers had a profound influence on the future character of subsequent religion, education, science, politics, law, economics, social structure, morality, sexuality, sport and much more. Their influence on the history of ideas cannot be doubted. No education is complete without a knowledge of their contribution to the modern world and plant people will add to this trio Theophrastus, Aristotle’s heir at the Lyceum who laid the foundations of plant science. In our admiration and deep respect for their intellectual rigour we should not forget our social differences – these men lived in a strongly hierarchical society that supported slavery and denied women political and legal rights, Aristotle even describing women as ‘incomplete men’.
The vital link between human nature, reason, morality, science, and sustainability will be explored in the other articles of this section.
Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778)
On weekends the egocentric Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, Professor of Botany and Director of the Uppsala Botanic Gardens, would lead a devoted band of natural history ramblers out of the botanic gardens into the Swedish countryside preceded by banners and fanfares from French horns. His passion for the natural world and desire to categorise it has left us with the legacy of his fundamental division of the natural world into three basic groups, plants, animals and minerals from which we get the expression ‘animal, vegetable, or mineral?’
Linnaeus lived at a time when medicine, botany and horticulture were all closely related and he considered himself privileged, through his work, to be revealing to people the miraculous design of the natural world that had been placed there by its Creator. His aim was to name and describe every plant, animal and mineral in the world and his achievement was to lay the structural foundations of a system of classification and nomenclature that would allow later scientists to work together towards the goal that he could not possibly have achieved himself.
At a time when Britain and France were becoming the major European powers he managed to win over most of the scientific world to his ‘system’. He was well aware of the momentous role that plants could play in the future of humanity and sent his ‘Apostle’ students to the Americas, South Africa, Iceland, Egypt, Oceania, China and elsewhere to bring back natural history specimens and plants of economic value.
Linnaeus was an older contemporary of the wealthy English gentleman Joseph Banks. The two never met but Banks admired and supported Linnaeus’s ‘system’ and Linnaeus knew all about Banks’s famous voyage with Captain Cook to New Holland and the stunning collections made at Botany Bay (although he never saw any of these). This was because his favourite student ‘apostle’ Daniel Solander, who Linnaeus hoped would marry his daughter, was Banks’s botanical assistant on the voyage.
Linnaeus was undoubtedly the founding father of the closely integrated world of 18th century natural science.
Philip Miller (1691-1771)
As Head gardener of London’s Chelsea Physic Garden, Miller added state-of-the-art greenhouses and converted the former Apothecaries’ physic garden (a garden of medicinal herbs) into what was possibly the most extensive plant collection known to the world at that time. He presided over these gardens before Kew had become established as a public collection acting as mentor to the young Banks one of the many eminent visitors to the Chelsea Physic Garden. With an encyclopaedic and unrivalled knowledge of plants he was able to publish the Gardener’s Dictionary, a compendium of the many plants cultivated in Britain at this time, running to many editions and, for over 100 years, the standard reference on cultivated plants in Britain. Well-known as an advisor to the wealthy on all matters horticultural he was a key figure in the acquisition of new and curious plants from around the world and in the promulgation of horticulture. Unfortunately his curmudgeonly attitude meant that his meeting with the younger Linnaeus in ?1737 had not gone very well and he had resisted Linnaeus’s nomenclature, only grudgingly taking it up in 1768 in the 8th edition of the Dictionary, his surly attitude finally and sadly leading to his dismissal from the Chelsea Physic Garden after decades of service.
Miller died in the year that the Endeavour returned laden with plant collections from the east coast of New Holland so, like Linnaeus, he never saw any of the plants returned from Botany Bay.
Well known and respected throughout Britain and Europe Miller’s standing in the world of horticulture must be placed alongside the botanical stature of his contemporary Linnaeus.
Banks, more than any other person, linked Australia to the European world, not only in terms of its natural history, and botany in particular, but also in terms of its political and other appointments.
Joseph Banks masterminded and oversaw unprecedented volume of trade in both ornamental garden plants and crops. During his watch we witness the emergence of ‘Western’ (Neo-European) agriculture and horticulture. This took several forms: a rapid increase in numbers of commercial plant nurseries to meet the demands of an increasingly affluent middle class trying to emulate the lifestyles of their social superiors by growing new and exotic plants on larger garden plots; the large-scale transference of plants from one continent to another – no longer a few plants and packets of seed to collectors and specialist institutions but large commercial shipments, like those from America. Ornamental plants were imported to Britain from Africa (especially South Africa), Australia and Oceania, China, the Americas (especially North America) and the Far East: it was, in effect, the opening up of global trade by the world’s largest empire. Once in Britain the new plants could be quickly ‘bulked up’ in the new nurseries. New technologies that streamlined gardening included conservatory-like greenhouses that greatly extended the range of warm climate plants that could be grown. There was the introduction of plant breeding, pest control, and the serious study of plant acclimatization.
Banks was an entrepreneur, recognising the commercial gains to be made through well-organised economic botany as plants passed between Kew gardens and British colonies and outposts dotted through temperate and tropical climes. This was a period that included Bligh’s hunt for breadfruit and other stories relating to quinine, rubber, coffee, tea, cocoa, new spices and other plants. Botanical curiosity was transformed into global economics.
Most importantly trade was two-way. Settlers in the various new colonies needed food and as they lived mostly in temperate fertile regions it seemed obvious to import the traditional cereals of wheat, barley and rye along with fruit trees, root vegetables and the like. Maybe the distribution of ornamental and crop plants across the British Empire in the 18th century was part of an inevitable progression of events, but it marked a transition from minor and innocuous trade to a globalization of plants transport that would have far-reaching and unforeseen environmental consequences – consequences that we are now still digesting.
The spread of agriculture and pastoralism across the neo-Europes has been the single greatest devourer of land and ecosystem services. With increased food (energy) supply has come increased population and food demand in a spiral that is still with us along with increasing population, infrastructure and heavy consumption of resources, most notably water. This follows a well-known pattern: displacement of indigenous people; spread of invasive organisms as part of global biotic homogenisation; and extinction of species.
Insofar as humanity was ever engaged with nature in a battle for supremacy, to control nature for its own ends, it was in the 18th century that they discovered the means to gain the upper hand as environmental issues which would soon become global were set in train. Banks, well-meaning and in complete ignorance of the consequences of his actions (what would he think if he were placed in the centre of Sydney today?) is a part of this less inspiring narrative. Humans have won (for now).
In Banks we see the close connection between botany and horticulture, nurseries and botanic gardens, even the Royal Society, the English House of Parliament and British high society all linked by the exchange of living and dried plants. He is credited with the introduction to Europe of the first Australian live plants and seed for cultivation and was a major supporter of the international science, being actively involved in maintaining communication with continental scientists during the Napoleonic Wars, and in introducing the British people to the wonders of the wider world. Linnaeus was so impressed with the natural history collections made on the first voyage (although he did not see any of them) that he thought the new continent should be named Banksia. He was patron to many gardener-botanists sent out from Kew including those sent to Australia such as Peter Good etc. and on the voyage of the Endeavour his experience of living plant care, herbarium specimen collection, and ways of preserving seed viability was passed on to his charges.
Banks’s insistence on scientific representation on major voyages and teams setting off on land exploration no doubt strengthened a tradition that would later include Menzies on the Discovery, Labillardière on the Recherche, Brown on the Investigator, Darwin on the Beagle, Hooker on the Erebus and many more.
Before Phillip left for Australia with the First Fleet he was a regular guest at Soho Square where he received instructions on the plants to take, received seed from Banks and notes on which plants to pick up at Rio and the Cape. Banks’s botanical collector Masson met the Fleet at the Cape, later writing to Banks informing him that the captain’s cabin in the Sirius had been packed with pots of cocoa, coffee, oranges, figs and vines.
Banks was an Enlightenment scientist whose desire to improve was a two-edged sword. The ripples of his influence steered Britain in a direction that would benefit empire, economy and society, changing lives and landscape. Now that Banks has ‘gone global’ we see that benefits have travelled in tandem with costs.
Josephine Beauharnais (1763-1814)
With the passing of Napolean came the passing of French influence in the world. French claims to land in the antipodes included the Marion Dufresne claim to Van Diemen’s Land in 1772 and Louis St Allouarn’s claim to the west coast of New Holland in the same year, followed by Napoleon’s Baudin expedition which claimed the south coast of New Holland under the name Terre Napoleon. Without subsequent settlement all these claims were to lapse.
Paradoxically, France at the time of Empress Josephine was caught in a frenzy of ‘anglomania’, the fashionable set seeking out English fabrics, teas, even assuming English manners – eating roast beef, wearing riding coats, enjoying horse-racing … and setting up gardens in the romantic English tradition, á l’anglaise, in preference to the formal rectilinear parterres so popular in France at the time.
In common with the rest of European society, France’s Enlightenment intelligentsia and social elite were also in the grip of ‘botanophilia’ an obsession with natural history that was focused firmly on plants. As, in France, a hopeful Revolution turned into the Reign of Terror, botanophilia beamed out as a tantalizing intellectual ideal that held the imagination of Europe’s Enlightenment elite – in a way botanophilia symbolized the culmination of human achievement to that time through the innocent combination of botany and horticulture: an unlikely coupling of science and beauty that rose above the politics of the day.
Like Joseph Banks, Empress Josephine was a key link in the European network of social connections that included royalty, aristocracy, the wealthy, intellectuals and scientists, nurserymen, garden designers, gardeners, botanists and government officials. Because of her position she was able to set the fashionable trend of the day and in so doing play a key role in delineating the future path of botany and horticulture by advancing the ideas and practice of: plant introduction; exploration; plant hunting; plant exchange; acclimatization; garden design; hothouse cultivation; botanical description; botanical illustration; and science above politics.
Robert Brown (1773-1858)
Brown had made many astute and detailed observations on plant affinities and penetrated more deeply into plants with his microscope than many of his contemporaries. He made detailed studies of protoplasmic streaming, fertilization and pollination, his studies of pollen grains revealing a strange, apparently random and jittery movement of particles suspended in a fluid, a phenomenon named after him as ‘Brownian motion’. In an 1825 paper he noted the fundamental distinction between the exposed seed of coniferous plants (gymnosperm = naked seed), and how in flowering plants seed was contained within the fruit (angiosperm – enclosed seed), then in 1831 he observed the cell nucleus (his term). In 1833 he was awarded one of the eight prestigious foreign memberships of the French Academie des Sciences. His colleagues regarded him as an authority on plant geography and was lauded by von Humboldt as ‘Botanicorum facile princeps‘. He always maintained contact with Australian botany, his last work being the appendix to Charles Sturt’s Narrative of an Expedition into Central Australia. He kept a close control over the collections; much of his material was never published and the next major work on Australian plants, George Bentham’s Flora Australiensis 1-7 (London, 1863-78), was not commenced until after Brown had died.
It is the scale of Robert Brown’s collections and the descriptive output of Bentham and Mueller that stand out in the early history of Australian botany. He had established his scientific reputation by emphasising the experimental aspects of the study in addition to the descriptive approach of his day, championing a ‘natural’ system of plant classification to replace Linnaeus’s ‘sexual system’ (as Linnaeus had predicted, and long after the French) but making many astute and detailed observations on plant affinities and penetrating more deeply into plants with his microscope than many of his contemporaries.
Sadly his later years were clouded by disagreements between the botanical division of the British Museum and Kew Gardens. He resisted the tradition of patronage, dilettante botanists and the perception of botany as a leisurely hobby, doing this by successfully lobbying for state-paid botanists at the British Museum working hard to create a Royal Society with greater emphasis on ‘science’ and less emphasis on ‘gentlemen’. Consequently He clashed with the influential Lindley, author of the Gardener’s Chronicle and, since he was seen as usurping, to a degree, the status of Kew as the premier botanical institution, he also lost the support of a former admirer Director Joseph Hooker.
This was all part of the changing times as the religious hold on universities decreased, the professional scientist achieved respectability, and experimental science began to replace the old natural history.
Brown’s achievements in Australian botany would not be eclipsed until the arrival of Ferdinand Mueller in the 1850s.
Ferdinand Mueller (1815-1896)
Ferdinand Mueller was by today’s standards a workaholic, describing more than 2,000 Australian plant species and producing more than 2,000 publications. Many of his articles provided perceptive commentary on matters related to botany and horticulture – such as the role and function of botanic gardens, papers on economic botany and even conservation. In 1857 he produced a review of exploration in Australia which followed the theme of geographical research promoted by the popular and influential von Humboldt a fellow Prussian that he admired.
The exploration was to continue throughout his life, both within and outside Victoria. In 1880 he told Alphonse DeCandolle he had “travelled on horseback and on foot 28,000 English miles [45,062 km]!” this was in all states and through the continent’s major vegetation types, possibly a greater distance, and certainly more varied, than any other explorer in Australian history including Leichhardt, and a feat that will never be repeated.
Much of his time was spent battling government bureaucracy and, as an eccentric, he was mercilessly lampooned by both the public and press for his ever-present scarf (he had a dread of tuberculosis), love of meringues, and a steady flow of English neologisms spoken in a rich German accent.
Mueller was profusely decorated, becoming a baron in 1871. He was always a prominent and contributing figure in both academic and public life. With a well-established international reputation he was, without doubt, Australia’s most outstanding botanist and one of Australia’s greatest ever scientists.
Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
Though Darwin himself was inoffensive his theory was an affront to the beliefs of his day. It seems likely that his lifelong ailments, and long procrastination in publishing his theory, were a manifestation of his dread of the inevitable reaction that greeted his life’s work – the papers dubbing him ‘The Devil’s Disciple’ and pointing out the arrogance of his challenge to natural theology’s intelligent design by a divine creator. Cartoonists had a field day lampooning the degrading implication that humans were related to monkeys.
The theory of evolution, descent with modification under natural selection, was in many ways the culmination of Enlightenment science: it created a new grand narrative because it placed humans within nature rather than separate from it and challenged the idea of human moral superiority within the universe. Like Aristotle he was a great theoretician who spent many hourse dissecting, observing and analysing the natural world itself. By about 1870 his new grand narrative, the reality of evolution, was broadly accepted but Darwin’s claim for natural selection as its engine remained controversial until the modern evolutionary synthesis of the period 1930-1950. No longer able to resist its explanatory power the various Christian churches moved from a literal interpretation of the Bible as its historical content now became metaphor and allegory. To this day not all are convinced, believing that the Christian story is essentially correct or that there is (or need not be) conflict between the two accounts of the nature of the world. Darwin had sent the internationally famous Melbourne botanist Ferdinand Mueller a personal copy of On the Origin of Species but Mueller died in 1896 still believing in the immutability of species.
For natural scientists the theory of evolution neatly combined into a unifying and coherent theory anomalous information that had steadily accumulated in biogeography, geology (notably its fossils, geological strata, and much-extended time-frame), embryology, and studies of artificial selection in the domestication of animals and plants. It placed humans within a branching evolutionary tree that dated back many thousands of years, and a geological time frame of eons that, less than 200 years ago from today, most people believed was no greater than about 6,000 years. Under the influence of Thomas Huxley natural theology was now challenged by what became known as ‘naturalism’ which asserted that only the natural world and natural laws exist: that there is no credible evidence for spiritual or supernatural forces.