Irving presents a first history of the British Empire that takes account of the sense of empire as intellectual as well as geographic dominion. Natural Science and the Origins of the British Empire is the first book to bring together the origins of the British Empire with the history of early modern science. Irving places seventeenth-century advancements in natural science in the context of England's colonisation of the Atlantic world.
As Robert Boyle and his contemporaries discovered, English colonies in Ireland, North America and the Caribbean yielded a wealth of new knowledge about the natural world. Information about native peoples, crops, soil and climate was collected. Irving argues that men of science used new data to build an intellectual as well as a geographical empire.