Engines of Knowledge in the First Information Age: Botany and the Garden Part 1

by Hamish Robertson


This is the second in a series of short essays exploring what I have called ‘engines of knowledge’ in the first quantitative, ‘big data’ information age (there have been others), which emerged in the early 19th century. The Victorian period is marked by a range, rate, quantity and variety of methods for information production that have fundamentally changed the world as we know it. Many of the knowledge engines that produced this flood of information (such as engineering, manufacturing, metallurgy, chemistry) were themselves part of new and emergent scientific and technological activities, and central to the transformational knowledge that they produced.

Other knowledge engines were embedded in deeper connections to the past and represent a more gradualist perspective to the creation of knowledge. These engines re-examined and re-imagined existing ‘knowns’ to produce new knowledge domains and practices by applying emerging knowledge syntheses. One of these longer established ‘engines’ emerged from the intersection of the historical enterprise of gardening, in its broadest sense, and the emergent science of botany, which itself led to new understandings of the nature of the world in which we live. In this piece I explore some of these connections in an effort to examine how these changing circumstances and the growth in analogue quantification resulted in the recasting of existing information into new forms of knowledge.

Deep History, Nature and the Garden

The garden holds a special place in many cultures in part because it involves a particular and localised form of engagement with nature, especially within the traditional conceptual construct of the microcosm-macrocosm. Christianity and Islam both took the (originally Sumerian) Biblical symbol of the perfect, paradisal garden (also linked to knowledge) and applied their own symbolic and experimental understandings to gardening and the garden. Through the garden these religions came to produce a larger conceptual, informational and experimental base that connected a variety of early scientific activities in highly developmental ways.

Many cultures have a tradition of using gardens for as a site and mechanism for the curing of disease and the creation of health. The garden as a site for cures is recognisable even today, in the deliberate cultivation and utilisation of medicinal herbs. Chinese traditional medicine looked to the ‘medical mountain’ as a supply of medicinal plants and herbs, often differentiated by distinct microclimates associated with altitude, orientation and localised ecosystems. This kind of knowledge is still known and studied in fields such as ethno-botany. The origins of numerous modern medications lie in remote communities, localised cultures and their (exploited) ethnobotanical knowledge. It is in the synthesis of such compounds that modern chemistry and pharmacology have expanded what is accessible as both knowledge and product,

Another dimension to the garden as a mechanism for health can be seen in the experience of nature as a healing experience. The garden is not just a place but provides a process of engagement with nature as a therapeutic experience in and of itself (e.g. forest bathing in Japan). Many European philosophers recommended walking in nature as a contemplative act with therapeutic properties. Indeed, the idea of particular landscapes and locations as therapeutic exists down to the present day and by the mid-Victorian period the idea of cleaner, greener and healthier cities emerged in response to the epidemic cities of Chadwick and Snow.

Knowledge and Power in the Garden

The gardens of the Renaissance took aspects of Roman gardens, the Christian monastic and medical (or physic) garden tradition, and the Islamic celebratory and symbolic garden, to produce a platform for a variety of scientific practices ranging from botany to applied hydrology. The Villa d’Este in Tivoli, near Rome, is an example of how hydrological engineering, architectural design and artistic creativity were intimately connected in and through the garden during this period. At the same time, it was also a physical statement in relation to contemporary Vatican politics. Gardens could be and often were both religious and political statements. Italian universities at Pisa, Padova, Firenze and Bologna established medical research gardens early in their histories. The gardens of Europe illustrate not just successive aesthetics of landscape but a broad swathe of experimental sciences in the making that paralleled other industrial and artistic developments.

This connection of gardening to state power and symbolism produced its own enduring consequences, including the rapidly developing engineering science of the 18th century. The Canal du Midi and the Versailles Gardens in France, for example, are two significant examples of a trend in state formation through landscape management and control. The emerging modern state began to re-write the very landscape and its connections with both modern capital, as Marx noted, and population. The impact of this process can be seen in the 19th century depopulation of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, which resulted in the production of ahistorical landscapes now often acclaimed for their ‘naturalness’.

Elsewhere an ideology of landscape management and control emerged that was used to justify a variety of colonial practices under incipient capitalism including the draining of wetlands and the ‘proper’ uses of land for agriculture and capital forms of production. This includes the introduction of new species of plants and animals, many of which overwhelmed previously pristine landscapes. To contain the land and to understand it through the manipulation of its elements comes through to us today as an established geography of power. Knowledge therefore gained in and from the garden could also inform ideological developments that had their own consequences. This became more overt under colonialism and as natural philosophy gave way to science and technology.

Botanic Gardens and Experimental Science

As the 18th century progressed into the 19th, the botanic garden began to develop as a key site of experimental and academic knowledge about plants and about nature more generally. The utility of the garden, I suggest, lies in its bounded nature, its accessibility and the room it provides for experimentation at varying speeds. The gardener then, as now, can trial and test things in the garden that would be far more difficult in the wider natural world. More importantly such experimental efforts can be documented, repeated and modified over time to assist in building a specific knowledge base about particular plants or techniques, such as grafting or hybridising, or the effects of water, soil and sun on particular plants. The garden is by its very nature a kind of laboratory, potential or actualised, for building our understanding of how nature, biology and botany work in the world. And this makes the botanical garden a form of not only applied laboratory but also a specific engine of knowledge within broader botanical science.

Kew Gardens, in London, was established in 1840 and built on the pre-existing Kew Park exotic gardens. Not only was and is botanical research conducted at Kew but we can also see how the ideas connecting the garden to human health and wellbeing was translated out into more accessible constructs such as the public park or the national park. The more pressure we understood as being placed on nature by human intervention the more some people worked to ameliorate those effects by re-introducing nature to the city. One of the logics of the 19th century information revolutions in particular was that these laboratory efforts could be documented, counted and quantified, making for rapid development in the quantity of data available to researchers and their networks.


In this first part of a two-part essay I have outlined some of the knowledge production issues linked to the garden, gardening and to botany as both an experimental practice and emergent science. The focus has been on briefly exploring the role of the garden as both a long-term cultural paradigm for knowledge production and the development of the garden as a pivotal experimental ‘laboratory’ in the 19th century. The ideas generated in this period about issues such as human health and disease went on to produce a variety of innovations in urban living (public parks, green belts and so on) but also in the development of deeper understandings of nature and the connections between human society and nature. The garden as a bounded natural laboratory, contained and manageable, set the scene for some very important new engines of knowledge including evolutionary theory and genetics which I describe in part two of this essay.

Categories: Digital Sociology, Rethinking The World

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