Engines of Knowledge in the First Information Age: Botany and the Garden Part 2

by Hamish Robertson


In the first part of this essay I alluded to the garden as a developmental engine of knowledge that canvassed both a deep cultural history and a highly modernist locus for new, innovative knowledge production. In the first instance the symbol of the garden as a place of health and knowledge, exists across many cultures and has long been a means by which the relationships between humanity and nature could be theorised and practically explored. In the second, the religious and medical garden, common until the 19th century, also diversified in variety and form to produce not only public botanical gardens but also private scientific experimental gardens such as those of Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel. Thus, I suggest, the garden can be seen as an engine of knowledge at multiple levels with a proven utility that extends down into the present day. In this second part of the essay I explore this idea of the garden as a particular type of engine of knowledge in more detail by pointing to some of the more revolutionary ideas that emerged from gardens and gardening experiments in the 19th century.

Gardens, Gardening and Knowledge Production

We can see then that the garden and the activity of gardening are a locus for knowledge production across time and cultures. As with agriculture more broadly, the garden provided an experimental laboratory in which methods of cultivation, grafting, soil management and other techniques could be tested, refined, documented and recorded visually, with plant illustrators and botanical art coming into their own. The Victorian period in particular saw a huge expansion in both amateur and professional gardeners, botanists and botanical artists, including both men and women of various social backgrounds. The advent of photography added to this capability by expanding and speeding up the capture and transfer of botanical information. In this way technology and knowledge production became mutually constitutive in was that we now consider quite modern.

Other aspects of this botanical knowledge ‘factory’ could be seen, for example, in the rapid rise of seed companies during the late 18th and on into the 19th century. Originally a highly localised practice, seed collection and distribution took on a national and then international scope, with seed distribution going in both directions – from imperial centres to colonial peripheries and back again. Seed companies added to the experimental nature of botanical knowledge as well as its commercialisation. And the format of the seed company became transferable across the British Empire. We can perhaps see the garden and its practices as a particular form of techne is which varieties of practical knowledge inform and generate meta-knowledge, such as theories of classification, evolution and genetics (see below).

Botany and the Taxonomic Revolution

I have mentioned Linnaeus in previous work because of his profound influence on the ways in which knowledge began to be accumulated, ordered and analysed in the European tradition. More particularly, the rise and rise of taxonomic practices and the conceptualisation of information as both sortable and splitable/branchable, have influenced various forms of knowledge production down to the present day. This was different from the long-established ‘great chain of being’ which had been the established norm for centuries.

Linnaeus got his first academic position as a lecturer in Botany at Uppsala University, later becoming a professor of medicine and, for our purposes, affirming the deep historical link between medicine and the botanical garden. In this position he went on field trips to Lapland to collect botanical samples. From there he went on to establish networks of colleagues and collectors who would send samples to him. From these processes he developed the concept of nested hierarchies or groups within groups. This proved profoundly useful in building a structure of knowledge about known plants, and other living things, as well as creating a broader conceptual framework (kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species) within which to place and order new plants as they emerged.

The man whose work came to epitomise this great transformation in our understanding of the natural world was Charles Darwin and his development of a coherent, encompassing evolutionary theory. While his journeys on HMS Beagle are now famous and we know that he was deeply committed to fieldwork, he also utilised gardens in his research and intellectual work. His garden at Down House was known for being a laboratory for work on both plants and animals. However, it seems even this research was long preceded by work at the gardens of Woburn Abbey in the early part of the 19th century, long before the publication of the Origin of Species. What this suggests is that the garden acted as a locus for both practical and intellectual experimentation over the longer term, permitting scientists to test, modify and re-test their ideas and to then develop overarching theories about the natural world.

Mendel and his pea experiments produced another pivotal form of knowledge generation in and through the garden by proving the concept of genetic inheritance. Mendel selected pea plants for his experiments because they had high variability and could be reproduced quickly meaning that both his experiments and also data collection and analysis were accelerated compared to experiments in many other plants or animals. Although Mendel published his work in 1866, it received limited attention and only gained wider notice at the turn of the century as the search for explanations for hereditary became increasingly important. Here too the locus of the garden acting as laboratory and plants as research subjects provided a means of rapid, quantifiable and highly documentable experimentation.

The logic of knowledge production in relation to the garden can be seen as including a well-established tradition of cultivation and land management that episodically encountered new plants, techniques, tools and ideas. By the early 19th century, this flow of new plants, methods of cultivation and experimentation, as well as applied scientific knowledge was becoming a continuous flood of data, information and knowledge – rather than a transitional or episodic process. The convergence of the known and the new took some resolving and required ongoing processes of not only accommodation but formalisation – in effect, the science concept began to be applied in earnest in this domain.


What I have described here is an example of how deep cultural forms of knowledge (and knowledge practices) have progressed and changed over time emerging as the modern knowledge systems we take for granted today. Gardens and gardening have lost none of their popularity in contemporary culture but they have also led to industrial and scientific specialisms in their own right. The early information age of the 19th century saw a formalisation and differentiation of this broadly shared cultural knowledge into a variety of scientific undertakings. The expert knowledge of the botanist became more overtly separated from the ‘amateur’ or applied knowledge of gardener or botanical enthusiast. Expertise and specialist knowledge gained cultural capital in this period and formalised structures emerged to conduct directed research and produce academic and applied scientific knowledge on botanical matters.

With the high degree of generalist expertise still common in the Victorian period, this knowledge production and its associated processes was also readily dispersed within and between countries. Even today the majority of non-European botanic gardens are in India, the same gardens which were used to produce part of the British imperial knowledge base. This also hopefully illustrates how knowledge production and innovation can originate as readily in what we might call the applied sciences as in the more formalised research and academic models with which we are now familiar. Expertise was readily generated through forms of practice and then theorised outwards from this specific experimental environment. Finally, the garden in its various developmental forms provided a coherent locus for knowledge production that crossed conventional disciplinary boundaries and produced new information, concepts and theories. The garden is in a sense the archetypal knowledge engine, one we still maintain and develop.

Categories: Digital Sociology

2 replies »

  1. This is interesting. I enjoyed reading it. But: I’m afraid you missed out the most important gardener in the history of scientific discovery.

    Patrick Matthew – a fruit grower from Scotland – is universally acknowledged by the world’s leading evolutionary biologists to have been first into published print 27 years before Darwin’s and Wallace’s (1858) Linnean Society papers replications and Darwin’s (1859) “Origin of Species” without citation of the originator.

    The latest sociological research (see Sutton’s 2014 book “Nullius in verba: Darwin’s greatest secret” now newly reveals that the old paradigm of the tri-independent discovery of Matthew’s prior published full conception of macro evolution by natural selection is built on the now punctured premise that no one known to Darwin or Wallace read the original ideas in Matthew’s (1831) book. However, in fact, they did. Seven naturalists are newly discovered to have cited Matthew’s 1831 book pre-1858 – four played major roles at the pre-1858 epicentre of influence on Darwin and Wallace and on their acknowledged influencers.

    Interestingly, Wallace made the astonishing claim to have independently conceived Matthew’s prior-published conception whilst suffering from malarial delirium in the jungles of Malaysia .If true that is the only known example of cognitively enhancing fever in the history of the world. In realist, Wallace’s (1855) Sarawak paper editor (selby) had read and cited Matthew’s (1831) book in 1842. And selby was a friend of Charles Darwin’s father and his Charles’s great friend Jenyns. Hence – if you Google “on knowledge contamination” (be sure to use the speech marks and all three words) you will find out why the sociological concept of knowledge contamination is ore rational than the long- wild imaginations of the scientific establishment,

    Dr Mike Sutton

  2. Thanks for your response, I’ll follow up on your references.

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