Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. (Genesis 1:9, NIV)
In Christian Europe, literal interpretation of the Holy Bible led to basic conclusions that were, in my reading, neither obvious nor the prerogative of the clerics. Theologians inferred limits to supreme authority that I find unnecessary based on Biblical language. The Text does not require that every plant on Earth be seed-bearing and fruit-producing; verse 9 includes no exclusions. It is certainly not obvious that God was obliged to limit the kinds of plants created to those that would be known by early Europeans. But provincial circumstances and mindsets led to a narrow reading, and there were no lawyers around at the drafting of Holy text to set forth qualifications and exemptions. Today, there’d be disclaimers covering all bets, we’d find a more cautious expression:
Then God issued this writ of mandamus: The land shall produce plants and trees, subject to the following:
- ‘Land’ shall mean the Earth, including dry land, mountains, caves abysses, icy wastes, marshes, rivers, streams, riverine areas, lakes and ponds, salt-water oceans, and seas,
- ‘Plants’ means every living thing that is not an animal or bacterium.
- ‘Living thing” means any self-regulating, self-reproducing being creating organic molecules based on patterns in DNA and/or RNA, i.e. living being.
- ‘Animal’ means any eucaryotic living being lacking cellular vacuoles and cell walls.
- ‘Tree’ means a plant recognized as long-lived and stately.
- Nothing in this order shall (a) limit the cellular models used by plants and trees, (b) forbid the production of seed-bearing or fruiting-bearing plants and trees, or plants and trees that do both or do neither; (c) require or prohibit plant or tree secondary growth; (d) forbid extinction of a plant or tree family, genus, species, hybrid, or other type, or the creation from time to time of a new plant or tree family, genus, species, hybrid, or other type; (e) require plants or trees to be ones with which Adam & Eve or their descendants are familiar; or (f) mandate that fruit and seeds be tasty, edible, safe to eat (by way of example, the Tree of Knowledge may bear highly dangerous fruit that no one should eat).
- God reserves the right, without advance notice, to withdraw this writ at any time or to change it in any way.
- This writ shall automatically expire when the apocalypse occurs.**
Narrow-reading of beautifully-composed actual text of Genesis 1:9 by Western scholars proffered that on a single day (specifically the 3rd day) plants were created, that God’s vegetation work was limited to that day and those plants. What followed was insistence that neither God nor any other force of nature would alter that original creation, the subtext being a presumption that humans write the rules defining how both God and nature operate.
As long as limited manuscripts were available to a few literate scholars and little attention was given to studying plants, ignorance reigned. The height of early Western knowledge about plants, Dioscorides’ remarkable de Materia Medica (circa 60 AD) was known and preserved, but had no universal impact. Roman agricultural records (Cato, Varro, Columella) and Pliny’s Natural History, also the property of few people, summed up the remainder of what could be sourced in the Mediterranean about plants, their kinds, their uses. Though today we study and revere what remains of those ancient texts, it’s difficult to imagine they had a great influence on the illiterate, rural pre-Renaissance world.
Through Arab scholarship, the importance of manuscripts was passed to warm countries (and to a significant extent, preserved and expanded). But that arcane knowledge also radiated into northern Europe, into lands and climates with plants imperfectly suited to Dioscorides’ lessons. The misfit wasn’t so obvious in a mostly-illiterate world with precious few written authorities. Except for a few timber, agricultural, and medicinal plants, the bulk of creation was just green screen.
Indifference would melt rapidly and dramatically beginning in the mid-15th century, when in every way, knowledge and appreciation of the plant world expanded with adoption of printing (beginning with Gutenberg in 1455) and the rise of European exploration between 1450 and 1540. New industries and new occupations were created by and for a growingly-literate audience. Livelihoods could be built through printing and plagiarizing old manuscripts, writers could even post fresh observations and thoughts. Book sales were amped up with woodblock prints, showcasing artwork and imagery that grew increasingly lavish and accurate. Quickening change and preserved on paper, the written word and graphic arts were merged in a field of whitespace.
At the same time, voyages of discovery were documenting a startling reality; exotic lands hold their own exotic floras – not just rare spices and medicinals. Practically every plant encountered was different from those known to Europeans natively. OMG – What to do with all of this new information?
God and nature, scholars learned, held new tricks. Who knew? The world of plants did not simply include the few hundred kinds Dioscorides described, or even those native to Europe and the Mediterranean, or those important plants that had made their way through trade routes (rice, sugar, oranges, etc.) Active Minds had filed that plant wealth in handsome intellectual cabinets. But that intellectual framework soon burgeoned with new “kinds” of plants arriving from all areas of the globe. The Spanish introduced plants and products from Mexico and South America. The Dutch were importing curiosities from South Africa. The English, a bit late to the party, began harvesting and cultivating plants from their Caribbean and American colonies. Naturalists came to realize there must be tens of thousands of plant species, some of which (corn, peanuts, sweet potatoes, chocolate, cinchona, white pine, live oak, rubber, etc.) would prove to be important raw resources, green gold – new potential for industry and commerce, new challenges to established order.
What revelation. Clearly Noah’s flood had failed to wipe out life in far-distant lands. If all the world’s plants came into being on one day, the third day of creation, then the task had been much greater than generating the few hundred kinds of plants European scholars knew. There had to be a schema, a rubric for how to generate so many different kinds. Moreover, given the task of taking dominion and issuing names, humans needed some clues as to the purpose and source of variation. Priests, ministers, and physicians would now study the world’s plant diversity with the mission to reveal that formula; natural philosophy could serve religion through detailing God’s model, a chain of life, or the chain of being.*
In this model, each kind of plant might be seen as a link connected to another kind, a plant so similar as to be the next link. Each segment of the chain, a string of links sharing some ideal, exemplified concepts of a genus, as John Locke expressed in An Essay Concerning Humane (Human) Understanding (1689.) He contended people objectify thoughts, classifying things around us through formulating general ideas about material objects, which are then manifested in real examples. Each example therefore, each kind, or in Locke’s terms, each species has its essential nature. Botanists adopted this approach and terminology in describing species (Biblical kinds) as instances of genera, which then can be organized in broader categories – families, orders, classes, and kingdoms.
Fundamentalists have held to strict readings of Genesis (some even to the present day), with claims of an Earth that is just a few thousand years old, in a universe created in one work week. But most people moved on to expand their thoughts about creation, accepting geological and biological evidence that replaced the chain of life and other doctrines with another fraught (but better) concept – the tree of life.
Today, we accept the idea that all lifeforms share common, geologically-ancient origins – the seed to that tree, the origins of all life on Earth. As the tree of life expanded, millions of now-extinct species (more than are extant today) populated lineages we envision as interior structure (roots, trunks, branches), building the now-invisible tree architecture. All that persists of the famous tree of life are the diverse endpoints we observe today, points that are not fixed. One could say the third day never ended, visualizing on-going evolution as creation and extinction – as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.
*Brandon C. Look, https://www.uky.edu/~look/Leibniz&Locke.pdf David Owen, 1991. Locke on Real Essence, History of Philosophy Quarterly 8(2): 105-118, https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/27743968.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3Acadb42ab3f03b4cbf25df2d85197b16c
** Updated statement provided pro bono by Ethan Lipsig,
William Whewel , 1837. HNT 478350 History of the Inductive Sciences