Historians are starting to explore the dark side of scienceHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, Science, biology
There’s no denying that scientific study has led to lots of progress for humanity. Without the curious minds of early scientists—who were known as “natural historians”—we’d know little about botany, biology, and entomology, and might live in an entirely different world today.
But some of the practices that helped us get here might not sit so well today. Increasingly, scientific historians are coming to terms with the fact that science thrived in part because of the transatlantic slave trade of the 1500s to 1800s, which enabled naturalists to discover and ship new flora and fauna specimens around the world. To this day, museums contain these specimens that excited and inspired early scientists but were obtained only thanks to an inhumane business.
“We do not often think of the wretched, miserable, and inhuman spaces of slave ships as simultaneously being spaces of natural history,” Kathleen Murphy, a science historian at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, writes in the April installment of The William and Mary Quarterly (paywall). Yet research suggests that this is exactly what they were.
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