[Taxacom] article on the decline of taxonomists

Peter Stevens peter.stevens at mobot.org
Sat Sep 11 16:07:12 CDT 2010


The topic still is - the point that I would emphasize that taxonomy  
was in decline in the 19thC and viewed by some as a discipline of  
little worth, and this is true of botanical taxonomy in particular -  
you can see this even in poetry.  This is the view much of the public  
took, and a similar view still surfaces almost unconsciously in  
places like Nature, literary magazines, etc. We are not talking   
simply about internal rivalry; comments like those below reflect  
general societal values. Not that there is no connection with  
decolonization, although a link with methods becoming more abstract  
seems a stretch.

P.
On Sep 11, 2010, at 3:05 AM, <dipteryx at freeler.nl> wrote:

> Well, the topic was the decline of taxonomy.
>
> These quoted texts represent very recognizable sentiments
> (the first extract, by Coulter, reminds me of Mark Chase giving
> his assesment of the Cronquist system), but these may be taken
> to concern perennial rivalry (itself perhaps a problem) rather
> than the decline of taxonomy. The latter is widely felt to have
> manifested itself over the past fifty/forty/thirty years ...
>
> Hence my hypothesis that this is linked (to at least some degree)
> with decolonization (the falling away of the direct economic link
> with the tropical living world; when the living world became an
> abstract topic rather than a practical one, methods could become
> more abstract as well).
>
> Paul
>
> -----Oorspronkelijk bericht-----
> Van: Peter Stevens [mailto:peter.stevens at mobot.org]
> Verzonden: vr 10-9-2010 21:38
> Aan: dipteryx at freeler.nl
> CC: taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
> Onderwerp: Re: [Taxacom] article on the decline of taxonomists
>
> 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.
>
> P.
>
> [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
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>
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