It is appropriate that for the first proper post of this project, we get to discuss a new BBC programme that not only refers to the economic significance of biological science, but also makes a pretty big intellectual property claim over history. I am referring to the series Plants: from Roots to Riches which began last week and consists of 25 episodes, each 15 minutes in length.* It is presented by Professor Kathy Willis, Director of Science at Kew Gardens.
Quite frankly Plants: from Roots to Riches is full to the brim with intellectual property claims, and moreover, claims that can be encompassed within Gregory Radick’s IP-narrow/IP-broad framework (see his publication linked to on the ‘People’ page). This post focuses on the first episode, but other episodes will be considered in the next few days.
First off, consider the Linnean system itself. Linnaeus’ system was only one of a very great many. Taking the intellectual property perspective, we can recognise that ‘Linnaean’ is perhaps the most successful eponym of all time! Even people who don’t know what it is will have heard of the ‘Linnean system’. We do not typically think to include this sort of eponym in our histories of science, but doing so places botany and taxonomy in a new light. The kind of cultural capital invested in the Linnaean system, aside from being something of a reward for intellectual labour, is of massive value to everyone who chooses to embrace and expand that system, including above all Linnaeus himself. Which leads to my second point.
The very problem that Linnaeus ended up solving - overcoming the great many competing taxonomic systems - was caused by intellectual property concerns.** As Endersby explains “That was a source of great confusion. Virtually every Director of a botanic garden, every collector of and student of plants, had their own system of names….it was a botanical tower of Babel”. What was going on here? Well, many different people, each looking to achieve a certain amount of prestige, were keen to ensure that they were rewarded. As there were no clear social mechanisms that could reward them for pooling their intellectual property, they instead did the only sensible thing they could “they would have their own local names, often their own local scholarly system, and they would often be speaking or writing in different languages too.” Endersby’s reference to languages also brings in the importance of the international perspective. At the recent British Society for the History of Science annual conference, hosted this year by the University of St Andrews, I heard a paper from Geof Bil, who is completing a PhD at the University of British Columbia. His paper was ALL ABOUT how the naming of plants is a powerful cultural and political tool, and how the knowledge of very local people (in the countries that Willis refers to as ‘conquered’ in the programme, without tackling the problems this entails!) really mattered to scientists. In Bil’s paper, which focussed on botanists in the UK and the Māori people of New Zealand in the nineteenth century, botanist collectors were heavily dependent upon Māori knowledge and the names they used to distinguish plants. By considering the intellectual property implications of this kind of activity, we once again find new ways to understand the history of botany and what this means for all of us.
Lastly, consider the cycad tree that the programme opens with, and which is used as a focal point throughout. It’s latin name is Encephalartos altensteinii, the latter - it is explained - is in homage to Karl vom Stein zum Altenstein, a nineteenth century Prussian politician who was...a patron for science! So here, whoever named this plant, is using Linnaeus’ system to ‘spread the intellectual property wealth’, by sticking someone’s name straight into the taxonomy, and making them synonyms with that same intellectual property. I have not looked into it, but I bet the person who named the Encephalartos altensteinii was German.
Well, that’s enough to be getting on with for now! Please do follow us by using the links at the very top of the site, and get in touch either in the comments or in email to me d.berry[at]leeds.ac.uk
* This post was edited on 9/8/2014, as it had originally said there were only 9 episodes. These were the 9 listed in just July, I had not seen the further programmes that extend in to August. Apologies for the error.
**(It is, by the way, anachronistic to refer to ‘intellectual property’ in the C18th, as it is a term that originates in more modern times. I am nevertheless going to use it throughout the project to keep things simple, save time, and keep us all on message. Perhaps I should write a special post explaining all the complexities of the word and then link to that post whenever I write ‘intellectual property’....yes...that’s a good idea).