Nature, culture, and ethnoscience: A research path | Raphael Uchôa

13 March 2019

In 1893, the English biologist T.H. Huxley revisited Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan and stated that one of the defining characteristics of modernity was an ‘essential antithesis’ in modern science, or the division of knowledge into two kinds: the knowledge of nature and the knowledge of man. In a recent work, I argued that in Huxley’s reading of Hobbes, this division was translated in terms of ‘natural history’ and ‘civil history’. The former was dedicated to the study of the effects of nature devoid of human interference, ‘such as are the histories of metals, plants, animals, regions, and the like’ while the latter talked about the ‘history of the voluntary actions of men in commonwealths’.

The ‘essential antithesis’ that Huxley alluded to arguably still holds true and took different forms throughout the twentieth century. In 1959, C.P. Snow became widely known for his lecture on The Two Cultures, whose thesis was about the fundamental split in western society based on the intellectual division between the sciences and the humanities. Even more recent works such as Human Nature and the Limits of Science by John Dupré and Why We Disagree About Human Nature, edited by Tim Lewens and Elizabeth Hannon, have called attention to an essential divide between natural and social sciences so as to explain the pivotal and highly disputed concept of human nature, and to the dangerous social and political consequences of epistemological misunderstandings of this concept.

However, how ‘natural’ is this ‘essential antithesis’ between nature and culture? In other words, how geographically, culturally and historically situated are these concepts and their modes of relation? Anthropologists such as Eduardo Viveiros de Castro in Metafísicas canibais and Philippe Descola in Par-delà nature et culture provided thought-provoking and radical answers to the question. They pointed out not only the situatedness of these concepts but also the radical possibility of creating new categories out of Amerindian practices and thought, which could blur even assumed boundaries between essentialised notions of nature and culture, and subvert the very concepts of human nature, society, and science.

If we modify the axis of the critic to a diachronic perspective, the following question still remains: how historically situated are these concepts and what can a historical analysis reveal about the multifaceted and complex relationship between nature and culture? Since 2013, my research has specifically examined these problems through the lens of the history of science and knowledge. Relying on physical and digital archival research, I have focused on nineteenth-century scholars who were deeply immersed in the intersection of what is now called natural science and human sciences, but was not well demarcated in the period. The firs­­­t such case was Huxley, to whom I referred earlier. The second case was the romantic naturalist Carl Friedrich von Martius. As we shall see, both discuss diverse ways of conceptualising nature, culture, and humanity.

T.H. Huxley and Man’s Place in Nature

One of the expressions of the so-called ‘essential antithesis’ was framed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by assessing humans in the context of the ancient ‘scale of nature’. Consequently, several notions and theories structured around the problems related to man’s place in nature (MPN) were formulated and debated in Victorian England. The ontological existence of human beings in nature formed the core issue of themes like the natural history of man, the diversity of human races across the globe, the resemblance between humans and other animals, the theological and political significance of it, among others. This issue was also the subject of discussion in Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (1863), a book by Huxley that has highly influenced scientific culture since the 1860s.

Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature first appeared in London and New York in 1863.

Huxley was a notable figure in Victorian times. Charles Darwin, in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), acknowledged the fact that Huxley was an authority on the biological arguments which secured man’s essential connection with the great apes and therefore, with nature itself. Indeed, influenced by Carl Linnaeus, Huxley believed the study of biology to be an embodiment of a harmonious relationship between man and nature. He also believed it was a perfect merging point between civil and natural history. In addressing the grounds covered by biology, he argued: ‘we must include man and all his ways and works under the head of Biology; in which case, we should find that psychology, politics, and political economy would be absorbed into the province of Biology’ (p. 139). This significantly demonstrates what Huxley’s expectations were for the new science of biology. He believed that the issue of man’s place in nature formed the core of this science.

How did Huxley characterize MPN? In January 1859, almost a year before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, Huxley wrote: ‘That is my hypothesis, and I do include man in the same category as the rest of the animal world’. In 1863, in his book Man’s Place in Nature, he stated: ‘The question of questions for mankind—the problem which underlies all others, and is more deeply interesting than any other—is the ascertainment of the place which Man occupies in nature and of his relations to the universe of things’ (p. 71).

In order to formulate a general law that would ensure the essential unity of humankind and the rest of nature, Huxley prioritised the criteria provided by comparative anatomy and current ideas on human races, as well as the traditional notions on the gradation of species and the aforementioned ‘scale of nature’. I will briefly present the ways in which he appealed to these fields of inquiry to argue that there were no sufficient grounds on which humankind could be separated from the rest of nature.

In the first half of Man’s Place in Nature, Huxley analyses the embryonic development of many vertebrates, including humans, to demonstrate that all of them go through the same stages of development. This, according to him, was the first indication of the link between human beings and animals. It does not seem accidental that Huxley started his argument with embryonic comparison. If his intention was to demonstrate the established continuity between humans and the rest of the animal world, the embryonic stage, that is, the initial phase of the life cycle, was ideal for finding evidence to confirm his hypothesis on MPN.

Huxley also referred to the principles of zoological taxonomy. According to him, such principles embodied the methodology for demonstrating the unity of humankind and the rest of nature. He argued that the similarities and differences presented by animals are what led scholars of natural history to bring them together in groups and to establish the degree and quality of the distinctive traits that defined the hierarchy of groups.

Thus, almost imperceptibly, the theoretical discussion on MPN was interpreted in terms of zoological classification. The comparison criteria required the determination of the correct hierarchy; for example, the ‘marks of animality’ in the case of the animal kingdom were presented as the cornerstone of the evidence that allowed Huxley to demonstrate his hypothesis in an empirical form. The use of these criteria allowed him to invoke the facts arising due to comparative anatomy as well as contemporary ideas about race, in addition to more traditional ideas about the gradation of species, for formulating a general law that would ensure the essential unity of humankind and the rest of nature, thereby serving the purpose of confirming his hypothesis.

In summary, embryological studies and fundamentals of zoological taxonomy served as the starting point in Huxley’s analysis of an extensive route of anatomical comparison of humans and apes, considering the similarities and differences between them, and investigating ‘the value and magnitude of these differences, when put side by side with those that separate the gorilla from other animals of the same order’. Accordingly, he devoted a considerable part of Man’s Place in Nature to comparing physical structures of humans and other primates, including various concepts used during his time in his analysis, like the ‘great chain of being’, the notion of gradation, the racial classification formulated by the German physician Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, and the data derived from craniometric studies conducted by scholars such as Samuel Morton from the USA, Petrus Camper from the Netherlands, and Paul Broca from France. Huxley used all of these components as parameters to develop his arguments on the essential unity of nature and humans and the possibility of biology becoming the new ‘queen of the sciences’ that would unify nature and humankind. Thus, Huxley launched a provoking hypothesis that would reverberate into the twentieth century: ‘no one can doubt that the rudiments and outlines of our own mental phenomena are traceable among the lower animals’.

Huxley’s effort to make biology a fundamental science that could solve the modern ‘essential antithesis’ became very influential in the late nineteenth century, and was turned into an ideal in the twentieth century, as conceptualised in E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. However, despite the significant contribution of Huxley and other Victorian theorists of Darwinism, they were not the only sources for the conceptualisation of the history of the complex relationship between nature and culture. As a result, I turned my attention to the romantic and intellectual landscape in Germany and to how Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe treated questions on nature, culture, and humans as part of their natural history. I particularly turned toward the works of the German naturalist Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius (1794-1868). In the nineteenth century, European and American scholars regarded Martius, a somewhat neglected figure in natural history, as a leading figure in botany and ethnology. Nearing the end of my research, it became quite clear that he had developed fundamental insights into what came to be known as ethnobotany and ethnoscience.

Carl von Martius, ruins, and savage knowledge

After my research on Huxley’s notions of man’s place in nature, Carl von Martius became the second figure I used as a window into the historically complex entanglements between nature and culture. What solutions could one derive from another nineteenth-century naturalist, who is now settled in the romantic tradition of natural history and based in a different geopolitical setting? Martius went to Brazil as a member of an Austrian expedition in 1817 and stayed in the country for nearly four years till 1820 when he returned to Munich, where he engaged himself in the systematisation and conceptualisation of the botanical and ethnographic materials he had collected in Brazil.

Martius, as several other travelling naturalists from Europe, described and depicted the American nature. Surprisingly, the descriptions covered aboriginal people, who were included in the natural history of the region along with its flora and fauna. Therefore, in Martius’s writings, native people were present at the very intersection of what is now called natural science and social sciences. From that intersection, I identified three fundamental notions in Martius’s works: (1) ‘American race’, namely, a broad characterisation of the native people of the Americas rooted in a complex natural history which brought together seemingly disparate fields of knowledge, such as medicine, botany, theology, philology, and mythology; (2) ‘ruins’, a guiding concept, which helped Martius make sense of the American natives; and (3) ‘savage knowledge’, a concept semantically aligned to that of ruins, and found in shamanic practices as one of the principal modes of expression.

In a letter to Johann von Goethe dated 18 May 1825, Martius candidly admitted he had not been prepared for his travel to Brazil. The most striking sign of this unpreparedness was the radical shift in his perception of the American race after what he called an ‘encounter with the savage’. Therefore, against the Rousseauian motif of the ‘bon sauvage’ in the state of nature, Martius came to see the American race as having degenerated over the course of millennia, and as the possessor of a pure knowledge of nature.

Ripae Fluvii Itahype, Prov. Bahiensis, c. 1842. Public Domain.

What could have been the reasons for such a radical shift? In my doctoral dissertation, I argued that the concept of ruin was an agent of change, for the construction of which Martius borrowed the concepts ‘catastrophe’ and ‘deep time’ from geology, the idea of the antiquity of humankind from the natural history of man, and domestication from botany and zoology. The notion of ruin shaped Martius’s fundamental conclusion, which could be summarised as follows: the contemporary American race represented the ruins of a glorious and profound past, in which it had thorough knowledge of nature, was contemporarily recognisable in practices such as shamanism, and characterised as ‘savage knowledge’, best traced by the study of the languages, plants, and myths of these people.

The notion of ruin guided Martius’s resignification of the concept of race. The idea of a rich past led Martius to reconfigure ‘savage knowledge’ as a derived, second-order object—a true ‘Wissen der Wilden’, from which Martius himself learned and tried to give a place in his science. Thus, my research revealed a new attitude towards the knowledge of Amerindians in the modern world. Despite Martius’s ubiquitous over-estimation of European science, his works recognised the reality of a ‘savage knowledge’ and a ‘Physis of the savage’.

As a result, the question I posed in general changed into: how likely is his concept of ‘savage knowledge’ to be at the roots of what decades later came to be known as ethnobotany? Additionally, by analysing a nineteenth-century naturalist, I also faced the broader challenge of accessing indigenous ‘voices’, or rather, their knowledge, through European writings. It led me to ponder how I could overcome this problem and use other travelling naturalists as fundamental vectors for appropriation, translation, and recreation of indigenous knowledge and skills in the long nineteenth century.

Current project: savage knowledge and the politics of ethnoscience

In trying to find solutions to these problems, I decided to focus on a new case study, namely, the British botanist Richard Spruce (1817-1893), who had studied Martius’s works, and with Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) and Henry Walter Bates (1825-1892) was among the most well-known naturalists in the Victorian era who made fundamental observations about the natural history of the Amazon basin. Like Martius, these scholars described (1) ‘native Americans as objects of ‘the natural history of man’, and (2) the way Amerindians characterised, named, and acted in the natural and social world.

For the same reason, my current project investigates the position of Spruce in the British politics of knowledge, especially endeavouring to understand the reasons for his travels to Brazil. It also closely examines the underlying political and economic entanglements of his exploration of the Amazon basin and his subsequent production of knowledge about it. As a result, based on Spruce’s cases, I am considering (1) indirect forms of British imperialism—as complementary to the direct and traditional form as seen in the case of the British West Indies; (2) its relationship to distinct ‘knowledge regimes’ and ‘epistemic spaces’, for the Amazon basin was not a territory under the British empire; and (3) the place of travelling naturalists as historical vectors for the extraction, transportation, translation, transformation, and application of the forms of knowledge derived from people and places outside Europe, specifically from the Amazon basin.

Accordingly, my project also tests the hypothesis which links, on a historical and conceptual level, what was called ‘savage knowledge’ in the nineteenth century—resulting from a certain realisation that Amerindian societies also had knowledge about nature—to twentieth-century ‘ethnoscience’. More specifically, I consider how indigenous knowledge and practices were gradually incorporated into the scientific grammar of the twentieth century.

On a broader scale, I also look at scientific and political asymmetries of the Global North and the Global South relations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In this regard, the Global North is taken as a unit of analysis both within the British context with relation to the Global South and that of the North American continuation of the nineteenth-century political economy about ‘indigenous knowledge’, as seen in the way the US was interested in South America not only for exploitation of its natural resources but also for commodification of its ‘native knowledge’.

[The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this text belong solely to the author and do not represent the views of gloknos, CRASSH, or the University of Cambridge]


Image: Ripae Fluvii Itahype, Prov. Bahiensis, c. 1842. (Public Domain)