The Herbarium as Experience

1 Dewey

As a master’s student, I would return to the lab in the evenings to write my thesis on enzyme kinetics.  However, I was often sidetracked by reading my adviser’s copy of a book on the origins of molecular biology (Cairns, Stent & Watson, 1966).  I should have known then that I was more interested in how biology was done rather than in doing research myself:  I wanted to explore the human passion behind the inquiry.  My doctoral thesis was on the aesthetic of biology:  what makes biology beautiful.  I had a wonderful time exploring the many answers to this question (Flannery, 1992).  Then, years later I fell in love with herbaria.  As I explored this new world, I realized that I was drawn to it because it exemplifies the biological aesthetic in a myriad of ways that I’ll explore in this series of posts.

Aesthetics is the philosophy of beauty, or some would say the philosophy of art, because they see a difference between beauty in the natural and human-made realms, and focus on the latter.  I tend to side with those who take the more inclusive view.  I’m particularly drawn to John Dewey’s (1934) Art as Experience.  He argues that any activity in which one is fully engaged has an aesthetic component and involves both cognition and affect.  I can’t think of any activity that fits this description better than biological inquiry.  Consider what it’s like to be out in the field searching for interesting specimens:  the mind and the eye are fully absorbed.  When a species is found, there are decisions to be made:  is this something so rare that it shouldn’t be tampered with, is it in bloom, what would make a good specimen, how should it be arranged so it presses well?  Then there is getting all the necessary information recorded.  This entire process entails, at the very least, mind, eye, and hand.  And I would argue also the heart because there is the excitement of discovery and acquisition, as well as curiosity and the challenge of artful arrangement and of correct identification.

Over the past 30 years, there’s been a move in education to emphasize and nurture the links between the affective and cognitive functions of the brain with the argument that effective learning encompasses both.  This is the theme that neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has enlarged upon in several books (1994, 2000, 2018).  Still, the Cartesian separation of mind and body remains deeply engrained in our collective unconscious, especially when it comes to attitudes toward the differences between art and science:  art is about feeling, science about rational thought.  Yet, in fact, they are both complex blends of many brain and body activities that are strikingly similar in both realms.  Robert Root-Bernstein (1989) did a study on the outside interests of top scientists and found that many of them were involved in the arts, which they pursued vigorously along with their science.  A number saw a connection between the two activities.  Roald Hoffmann, for example, a Nobel-Prize-winning chemist and also a published poet, described going into the deep recesses of his mind and heart in writing a poem, just the places he had to access for his scientific ideas as well.  Santiago Ramón y Cajal, a neuroanatomist and another Nobelist, was an accomplished artist whose drawings were an essential part of his scientific work.

The same can be said of a number of botanists.  I’ve written posts on Konrad Gessner (1,2), whom Florike Egmond (2016) contends used drawing as a way to make discoveries about plant structure as well as to record them.  I’ve also mentioned the British plant morphologist, Agnes Arber (1954), who wrote The Mind and the Eye, in which she argued that plant morphology entailed mental abilities usually associated with art rather than science:  a sense of space, manipulating forms in space, and going beyond rational thought into a realm assumed to be art’s territory.  When I found Arber’s book early in my work on the biological aesthetic, I felt justified in continuing to pursue the subject.  Here was a Fellow of the Royal Society who was convinced of the link between art and science as essential to her scientific inquiry.  Though this is was hardly an isolated case, examples are not easy to find.

Most information about such links belong to what is called the “private side” of science.  Years ago, the physicist and historian Gerald Holton (1973) made the distinction between private and public science to explain why most people have a rather distorted view of science as being rational, logical, and orderly.  This description is correct for science that is published; it has to have these characteristics in order to be understandable and convincing.  Yet, how science is actually done is very different.  It is not an organized product, but often a rather messy, unsystematic, and illogical process.  Much science begins with a conclusion, a brilliant idea, a hunch for which there is little or no evidence.  The route to making sense of the idea and corroborating it may be a long and winding road, with U-turns, detours, and many fallen trees blocking the path—and much excitement as well.  It is this part of science that interests me, and what I was investigating in the lab at night when enzymology was being neglected.  This is the part of science that attracted me to the herbaria, a private side of science if ever there was one, and a topic I’ll pursue in the following posts.


Arber, A. (1954). The Mind and the Eye: A Study of the Biologist’s Standpoint. Cambridge: University Press.

Cairns, J., Stent, G., & Watson, J. (Eds.). (1966). Phage and the Origins of Molecular Biology. Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.

Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes’ Error : Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Putnam.

Damasio, A. (2000). The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. San Diego, CA: Mariner Books.

Damasio, A. (2018). The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures. New York: Pantheon.

Dewey, J. (1934). Art as Experience. New York: Putnam.

Egmond, F. (2016). Eye for Detail: Images of Plants and Animals in Art and Science, 1500-1630. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Flannery, M. C. (1992). Biology Is Beautiful. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 35(3), 422–435.

Holton, G. (1973). Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Root-Bernstein, R. (1989). Discovering. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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