Natural Substances and Artificial Products

Diogenes 43 (172):105-125 (1995)
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Abstract

One of the defining features of the modern age is the apotheosis of natural history. Natural History is, of course, the title of Buffon's monumental work, written in the second half of the 18th century. Also, until the rise of the Industrial Revolution, natural history provided an integrated technology, stretching from the voyages of discovery to the establishment of colonies devoted to the cultivation of the resources discovered there, whether one considers sugar cane in its migration west, or vanilla plants on Reunion Island. Beginning in the 16th century, and in such works as Jean de Léry's The Singularities of the French Antarctic, voyagers described, in written accounts of what they saw in far-off lands, exotic substances with singular properties. Jean Nicot returned with tobacco. Parmentier took it upon himself to introduce the cultivation of the potato to France. From both Madame de Sévigné and a secular cantata of Bach we know of the immediate vogue that coffee enjoyed from its introduction in Europe. Later, in the 18th century, after his disastrous expedition to measure the meridian at the equator, La Condamine returned from the Amazon with two substances that would prove crucial to the technical development of the West: rubber and curare.

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