I recently read the book "The secular ark" by Janet Browne on the history of plant geographical studies.

In the chapter "A Science of Patterns", a subsection entitled "Tabellenstatistik" is included, that tries to answer, why people were so enamored with numerical surveys of plants.

On page 75 in this subsection she writes:

"Later, this preoccupation with figures was derisively called Tabellenstatistik, after a similar episode in German political economy where, for a short period, theory was disregarded in favour of numerical data alone."

Does anybody know what Browne is referring to here? It would be very interesting to know the context a little bit better in which this was said and of course by whom it was said. So far my own searches didn't bring anything up. I have also wrote a message to Browne herself in August, but thought it won't hurt to ask here as well.


1 Answer 1


Histories by Twellmann (2014, pp. 148-154), Westergaard (1916, pp. 230-231; 1890, pp. 249-250), John (1884, pp. 88 sq, 128 sq) or Knies (1850, pp. 23-24) all point to “the Göttingen school (1806-1811)”, with e.g. Lueder who wrote in (1817, pp. 221-222):

After and next to the true statisticians, who described the State in words, there arose a new kind of statisticians, who described the State in numbers: political arithmeticians, table fabricators, or, as Brandes so aptly named them, table serfs.

Edit: As to similar controversies in biogeography, Rudwick (1978, p. 236) has a slightly earlier and more specific claim than Browne:

Bronn (1831)’s tables are an outstanding example of the ‘statistical’ approach in paleontology at this time (remembering that ‘statistics’ meant simply a compilation of quantitative data). (...) Yet only incidentally in the midst of all this ‘Tabellenstatistik’ (as its critics scornfully called it) did Bronn (...)

By the way, Rudwick (p. 229) attributes the first (non-derisive) use of the word statistics in botanical geography to de Candolle (1820, p. 362; see also 1838a, 1838b, 1840), but it is already (semi-derisively...) in von Humboldt (1817, p. 18).

  • $\begingroup$ I see now that I should have been clearer. I meant specifically what she refers to in the botanical/plant geographical discourse. I am aware that this is related to a development in population studies. I upvoted you, because it's probably helpful for anybody else not knowing this context. So: Thanks! $\endgroup$
    – openmedi
    Sep 12, 2017 at 21:15
  • $\begingroup$ No worries — this taught me a few things, including the (political!) etymology of statistics as “science of state”, of which I had no idea. I have since found and added something more relevant to your 19th century biology concern, though I still couldn’t trace it in the literature of the time. $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2017 at 4:54
  • $\begingroup$ Note that both quotes (Rudwick’s, and Browne’s as stated) are compatible with the possibility that the put-down of “preoccupation with figures” as “Tabellenstatistik” was just generic and never explicitly specialized (before them) to biogeography. $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2017 at 10:56
  • $\begingroup$ Indeed. I was thinking that too. It's interesting that neither Browne, nor Rudwick feel the need to cite references here. As if this is a pretty well known fact (in 1970ies and 1980ies). $\endgroup$
    – openmedi
    Sep 13, 2017 at 11:01
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your continued research concerning this. Your wrote: "Maybe that’s enough to consider that (some) natural scientists were familiar with the put-down?" I am not actually that sceptic about the general claim by Browne (and Rudwick), but I'd like to know more about it, because it would help identifying the frontlines between those who approved of botanical arithmetic and those who were critical. The book as well as the review of Lüeder is not concerned with biogeography as far as I could see while skimming the review. $\endgroup$
    – openmedi
    Sep 13, 2017 at 19:12

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