Using two sets of correspondences centered around specimen exchanges, this paper analyzes daily practices of naturalists to shed light on ambiguities and contradictions in early modern European naturalists’ conception of commodified nature, which mere reading of literature on ideal conduct would not allow us to capture. Keenly aware of the difference between the code of reciprocity and gift giving in the learned world on one hand, and the code of monetary profit making in commercial transactions on the other, correspondents nonetheless recklessly crossed the boundary between the two, and kept the distinction between the different codes ambiguous: naturalists claimed natural specimens as gifts, while at the same time they profited from them monetarily. The concept of nature as objects of reciprocal gift exchanges reflected the hierarchy in the world of learning; this reciprocal conduct was alleged to be proper for scholars, in contrast with profit-motivated merchants. The conception of nature as objects of reciprocal gift exchanges also allowed European naturalists to collectively imagine colonial nature as a gift from non-European people and to claim individual rights to own and profit from it. Consequently the academic hierarchy and the colonization project reinforced each other in the daily practice of commodifying nature based on the halfhearted claim of nature as gift, and practical acceptance of profit-making out of the natural specimens themselves.

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