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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Knowing When to Flower: The Classical Botany of Agnes Arber

Evolution is great. As an explanatory idea, as a process governing biology, from just about any aspect you care to consider it, evolution is a magnificent thing. So magnificent, however, that it’s hard not to use it when explaining every possible aspect of the biological world, and for a few scientists over the last century and a half, that’s been a real problem. Unfortunately, one of the most cogent and penetrating alternatives to pure biochemical Darwinism ever put to paper was created by a botanist, Agnes Arber (1879-1960), a fact which all but guaranteed that the world would never see it.

Botany is science’s mutant child. It studies strange, alien objects that live, but not as we know it, consume, but not as we know it, and grow and die, but not as we know it. Plants are damnably strange, too clearly purposeful to be considered purely mechanistic but too weird to be comfortably aligned with classical notions of life as we animals have arrogantly defined it. To biologists, they’re a mystery, and to mathematicians and physicists, they are cause for a deep-seated panic best ignored. And, indeed, ignored is pretty much the optimal word in terms of botany’s place in the wider world. Don’t believe it? Ask the next person you meet to name two famous physicists (“Einstein! Newton!”), two famous mathematicians (“Euclid! Pythagoras!”) and then two famous botanists (“Uhhhhhmmmm…..”).

In spite of studying the life forms that make all animal existence possible, botanists still get no cred whatsoever on the rough streets of popular scientific recognition. And that’s a tragedy, because their insights are often of the type that you cannot acquire from your average mathematician or chemist. Their area of study forces them to see things a little differently, and Arber was that viewpoint’s most eloquent spokesperson.

She was born into a family of genius. Her grandfather was a botanist, her father an artist, her brother a Greek scholar, and her mother's side of the family boasted African explorers and members of the Royal Society. Growing up amidst such a fusion of science, art, and culture, it was inevitable that, whatever profession she chose, she'd bring to it a uniquely diverse perspective. As it happened, between her mother's enthusiasm for plants and her father's lessons in drawing from life, botany seemed the natural choice, and her first botanical study was published when she was just fifteen years old.

She was, from the first, a devotee of the work of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the man we know as the author of Faust and The Sorrows of Young Werther, but who always thought of himself as more scientist than author. His approach to botany, as contained in his Versuch die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erklären (1790) was one bound to appeal to an artistic and philosophically minded young scientist. Unencumbered by the minutiae of professional botanists, Goethe waded into the field with the audacity of a true amateur possessed of a piercing mind. He sought uniformities within the plant world, general forms that worked themselves out in nature's variety. While most 18th century botanists categorized tiny differences, Goethe sought unifying statements of repeated structural motifs, and found them. He thought the dizzying variations of nature could be related to an underlying theme, and so undertook to categorize all growths - petals and flowers and leaves - as manifestations of the same basic event, an idea which Arber would spend her life investigating.

While Arber read Goethe, Darwinism was making itself known throughout Europe as an explicatory force of unimagined power. Discovering phylogenetic lines was suddenly the hot ticket. By Arber’s time, botany had largely become a demonstration model for Darwinism, where plant structure was just something you studied in order to establish lines of evolutionary descent, rather than a worthy end in and of itself.

Evolution was a powerful approach, especially when allied with newly developing chemical and cytological methods, but Arber felt that something was being lost, something of the great Aristotelian tradition that had steadily steered botanical studies for two millennia. In 1902, she worked as an assistant in Ethel Sargant's (1863-1918) famous laboratory, studying the seedlings of grasses while also pursuing work in palaeobotany. In 1909, she married one of Britain's ablest palaeobotanists, a marriage based on mutual scientific respect cut sadly short by her husband's death in 1918.

She never remarried.

By 1946, Arber produced over seventy scientific papers and a series of books that remain botanical standards still. In 1912, she published Herbals, Their Origin and Evolution, an exhaustive account of two centuries of early modern herbal knowledge that displayed both her scientific rigor and historical acumen. In her research, she concentrated on the morphology (structure) of monocotyledons, and in particular on the Gramineae, to which most grasses belong, including food staple grasses like wheat, rice, barley, and maize. Her approach was informed by her historical and philosophical background. Taking her cue from Aristotle, Theophrastus, and Goethe, she looked at morphology from an almost teleological perspective.

How does a plant become what it is? How is it that, when flowering and fruit production begins, the rest of the plant knows to stop growing new foliage? What are the commonalities between shoot and flower production? What is there in the development of the leaf that is also in the growth of a flower petal? Arber could not have been less interested in establishing chains of evolutionary relation. She sought instead to bring the continental tradition of morphology-for-morphology's-sake to an England wrapped in Darwin mania. That approach extended to observation of an individual plant's development. Rather than arbitrarily dividing that growth into Stages which exist only as handy mental categorizations, she argued to treat development as a continuous process organized by an overall (we would now say genetic) plan. She saw plants as analogue rather than digital, and wanted botany to describe them as they were, rather than as our human brains like to categorize them. Her works sought a way forward by maintaining a link to a past deemed discredited, and her work cleared up so many difficulties in the classification of monocots that, in 1946, she became just the third woman ever elected to the Royal Society.

Her lifetime of work looking at plants from a morphological and teleological perspective culminated in her 1950 classic, The Natural Philosophy of Plant Form. It is a magisterial survey of two thousand years of biological tradition, starting from Aristotle and terminating with her own research and philosophical perspective, with time along the way to revisit her heroes, Joachim Jung and Goethe. In text sprinkled with Greek, Latin, German, and French, she shows the full measure of her awareness of the European philosophical and scientific traditions, detailing the rich culture that we stand to lose if we become too wrapped up in a single way of doing science. Rather than making morphology fit evolutionary theory, she lets structure speak for itself, and draws conclusions about repurposed processes in plant development that sound very familiar to modern epigenetic ears. By studying palaeobotany and abnormal structures, she had a hyper-developed sense of biological continuity and variation which allowed her to elucidate monocot comparative anatomy in a way imaginatively unavailable to more strict Darwinists.

The final chapter of that book is a call for a more imaginative botany, one that looks more than it analyzes, and draws more than it counts. She doesn't discard the obvious achievements of physico-chemical approaches to biological studies, but neither does she see those successes as justifying the eradication of all other less analytical approaches to describing something as clearly strange as plant life. It was an eloquent plea from one of botany's outstanding voices, and it was utterly trammeled by the massive success of the emerging genetic approach to biological analysis.

Agnes Arber died in a rest home in 1960.


Agnes Arber is a ghost. Botanists are not often written about, and female botanists even less so (even Ethel Sargant doesn’t have a full volume dedicated to her work). Her works are still available, but biographical data is scarce, the only source really being an eleven page obituary published in the Biographical Memoirs of the Royal Society, vol. 6. Beyond that, she exists as a detached if brilliant authorial voice. If you want a flavor of that, pick up the Cambridge Library Collection edition of The Natural Philosophy of Plant Form. Its last chapter is a classic, and the rest of the book is filled with a masterful account of the sweeping and largely forgotten history of botany, though the particulars of plant form that she delves into more frequently as the book goes on are probably too dense with specialized vocabulary for any but the dedicated student of botany.

This piece was originally published as the 46th column in the Women In Science series, in 2015.



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