In this series of posts (1,2), I am laying out an argument for the essential role of aesthetics in botanical inquiry, particularly in the herbarium. What first comes to mind is obviously the beauty of so many plants, but aesthetic elements run deeply through all aspects of plant collecting, specimen preparation, and on into systematic research, which is the topic of this post. Mastering a field and then spending years working on a particular genus or family is not easy. Botanists do it because they love looking at plants, solving taxonomic puzzles, and learning how to fit new pieces of information into the portrait of a species. How much they enjoy working with plants can be measured by the number of retired botanists who remain active in the field: they are legion.
I am not saying anything new here, but I think it’s important to highlight it and to examine a little more closely just what is so mesmerizing. For some it is the thrill of the chase: being out in the field collecting. It is somewhat akin to people like my sister who love to shop. Entering a forest or a shopping mall, the enthusiast may not be looking for anything in particular and that’s part of the excitement: what will catch their eye. Perhaps a real bargain or a rare plant. For others the exciting part involves careful study, attempting to decide if a specimen is a member of a particular species or not. Is it significantly different enough to count as a new variety or even a new species? What will it take to make a case for its novelty? One question leads to another, and spurs on future work. Who knows where it will lead, perhaps even to examination of an entire genus. This could result in years of research. How wonderful!
Yet in the field, a botanist can often recognize a species in an instant, what Carl Pantin (1954) calls “aesthetic recognition,” something that comes with deep knowledge of a particular part of the living world. He sees this as very different from what goes on in close systematic work, where plants are keyed out and individual traits closely examined. The knowledge thus accrued feeds into field identification, but Pantin thinks there is something more, something that can’t be put into words, perhaps similar to what birders call “jizz” or the sense of bird as a whole. This is an example of the tacit knowledge that I discussed in the last post. It can’t be verbalized so Pantin terms it “aesthetic,” an interesting word choice relating it to feeling as well as thinking.
There are also other elements of systematics that have aesthetic aspects such as the propensity to lump or split. Often a judgment call has to be made about how different two groups of plants have to be to put them into different species. In some cases, there might not be a number of plants to study but only a single specimen, sometimes making the decision easier to make. When there are many individuals, they can often be placed on a gradient for one or more traits that may or may not cluster together. This can become a thorny problem and even a philosophical one involving whether or not a botanist even accepts the idea that species exist in nature. Again, not all of this decision making can be put into words and some of it is a matter of style. There are those who tend toward one or the other viewpoint.
In his biography of Joseph Dalton Hooker, James Endersby (2008) contrasts botanists working with larger collections in imperial capitals like London and Paris with collectors in distant colonies that didn’t have access to large collections for comparison. Those in the colonies, looking at a few specimens, would tend to identify anything novel as a new species. In what Bruno Latour (1990) calls “centers of calculation” where the wealth of the colonies accumulated both botanically and economically, botanists placed a specimen in a different context and perceive it as was just a variation among many, not unique at all but destined to be lumped into an already named species. This is what Hooker’s colleague George Bentham did in moving a plant that the botanist Augustin Pyramus de Candolle had put into a new genus Darlingtonia to honor the Pennsylvania botanist William Darlington who had sent him a package of interesting North American plants. It was moved into the Mimosa genus by the “odious Mr. Bentham,” as Darlington later referred to him (Flannery, 2019).
But such differences in “style” remain and go well beyond lumping and splitting. Some botanists write terse plant descriptions and others write more fulsome ones, sometimes with little difference in content. It is a matter of literary panache. The same holds true for label descriptions as well as journal articles. There are also style issues in the form of publication: a major treatment, over publication of a single new species. At times this is about getting a publication to secure a job or to insure its continuance. In some cases, it’s an issue of publishing before someone else does. However, sometimes it is more about making a nice neat package of a genus, describing new species while revising descriptions of others. And with publications, there comes the question of what to include in terms of images: photographs or drawings, maps or no maps, etc. But these are questions for the next post.
Endersby, J. (2008). Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the Practices of Victorian Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Flannery, M. C. (2019). Naming a genus for William Darlington: A case study in botanical eponymy. Archives of Natural History, 46(1), 75–87. https://doi.org/10.3366/anh.2019.0555
Latour, B. (1990). Drawing things together. In M. Lynch & S. Woolgar (Eds.), Representation in scientific practice (pp. 19–68). MIT Press.
Pantin, C. F. A. (1954). The recognition of species. Science Progress, 42, 587–598. http://www.jstor.com/stable/43415463