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Nils Güttler

Nils Güttler


E-Mail: guettler [at] grako-schrift.fu-berlin.de


Ph.D. Project

"The role of maps in 19th century plant geography"



In my thesis, I try to analyze new strategies to visualize spatial knowledge in late 18th and 19th century botany. Particularly, the work will focus on „plant geography“ – a discipline founded by Alexander von Humboldt and others around 1800 and aiming to investigate the distribution of plants (and plant communities) on the surface of the earth. Within this discipline, maps became an influential source for the generation of new knowledge. Plant-geographical maps were one of the earliest so-called „thematic maps“ which represented the earth not as a politically, but naturally structured space with naturally restricted regions. Later, at the end of the 19th century, the discipline strongly influenced the foundation of scientific ecology. Again, botanical maps played a prominent role in contemporary discussions about the interaction between plants and their environment. Until now, connatural maps are integral parts of atlases to present the existence of different ecological zones to the reader.

Inspired by current discussions about the role of images and the power of spaces within the history of science (iconic and spatial turn), my goal is to find out how these maps helped to generate knowledge about ecological relationships and how much the new knowledge was routed in epistemological erosions in late 18th century Europe. I hypothesize that plant geographical maps were not just „representations“ of a given and observed reality, but served rather as a tool, which helped scientists to „think things together“ – things that otherwise would have probably been separated. To frame the maps’ „botanical world views“ from this perspective means two things: on the one hand they show us a special subjective and contemporary European view on nature and the world; on the other the maps had an „independent existence“, channeled scientific observations in a very specific way and helped scientists – as an external medium – to create a new, unpredictable knowledge about nature.

My thesis will be divided in two main chapters. First I will focus on the role of maps within the traditional natural history und discuss early attempts to visualize the distribution of plants (until the 1840s). Within discussions about the true order of nature, maps became more and more an analogy for an „ up-to-date“ systematization of botanical facts. These discussions caused – what I call – a „cartographical thinking“ and had a great impact on the foundation of plant geography by Alexander von Humboldt and others as well as on first plant-geographical visualizations. My second main chapter will analyze the influences of the temporalization of biological knowledge (caused by Darwin’s evolutionary theory) on the spatially oriented plant geography. Paradoxically, it was the temporalization of distribution that allowed scientists to look at plant-geographical maps in a new – and very productive – way: the maps now showed the actual result of a long-running process of migration and change. The more complex conception of a historically originated habitat made the maps to a new epistemic place, informing scientists about the underlying laws of how natural objects „got together“ und formed symbiotic communities.

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