11 May 2008

Science and the aristocracy

In a study of the history of science it is important to realize that progress in science is not determined by the genius of a few individuals but by the conditions of society. In the age of feudalism only a wealthy aristocrat could afford to pursue scientific interests and go down in history as genius. Ordinary people had little chance to show their potential.

In a footnote to lecture 8 I used the example of Tycho Brahe, the Danish aristocrat turned astronomer. A study of the history of astronomy described his birth in 1546 as "fortunate" for the development of science. I queried that and said: "What honours him and secures his place in the history of science is not his fortunate birth but his decision to turn his back on the idle life of the ordinary nobleman and apply his gifted mind to science." Brahe did not care much about the aristocracy; he married a peasant's daughter and embarked on a career as imperial mathematician and astronomer.

It is instructive to compare Brahe's attitude to science with that of the English nobleman Joseph Banks, the resident naturalist during James Cook's fist expedition into the South Pacific. Banks brought along a second naturalist, a secretary, two artists and four servants, all paid for from his own wealth.

The large amount of work done by Banks and his party in the field of botany and taxonomy was an immense contribution to science. But Banks clearly did not see science as an important part of his life; he saw it more as what Galiliei called the "regal sport" of the ruling class. This became obvious when Cook invited Banks to join his second voyage into the South Pacific on the Resolution. Banks agreed, on the condition that he could increase his party to fifteen, including two musicians to while away the time. He even managed to talk the Navy into adding an extra deck to the ship to accommodate his party.

When the time came to sail the Resolution out of the shipyard one of Cook's lieutenants called her "by far the most unsafe ship I ever saw or heard of." The pilot declared her top-heavy and prone to capsize and refused to even move her off the dock. The ship was restored to her original state and Banks, swearing and sulking, withdrew from the expedition.

The story demonstrates that when it comes to evaluating the role of individuals to science, looking at their contribution to science alone does not produce a balanced assessment. Banks clearly had the capacity and gift to play a much larger role in the history of botany, but he chose the idle life of the aristocracy.


Allen, O. E. (1980): The Seafarers, the Pacific Navigators. Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia, 176 pp.

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