Science, Nature, Race

Susan Scott Parrish

in The Oxford Handbook of the Atlantic World

Published in print March 2011 | ISBN: 9780199210879
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in History

Science, Nature, Race

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  • Modern History (1700 to 1945)



Undertaking a circum-Atlantic history requires that we question some traditional terms, starting with ‘science’ and ‘nature’, which signify concepts that would have been alien to many subjects of such a history. In 1670, Henry Oldenburg, secretary of the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, optimistically envisioned the transit of science across the North Atlantic. Oldenberg locates science at the centre of an empire ‘diffusing’ its benefits to a grateful periphery of colonials and indigenous people. The ‘diffusion’ and ‘centre-periphery’ models do not reflect the complex on-the-ground realities by which ideas about the human and other-than-human worlds were created and exchanged. While some technologies, forms of knowledge, and biota were imposed from the eastern to western hemispheres, many travelled in the other direction; and many were created anew out of an Atlantic world being drawn together. The ‘science’ of ‘race’ was not the invention of Enlightenment systematisers, but slowly accreted in the context of colonisation and in the space of the colonies.

Keywords: Henry Oldenburg; Atlantic world; science; nature; race; diffusion; centre-periphery; colonisation; colonies

Article.  8014 words. 

Subjects: History ; Modern History (1700 to 1945)

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