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The strange trio of Sex, Science and the State — and its consequences

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  23 Jan 2018 12:00 AM GMT

Book Review

Title: Sex, Botany and Empire; Author: Patricia Fara

An Indian minister has made himself notorious all over social media for his comments questioning Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, but can we take this to show that the two worlds — of politics and science — are exclusive or even antagonistic? Not at all, and scientific disciplines that apparently seem farthest placed from human affairs may be the most influential. For science has done more for setting the course of tions and their governce and economy than we can suspect — beyond its part in helping develop powerful weapons or technologies.

While this alliance of politics and science is a far more recent development than we think, it owes its genesis to botany, and two 18th century tural scientists who furthered this combition, as Patricia Fara shows in this book, part of a special set chronicling key turning points in science.

And this — in the last three decades or so of the 18th century — qualifies well enough for it shows how science progressed beyond the pastime or patroge of rich, idle noblemen to become institutiolised with government support.

And as Fara, from the History and Philosophy of Science department at Cambridge University, shows it not only saw the rather incongruous trio of the “Three Ss” — sex, science and the state — coming together with so many consequences, but also brought the subject of sex out into the public discourse, though against much opposition.

It also set in train a process — in Britain initially — that would lead a few decades later to Darwin boarding HMS Beagle to make the observations that ebled him to formulate his theory of man’s origin and development — a theory which has stood the test of time despite what some misguided or willfully ignorant politicians may think.

At the heart of this development, shows Fara’s account, were two turalists, not as famous as Issac Newton or Darwin but contributing to science’s progress at a time “science started to become established and gain prestige”. And both of Carl Lineus and Joseph Banks, along with the other Enlightenment contemporaries, “fought hard to establish that scientific knowledge was valid and valuable”.

Lineus was a gifted but eccentric and self-propagandising Swede whose classification system for all living organism still rules today, but raised hackles of his conservative society by using sexual parts to order flowers and using human terminology for the purpose. Banks was his British “disciple” -turned-science administrator — and no less self-propagandising — but also maged to make “science work for the state — and the state to pay for science”. A key cameo is played by that intrepid explorer, Captain James Cook.

And in telling their story, Fara ranges over small Swedish towns and the country’s unforgiving terrain, the mansions and the seats of power of Georgian England as well as its lush countryside, hazardous voyages over uncharted oceans, encounters with uninhibited, pre-industrial societies in South Pacific islands, ambition and professiol jealousy, to show how the underlying root was something more heartlessly mercery. (IANS)

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