In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Networks of Science and Scientists

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Science and Empire
  • Beyond Centers and Peripheries
  • Bureaucratic Networks
  • Commercial Networks
  • Missionary Knowledge Networks
  • African and Amerindian Knowledge
  • Traveling Naturalists
  • Alexander Von Humboldt
  • Illustrations
  • Correspondence Networks
  • Credibility and Epistemological Differences
  • Knowledge Lost, Suppressed, Distorted
  • Postindependence Science

Atlantic History Networks of Science and Scientists
Helen Cowie
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 March 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0136


Science in the Atlantic world was founded on the exchange of knowledge and objects across space and across cultures. Botanical and zoological specimens, texts, images, and people circulated around the region; as they moved, their form and meaning mutated. Until the 1990s, historians largely subscribed to a diffusionist model of science, whereby knowledge was transmitted from Europe to the colonies. This model presented non-European territories as places where empirical facts and specimens were gathered for analysis in metropolitan centers. Increasingly, however, this approach has been superseded by an emphasis on the circulation and exchange of knowledge and a focus on the global networks that facilitated its transmission. These included formal expeditions organized by European governments, bureaucratic, commercial, and correspondence networks and the knowledge networks established by the Jesuits and other missionary orders. They also included interactions between Europeans and other ethnic groups, notably Amerindians and Africans, whose crucial role in the knowledge production process was often effaced in contemporary European texts. Historians have until the 21st century devoted most attention to the work of traveling naturalists and official expeditions. Now, though, they are increasingly studying the other less visible means by which scientific knowledge was passed between culture, looking, for example, at the processes through which indigenous and African knowledge were appropriated by Europeans and placing increasing emphasis on the role of cultural brokers or intermediaries. Historians of science are also moving away from a focus on nation-states and intra-imperial networks to examine trans-imperial networks that transcended territorial boundaries. This means, in some cases, favoring a multi-centered approach over the center-periphery model associated with the diffusionist account.

General Overviews

The following works provide a good introduction to the topic, elucidating the different types of scientific networks that operated in the Atlantic world. Schiebinger 2004 studies the transfer of botanical knowledge between the Caribbean and Europe. She explores how knowledge about plants passed between cultures and across oceans, and how it mutated in the process. McClellan and Regourd 2000 offer a clear and concise summary of the different types of scientific networks in the French Empire. These include scientific expeditions, bureaucratic networks, staffed by colonial administrators and naval and military officers, networks of correspondence between the colonies and the metropolis and the information gathering networks established by missionaries. Scott Parrish 2006 gives a nuanced and insightful overview of how natural knowledge circulated in the British Atlantic world, examining the correspondence networks established between colonists and European naturalists and institutions and also considering the role of Amerindians and enslaved Africans within these networks. Bleichmar, et al. 2009 present a valuable edited collection of essays about science in the Spanish and Portuguese empires, much of which focuses on the Atlantic world. Delbourgo and Dew 2008 has assembled a collection of essays specifically on science in the Atlantic world. The chapters in this book cover scientific exchange in the British, French, Spanish, and Portuguese Atlantics. Another essay collection, De Castenlau-L’Estoile and Regourd 2005, focuses on the relationship between knowledge and power in the French, Spanish, and Portuguese Atlantics. It highlights the role of different transatlantic networks in the transmission of information.

  • Bleichmar, Daniela, Paula De Vos, Kristin Huffine, and Kevin Sheehan, eds. Science in the Spanish and Portuguese Empires. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.

    Edited collection of essays. Contains seventeen contributions in total. This is the first anthology on the subject in English and includes useful historiographical reviews of existing literature on Spanish and Portuguese science. Authors discuss different aspects of scientific exchange in the Spanish and Portuguese world, from cosmography to botanical illustration.

  • De Castelnau-L’Estoile, Charlotte, and François Regourd, eds. Connaissances et Pouvoirs: Les espaces impériaux (xvie–xviiie siècles), France, Espagne, Portugal. Pessac, France: Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 2005.

    Essay collection exploring the relationship between scientific knowledge and imperial power in the Atlantic world. Includes chapters in French, Spanish, and Portuguese exploring how different forms of knowledge influenced the government and perception of territories in the Americas. A useful comparative work, drawing on extensive archival research.

  • Delbourgo, James, and Nicholas Dew, eds. Science and Empire in the Atlantic World. New York: Routledge, 2008.

    Collection of twelve essays on different aspects of science in the Atlantic world. Focuses on the movement of knowledge across the Atlantic. Challenges earlier conceptions of science as being diffused from European centers to colonial peripheries.

  • McClellan, James, and François Regourd. “The Colonial Machine: French Science and Colonization in the Ancien Regime.” Osiris (2d series) 15 (2000): 31–50.

    DOI: 10.1086/649317

    Useful introductory article outlining the different sorts of networks employed by the French ancien régime to acquire botanical, medical, and cartographic knowledge. Emphasizes the role of the imperial bureaucracy in setting these networks in motion but also discusses other less official channels for the dissemination of information.

  • Schiebinger, Londa. Plants and Empire: Colonial Bio-Prospecting in the Atlantic World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

    Examines the transfer of botanical knowledge between the Caribbean and Europe in the 18th century through a case study of a particular plant, the peacock flower, used in the West Indies as an abortifacient. Includes discussion of scientific expeditions, the naming of plants and the testing of their medicinal properties.

  • Scott Parrish, Susan. American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

    Discusses the study of the natural world in 18th-century British America, with a particular focus on networks of correspondence. Considers how knowledge about nature was formulated, legitimated, and transmitted. Examines the involvement of different social and racial groups in this process.

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