Drugs and Discovery: An Early Modern Perspective, Part I

Editor’s Note: Historian of the early modern transatlantic world Matthew Crawford  discussed the concept of “disturbance pharmacopoeias” in a post for Points a few weeks ago.  Today, in the first of a two-part post, he makes an argument for a palimpsestic understanding of the drugs “discovered” in the contact period.

Are drugs discovered or invented? The question is not as simple as it seems. To say that drugs are discovered is to treat them as a part of a natural world where they were simply waiting for the right person – usually a scientist – to reveal their existence.  To say that drugs are invented is to treat them as an artifact made by humans.  In the case of plant-based or plant-derived drugs, they would appear to be both discovered and invented.  That is to say that a human agent uses scientific and technological artifice to

Chloroplasts--Discovered, then Manipulated

identify and isolate a small piece of the natural world — a root or a molecule– that produces a desired physiological or psychoactive effect.  But this is only the beginning. That tiny piece of the seemingly infinite diversity of the natural world then acquires meaning to human communities through social and cultural artifice, as noted by recent scholarship showing that drugs are not reducible solely to their chemical properties and physical effects.

Regarding plant-derived drugs, it may not seem appropriate, at first, to treat such drugs as inventions. After all, isn’t it much more “natural” to harvest, dry and smoke the parts of a plant – say Cannabis for example – than to create a purely “artificial” drug – like methamphetamine – through chemistry? I would argue that both kinds of drugs are inventions and artifacts. After all, it takes a lot of work to transform a plant part into a drug – or at least, humans tend to put a lot of work transforming plant parts into drugs.

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