Friday, January 21, 2005

HISTORY OF SCIENCE: Lost in Translation?

A great review from Science magazine

A review by Stuart McCook*

Plants and Empire Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World by Londa Schiebinger
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2004. 318 pp. $39.95, £25.95, euro36.90. ISBN 0-674-01487-1.


In Plants and Empire, Londa Schiebinger uses an innovative analytical approach to revisit the familiar subject of natural history in the colonial Atlantic world. Her study seeks to understand the production of culturally induced scientific ignorance, or agnotology. "Ignorance is often not merely the absence of knowledge," she argues, "but an outcome of cultural and political struggle." In particular, she seeks to understand how and why knowledge of West Indian abortifacients was not
transferred to 18th-century Europe. The book explores the history of the silences, struggles, and structures that prevented this transfer.

The 18th-century West Indies were, in Schiebinger's words, a "biocontact zone." The region's inhabitants included people, plants, and animals from the Americas, Africa, and Europe. European bioprospectors scoured the region for new plants and animals of scientific, commercial, or medical value. Schiebinger, a historian of science at Stanford University, paints the 17th and 18th centuries as a period of relative openness in the world of European science. She provides vivid portraits
of representative European naturalists, such as the English physician Sir Hans Sloane, who worked in Jamaica, and the Dutch entomologist Maria Sibylla Merian, who worked in Surinam. European naturalists learned much about West Indian flora and fauna from indigenous and African informants, the names of whom are largely lost to history. Such exchanges of information did not take place on an equal footing and were fraught with cultural and social obstacles.

Schiebinger's study explores these exchanges and transfers by focusing on the history of one plant. The peacock flower (Poinciana pulcherrima) is a tropical shrub with seeds that have abortifacient properties. Its botanical origins remain obscure, but by the 18th century it was cultivated throughout the West Indies. Amerindian and African communities in the Caribbean had incorporated it into their
pharmacopoeia. Schiebinger situates the plant in the context of colonial racial and gender struggles, showing how Africans in particular used abortion as a form of anti-colonial resistance, robbing Europeans of potential labor. Europeans eventually learned about the peacock flower's abortifacient properties. Merian heard about it directly from slave women in Surinam, and she describes its role in slave resistance in her 1704 study of the insects of Surinam. Sloane independently learned about the plant's properties while working as a physician in Jamaica.

The peacock flower itself was first transferred to Europe in the late 17th century. It came to be cultivated in the continent's leading botanical gardens, including the Jardin du Roi in Paris and the Chelsea Physic Garden in London. Schiebinger carefully distinguishes between the transfer of the plant and the transfer of knowledge about the plant. With its flaming red and yellow flowers, Poinciana became well known to European gardeners as a favored ornamental. But knowledge of its abortive properties only rarely crossed the Atlantic and did not take
root in Europe.

Schiebinger explains this nontransfer of knowledge by situating the peacock flower in the context of 18th-century drug testing and comparing it with similar remedies that were taken up in Europe. During the 18th century, the regulation and systematic testing of drugs became more common. Approved drugs were listed in the official Pharmacopoeia of London, Paris, and Amsterdam. Neither the peacock flower nor any other West Indian abortifacient was ever included in 18th- century European
pharmacopoeia. Schiebinger shows that this exclusion did not reflect a European prejudice against drugs from the New World: European pharmacopoeias included many New World medicines, such as chinchona to treat malaria and guaiacum to treat syphilis. Nor did it reflect a prejudice against drugs related to women's reproduction. European physicians experimented extensively with emmenagogues--drugs designed to regulate the menses--including many from the New World. Nor were there
any official regulations or laws prohibiting the medical study of abortifacients.

The principal obstacle to inclusion was rooted in a broader shift in attitudes toward abortion and abortifacients that took place in the 18th and early 19th centuries. According to Schiebinger, "late eighteenth-century experimental physicians stood at a fork in the road with respect to abortifacients." Abortifacient plants were an integral part of traditional knowledges and practices, in both the Old and New Worlds. Physicians might have chosen to incorporate these plants into their pharmacopoeias, as they did with many other forms of traditional
knowledge, or they might have chosen "the road toward the suppression of these knowledges and practices." Almost universally, European physicians chose the latter.

Schiebinger argues carefully that knowledge of the peacock flower and other abortifacients was not overtly suppressed or proscribed. She shows, instead, how the cultural and political structures of 18th-century Europe collectively impeded the transfer of knowledge about abortifacients. She concludes that the "agnotology of abortives among Europeans was not for want of knowledge collected in the colonies; it resulted from protracted struggles over who should control women's
fertility." Europe's mercantilist states were anxious to increase their populations, both at home and in the colonies. National wealth and national strength depended on healthy and increasing populations. Most naturalists and physicians were part of these imperial enterprises to encourage population growth. Even when European naturalists and physicians in the West Indies did learn about new abortifacients, they chose not to disseminate their knowledge. Their counterparts in Europe, similarly, had little incentive to promote the use of abortifacients, or even to study them. Limiting population was simply anathema to the prevailing goals of late 18th-century science and government.

The book does leave some questions unanswered. Religious groups play a central role in contemporary debates over contraception and abortion, so their absence from Schiebinger's account is striking. Some explanation of organized religion's involvement (or non-involvement) in the 18th-century debates would have been helpful. This reservation aside, Plants and Empire presents a subtle and compelling explanation for why knowledge of West Indian abortifacients was not taken up by scientists in Europe. More broadly, Schiebinger illustrates the explanatory power
of agnotology. Her study of scientific ignorance demonstrates that understanding what scientists do not know is just as important as understanding what they do know.


The reviewer is in the Department of History, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON, N1G 2W1, Canada.

Volume 307, Number 5707, Issue of 14 Jan 2005, pp. 210-211. Copyright © 2005 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science. All rights reserved.

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