Untangling the geographies of “universal” scientific knowledge
By Emily Hutcheson
Science is one of the most powerful methods of producing knowledge about the globe. From the laws of physics to comprehensive inventories of botanical species to global climate models, science makes representations about the globe that are, by definition, universal: scientific knowledge is knowledge that is valid everywhere. But is this really so? Cold fusion died when it failed to work outside of Utah. Modern physics has shown that Isaac Newton’s universal law of gravity is not, in fact, universal—observed gravitational forces depend on both the specific mass and proximity of the objects. Historians of science have become increasingly interested in the geographies of science. By attending to where scientific knowledge is produced—and how it travels—this work calls into question the supposed universality of scientific knowledge. If scientific knowledge is not innately universal because it is true, then how does it become “global” and what is at stake in aspirations to universality?
This essay examines four cases of ostensibly “global” science: Robert Boyle’s air-pump, scientific nomenclature, the practice of keeping botanic gardens and herbaria, and climate systems models. In different ways, each of these examples demonstrates a claim to globality. They show that science-based global imaginaries are not apolitical representations of the world. Instead, these knowledge claims were in produced at particular times in particular places. They thus reflect cultural and political concerns. This essay seeks to think critically about how the “global” is considered in the history of science in order to conceptualize teaching the global in a way that reflects its emplaced, multi-scalar, and complex configuration of nodes and networks.
Teaching students to consider the embedded nature of scientific knowledge production can elucidate the political, social, and cultural assumptions embedded in an imagined global space. As a consequence, thinking critically about how the emplaced nature of science affects its results is a useful way to tease apart global aspirations in historical narratives.
In analyzing these cases, I rely on a framework borrowed from anthropologist Anna Tsing for untangling the interrelationships and contingencies that are often lost in global-scale narratives of science. In her book Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton University Press, 2004), Tsing explains how two “natural universals”—God and Nature—are used to create the “global” without consideration of space and time. For Tsing, capital-N “Nature,” with its law-like organization, illustrates the divine order in the natural world. But she shows how this conception of Nature is from a specific time and place, with certain political and religious belief systems that are not universal. I use her analysis in this essay because of the relation between nature and science. Science is built on observations of nature and the physical world. These observations are made in specific places, of specific plants, animals, and physical forces, yet the observations morph into transcendent, universal truths through a process that erases the relation of the local place, time, and collaborating actors. Comparison between local observations from different places requires approximation, generalization, and a collapsing of the spatial dimensions of observations. The production of “universal” knowledge is based on the erasure of the conditions in which this knowledge is produced.
Through erasure of relevant local details, science comes to be seen as universal—detached from the cultural and social aspects of a place. The globality of science is its presumed universality—science is assumed to work the same everywhere—despite self-consciously knowing that scientific practices include idealized and approximated laws. That is to say, in its attempts at objectivity, science as an epistemology perpetuates the idea that there are distinct truths to be witnessed in the physical world. The projection of a global scientific knowledge is based on approximations and idealizations, presuming universality, and denying the specificity of local knowledge. On the contrary, science as a practice erases both the relations that created it and the sociocultural aspects that continue to perpetuate it.
To teach the history of knowledge as it relates to the global requires unearthing the interrelationships between the social, economic, cultural, and physical environment. By analyzing four examples in the history of science, we can see how scientific ideas were produced through contingent relationships, and how those relationships were erased in the process of retelling. For a more symmetric and just conception of the “global” we must recall the contingencies of time and place in order to move across scales.
Science is at once both global and emplaced because places are imbued with cultural ideas and epistemologies that imprint themselves into science. The first example of this lies in Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump (Princeton University Press, 1985), which examines how the ethics of experimentation were produced through interactions of people, place, technology and sociocultural relations. Seventeenth-century England provides the setting for the duel between Robert Boyle’s experimental philosophy and Thomas Hobbes’s natural philosophy. Boyle’s success in universalizing his methods of experiment was a result of his leveraging social ties and creating a community of experimenters. His material practice, the hydraulic air pump, became “universal” as he sent precise directions for its creation and use far and wide (at least to other “civilized” cities in Europe) in the form of scientific reports. However, one practitioner, Franciscus Linus, created his own air pump and produced results contrary to those in alignment with Boyle’s theories. In response, Boyle—employing a politely detached, gentlemanly demeanor that became a model for scientific literature—concluded that “the particular places and times of the experiments being made” must be to blame for Linus’ incorrect result. If only Linus had been able to conduct the experiment in the same place as Boyle, he too could have produced the correct result. But Linus did not have access to the specificity of place necessary to create valid knowledge. Boyle rejected Linus’ results but not his use of experiment, the practice he sought to universalize. By controlling the accepted results of air-pump experiments through his social status, but at the same time working to spread the practice of observed, replicable experiment, Boyle perpetuated the mirage that scientific knowledge is universal. By enforcing rules of experimentation and etiquette, scientific practice appears both universal and universally accessible while in fact it limits both who and what are accepted into its practice. In following, a global projection through science is limited and political—the opposite of universal.
The Spaces of Taxonomy
The second example that is useful for pedagogically problematizing scientific aspirations to the global is the taxonomic system of naming and organizing the living world. Carl Linnaeus, the originator of scientific naming practices and the nested hierarchy in classification, sought to improve the science of botany by standardizing the logic of its organization. His methods of classification in plants involved counting the reproductive parts of plants—stamens and pistils—and noting their organization. Practitioners of Western science have successfully universalized Linneaus’ binomial nomenclature (i.e. genus species). In fact, Linnaean taxonomy is the dominant way of naming and classifying species—a hegemony built through centuries of European imperial expansion. This universalization of Linnaean natural historical practice is due in part to the success of Linnaeus’ apostles—his students traveled along imperial circuits to distant places and collected plants to categorize according to Linnaeus’s system, which provided an easily replicable and straightforward methodology. As a result of the timing of the development of a scientific practice, and the relative power of the country of origin of the scientist, the Linnaean system became the universal way of classifying and naming plants and animals, thus bounding other ways of knowing.
But binomial nomenclature is not the only way of classifying plants and animals. While the Linnaean system of categorizing plants and animals into kingdom, order, class, genus and species is still practiced today and DNA analysis has been incorporated as a method, the system relies on treating individual organisms as the smallest divisible unit of a species. This practice assumes that species are a natural kind, a true group that is observable in nature. However, there are other ways of conceptualizing and naming living things. For instance, anthropologist Celia Lowe witnessed a more individualized concept of naming organisms, where the Sama people in the Togean islands classified a single tree as the smallest divisible unit of nature. This practice was based on the integration of the tree into the people’s lives and knowledge of the tree’s life history. This highly localized knowledge would complicate the universal logic of taxonomy, and, therefore, is not included in the science of botany, even if the intricacies of some organisms complicate the accepted notion of both a species and an individual.
As historian of African chemistry Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga has argued, while scientific names carry the benefit of universality, they deny other ways of knowing. Mavhunga’s work seeks to remember African chemistry into the broader conception of chemistry by incorporating African ways of knowing plants, poisons, and chemical processes that differ from global conceptions of laboratory-based chemistry. Instead of aiming for or reifying universality, he argues that “pluraversality” would be the optimal condition of scientific practice because it acknowledges multiple ways of knowing the physical world. Moreover, he argued that science is based on a monopoly and scientific language is an anonymizing software; its claims to universality are imperialistic and privilege some practitioners over other. In this argument, Mavhunga is in alignment with Tsing about how geopolitics influence the acceptability of knowledge claims. While currently not treated as equal to laboratory science, the practice of African chemistry is a way of knowing the natural world through observation and experiment. Acknowledging plurality could help rid the practice of science as a tool of imperialism. These are the types of problems inherent in accepting the universal without assessing its assumptions, questions of who is allowed to produce knowledge and who is allowed to receive credit for it are left unquestioned when imagining that the global is based in the universal.
The third example to problematize the scientifically imagined global space is the science of botany. Global aspirations of botanical knowledge and control were present in Europe even before the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, and high imperialism. The first modern botanical garden, located in Padua, Italy, created a global imaginary consisting of four separate, symmetrical hemispheres, one corresponding to each region of the globe: Europe, America, Africa and Asia. The four quarter-circles created a circular, ordered globe, where the external shape simulated the globe and the gardens’ internal geography mapped onto hemispheric sections of globe. Plants from different continents, latitudes and ecosystems were expected to acclimatize to the European ideal of ordered display. Cultivated order reigned over chaos in the garden, and “the garden reduced the global macrocosm to a microcosm,” enabling the privatization of the model of universal nature. Moreover, gardens were connected to global healing power through the cultivation of medicinal plants, as well as to food production, God and theology, empire, commerce, and science. Through these relations, gardens allowed Europeans to shape not only their own personal aspirations of the global but also circulate their global ideas through the gardens’ connections to networks and flows of knowledge.
Armed with the tools of the Linnaean system, Western empires strove to know the world through its plants, which provided a positive feedback loop of increased scientific authority and increased political power. Britain created vast botanic gardens and herbaria as places to store and order their global findings. Botanists such as a Joseph Dalton Hooker, friend of Charles Darwin, and director of Kew Gardens from 1865 to 1885, aspired to catalog the plants from across the globe, which were made accessible to him through Britain’s imperial penetrations into the global “peripheries.” Scientific ideals—like standardization and brevity—were invoked to erase local details associated with new plants. For instance, while colonial botanists in New Zealand recognized the relational utility of incorporating native plant names into the metropolitan global knowledge system, Hooker held tightly to his power in naming newly identified species. One collector in New Zealand argued for the inclusion of local, Maori names into the British herbarium because he felt that “language adheres to the soil.” This was not the typical viewpoint, and Hooker denied the request. “New” species naming offered a cadre of benefits to the namer, including professional respect and credit for finding a new species. Therefore, Hooker, who had worked determinedly to procure the esteemed directorship of the Kew Gardens and professionalize his field, also worked to maintain his authority in the European, metropolitan, scientific sphere. As such, Hooker alone named the new species and his network of collectors simply collected, their local connections—the only tie the British had to locally produced knowledge—erased in the process and scientific authority concentrated in a limited, non-universal way.
The colonial efforts of the British empire also reflect the quest for globally representative natural history collections. Kew Gardens—the London-based center of botanical specimens, still the largest in the world—served as the central hub of Britain’s imperial project on plant knowledge. Kew exemplifies how science is tied to political projects that cannot be deplaced or delocalized. With scientific knowledge as a political asset, Britain sought to control the resources of the world for its own gain. The political benefit of understanding the world through plants allowed British emissaries to traverse globe, collect knowledge, make economic gains, and gain authority from knowing the world through plants.
On the other hand, the proliferation of science as one of the most powerful epistemologies for understanding the world and how its component parts relate also has benefits. For example, the standardized naming system allows practicing scientists to collaborate across national boundaries, and its basis in Latin helps make science more accessible than if there were not a universal language of science. Scientists share datasets, and grant open access to published work in an attempt to equalize the practice. Still, science is not apolitical and therefore global conceptions must be analyzed to determine any underlying subjectivities. The upcoming discussion of global climate shows both sides of this argument.
A final, and current, example to problematize the global is climate modeling. At present, a group of scientists associated with the International Union of Geological Sciences seeks to determine if the earth is in a new epoch, informally termed the Anthropocene. This working group seeks to officially determine a geological marker to distinguish the beginning of the Anthropocene. Many environmental social scientists have protested the idea of formalizing the Anthropocene, due to the assumptions it makes about the scale, cause, temporal sameness, and the unquestioned persistence of human-powered change on the globe. The Anthropocene, measured and quantified with tools and processes from geology, biogeochemistry, atmospheric meteorology, chemistry, conservation biology, and other earth sciences imagine the globe in a particular way, one which assumes international management by a small group of experts and equal responsibility of all human beings. This lumping of human actors—despite wildly different greenhouse gas emissions between post-industrialized and pre-industrialized countries—as a single, responsible species neglects to consider differing relationships people have with land, fossil fuels, and livelihoods. Seen as a technocratic problem, global climate modeling assumes an evenly distributed responsibility across the globe’s governments to reduce emissions, despite an unevenly distributed production. The emplaced spatial component of greenhouse gas production—a political issue—is obscured with a global scale model.
Tsing also discusses the climate change models and the scientists who create the models. Like Bruno Latour’s analysis of Louis Pasteur, who turned scientific knowledge of a local phenomenon into political power and control over a microbe, the climate modelers turn large sets of locally collected measurements—population, land-use, forest cover, carbon dioxide levels—into a global model. This gives power to the modelers, their vision of the globe is universalized. For example, a climate model can only include so many variables, the selection decision of which variables to include and which to ignore are important factors in the ability of the model to make realistic assumptions. The power of the modeler then is in how to generalize. Different modelers might select different variables, and then the power of their model is connected to their professional credibility. The role of the scientist is not to discover existing universal truths, but to approximate them. The fate of the approximation is determined by subjective contexts including the social. The macroscale of the climate models sacrifices the specificity of local conditions for the approximation of a global space.
Spaces are not merely containers but are produced by people and cultures. Therefore, teaching the global must include the political, ideological, and cultural undertones and aspirations of spatial production. Stephen Jay Gould’s statement that “science, since people must do it, is a socially embedded activity” portrays a useful way to think about how the global is created with science. Since people must imagine it, the “global” is a socially embedded idea. This is not to deny the successes of science, the physical materiality of the planet, nor the inherent, increasing connectedness of the global processes. Intead, it is to emphasize the important and unforgettable relevance of the methods of production in thinking universally and globally with science. As discussed in the four examples, two major problems with a scientifically produced “global” image are the erasure of relational context and a “universal” method’s power to limit other ways of knowing.
In sum, science is a power tool to gain insight into complex living processes across the globe, yet the science is always produced somewhere. It is important to acknowledge how space and place shape the products of science. The culture of the actors and the political climate play a role in the results that are produced. As we move towards a more connected world, contemplating whose global aspirations are perpetuated in the global imaginary can elucidate the spatial production of the present.