[Taxacom] article on the decline of taxonomists

Peter Stevens peter.stevens at mobot.org
Fri Sep 10 14:38:01 CDT 2010

Well, the roots in fact go back much further, to Buffon at least and  
complementary activities of Rousseau, Linnaeus and Goethe.  Just read  
the invective associated with the New Botany (end 19th C) in the  
United States, for instance; the New (= laboratory) Botany is played  
off against an (ef)feminized old botany that is taxonomy, and  
slightly later, the issue of "Sham Biology".  For your amusement, two  
quotes, one by a botanist promoting lab botany (Bessey makes similar  
remarks at this time), and the second a zoologist claiming that  
biology had nothing to do with botany - and I can assure you that  
these are not taken out of context.  BTW, that biology could be  
considered entirely zoological in the 19th (and even 20th) Cs is  
connected with the fact that natural history could be considered to  
have nothing to do with plants.


[The] advance from its first simple stages to its present fullness  
and complexity is like the story of the advance of a savage tribe to  
extreme civilization.  First studied as things of utility, plants  
presently were regarded as things of beauty, and the "scientia  
amabilis" counted its votaries by thousands.  Recommended especially  
to ladies as a harmless pastime, not overtaxing to the mind, and  
called even by Goethe the "loveliest of sciences", it was an  
emasculated science, which regarded merely the cut of the clothes  
rather than the man beneath.  In spite of the subsequent revelation  
of the botanical man, the capacity of plants for usefulness in the  
domain of aestheticism still brands botany in certain quarters as an  
emotion rather than a study, a view which brings some such shudder to  
the modern botanist as is experienced by the modern astronomer when  
informed that "it must be lovely to trace the constellations!"  But  
the botanical man has been liberated, and his virile strength is  
becoming daily more evident.  In this presence it is not necessary  
for me to magnify the great modern science of botany, with its  
tremendous reaches, its deep insight into the very secret of life,  
its masterful problems that call for the highest expressions of  
diligence and genius.  This you have already done for me, and I find  
the ground prepared and fertile for such seeds as I may have to drop  
into it .[i]

[i] J. M. Coulter, The Botanical Outlook, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1895,  
4-5, see also Stevens, 1997, p. 27.

Was aught of bios seen when reading those dismal and dreary papers  
constituting a Glossary of Botanical Terms?  Did the student learn  
anything about life while trying to separate Thalictrum from Anemone  
or trying to unravel the snarls of the Asters and Solidagos.  I ween  
not.  Life and biology—a discourse on life—made its first appearance  
in the minds of the students when zoology lebowed [sic] its way into  
the curriculum.  It was not until the living amoeba (the animal is  
not a myth) thrust out its pseudopodia right in the very face of the  
student,... that biology came in.  Zoology brought the impetus and  
the idea, and in many a college where the botanist  still goes his  
weary round of finding out whether the ovule is orthotropous or  
anatropous and of looking at the placentation of the ovule, all study  
of life is still left to the zoologist.  Why should he not claim the  
word biology?[i]

[i] Anonymous, 'In reference to “biology”’, Botanical Gazette (1890),  
15, 276, emphasis in the original [by a "prominent zoologist'].  He  
described natural history as including only botany and geology.  See  
also Editorial, Bot. Gaz. 15: 236-237. 1890 [by a “prominent botanist”].

On Sep 10, 2010, at 3:51 AM, <dipteryx at freeler.nl>  
<dipteryx at freeler.nl> wrote:

> Van: taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu namens Peter Stevens
> Verzonden: do 9-9-2010 15:53
>> Seriously, we have been complaining about our decline
>> and the fact that nobody loves us for a century or so;
>> it does get a bit stale.  I have often thought about
>> pulling together the relevant literature;
> ***
> A century looks like an overstatement; more likely something
> like half that. A likely cause/correlation for the decline
> should be decolonization; the very reason for having colonies
> was to have products such as spices, drugs, dyes, etc, etc,
> derived from the living world. A lot of research capacity was
> tied up with that, including taxonomy; and when this economic
> incentive fell away ...
> Paul
> _______________________________________________
> Taxacom Mailing List
> Taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
> http://mailman.nhm.ku.edu/mailman/listinfo/taxacom
> The Taxacom archive going back to 1992 may be searched with either  
> of these methods:
> (1) http://taxacom.markmail.org
> Or (2) a Google search specified as:  site:mailman.nhm.ku.edu/ 
> pipermail/taxacom  your search terms here

More information about the Taxacom mailing list