The Innocent Science -- the Botanizers: Amateur Scientists

Natural History, October 1992 | Go to article overview

The Innocent Science -- the Botanizers: Amateur Scientists


THE BOTANIZERS: AMATEUR SCIENTISTS IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICA, by Elizabeth B. Keeney, The University of North Carolina Press, $34.95; 195 pp., illus.

The Botanizers is an uncommon natural history book. It has very little to do with sepals and calyxes and the expected stuff of botany and a great deal to say about self-improvement, natural theology, and the fabric of American culture in the nineteenth century. In taking up what was called the innocent science, Elizabeth B. Keeney shows us how the urge to know nature is woven into that fabric.

Botanizers were the amateurs of botany, as distinguished from botanists, who were the professionals--pretty much as birders today are distinguished from ornithologists. In the nineteenth century, which is the period Keeney covers, hundreds of thousands of Americans occupied their spare time by finding plants, identifying and classifying them, and preserving them between sheets of delicate paper. But their interest in this discipline--taxonomy--was secondary. They were more committed to self-advancement, Keeney emphasizes, than to the advancement of science.

Keeney keeps her eye on the moral and social impulses that motivated the botanizers, finding her sources not so much in manuals and learned journals as in Godey's Lady's Book, The Youth's Companion, and the novels of Louisa May Alcott. Her points are bracketed by two nineteenth-century quotations assessing the virtues of botanizing. "Botanizing," said one proponent, "accustoms the mind to systematic arrangement, definite rules of classification, and strict attention to the importance of terms." Moralists, holding that "the natural tendencies of botany are altogether good," saw it as "the best corrective of the heartless and demoralizing state of society."

It all began with Carl Linnaeus, who had brought order out of the chaos of botany by devising the first workable system of identifying and classifying plants. Based on the number of pistils and stamens in flowers, the system was straightforward and consistent--and also superficial and relatively short-lived. Still, its impact on the intellectual life of the Western world was enormous, because almost anybody with will and patience could master the identification and classification of plants. Botany became the most accessible of sciences and, in an unprecedented way, opened science itself to the untrained. Generations of "virtuosi," educated and mostly upper-class men, formed an intellectual elite known as the natural history circle, the most cohesive scientific group of the Enlightenment.

American botanizers were more plebeian, as befitted their new democracy. Some, having mastered the rules of taxonomy, reached professional levels. But most worked along the fringes of the discipline, settling for the rudiments and concerned largely with building up collections of plants.

Not everybody could botanize. One had to be literate enough to understand the manuals and prosperous enough to have the time. It was a middle-class activity, reflecting in its earnestness the Protestant work ethic, the Calvinist insistence on seeking worthy ways and egalitarian demands for self-betterment--to take advantage, it was said, of "the improving hand of culture." "In an age buzzing with reform," says Keeney, "the image of botany as an improving activity served firmly to establish its popularity. Self-improvement was an inexpensive and available means of attaining social and economic advancement by exercising each individual's obligation to cultivate God-given abilities to his or her fullest potential."

This led to another virtue. Botanizing was, to a contemporary, "so pure, so refined, and so unalloyed by human passions" that it stood as "the most genteel and delicate" of sciences. It did not involve handling dead animals, which zoologists had to do, or shooting birds, as ornithologists then did. "To middle-class moralists," Keeney remarks dryly, "gentility was a compelling call to botanize. …

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