International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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THURSDAY, JULY 9  /  11:00 - 12:30  /  DS-M340
Individual papers
Early modern nature

Productive nature as an epistemological principle in 18th-century Naturphilosophie

Josh Lalonde (University of Ottawa, Canada)

The influence of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) on the development of biology has been studied extensively, while that of his contemporary F.W.J Schelling (1775-1854) has not, although the latter's work was much more closely related to empirical investigations in the life sciences. In fact, a large proportion of historical research on late 18th- to early 19th-century German life sciences is devoted to demonstrating the “respectability” of figures such as Goethe and Kielmeyer by showing them to be untainted by any association with Schelling's Naturphilosophie. I aim to counter the myth of Naturphilosophie as a flight of mystical fantasy by examining the epistemological basis of Schelling's inquiries into nature: namely the principle that explanations of natural phenomena could only be legitimate if they at the same time explained the knowability of their explanans. I will then examine Schelling's application of these principles to organic nature in his Erster Entwurf eines Systems der Naturphilosophie (1799) and his resultant “dynamic” conception of life as being constituted by the interaction of basic forces of matter, which he regarded as an alternative to both mechanistic and vitalist conceptions of life. Finally, I will turn to Schelling's theory of the “evolution” of organic nature as a descending series of gradations, distinguished by the diminishing degree of individuality of the products found at each stage.

The contamination of the rhinoceros image after Dürer's woodcut

Roberto de Andrade Martins (Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil)

In 1515 Albrecht Dürer produced his famous woodcut of a rhinoceros, supposedly depicting an Indian specimen that had been brought to Portugal. It is well known that Dürer's woodcut was not faithful to the real animal and that it had a strong influence on zoological descriptions of the rhinoceros, until it was corrected in the 18th century. This paper will address the impact of Dürer’s woodcut, describing three episodes: the wrong description of the rhinoceros by a Portuguese eye witness; the distorted description and representation of Roman coins that exhibited a rhinoceros; and the unrealistic drawings of live rhinos brought to Europe in the following centuries. Those instances show how strong can be the influence of preconceptions on observations.

Rediscovering nature through the visual culture of the Royal Botanical Expedition to New Spain (1787-1803)

Diana Heredia (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico)

The illustrations made by Atanasio Echeverría and Vicente de la Cerda during the Royal Botanical Expedition to New Spain became widely known by scientists and historians alike when two thousand of them were found in a private library in Barcelona in 1980 after being lost for more than a century. Before their disappearance in 1820, the illustrations had already travelled to Madrid, Montpellier and Geneva, where they were examined by leading figures in botany at the time. However the long sought publication of these illustrations and other materials from the expedition remained unfinished until 2010. Although there is a considerable amount of scholarship on the Royal Expedition to New Spain itself, few works have analyzed the importance of the visual culture produced in this expedition under the light of new historiographical tools such as the circulation of scientific objects. This paper aims to review the work and research that has been done on each of the contexts in which the illustrations (or their absence) circulated from 1570 to 1980. This is the first and most reasonable approach in the construction of a large-scale history that uses the circulation of knowledge as a cohesive tool. Furthermore, this review shows that there is still much unwritten on the role of colonial artistic institutions in the training of draughtsmen and the establishment of scientific illustration as a practice, as well as the significance of the circulation of visual and print culture associated with the illustrations in Europe and Mexico during the nineteenth century.