The Broken Circle
The success of natural history was overwhelming. With well-founded enthusiasm, Sir James Edward Smith in 1788 pushed to inaugurate a new society entirely devoted to this study, which came to life as the Linnæan Society of London. He wrote: "He who determines with certainty a single species of the minutest moss or meanest insect, adds so far to the genral stock of human knowledge, which is more than can be said of many a celebrated name." Smith had good reasons for thinking that his initiative would be well received, since more and more scholars worked in naming and surveying the living world. Linnæan natural history had conquered rival systems and spread into other areas as well. A common, international scientific language thus developed. Internationalism in botany was promoted further by trade in seeds and dried specimens and by the travels of natural historians. Traveling scientists, Linnæan apostles, Blumenbachian headhunters, the Cook company, explorers, adventurers, artists, collectors, all brought home a rich harvest from the field.
Natural history became interesting to the general public also as a part of a new aesthetic appreciation of nature. The growth of gardens and museums demonstrated the institutional strength of natural history. Curators naturally wanted to increase the size of their holdings. Next to salaries, the botanical garden and the library made heaviest demands on university budgets. Visits to famous gardens were
mandatory for the traveler. At the end of the 18th century, Kew Garden had grown to an important promoter of the new tastes in England. To Kew and to the President of the Royal Society, Joseph Banks, came endless material from the colonies. Museums, no longer chambers of curiosities but institutions serving the scientific public, were entering the modern era. In France the Jardin du Roi was reorganized after the Revolution into the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle according to a modified Linnæan plan.
Among the modifications was abandonment of the hope of a complete inventory of nature. Rather than showing the full divine order, the naturalist collectors wanted to outdo competitors in the size of their herbaria. The competitive element in collecting became increasingly obvious, but it was a race without a finish line. When Carl Peter Thunberg, successor to Linnaeus at Uppsala, had his Botanicum built around 1800, his architect provided herbarium space for only 15,000 specimens. Soon the windows in the beautiful main hall would be blocked with the cases of specimens that marked Thunberg's proficiency in the collecting game. In writing he devoted himself to mere description of small units and did not try to put together the big jigsaw puzzle. Thunberg's admirable industry is obvious from his series of dissertations on Nova plantarum genera (fifteen parts) and his Museum naturalium academiae upsaliensis (twenty-nine parts including appendices). His colleague, the entomologist Schönherr, wrote sixteen volumes totaling 5,000 pages on the insect-group cucurlionides . The dream for completeness survived only in completeness in detail. Its form could be labeled "descriptionism," a pure registration of facts.
In the early 19th century, probably only Robert Brown could handle the whole of botany. The last person able to treat all of nature was Alexander von Humboldt, who discovered several hundred plant species along the slopes of Chimborazzo in a few months (1800). The mass of little details struck some people as ridiculous. The philosopher Lichtenberg predicted the advent of "a Linnaeus of sand." Coleridge complained that despite all the work by the botanists there was "little more than an enormous nomenclature, a huge catalogue, bien arrangé , yearly and monthly augmented in various editions, each with its own scheme of technical memory and its own conveniences of references!"
The new situation called forth a variety of means of publication: a growing number of sumptuous books for the connoisseur, textbooks for the tyros, handbooks for the collectors, journals for specialists. It also produced a number of bibliographies by Haller, by Boehmer, by
Jonas Dryander (on Bank's library), by Joseph Reuss, and so on. A new genre arose, the natural-history dictionary . With its alphabetical arrangement, it aped the encyclopedias: facts, in the Lockean sense, would speak for themselves. Considering their number, these dictionaries must have meant good business for the publishers; considering the size of some of them, they did have something to summarize. They are a proof of the success and the failure of 18th-century natural history.
The compilers of dictionaries had two banks to rob: Systema naturae and Buffon's Histoire naturelle , changed into smaller coin and arranged alphabetically. The reader got Linnaeus' exactness and Buffon's fine writing, both science and literature, in such extravagant works as Houttyun's Natuurkyke historie of uitvoerige beschryving der dieren, planten en mineralen , published in thirty-seven volumes (1761–85), and Valmont de Bomare's Dictionaire raisoné universel d'histoire naturelle (1760– ), in fifteen volumes, at least five editions, and a Danish translation (Den almindelige naturhistorie i form af et dictionaire (1767– ). There was also Friedrich Heinrich Martini's Allgemeine Geschichte der Natur in alfabetischer Ordnung (1774– ), which built on Bomare's Dictionaire and invited its readers to participate in making a new edition by filling out pages left blank for the purpose. The new edition would not be complete, of course; in natural history, Martini said, "complete is a harmonious sound without meaning." There were still more dictionaries: the anonymous Manuel du naturaliste (Paris, 1770); W.F. Martyn's A new dictionary of natural history ; Philip Miller's very handsome The gardener's and botanist's dictionary (1731, 8th edition 1768); and Lamarck's botanical chunk of the Encyclopédie méthodique . A somewhat earlier, similar trend has been noted in geography.
Both Linnaeus and Adanson had considered the possibility of making dictionaries. Through his patron Carl Gustav Tessin, Linnaeus had the help of a copyist to compile a Dictionnaire portatif d'histoire
naturelle . He began in 1757, but abandoned the project two or three years later. It fell victim to his fear that nothing can be omitted. Nothing, in any event, is left of the manuscript. In a Memorial printed in 1775, Adanson summarized what he had accomplished so far—the description of 300 species of mammals, 2,000 of birds, and so on, in all some 17,000 animals, 10,000 plants, and 8,000 to 10,000 minerals. He proposed grand and encyclopedic ventures, a new nomenclature, a universal language, a plan to cover all natural history in three "orbes," the first to contain 40,000 species. Nothing, however, came of these plans; and to cope with economic realities he had to work in the dictionary business. To the Supplément à l'Encyclopédie Adanson contributed about 450 articles, and among his huge piles of manuscripts there is much material intended for alphabetical publication. In their unsuccessful way both Adanson and Linnaeus tried to balance two interests: scientific order and communicable information.
There were other strategies to make natural history scientifically meaningful. Georg Forster returning from the Cook expedition wanted to combine Linnæan formalism and Buffon's individualism, as in his famous monograph on the breadfruit tree. Robinet preferred to concentrate not on the species level but on the type. That was also the way chosen by the idealistic morphologists, by Goethe, Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, and Sir Richard Owen, and in Sweden by the mycologist Elias Magnus Fries and the algologist Agardh. Or one could adjust the size of taxonomic groups to make them easier to handle. That seems to have been the reason why Alphonse-Laurent de Jussieu recognized one hundred families of plants, none of which had more than one hundred genera. Then
there was Humboldtian science, which took not the species or genus as subject of study but the plant community as such.
The widening scope of the natural history project split it into such specialties as ornithology, entomology, and mycology. The new public for natural history, professors as well as amateurs, wanted information to suit diversified tastes. Thus, as a result of the widening fragmentation of the subject and the dissolution of the chain of being, a new science was invented. "Biology" was inaugurated in the very year 1800 by Jean Baptiste Lamarck, a critic of the concept of the great chain but also one of the most prominent pursuers of the natural history project.
Finally, we must note a change of metaphors. Both natural history and encyclopedism had experienced the increase of quantity , of boundless, unmeasurable information. The encyclopedic enterprise, aiming at order, totality, and coherence, had exchanged the esprit systématique for the esprit de système . In natural history, epistemological criticism and awareness of nature's richness had made the great chain of being succumb to its own weight. The metaphors of "chain" and "scale," both very popular during the 18th century, gave way to metaphors less apt for classification, such as "map" or "net," used by, among others, Linnaeus, Haller, and Hermann. The geographical imagery recurs in Adanson's "orbe." In a similar manner, d'Alembert used the older metaphors "circle of knowledge" and "tree" in elucidating the concept of encyclopedia, while Diderot preferred "growing city" and "machine." The critics (Kant, Hegel, Törneros) spoke of the modern encyclopedia as an "aggregate" or a "grocery store." There is a clear progression from symbols appropriate to a traditional classification to symbols suited for an open-ended collection. The systematic "encyclopedia" in the old sense of "whole circle of knowledge" was breaking up. This broken circle is one aspect of the
critical work of the Enlightenment. It might be possible to argue that such a shift reflects a general development during the second half of the century from a "geometrical" to an "arithmetical" mentality, when systems and stable structures mattered less than quick, irregular information.