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Imperial Nature, by Jim Endersby October 26, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Book Club.
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Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the Practices of Victorian Science is a study of late Victorian botany and natural history centered around the career and practices of naturalist Joseph Hooker (1817-1911).  Endersby avows to be less interested in the structures or mentalities which informed Hooker’s long career in botany, ending as director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, than in “considering his material practices and the objects they involved” (312.) By analyzing practices, Endersby “sets” Hooker back “on his feet,” while previous accounts, by beginning with ideas,  have stood him “on his head.”  Much like Marx’s purported inversion of Hegel’s philosophy into the realm of social action and into praxis, the result of Endersby’s book, is, in many ways,  as concerned with ideas as those histories he is writing against.

The practices of Victorian botany in Endersby’s narrative helps to narrate the interaction between  “apparently esoteric matters, like theories of geographical distribution” and “mundane matters like the practicalities of earning a living” (313.) As importantly, an emphasis on the minutiae of daily practice, for Endersby, helps underscore how Hooker’s botanical work “remade nature in empire’s image.”  Hooker, Endersby details, though only briefly visiting  colonial spaces- New Zealand, Tasmania, and British India-, was keen to persuade his network of colonial botanists, whose samples his work depended upon, “that he alone knew how many species of plants their land held and what each were called” (314.)

Endersby’s discussions of taxonomy and the species question in Hooker’s writing as well as his account of Hooker’s efforts to render his botany more philosophical in response to the pressures of distinguishing himself in a crowded field  depend upon the situation of Hooker in the history of ideas as well as concrete daily practices.

Endersby’s narrative of how the philosophical approach could raise the prestige of a lowly “collecting science” includes fine discussions of French and German taxonomical systems.  Endersby situates Hooker’s efforts to raise the prestige of botany within the general effort to determine what characteristics enabled sciences as systems of knowledge to progress. To these ends, Endersby argues that it was Whewell’s emphasis on the “greater creative role of the theorist” in his “History of the Inductive Sciences” as well as his discussions of Forbes’s and Lyell’s “speculative ideas about geological processes” which became “central” to Hooker’s ideas about the mechanisms behind the distribution of species (212.)

Endersby’s narrative also conjoins descriptions of scientific labor with discussions of mentalities.  The production of specimen labels, upon which “any details that would not be preserved in a dried specimens had to be sketched and noted” (138,)  point to such complex intellectual problematics as “status,” “trust,” “taxonomy,” and to the distinct kind of natural knowledge afforded by an intimate stance with the sample.

Hooker’s instructions for which terms to use and which details to note on specimen labels were one of the many mechanisms for ensuring uniformity in description and initial classification and in “encouraging compliance” among his network of colonial specimen collectors (140.)  Endersby argues that “standardizing such things as methods of collecting, labeling, and preserving specimens helped exchange networks to develop and flourish.” (141) Endersby also underscores the development of confidence and expertise of local collectors who sometimes “became aware of a potential defect in European books” and argued that dried samples were insufficient for proper description.

Thus, Endersby’s narrates  an interesting dynamic.  Colonial collectors were inferior in status to botanists and natural historians in the metropolis and dependent upon established centrally located botanists such as Hooker for patronage and recognition.   Hooker was as dependent upon colonial collectors, who owing to their position in the field, had better knowledge of living specimens and their lived environments.

Dorinda Outram has argued for a similar dynamic between the two kinds of natural knowledge and two different approaches to nature as existing in nineteenth century natural history- that of the sedentary naturalist and that of the field naturalist- in her contribution “New Spaces in Natural History,” in Cultures of Natural History, edited by Nicholas Jardine, James Secord, and Emma Spary.  Outram underscores how there was recognition among practitioners (such as Baron Cuvier) that while the field naturalist was superior in his appraisal of the individual specimen in its lived environment, his knowledge was incomplete: intense, fleeting, and unsystematic. The sedentary naturalist, such as Hooker, surrounded by books and prepared specimens, had a far better appreciation for the entire order of nature but less knowledge of life itself in its immediacy.

Such an aspiration to and possession of systematicity, Endersby contends, together with a professional, gentlemanly position and a central location in the metropolis, were key attributes of status within the world of botanists and natural historians.  This status, Endersby contends, was negotiated and made insecure by the empirical encroachments by colonial collectors who continually drew from their knowledge of living specimens and by the lowly status accorded to botany and natural history in the Victorian period.

The differing kinds of knowledge produced by the location of the collector on the periphery or at the center allows Endersby to focus as well on the “taxonomic” mentalities generated by these distinct positions.  Hooker was a “taxonomic ‘lumper,’ who constantly united numerous varieties by classifying them as a single species.”  Local naturalists, on the other hand, “were often ‘splitters,’ subdividing Hooker’s broad species into more precisely defined ones,” justifying their positions by arguing that “only living plants could reveal the numerous varieties of a species.”  Endersby, however, is quick to point out that theoretical concerns were not the sole motivation in the resolution of taxonomical problematics.

Hooker implores in this vein that it was “‘imperative, on philosophical grounds as well as those of expediency,’ to reduce the number of species” (157.)  Endersby concludes that species concepts were determined not only by the location of the naturalist but also by the size of his collection, with Kew making “Hooker’s classificatory method possible, allowing him to defend his broad definition of a species” with the sheer size of his herbarium “undoubtedly” encouraging “adoption of broadly defined species” (ibid.)

Although Endersby attempts to situate Hooker’s botany in everyday practices, in material dynamics, and in social currents, rather than the history of scientific ideas, scientific ideas, particularly in the latter chapters of the work,”Classifying,” “Settling,” “Publishing,” “Charting,”  continually reassert themselves alongside and are connected to discussions of the praxis of botany and natural history in the Victorian era.  Endersby’s turn to praxis, rhetorical and otherwise, underscores his intention to stay within the grand narrative of science studies.  A close reading of the text, however, reveals Endersby’s engagement with both ideas and practices, rather than solely with the material objects of Hooker’s scientific carreer.

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