The origin of modern Botany and the Infinite Monkey Cage

Robin Ince and Brian Cox in the Infinite Monkey Cage
Robin Ince and Brian Cox in the Infinite Monkey Cage

Some ideas work and some ideas don’t. Sticking Prof Brian Cox and Robin Ince together for half an hour each week works. The Infinite Monkey Cage is their weekly show on Radio 4 (available worldwide as a podcast) where they discuss topics with various guests. Last week Andy Hamilton in for a chat about the Apocalypse. These week they talk with the chemist Professor Tony Ryan, social sciences researcher Aleks Krotoski and comedian Paul Foot to ask if the modern world is a force for good or evil.

That means defining what the modern world is. Tony Ryan went for the Haber-Bosch process marking the start of the modern world in 1908 due to the ability to create fertiliser. He made a good case for the process being imperative for the modern world Aleks Krotoski choose the invention of the printing press in 1440. So I thought as post I could ask when you thought the modern era for Botany started. It sounds like a good idea, but I don’t think it works.

The plan was that you could argue for The Origin of Species, or Mendel’s genetics or the modern synthesis as marking the watershed for modern Botany. Alternatively you could look back at the great voyages of exploration, like Joseph Banks’ trip around the world. Other disciplines have discussions about their origins. Did modern Physics start with Galileo or Newton? But Botanists seem to be fairly unified in where modern Botany starts.

There seems to be a convergence on 1753 and the publication of Species Plantarum by Carl Linnaeus. Recently Fay and Chase published in Annals of Botany on Orchid biology: from Linnaeus via Darwin to the 21st century. This is clearly marking modern Botany between Linnaeus and now. It’s a view that groups such as the Linnean Society agree with, obviously. We also recently published Linnaean sources and concepts of orchids by Jarvis and Cribb, which looks at what makes Linnaeus special.

This bothers me. Usually when I come to an easy solution to a matter of opinion it’s a good sign I’ve not been thinking hard enough. So does anyone have any other contenders? I’ve found this paper on The Concept of the Genus on JSTOR, but I don’t have access to it. Google Scholar hints that it argues some Linnaean concepts actually date from much earlier.

Alternatively could you argue that modern Botany has yet to start? Linnaeus gave us taxonomy, but is cladistics a superior approach and taxonomy holding us back? This might not make sense though as Grant argues that one system is not necessarily right and the other wrong in his paper Incongruence between cladistic and taxonomic systems in AJB.

Do the origins of Botany lack the controversy that you find in other sciences? If so what does that say about Botany as a science?

  • I see the development of modern botany as pretty much a continuum back to the hunter-gatherers; I suppose this is not unlike medicine. Of course, identifying and characterizing medicinal plants was a major area of study for the first botanists, including finding (taxonomically) similar plants that had equivalent properties. This followed finding edible plants. There were many taxonomic treatments before Linnaeus, even using binomial names, many of which Linnaeus adopted although with greater coverage and clearly defined features (such as numbers of the parts of flowers) – see, for example, Dioscorides

    For me, though, the defining moment for the science of botany was the work of Charles Darwin, who introduced the concept of experimental testing of a hypothesis – something that had never been formally conceived of before, and is now universal in botanical, and indeed all other, sciences. Perhaps less positively, he also introduced the idea of publication without data, and his seminal book with his son Francis (a founder and early contributor to Annals of Botany), “The variation of animals and plants under domestication” (1868) presents the data on which” The origin of species”, 9 years earlier, was based. I use illustrations from this, and pictures of experiments from “The power of movement in plants” (1880) in undergraduate lectures – they have never been improved, and show experimental science and hypothesis building at its best,