BOOK REVIEW: Jim Endersby’s ‘Imperial Nature’

Imperial Nature by Jim Endersby

Imperial Nature by Jim Endersby

Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the Practices of Victorian Science. By Jim Endersby. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. xii + 429 pp. Acknowledgments, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index,. $35.00 (cloth).

In Pamela Smith’s The Body and the Artisan, we are asked to reconsider assumptions we hold about the Scientific Revolution: that it was a radical change in the acquiring of knowledge about the natural world, and that through texts and experimentation, natural philosophers in Italy and England led the way. For Smith, however, it was within a different place and among different actors that the “Scientific Revolution” actually got its start: artisans, not natural philosophers, in the Lower countries and Germany, not Italy and England, structured their desire to know about the natural world through physical experience, not books, to claim the superiority of embodied knowledge [1]. Those figures commonly associated with the Scientific Revolution, such as Francis Bacon, took up the artisans’ epistemological methodology.

This decentering of geographic origins and deemphasizing the role of iconic figures in the history of science has recently became a new analytical tool that has turned upside down long held notions of science as a progressive and strictly Western process. In Imperial Nature, historian of science Jim Endersby asks similar questions about Victorian science. Is it strictly something pouring out of Britain to the rest of the world? Is it run only by iconic men of science? Is the nineteenth century a period that is best understood only as split into pre- and post-Darwinian? Is the primary characteristic of Victorian science the push for professionalization within different disciplines? Endersby, probably more than any other historian working today, has an abiding fondness for Joseph Dalton Hooker. An online resource about Hooker that Endersby put together testifies to this claim (, as does the many articles he has published in a variety of journals. But Endersby does more than just inform others about Hooker. Imperial Nature, based on Endersby’s Ph.D. dissertation, analyzes Hooker’s career as a nineteenth-century botanist to reconsider common yet clichéd themes in thinking about Victorian science: “the reception of Darwinism, the consequences of empire, and the emergence of a scientific profession” (3).

Important to Endersby, as the subtitle stresses, is an understanding of the practices of nineteenth-century botany, the minutiae of everyday “doing.” This structures his narrative, as each chapter focuses on a particular practice: Traveling, Collecting, Corresponding, Seeing, Classifying, Settling, Publishing, Charting, Associating, and Governing. Some chapters are more engaging than others, particularly the first five and “Charting.” According to Endersby, “a focus on practice serves to overcome a long-standing historiographical tendency to divide the factors and influences that shape science into those which are internal to science (such as objectivity and careful experimentation) and those which lie outside (e.g., political, religious, and economic factors)” (313). Looking at practice – what naturalists and collectors were doing rather than focusing on their ideas that developed – helps us to understand a complexity of issues at work.

Reading through Imperial Nature, Endersby diverts Hooker’s links to Darwin to the conclusion. The impression given is that he does not want his Hooker book, truly a labour of love, to become a Darwin book, as 2008 and 2009 have been flooded with many new works, covering many disciplines beyond science, about Darwin. “I have deliberately chosen to keep Darwin in the background,” Endersby states in the conclusion (316). Darwin’s story is well known, while those of his contemporaries, Hooker included, are not. Yet the conclusion becomes the place for Endersby to bring Darwin in and analyze Hooker’s and other Victorian naturalists’ careers in relation to the “species question.” Endersby argues that it is not the question of whether or not species evolved that was central to Victorian science (we are all familiar with the pre-/post-Darwinian, pre-/post-Origin, pre-/post-1858 markers), but the question of whether or not species were stable in nature. For Hooker, to accept Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was not to become a supporter of transmutation (Endersby argues that natural selection hardly changed the ways naturalists did their work), but to recognize the value of natural selection as a theoretical tool to the practice of botany. Natural selection gave Hooker a way to combat those aspiring botanists who tended to claim many species of plants where Hooker saw one of a few. This tension between “lumpers” and “splitters” in botanical classification helped to shape much more than Hooker’s eventual support for Darwin (Endersby also explores debates around whether or not Hooker actually accepted Darwin’s theory).

The lumper/splitter dichotomy was best explained by the imperial context of nineteenth-century botany. Colonial botanists collected plants and sent them back to metropolitan botanists, such as Hooker. Economic botany – understanding what plants are where and how best they can be utilized as natural resources – was important to imperialism. Endersby, however, stresses that colonial botanists – such as William Colenso and Ronald Gunn – were not simply passive servants of more powerful botanists in London and at Kew Gardens specifically. Colonial botanists held some autonomy, using their rare positions as skilled collectors in far away places to further their own agendas, whether aspiring to be better botanists or better gentlemen. A constant through Hooker’s career is dealing with colonial botanists and their willingness to agree (or not) to his methods. For Hooker, the colonial botanist should simply collect and send specimens back to the center, while not speculating on theoretical or philosophical matters, such as transmutation, naming, or distribution. To further their own goals, however, colonial botanists did speculate beyond collecting. They tended to be splitters: having more local knowledge of plant varieties in a given location, colonial botanists argued for more distinct species. They wanted to emphasize the diverse floras of the regions they represented while asserting the authority of their local knowledge and in situ experience (they often found European botanical books inadequate). Metropolitan naturalists, on the other hand, minimized the number of species for several reasons. Hooker, as did other metropolitan botanists, constructed herbariums, collections of dried plant specimens ordered by hierarchies of classification and managed within specially built cabinets in drawers with folders. Managing an herbarium became a daunting task as colonial botanists sent in this and that new species of orchid or liverwort. Keeping the number of species to a minimum not only maintained a metropolitan botanist’s authority over peripheral subordinates, but helped in maintaining the physical herbarium (in itself a microcosm of the botanical world). Hooker’s broad species concept – that many species across the globe are more generally varieties of a species with a broad geographic range – also required broader collections. Arguing against splitters was, in a way, related to the demand for more publicly funded scientific positions to build public funded collections.

Colonial botanists, Endersby persuasively argues, were not passive recipients of metropolitan scientific knowledge. “The result was not a one-way flow of plants or authority from periphery to center but a complex negotiation in which each side bartered its assets according to its interests and in the process defined who was central or peripheral and why” (110). Men like Hooker, Darwin, and Huxley depended on colonial botanists. Without their collections, whether botanical or zoological, these “men of science” could hardly have accomplished their work. In turn, their work, is not something to be considered as meaning the same thing in different regions. As Endersby effectively shows, the meanings of botanical illustrations and botanical classifications (think of Bruno Latour’s “immutable mobiles”) did not necessarily transfer from one location to another and hold their intended meanings.

Endersby’s time in the archives is apparent. He uses a wealth of primary documents – letters and papers mainly – that are representative of the “centers” and “peripheries” of his story: America, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. The subsections of many chapters in the book testify to his use of primary documents as well, as they are titled using quotes taken from these documents.

Imperial Nature, a reassessment of Victorian science seen through the career of a botanist bent on heightening the status of his discipline to be among geology and astronomy by claiming it “philosophical” and not an amateur pursuit (Hooker made his living from botany), will interest historians of Victorian science, biology (whether of botany, taxonomy, or evolution specifically), biogeography, imperialism, and even those who study the role of objects in history (chapter 2, “Collecting”). This is not a biographical treatment of Hooker (see Ray Desmond’s Joseph Dalton Hooker: Traveller and Plant Collector). Endersby has made a valuable contribution to several historical disciplines, showing how telling history entrenched in –isms (colonialism, professionalism, Darwinism) is detrimental to a proper understanding of Victorian science.

1. Pamela H. Smith, The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).


6 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: Jim Endersby’s ‘Imperial Nature’

  1. Pingback: The Giant’s Shoulders #10 : Stochastic Scribbles

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