Sunday, November 6, 2011

Homo collectus?

Saturday’s Earth Science POD featured mammoth and mastodon teeth leading to paeans to museums, collecting and one of my favorite books -- Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sachs, who as a child collected bus tickets with letters and numbers corresponding to the elements of the periodic table.  On top of this, I had just watched The Banjo on PBS and was fascinated by a man who has dedicated his life collecting to banjos and banjo memorabilia.  What’s with this human urge to collect?
Three of my brother's many Hagstrom guitars.

As a child I collected stamps and coins for a little while then lost interest.  Now, as a vegetation ecologist obligated to document what I’ve found, I find I have to force myself to collect.  In contrast, one of my brothers definitely has the collecting gene.  He started with stamps and coins but then settled on seashells.   Years later as an adult with an income, he pursued his true passion -- Swedish electric guitars.

Collecting sometimes seems just an eccentric hobby, but it can serve a broader and important purpose.  Richard Fortey came up with the very apt phrase “vouchers for the truth” for scientific collections made on early overseas voyages (Archives of life:  Science and collections in Bill Bryson’s Seeing further.  The story of science, discovery, and the genius of the Royal Society.)  Returning expeditions brought novel and exciting artifacts of all kinds.  For example, in 1789 the talk of the town in London was an exhibition of  specimens and artifacts from James Cook’s voyage around the world.  Rev. W. Sheffield, Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University, wrote enthusiastically to a friend:
Banksia serrata
... it would be absurd to attempt a particular description of what I saw ... I passed almost a whole day there in the utmost astonishment, could scarce credit my senses ... this room contains all the warlike instruments, mechanical instruments and utensils of every kind, made use of by the Indians in the South Seas from Terra del Fuego to the Indian Ocean ...  the different habits and ornaments of the several Indian nations they discovered ... likewise a large collection of insects, several fine specimens of the bread and other fruits preserved in spirits; together with a compleat hortus siccus of all the plants collected in the course of the voyage. The number of plants is about 3000, 110 of which are new genera, and 1300 new species which were never seen or heard of before in Europe. What raptures must they have felt to land upon countries whether everything was new to them! Whole forests of nondescript [undescribed] trees clothed with the most beautiful flowers and foliage, and these too inhabited by several curious species of birds equally strangers to them ...

Joseph Banks at age 15,
with botanical illustration
(artist unknown).
The exhibition was in the home of Joseph Banks, botanist and chief naturalist on Cook’s first expedition.  Banks was born into a life of privilege, and he developed an interest in botany early on.  This served him well throughout his life, leading to knighthood, presidency of the Royal Society and the position of science advisor to the king.  At only 23 years of age, Banks persuaded King George to expand the scope of Cook’s expedition.  The official destination was Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus across the sun, but the HMS Endeavor carried a large natural history library; equipment and supplies for collecting insects, fish, small mammals, birds, plants and seeds; two painters and draftsmen; and several volunteer assistants with “a tolerable notion of Natural History”.  While the king approved the program, he did not fund it.  Banks himself paid £10,000 to equip the ship for the study of natural history.

HMS Endeavor, replica
The HMS Endeavor set sail in August of 1768, loaded with 94 men, food for 18 months including live pigs and poultry, 22 pieces of artillery, 12 tons of iron ballast, 250 barrels of beer, 44 of brandy and 17 of rum.  It arrived home almost three years later having sailed around the world.  The ship was nearly lost on the Great Barrier Reef, requiring a two-month stay for repair in the wilds of Australia.  While in Indonesia for complete overhaul all but ten of the men contracted malaria and dysentery, fatal to many.  By the end of the voyage close to half the crew had been lost to injury, accident and disease.  Two died of hypothermia on an ill-planned collecting trip in Patagonia.  In spite of the difficulties Banks returned with some 3000 plant specimens, including 1400 species new to science.

When his exhibition opened 18 years later, Banks was already famous and his house quickly became an important science and social center of London.  Two novel features contributed to the popularity:  general public access and the large volume of specimens.  Without leaving London people could view for themselves the plant and animal life of exotic far-away places.  These specimens were “vouchers for the truth”.

Why are plant specimens still essential as "vouchers for the truth"? See Homo collectus ssp. botanicus

No comments:

Post a Comment