biology and botany

p stevens p_stevens at NOCMSMGW.HARVARD.EDU
Thu Jun 1 10:22:57 CDT 1995

The summary of responses to Jeremy Bruhl's letter that he recently posted is
absolutely fascinating.  The discussion could perhaps usefully continue, so
to that end some comments that reading the letter and the responses brought
to mind...

The general issue is one in one guise or another has been with us for about
200 years, and so is likely to prove rather intractcable.

J. P. Campbell, 1891. Biological teaching in the colleges of the United
States.  US Bureau Ed. circular 9.  This article led to extensive discussion
in Science, Botanical Gazette and American Naturalist.  See esp. Conway
MacMillan. 1893.  On the emergence of "sham" biology in America.  Science 21:
184-186. Discussion concerned things like zoologists arrogating to themselves
the title of biologist (and David Barrington's remarks about the naimg of the
erstwhile zoology department at Vermont is then simply a recent exemplar of
this venerable trend).

"For the comfort of my critics I may add that the reason why the majority of
such biological chairs are filled with animal biologists is because such have
had on the whole better training" (an anonymous, but apparently eminent,
zoologist: Bot. Gaz. 16: 90. 1891)!!!

"biology", whether zoological only or including botany, was variously seen as
being more analytical, concerned with big questions, experimental, laboratory
focused, less descriptive, concerned only with part of the organism, etc.
But the distinction between "biology" and the rest of botany (more focussed
on classification) goes back to distinctions between "botanique physique" and
"botanique proprement dite" made by among others by Augustin-Pyramus de
Candolle (in Lamarck and Candolle, Flora Francaise, ed. 3) in 1805, and
similar distinctions were evident before that...  So the comments by
Patterson (what problem? the common language of biology is molecular) and
Horton and Berlyn (where are the organisms?) are, I think, made from opposite
sides of a divide about the best way to go about science in general and
botany in particular (although the brief comments the respondents make would
doubtless be tempered if there had been more space).

The comments about botanists being negative, fractious and divided
(Patterson, McDade - and notoriously true of Harvard until fairly recently)
are perhaps to be expected of a group whose interests have seemed to be
persistently under attack, which has been true of many of the more
"classical" aspects of botany until recently.

There is another element in the whole discussion that needs mentioning, and
that is that decisions to merge and split are not made in academic vacuua,
that is, soley by the scientists immediately concerned, and those who
ultimately approve or reject them are party to only some of the discussions
and also have their own ideas of what botany, biology and zoology are.  And
it seems to me that botany and natural history in particular have had bad
press through much of this century, with the excesses of the nature study
movement and the nature fakers at the turn of the century (a US example)
simply confirming a belief common among non-scientists in particular, and
also some scientists, about the nature of studies on nature.  "Botany" has
been seen to be a study of flowers, names, and little else of use - witness a
comment by a president of an american university made in the early 1980s of
taxonomic botany "Isn't that just flower picking?".  Such attitudes also must
be taken into consideration, even if they are hard for a historian to
document and biologists(!) to bring into the open and dispose of.  I find
these broader contexts of the debate over botany vs biology, and funding for
subdisciplines in botany, as interesting (and I think as important) as
discussions we have with our immediate colleagues.

A few more references:
Farlow, W. G. 1913.  The change from the old to the new botany in the United
States.  Science NS 37: 79-86.
P. J. Pauly, 1984.  The emergence of academic biology in late
ninetenth-ventury America.  J. History of Biology 17: 369-397.  There has
been discussion of this general subject since, but this is a good article, I
Bolick, M. R. 1989.  Botany departments vs biology departments: Is there a
difference for Botanical Society of America members?  Plant. Sci. Bull.
35(3): 2-3.
Smocovitis, V. B. 1992.  Disciplining botany: A taxonomic problem.  Taxon 41:

Peter Stevens

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