The Collaborative Epistemic Culture of Eighteenth-century Natural History

  • DIETZ, Bettina (PI)

Project: Research project

Project Details


This project will investigate collaborative epistemic cultures with a focus on eighteenth- century natural history. Collaboration shall be explored as a defining feature that shapes the knowledge making process in this discipline as well as in a number of other scientific fields.

As a four-year project it comprises two phases. In the first phase I will scrutinize the fundamentally collaborative and contribution-based knowledge culture of eighteenth- century natural history, the scientific discipline that arguably mobilized the largest number of participants in this period. The analysis will be organized along three axis and examine the knowledge making process in natural history as a participatory and collaborative process (1), that requires contributions from as many participants as possible (2), to aggregate them into a final product (3).

As natural history’s need for information was potentially endless, a correspondence- based information system was established, that, as a whole, comprised all active naturalists, and linked them to each other as well as to the center of this system, represented by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. The arsenal of techniques for mobilizing, communicating, and sharing information that were deployed in these correspondences will be discussed. As a next step, this mode of sharing and aggregating information shall be addressed as prerequisite of the global endeavor of natural history to register nature (plants, animals, and minerals) worldwide. Finally this contributory working mode will be linked with the specific publication style of Linnaeus: to stay abreast of this constant influx of information, Linnaeus regularly published corrected and increased versions of his systematic works.

Based on the insights gained from the analysis of eighteenth-century natural history, the second project phase will be dedicated to a comparative screening of other collaborative epistemic cultures in early modern and modern science. The aim is to highlight the epoch-spanning significance of fundamentally contribution-based knowledge cultures in the history of science by elucidating their persistence from the early modern period to contemporary times. The contributive format of GenBank for example, a database of all publicly available DNA sequences, was recently characterized as the greatest existing collection of experimental knowledge, and as such having an essential significance for the comparative dimension of knowledge-making in molecular biology (Strasser: The Experimenter’s Museum: GenBank, Natural History, and the Moral Economies of Biomedicine’, Isis 102 (2011), 60–96). Other examples of collaborative epistemic cultures shall be identified and compared to broaden the typologies of "ways of knowing" in the history of science.
Effective start/end date1/01/1331/12/15


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