Science, Learning, And The Claims Of Nationalism


It was during the presidency of Hans Sloane that the stirring drama of the baby elephant was played out. “Un éléphant en mignature” had been sent to the great Réaumur of Paris—his six-volume History of Insects was one of the capital works of its day—but was captured by a British man-of-war and brought to Portsmouth as a prize. Réaumur pleaded for his elephant, in vain it seemed, until Abraham Trembley of the Royal Society intervened. Trembley appealed to Fox, and eventually got permission to ship the baby elephant on to its destination. Meantime the creature had died. No matter. Trembley had him stuffed, the passports arrived, and in due time the baby elephant was delivered to Reaumur. What a triumph for science and for the baby elephant, who achieved immortality in the pages of Buffon’s great Histoire Naturelle .

Sir Joseph Banks continued the Sloane traditions and enlarged upon them: for forty years as head of the Royal Society he never permitted war or revolution to interfere with the beneficent role of science. As a youth he had sailed with Captain Cook, and it was he who had introduced the famous Tahitian, Omai, to England. He had botanized in Iceland, too, and later on, when the British were at war with Denmark, and Iceland was cut off from food and on the verge of starvation, he enlisted the sympathy of William Pitt and saved the island. It was Banks who arranged that gold medal for Franklin; it was he who intervened, again and again, during the war with France to enable the work of science to go forward. … “That the Science of two Nations may be at peace, while their Politics are at war,” he wrote George in, “is an axiom we have learned from your protection to Captain Cook, and surely nothing is so likely to abate the Rancour that Politicians frequently entertain against each other as to see Harmony and good will prevail among Brethren who cultivate science.” He enlisted the aid of Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton, and finally even of Napoleon himself, to obtain the release of Déodat de Dolomieu (the Dolomites bear his name) from the dungeon in Messina into which the Neapolitans had consigned him. At a time when Napoleon was threatening to invade England, Banks saw to it that the nautical almanacs, upon which safety at sea depended, were shipped over to France as usual.

Edward Jenner, he who had discovered inoculation against smallpox, was no less cosmopolitan than his colleague Banks. So great was his fame that he was almost a sovereign: a letter from him was more valuable than a passport; monarchs everywhere respected it. And it was Jenner who, in appealing for the release of the young Lord Yarmouth from captivity, penned the memorable phrase: “The sciences are never at war. Peace must always preside in those bosoms whose object is the augmentation of human happiness.”…

Almost two centuries ago Jefferson, who had himself given the whole of his energies to the struggle for American independence and the creation of American commonwealths, wrote from Virginia to his friend David Rittenhouse, then president of the Council of Safety of Pennsylvania:

Your time, for two years past has, I believe, been principally employed in the civil government of your country. Tho’ I have been aware of the authority our cause would acquire with the world from its being known that yourself and Doctor Franklin were zealous friends to it, and am myself impressed with a sense of the arduousness of government and the obligation those are under who are able to conduct it, yet I am also satisfied there is an order of geniuses above that obligation, and therefore exempted from it. Nobody can conceive that nature ever intended to throw away a Newton upon the occupations of a crown. It would have been a prodigality for which even the conduct of providence might have been arraigned, had he been by birth annexed to what was so far below him. Cooperating with nature in her ordinary economy, we should dispose of and employ the geniuses of men according to their several orders and degrees. I doubt not there are in your country many persons equal to the task of conducting government: but you should consider that the world has but one Ryttenhouse, and that it never had one before.

Here is the authentic note of the Enlightenment, and of the community of culture.