(I have been blogging about the Brenner thesis for the past couple of
months. This latest entry might be of interest here.)
Over the past month or so I have shown that whatever the considerable
merits of the “agrarian revolution” in Great Britain that is pivotal to
the Brenner thesis, it has little to do with market imperatives. After
reading part one (”Adam out of Eden”) of Richard Drayton’s superlative
“Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the ‘Improvement’
of the World,” I am further convinced that neither was it peculiar to
British tenant farmers, never mind its relevance to the transition from
feudalism to capitalism. Drayton makes a convincing case that monarchies
all across Europe, going back to the middle ages, were all consumed with
the need to “improve” soil and apply scientific techniques to the
exploitation of the natural world. Furthermore, those trading monopolies
like the East India Company specializing in “extra-economic” coercion
and that are regarded by the Brenner camp as inimical to technical
progress, were just as eager to innovate as the British gentry.
For those who have seen the excellent film “Masters and Commanders: the
Far Side of the World,” this will certainly ring a bell. Whenever
Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) lands on an island, the first thing
that ship surgeon Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) does is conduct a
scientific survey of the local flora and fauna. His interest is twofold.
He is curious about the natural world, but he also is looking for
valuable commodities. Wherever the British Empire set foot, its
botanists and animal husbandry experts were soon to follow. The same
thing was true for their mortal enemies, the French. It did not take
“market imperatives” to lead to the improvement of soil or botanical
innovation. It was part of the spirit of the age.
In many ways, Drayton’s book is a companion piece to Cliff Conner’s
“People’s History of Science.” While Conner focuses on the efforts of
common people to promote science and technology, Drayton is anxious to
show how important colonialism was in furtherance of the same goals.
When John Winthrop first encountered the indigenous peoples of New
England in the mid-1600s, he was moved to write, “They inclose noe Land,
neither have any setled habytation, nor any tame Cattle to improve the
Land by, and soe have noe other but a Naturall Right to those
Countries.” Of course, if these Indians hadn’t shown the British
colonizers how to fertilize the soil with menhaden, they would have
starved. Such are the ironies of history and “improvement”.