Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the Practices of Victorian Science

July 24, 2008

When Joseph Hooker was born in 1817, there were no professional scientists. By the time of his death in 1911, it was an accepted fact that science should be professionalised, knowledge institutionalised and that government should have the leading role in the funding of research. In all this, Hooker, as one of the world's foremost botanists, played a major role and has become the embodiment of Victorian science and the march of progress. Yet Jim Endersby's fascinating study of his life and works moves behind such glib commonplaces to show a more complex picture of the evolution of the episteme of the Age of Steam. Through examining the activities of Hooker's daily life and the practices of his science, Endersby reveals a world where abstract ideas do not collide with the idealised beauty of billiard balls on a frictionless surface, but are adopted or rejected as part of the business of making a living, building a career or maintaining an identity.

There is a wealth of detail here on everything from the collection of botanical specimens to the 19th century's burgeoning publishing market. Nervous readers need not be intimidated by lack of botanical knowledge, for this is not a very botanical book. Under headings such as "Collecting", "Classifying" and "Corresponding", Endersby explores the ideas and activities that went way beyond our notions of such concepts. The concept of the "professional" was problematic, raising as it did Victorian insecurities about the nature of the gentleman, and leading Hooker and others to see themselves less as "professional" botanists than as "professed", with its overtones of divine calling and philosophy, to set themselves off from gardeners.

The issue of self-definition also led to difficulties when negotiating relationships of power with the local plant collectors on whom the metropolitan mandarins depended and whom they could not afford to pay. These concerns impinged on the act of classifying, which herbarium directors wished to reserve for themselves from motives that were theoretical, hierarchical and pragmatic (the need to keep species' names and their files under numerical control). This, too, had implications for the vexed notion of "species" itself that today's reader may be tempted to see, in retrospect, as one that fed into the clash between Darwinian evolutionism and divine creationism. Hooker and his kind, however, were much concerned with getting on with the business of classifying plants and securing material support.

This is a book aware of the contradictions involved in getting by in the real world. Hooker emerges from Endersby's portrait as both dedicated and doctrinaire, but with a justified peevishness bred of suffering idiots and social slights all his life. To know all is to pardon all. So he is summed up as a man who "worked to attract the public, while keeping them out; to seek honours while spurning them; and to accept both a government salary and informal patronage while seeming hostile to both. His apparent hypocrisy was a product of the ... hybrid natures of both Victorian scientific careers and botanic gardens."

The funding acknowledgements of the preface show that the secret of managing all these disparate strands of subvention and value has not been lost on the author. This book is not just abstract history of science, then, but more a manual for academic survival.

Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the Practices of Victorian Science

By Jim Endersby
University of Chicago Press
400pp
£18.00
ISBN 9780226207919
Published 6 June 2008

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