“Dictatorial Powers of the Botanical Gentlemen of Europe”

in Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print November 2009 | ISBN: 9780226169149
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226169194 | DOI:
“Dictatorial Powers of the Botanical Gentlemen of Europe”

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The study of American natural history blossomed under the eyes of such men as Asa Gray, John James Audubon, Thomas Nuttall, and William Maclure. These men and others associated with the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences would produce volume after volume of beautiful tomes on the natural history of the United States. Before the nineteenth century, however, the systematic study of natural history primarily came from Europe and was associated with two of the continent's most famous natural historians: Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon and Carl Linnaeus. To understand natural history was as close as humans could come to understanding something about the divine. When Plato contemplated both the organic and inorganic worlds around him, he argued that they were designed and not the result of chance, for they displayed what appeared to be order and complexity. To understand the world, then, was to understand something about its designer. This religious/philosophical position is often called the argument from design. The argument-from-design mindset was one of the reasons that Buffon's theory of degeneracy was viewed as so vile by Americans.

Keywords: natural history; United States; Europe; Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon; Carl Linnaeus; degeneracy; design; Plato; divine

Chapter.  3633 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History of Science and Technology

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