Sex, Botany, and Empire: The Story of Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks

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Enlightenment botany was replete with sexual symbolism--to the extent that many botanical textbooks were widely considered pornographic. Carl Linnaeus's controversial new system for classifying plants based on their sexual characteristics, as well as his use of language resonating with erotic allusions, provoked intense public debate over the morality of botanical study. And the renowned Tahitian exploits of Joseph Banks--whose trousers were reportedly stolen while he was inside the tent of Queen Oberea of Tahiti--reinforced scandalous associations with the field. Yet Linnaeus and Banks became powerful political and scientific figures who were able to promote botanical exploration alongside the exploitation of territories, peoples, and natural resources. Sex, Botany, and Empire explores the entwined destinies of these two men and how their influence served both science and imperialism.

Patricia Fara reveals how Enlightenment botany, under the veil of rationality, manifested a drive to conquer, subdue, and deflower--all in the name of British empire. Linnaeus trained his traveling disciples in a double mission--to bring back specimens for the benefit of the Swedish economy and to spread the gospel of Linnaean taxonomy. Based in London at the hub of an international exchange and correspondence network, Banks ensured that Linnaeus's ideas became established throughout the world. As the president of the Royal Society for more than forty years, Banks revolutionized British science, and his innovations placed science at the heart of trade and politics. He made it a policy to collect and control resources not only for the sake of knowledge but also for the advancement of the empire. Although Linnaeus is often celebrated as modern botany's true founder, Banks has had a greater long-term impact. It was Banks who ensured that science and imperialism flourished together, and it was he who first forged the interdependent relationship between scientific inquiry and the state that endures to this day.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews

New Scientist

A rollicking read.


Absorbing.... Fara makes a convincing case for Banks'historical impact.

Financial Times

An entertaining account of the appliance of science to the needs of empire.

A series of captivating forays into his [Banks'] life and times.

— Amanda Schaffer

This is one of the most amazing books that I have read recently.

— Asad R. Rahmani

Northeastern Naturalist
An entertaining book... readable and amusing.

— Sarah O'Malley

Bookforum - Amanda Schaffer

A series of captivating forays into his [Banks'] life and times.

Hornbill - Asad R. Rahmani

This is one of the most amazing books that I have read recently.

Northeastern Naturalist - Sarah O'Malley

An entertaining book... readable and amusing.

Publishers Weekly
Fara, of the history and philosophy of science department at Cambridge, presents a book in search of a thesis. Despite the intriguing title, it spends little time drawing parallels among British imperialism, botany and eroticism (or, as Fara calls them, "the three Ss: Sex, Science and the State"). The main focus is, instead, on two 18th-century botanists: Carl Linnaeus, a Swede who developed the modern system for classifying organisms, and Joseph Banks, who popularized Linnaeus's system and brought science into the political arena in Britain as head of the Royal Society. Instead of relating a coherent history of these two men who never met, the book bounces between the two like a pinball, going forward and backward in time, repeatedly revisiting Banks's satyric/scientific trip to Tahiti and Australia with James Cook. Instead of analysis of the history being presented, we are treated to long-winded portraits of the key figures and of Tahitian orgies. In the end, the reader comes away with an incoherent image of the British Empire at the end of the 18th century. Fara (Newton: The Making of Genius) would have done better to spend time placing her stories in a historical context that might have showed how sex, botany and empire were connected. 15 illus. (Oct.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231134262
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 9/1/2004
  • Series: Revolutions in Science Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 176
  • Product dimensions: 4.42 (w) x 7.24 (h) x 0.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Patricia Fara is a fellow of Clare College at Cambridge University, where she teaches the history of science. She is the author of An Entertainment for Angels: Electricity in the Enlightenment, Newton: The Making of Genius (both published by Columbia), and Pandora's Breeches: Women, Science, and Power in the Enlightenment.

Columbia University Press

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 The three Ss 1
Ch. 2 The scientific Swede 19
Ch. 3 The British botanist 47
Ch. 4 Exploration and exploitation 70
Ch. 5 Exoticism and eroticism 96
Ch. 6 Imperialism and institutions 127
Ch. 7 Heroes and hemispheres 153
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