The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Rise and Aims of Modern Botany, Part I.

by Professor Patrick Geddes
Volume 4, 1893/94, pgs. 738-743

[Sir Patrick Geddes, 1854-1932, was a Scottish biologist, sociologist, geographer, philanthropist and pioneering town planner. He is known for his innovative thinking in the fields of urban planning and sociology. He and his wife Anna had three children who were 6, 3, and not yet born when this was written.]

    "It is not only the right, but also the duty, of any one who lectures to place in the foreground his own mode of viewing the matter. The audience wish to know, and should know, how the science, as a whole, shapes itself in the mind of the lecturer; and it is comparatively unimportant whether others think the same or otherwise."--Julius Sachs

In these words of one of our foremost modern teachers of Botany, we have the keynote to which such an introductory paper as the present may appropriately be set. As Sachs so clearly puts it, the questions, are, broadly, two;--What is our general view of the science? How do we propose teaching it? This practical question is the one of most direct importance; but the general view clearly underlies it. Nothing, however, is nowadays so characteristic of the modern student in all things as that he answers almost every question we can put him about what a thing is, by offering instead to tell us how it arose and developed. This modern way of looking at things is, of course, peculiarly associated with the natural history sciences, which, in the study of origin and development, of evolution in general, have taken so distinct a lead. Hitherto indeed, this interest in origins has been mainly occupied with the innumerable special phenomena of Biology, and has hardly had time to extend to the science itself; but on the naturalist's own showing that state of affairs cannot be expected or desired to continue. Granting, then, that it may be useful to know how the ideas of men have grown about the plant world since those old days when Father Adam invented botanical nomenclature, or King Solomon delivered his general course of lectures on the vegetable kingdom, we have to trace the science from old classic times, through the middle ages, and more especially the steps of its widening and deepening in our own day. But it is clear that a mere catalogue of botanists, and of their books and dates, although quite the sort of thing which used to stand for history, would have little interest in itself, much less throw any light upon the present state or future aims of science. We must try, therefore, to understand our botanists as we go along.

Like Zoology, Botany dates from Aristotle; for, though none of his botanical writings survive, his pupil Theophrastos not only gives us a list of 500 plants, but touches on the problems of their life in a way which recalls something of his master's philosophical spirit and shows us that Botany was conceived as an integral part of that general account of things towards which Aristotle laboured. From this time, however, men of general interests kept to problems more obviously near the human ones, and the scientific study of plants was deserted. In the first century we have indeed Dioscorides and Pliny, but the first writes merely a Materia Medica for his brother herbalists, and the second is but a thoughtless and gossipy compiler of agricultural and miscellaneous information. For fifteen centuries however, these two books were the only accredited sources; even the rare attempts at new ones being simple commentaries upon the old. Looking at the plants for oneself seems the most obvious bit of commonsense to us, but a medieval university man never dreamed of such a thing--he would have thought us almost impious, certainly foolish, to propose it: for how could any mere modern hope or dare to surpass the writings of the Ancients?

Only after fifteen centuries of this scientific stupor have we a fresh start: and this, as indeed commonly happens, outside the universities altogether--in that famous old city of Strasburg, from which the world received so much before it fell into the alternate clutch of modern strategists. Brunfels' "Book of Herbs" was published in 1537, four years after his death; and we shall see that this new awakening of the science in Germany in that generation was no accident of time and place, but a clear outcome of that awakening of the modern spirit of inquiry into all things--that desire to prove all things and hold fast the good, to get below tradition to fact, and below commentaries to originals--in a word, that new mood of mind which made the Renaissance, which discovered America, which was making the Reformation. Brunfels was a man of that generation, as a boy he had gazed with wonder at the first printing press, and must have had much of its marvelous development brought before him day by day. The fresh thought of the world was pouring from it, and for the first time accessible to all. Hence would come to Strasburg students and thinkers of all types and lands; here the fugitive scholars from lost Constantinople would find new pupils eager for the new learning, our own ever-wandering countrymen among them; here the explorers of the New World mingled with the burning controversialists of the Reformation, and all alike found market and discussion for their books. Thus, as we saw the science date its earliest rise from the Ancient Greek movement unified by Aristotle, so we see its new birth to be but a single consequence of that new great movement which was set up so largely from the same old source. The revival of botanical learning is, in short, nothing but a streamlet in a vaster river, that of the general Renaissance.

Eyes once fairly lifted, or rather lowered, from the book of Dioscorides to that of nature, progress was ensured. In less than a century Brunfels' 240 descriptions were replaced by Bauhin's 6000. The new worlds discovered by so many daring adventurers had still to be explored; commerce, medicine, and science had here an obvious community of interest, and an intrepid race of botanical travelers soon arose. Botanic gardens were next needed, if much of their labour was not to be lost, the thoughtful merchant-statesmen of Venice especially leading the way, and reclaiming from the sea an extension of their peculiarly scanty esplanade for that very purpose. Next came the invention of the microscope; the great Italian anatomist, Malpighi, his eyes thus armed, turned, like Aristotle, once more his studies from man to plant, and thus a new possibility of exploration, still far from exhausted, opened before the botanist in his apparently well-known flora; nay, without rising from his chair. Below these familiar plants, too, there came into view a tiny undergrowth of cryptogamic vegetation, of which the very existence had hardly been suspected. And from that day to this, any patient seeker may be a botanical traveler without leaving his garden; or, like one of our own townsmen here, fetch new marvels from the wayside pond.

But in the larger world, the inpouring of new ideas was beginning to give place to the labour of systematizing them, and the discoverers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were ceding their intellectual leadership to the philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth. So it was in Botany: reflection had to succeed discovery. System and order were now needed above all things, and he became the best botanist who should not simply describe more new plants, but bring some order among the old. Here, our countrymen [Robert] Morison and [John] Ray were of historic service; yet the modern period, all botanists are agreed, essentially dates from Linnaeus, whose mind possessed the needed qualifications in an unparalleled degree. It is not as a discoverer of new forms or facts, still less as an originator of new ideas, that we commemorate him as the father of modern Botany. It is as the genius of order, who, finding the vast confused accumulations of botanical and zoological facts on the one hand, and the empty academic mills of logic, grinding out mere rules of grammar, or useless controversies, on the other, saw clearly what was needed--to bring these fairly together, and set anew to work. Here was a use for these classificatory devices of genus and species, for that accuracy of descriptive language, that critical and analytic skill, which had been mainly running to waste in mental gymnastics ever since Universities were founded. Here were not only concrete problems for trained wits, but a vast ever-growing system of nature to be made and carried on. The Systema Naturae thus revolutionized the science, and founded the most important and enduring of all botanical schools--that concerned with describing and cataloguing the forms of nature. New botanical chairs and gardens were founded; no science had ever been so popular before or perhaps ever since; the pupils of Linnaeus traveled everywhere to new harvestings, and were led forth in succeeding generations by [Alexander von] Humboldt and by [Sir Joseph Dalton] Hooker; even to this day the Systema Naturea is being continued, and no patient seeker returns without his sheaf. It is not long since a member of our own Naturalists' Society detected a new plant even in Scotland. The Systema Naturea is this in progress, and whosoever will may add his leaf to it.

Yet it is a less favourable aspect of the history of Botany which must next engage us; for as of all sciences, Botany had suddenly risen, through Linnaeus, highest in scientific eminence and popular esteem, so it soon fell in both respects lower than any. Nor has it yet wholly recovered. It was much to have done with commenting on Dioscorides, yet little if even Linnaeus was to replace him as a fetish, as only too soon he did. The academic influences were too strong for the botanists; they soon absorbed all the intellectual vices of the old world pedants around them. First, the simple descriptive language of Linnaeus was overlaid by an elaborate terminology which he would have been the first to shatter; next, it was thought necessary to devise rules for the employment of the terms; and these the unhappy student was set to learn before coming to the actual plants at all! We shall readily see how this strangely unscientific state of things came about; it was simply the logical outcome of the established system of education, in which living literature had been gradually replaced by dead rules of grammar, until at last these had come to exclude any real studies for the majority of learners altogether, as for that matter they largely do still. The Revival of Learning had in fact died out, and Botany died with it. The study of nature thus became a mere Latin clerkship, and the enthusiasm of living nature was replaced by a race for priority, complicated by the merest commercial passion of acquisition and exchange.

Nor did these vices wholly end with the victory of the natural system of classification; they are, indeed--as we shall see more fully in subsequent lectures--inseparable from all exclusive study of the plant from the purely morphological point of view, that is, from looking at it simply as a form to be described, compared and analysed, named and classified, and thereafter done with. It is a convenient abstraction, of course, and indispensable in its way; but we must not mistake, as botanists were wont to do, or, indeed, so many still do, this necessary artifice of the morphological department of the science for its whole method. For even when we have learned all we can from Linnaeus, applied to this the comparative anatomy of [Antoine Laurent de] Jussieu and [Georges] Cuvier, and re-read the whole by the light of the yet deeper and more poetic conception of morphological unity which is associated with the name of Goethe; nay even when with the embryologist we watch the phantasmagoria of development change, we are as yet only the crystallographers of organic nature, and not yet, properly speaking, biologists at all. For the distinctive character and problem of our science lies in the study, not of form, but of life. Yet even now compare how familiar and how scientific it seems to think and speak of the plant as a form; how unfamiliar, apparently merely poetic, if not childish, to speak of it as a life! Yet as physiology grows, we see that this mode of speech is the scientific one. Following, however, the dictates and example of the human anatomists of medical schools (in, or at any rate by, pupils of which Botany has long mainly been studied, the progress of Botany followed that of Zoology on lines of deepening anatomical analysis. General form was decomposed into its organs, these into their component tissues, these into their cells, and finally the fundamental and all-important protoplasm is reached.

(Continued on pg 827)

Proofread by LNL, May 2021