Book Review: Flower Hunters by Mary Gribbin and John Gribbin


I’ve spent a fair amount of the last six months in the quiet corridors of the Manchester Museum Herbarium, helping with a lengthy transfer of packets of the General Moss collection from filing cabinet to boxes. Sifting through sheets and packets, I can trace the patterns that the personalities of the different collectors etch in the collection. I see the differences in packeting; ‘stuffers’ who see the size of the envelope as the minimum target and the ‘folders’, who encase tiny scraps in tissue-thin paper, the localities visited and the specimens selected which different personalities pick. It is inevitable that any Herbarium collection is filtered through the collectors’ passions and whims. Therefore, when I found a copy of Mary and John Gribbin’s Flower Hunters in the library, I picked it up out of a desire to learn more about the collectors whose specimens fill the shelves of herbaria throughout the world.

The book traces a history of botany up until the 20th century, when there still existed territories unaltered by human hands. There is a distinct horticultural slant, but does cover scientific and economic botany which interests me more. There is also more of a stress on Hunters than Flowers; biographic minutiae trumps botanical detail. I would have liked to have seen more on the bryophytological loves of Richard Spruce, for example, to get a feel for his mind and passions.

Across the biographical chapters of individual botanists, what piqued my interest was how class influence how these collectors could practice and were rewarded for their work. Whilst all suffered on arduous, years long journeys around the world, the gentleman (and gentlewoman) naturalist had a retinue and global connections. Their resources permitted the intellectual freedom to see global patterns in vegetation, which fueled evolutionary and ecological thinking. In contrast, working-class commercial plantsmen were sent out on their own and expected to keep their heads down, looking for the economically not intellectually fruitful, but only seeing the smallest slice of the profits their seeds and plants made.

The book is structured roughly chronologically, with each chapter on the life of a plant collector (or collaborating pair), hence showing the changing shape of science and adventure. The structure works well in the beginning, the early classification system of John Ray (1627-1705) is followed by the more familiar classification of Linnaeus (1707 – 1778). I was surprised to learn that Ray’s somewhat cumbersome classification based on essential features of the plant (such as the dicotyledon/ monocotyledon division still current) blended with Linnaeus’ user-friendly classification system based on somewhat arbitrary features (Crytogamia, anybody?) to create the bones of modern plant taxonomy. Linnaeus is not the origin of plant taxonomy, he had his own forerunners as well. We then move to Joseph Banks (1743 – 1820), the de facto first director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and friend of George III who accompanied Captain Cook on the Endeavour. Here scientific curiousity is inseparable from imperial ambition, Banks saw the land and flora of the Pacific as ripe for “improvement” and exploitation.

Then follows the plantsmen, sent as the somewhat disposable employees of private companies into unmapped territory. These include David Douglas (1799-1834) sent alone on starvation pay by the Royal Horticultural Society to discover and collect plants including his eponymous fir and the Sugar Pine in North America. Expected to live on the land and employ local guides, his health was ruined, losing most of his vision and becoming rheumatic. He died in a bizarre, tragic manner; on Hawaii, his poor eyesight caused him to fall into an animal trap where he was gored by the trapped bull.

We then move onto a pair of similarly intrepid plantsmen, William and Thomas Lobb, who also brought large trees back to their employers. But with the later plant hunter, Robert Fortune (1812-1880), the voyages become more routine. His work involved trading, officially and unofficially, with other plant breeders in China. His notable achievement was in service of the British Empire, he was the first to take viable tea seeds out of China to establish successful plantations in India, ending China’s monopoly on tea. Though economic considerations went into even Linnaeus’ botanising, consideration of profit becomes more naked and unscrupulous.

Bucking the arch of the narrative is the figure of Marianne North (1830-1890). A wealthy woman, she circled the globe without the expected chaperone, not plant hunting for profit or for a scientific institute (as none would employ a woman to do so) but for her art. She was an incredible prolific botanical artist who, unusually for the time, painted plants in situ. She worked rapidly and in oils, producing what the Gribbins describe as not highly detailed but more importantly accurate. They are not plants “murder[ed] to dissect” but alive in their habitat, an ecological not an anatomical painter. I am hesitant to criticize the inclusion of North as I admire her as an intrepid artistic woman. But she does stick out of a narrative trend of increasing commercialization of plants precisely because she was not a plant hunter, with all it’s masculine connotations. She did not bring back the plants themselves as trophies, but her own impressions of the plants and their environments captured in the paintings. If her story was in the context of a discussion of the growing ecological understanding, amongst the stories of Alexander von Humboldt and Alfred Russell Wallace for example, it would make sense. But here it feels like she was shoehorned as “the woman” in a history of a period and profession which was more or less uniformly masculine. The best way to appreciate women’s contribution to science is to place them in their intellectual context, not to include them in a place where their lives seem superfluous and dismissable.

The final story is that of Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911), who I know best for the Bentham & Hooker System of classifying seed plants which the Manchester Museum Herbarium (and many other herbaria) arrange their specimens by to this day. This is not discussed in the book, sadly, as it would make a nice narrative circle from Ray and Linnaeus to Hooker. The focus is instead upon Hooker’s botanising in the Himalayas. He was one of the earliest Europeans to explore the Tibetan Plateau, and is largely responsible for the flourishing of rhododendrons in the gardens (and countryside!) of Britain. Less destructively, his collections form integral parts of many herbaria in Britain, including Manchester’s.

A book such as this does run the threat of superficiality and glaring omission (Darwin is conspicuously but understandably absent, but aside from Linnaeus there is an absent of the non-Britons). But more important is cohesion, which it ultimately lacks. It doesn’t make any conclusions about the state of botanical science in this period, merely presenting fascinating stories.  A book which treated the hunters and their plants on the same level, giving biographical and evolutionary detail alongside each other, would have made maybe a more enjoyable, tightly structured book.



The Self in the Data: review of Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

Futurology is a notoriously difficult field; difficult to practice and difficult for the practitioner to be taken seriously. There is an art to avoiding both Nostromdamusian vagueness and the retrospective naivety of Thomas Watson’s mythic comment on the “world market for maybe five computers”. A good futurologists needs to be aware of the aims and abilities of modern technology and scientific research, but crucially must understand how the political and social environment could channel or outright block scientific and technological development. Futurology is more than simply predicting what shiny new inventions will be out in the next five years. Rather, it is the skill of locating the core philosophical underpinnings of modern technology, science and politics to predict what would happen if they were allowed to proceed to their logical conclusions, the tech being the means to this social end.This is Harari’s aim in Homo Deus, not to prophecy but rather to give a warning of there we are going. It is left to the reader whether we should, or can, fight this.

Early in the book, Harari defines the New Human Agenda as to achieve happiness, immortality and deification, or supreme knowledge and manipulation of nature. Harari argues that despite having mostly solved issues of famine, war and disease in the West and increasingly in the rest of the world, we are still not content. Rather we sapiens strive to achieve the next items on the list. In doing so, Harari notes sees many unknown unknowns opening up. With our measly sapiens brains, we struggle to comprehend what a future of cognitively enhanced Homo dei would be like, what Ray Kurzeweill terms the singularity. Such adherence to uncertainty is refreshing in a book about the future, but does not serve as a cop out for refusing to consider what the future may hold.

I disagree with Harari complacency over the eventual conquest of infectious disease. It rather reminds me of a review paper by Rodney Wishnow and Jesse Steinfeld published in 1976 entitled precisely The Conquest of Infectious Disease in the United States. After the emergence of the AIDS epidemic, Hughes and Berkelman gave their similarly titled 1993 paper the despairing blunt subtitle Who are we kidding? It would be fallacious to predict that no major infectious disease could emerge in the future and take a significant toll on the population. Rising anti-biotic resistance makes this a growing likelihood. But even many non-infectious diseases are caused, worsened or treated by the shared environment, so the effect of the person’s community in a future healthcare cannot be ignored. Whilst I do agree that happiness, immortality and deification will become major goals of the wealthy into the 21st century, the trials previous human civilizations – disease, famine and war – will be persistent problems, faced as we will be with dwindling natural resources and changing opportunities for pathogens to spread in a climate altered, post-antibiotic world.

Harari places the move from mass to personalized healthcare within a narrative of the diminishing of the value of individuals, in addition “Great Decoupling” of intelligence from consciousness and the decline of mass warfare could make many economically irrelevant. But the infectious and environmental aspects of healthcare will mean it will always be social, as Eula Biss writes “our bodies may belong to us, but we ourselves belong to a greater body composed of many bodies.” Precisely that we are all to a lesser extent custodians of the health of those around us would likely preserve the value of the group in the face of atomised personalized healthcare.

Harari is a professor of world history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His previous work, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, had the focus on broad historical themes expected by someone with that job title. He carries over this historical scholarship to Homo Deus, with a surprising about of the book given over to discussion of the past. But Harari does not use the past in the way endorsed by Santayana’s well-worn quote, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Things are more complicated than this. As Harari so eloquently puts it; “Historians study the past not in order to repeat it, but in order to be liberated from it. […] It enables us to turn our head this way and that, and begin to notice possibilities that our ancestors could not imagine, or didn’t want us to imagine.” On this rationale, Harari spends a significant part of the book exploring the foundational ideology of modern society. Principally, this is humanism – the centering of the value of individual (human) subjective experience in politics, art and ethics, with sapiens rather than deus as the source of all meaning. However, Harari treats this as a religion, broadly defined, and as such holds its claims up to empirical scrutiny, and finds them lacking.

Harari presents a number of arguments drawing on experiments in the life sciences which threaten the idea of the indivisible self and free will key to the liberal religion. After two years of being told by my A-Level Philosophy teacher I do not have free will I am sure are not novel. But more interestingly, Harari argues that as living systems must be conceived of as a algorithmic system, if we are to abandon ideas of the immaterial soul, we can be causally predicted. Throughout human history, the difference between our experiencing and narrating selves in which the latter assess experience based only on the peak and end pleasure or pain means we are a poor judge of our subjective experience.

What Harari describes as the new religion of “dataism” therefore intends to jettison this reliance on the vagaries of our own assessments of our experience and go straight to the data. Human experience is defined as the data patterns that human generates, no messy, qualitative feelings needed. Whilst this description makes dataism sound like a cult from a sci-fi film, many people in the West do make feelings concede to data every day. Harari references the BRCA 1 and 2 mutation tests taken by the perfectly healthy Angelina Jolie, the data on her risk for breast and ovarian cancer lead to her deciding on a preventative mastectomy and ovariectomy. Nothing in her subjective experience told her she was in need of significant surgery, it was rather her genetic data and the population study data relating to her phenotype that lead to her decision.

Whilst reports of the New Human Agenda have been somewhat exaggerated, as the old one still persists, I find Harari to be most illuminating on the role of data in the future. Upon being explain to that I have no free will in my mid-teens, I was remarkably relaxed about this compared to my classmates. I am not alone in being a persistently inconsistent judge of my own feelings. I have often felt lost and confused in a sea of my own subjectivity, grasping for something stable and objective. I gladly concede that a powerful enough algorithm could know me better than I know myself, and maybe would consult such non-conscious, intelligent algorithms when making decisions.

My acceptance of the role of data to supplement human decision-making does not necessarily entail an acceptance of a future unemployable ‘underclass’. Harari grounds his projections for a dataist future upon the continuation of free market capitalism. Such a future is far from guaranteed. Harari makes a good case for the pacifying effects of global trade under capitalism making it a very stable political system. But given climate instabilities and the consequential political chaos will worsen, the future seems far from stable. It is understandable that Harari gives little space to predictions of political revolution given the aims of his book (and his reading of Marx), but the absence of the effects of climate change, given how it could indirectly hamper our attempts to achieve happiness, immortality and deification, is inexcusable.

Harari is honing a niche as a popular historian in the grandest sense, synthesizing much of global history for his readers but his respect for the readers own mind means he refrains from fable-like storytelling. His mind ranges far over history, both tunneling back into the deep past and sending tendrils into the future, giving him a sense of fore- and hindsight which we and our politicians could well learn from.