Archive for the 'History' Category

Sep 22 2012

Sendak and Hoban

Filed under History

Within the past year, two of my favorite authors died, Maurice Sendak and Russell Hoban.  Sendak was undoubtedly the better known, author of picture books such as the wonderful Where the Wild Things Are and my favorite, In the Night Kitchen, as well as an illustrator of many more books.  Hoban also wrote children’s books, the wry and gentle series about Frances the Badger (mainly illustrated by the inimitable Garth Williams, who created Charlotte the spider).  He wrote adult novels as well, which I have not read, and the extraordinary Riddley Walker.

            Riddley Walker (1980) is a post-apocalytic story about a twelve-year-old boy who has the power to interpret myth – to riddle.  He lives in southeast England some centuries after a nuclear war has ended Western civilization.  Odd remnants of it remain in the form of a legend known as the Eusa story and in a traveling Punch and Judy show that serves as what government there is in the rough settlements of what used to be Kent.  All of this sounds strange, and it is; but what makes this novel extraordinary is its use of language.  When civilization collapsed, so did language.  Riddley speaks and writes a phonetic, garbled patois.  Hoban’s imagining of this shattered language gives this novel its power.  I recently read Cloud Atlas and its central post-apocalyptic story is also written in its own half-collapsed language.

Like Hoban, Sendak dealt with myths and half-remembered fears.  His books all have that quality of dreams which bend and distort reality.  Max sails for a year and a day, and Mickey falls through the floor (and out of his clothes) into the kitchen.  Goblins steal babies (I found Outside over There too dark to read to my toddlers).  He too played with language, slipping in and out of meaning as his images slipped between waking and dreaming.

To Sendak, technology is toy-like and playful: Max’s boat could be folded of paper, and Mickey’s airplane is made of bread dough.  Technology is much more ominous to Riddley Walker.  As in Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (written two decades earlier), the remnants of techno-civilization are mysterious and awe-inspiring.  Riddley marvels at the remains of a power plant in Cambry (Canterbury).  But the awe elides to a pervasive sense of loss, as Riddley recognizes how much knowledge has disappeared.  No one knows how any of this might have worked.  Many seek the secret of the Little Shyning Man the Attom.

When Riddley finds a stained glass window in Canterbury Cathedral dedicated to St. Eustace, this myth mingles with the Eusa story.  Hoban explores history and language, how our stories develop and change over time, and how we need stories to tell ourselves.  Like Max and Mickey, Riddley reaches deeply into the half-slumbering core of ourselves to find what meaning he can.


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Aug 27 2012

Knowing the eighteenth century

Filed under History

I wrote this fifteen years ago, when I had just finished my book on the Scottish diet doctor George Cheyne.  I still agree with what it says, so I thought it was worth posting.

How about the historian’s knowledge?  How do we know what we know?  Is it all just texts?  Well, of course it’s all just texts – we deal with the written word, and little else.  I thought about this a lot when I was writing my book on George Cheyne.  How could I expect to get a handle on the life of an 18th century Scottish physician?  I have always been bemused by the fact that Cheyne and I are physical opposites: he was huge, tall and over 400 pounds; I am not.  I have always loved detective novels, and doing history is in some ways like solving a puzzle – except the pieces are scattered all over the place.  In Cheyne’s case, I put together what he said publicly with what he said privately in correspondence.  With that went what other people thought of him, publicly and privately.  On top of that I looked at his setting – what was happening around him, the political and cultural milieu.  I looked at his material circumstances, which I became very conscious of when writing for the Oxford DNB and looking at numerous wills.  On the basis of all this, I came to some conclusions about what Cheyne was like, what he believed, and what it was like to live his life.  Of course I could be all wrong, but that’s why history is an ongoing enterprise; it’s never finished.  When I was in college I read Quentin Skinner’s essay on meaning and understanding in the history of ideas, and it made a deep impression on me.  He argued that the text could not be separated from its context, that you had to have both to understand an idea.   I could worry forever about the Russian doll of the reader reading the read text and what it means, if anything.  I would rather assume that the writer (who in the 18th century, I think, was not as self-conscious as most writers today, except for Sterne) meant something and that maybe I can find out what that something is.  It is true that I will never really “know” the eighteenth century, I will only know it from the twentieth.  Since time travel is not yet a viable possibility, I guess that will have to do.



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Aug 12 2012

Anatomy vs natural history?

Filed under Anatomy,Animals,History

“…Anatomy… differs essentially from natural history. ….natural history dwells upon forms, upon the exterior qualities of bodies, and is restricted, in whatever guise, to skimming their surfaces. Anatomy goes further: it penetrates bodies, divides them, isolates the parts of which they are composed, and seeks to lift the veil hiding the secret of their organization.”
Francesco Atommarchi, 1826A jar of moles

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May 18 2012

Evolutionary History

Filed under Environment,History

I was one of several contributors to the H-Environment Roundtable on Edmund Russell’s book Evolutionary History. You can see the entire roundtable discussion here.

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Apr 30 2012

Of Books and Google Books

In the summer of 1979, I helped to proofread Never at Rest, the biography of Isaac Newton by my graduate advisor Sam Westfall.  Being the meticulous scholar he was (a trait I hope he conveyed to me), he also had me check all of his footnotes.  I marveled at the number of archives and libraries he had visited in his quest to see everything Newton wrote; only an obscure library in Geneva had denied him access, and in his preface he “wished them the joy of their possession.”  I can hear Sam’s inimitable voice in those words, not that I ever dared to call him Sam until I was safely a Ph.D.  That same summer I worked at the Lilly Library at Indiana as a receptionist, a job I held through graduate school.  I learned most of what I know about rare books from Josiah Quincy Bennett, the Lilly’s legendary rare book cataloguer.

In my own research over the past thirty years I’ve visited my share of libraries and archives.  But increasingly over the past few years, I’ve also gone to Gallica or Google Books or EEBO or ECCO and downloaded what now number hundreds of PDFs onto my laptop.  Were I still working on Newtonian matters, I could go to Rob Iliffe’s or Bill Newman‘s excellent websites and read Newton’s manuscripts online.  I love Tim Hitchcock’s Old Bailey website.  I can read the minutes of the Paris Academy of Sciences in my study in Corvallis, Oregon with my cat in my lap and no jet lag.  I can find that stray page number within a few minutes.  In one of her books, Natalie Davis thanked a library’s staff for staying open late on a Saturday night so she could squeeze out that last bit of research, and as a parent whose research has often taken place in manic slots of a few days, I find it unimaginably luxurious to have access to so much that was previously locked up far away.

And yet there is something lost in depending on digital copies for my primary sources, and I don’t just mean access to restaurants in Paris.  I’ve talked elsewhere about what I see as the limits of “culturomics,” the Google n-gram tool. Culturomics sees books as simply units of text, bricks in an edifice of words.  My time at the Lilly made me very conscious of the book as an object and an artifact.  Recently Gallica digitized the Paris Academy’s 1671 Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire naturelle des animaux.  I have been reading this book for the past decade, in at least four different libraries.  I am thrilled to have it so easily accessible.  But on the screen, the physical presence of “le grand livre” (as the librarians called it who hauled it out for me in Salle Y at the Bibliothèque nationale) is completely lost.  It’s an elephant folio, over two feet high, almost too big to fit in a book cradle.  Most of the copies that I have seen have been bound in red morocco with gold tooling at the corners and Louis XIV’s  fleur-de-lis in the center of the cover.  At the British Library in the summer of 2010 I looked at five copies, all different, including Hans Sloane’s own copy, which was bound in blue cloth.  I propped them up side by side on giant book rests, monopolizing two desks in the crowded rare books reading room.

Of course all books don’t have such presence, but recent studies of reading and note taking should remind us that reading and writing in the pre-digital age were deliberate acts that involved a number of physical objects, sometimes now referred to as “paper technologies”:   loose sheets, notebooks, ink, pens, books, presses, engravers, later perhaps typewriters and carbon paper.  The differences between a broadside and a textbook are not simply in the number of pages but in the quality of the paper, the typeface, the size, even the shape, none of which is conveyed very well by a digital copy.   Likewise a manuscript is not only the words on the page but the page itself.

My second concern, one that I find ample evidence to confirm in my students, is that if a book is not digitized it ceases to exist.   I fear the increasing loss of the physical book to the electronic copy as library budgets continue to contract; we already can see the wholesale unloading of periodical collections.  Wide scale digitization would, it seems, make a project like Never at Rest much easier to do.  But I wonder if in fact the opposite might be true, and that by trusting in the digital we increasingly overlook that other world of print and paper, diminishing our range of vision rather than expanding it.

Perhaps my concerns are unfounded, and I’m not going to delete all those PDFs from my laptop.  But I still go to libraries and archives as often as I can.

This essay also appeared in the April issue of the History of Science Society Newsletter.

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Apr 09 2012


If you would like to sign, please contact Rina Knoeff,










From: Participants, delegates and supporters of the

International Conference on ‘Cultures of Anatomical Collections’,

held at Leiden University, 15-18 February 2012

We are scholars, curators and creative artists from across Europe and North America with professional involvements in human anatomy and pathology. We are writing to express our very great concern about the storage and preservation of collections of human anatomy and pathology in some parts of the world.


Almost every medical faculty possesses anatomical and/or pathological collections: human and animal preparations, wax- and other models, as well as drawings, photographs and documents and archives relating to them.


We salute and wholeheartedly commend and admire those institutions in which anatomical and pathological museum materials are celebrated and well-cared for.


However, we are also aware that in some other institutions, such collections are neglected: badly stored, poorly maintained, and rendered inaccessible to medical and other audiences.


Newer teaching methods and preoccupations have sometimes caused these collections to become under-appreciated. Financial constraints and crises can often mean that funding for the conservation, storage, and sometimes even the preservation, of anatomical collections can become de-prioritized. As a result, collections can be in great danger of becoming undervalued and neglected, which may eventually result in permanent damage.


We are aware of more than one recent instance in which curators have been marginalized or lost, and collections placed in inappropriate ‘storage’ conditions, rendering them liable to serious deterioration. Separated from their archives, these collections can lose identity, sometimes irrevocably.


We greatly fear that some uniquely important anatomical collections are currently in danger of being irretrievably damaged and perhaps lost to medical and cultural heritage.


We, the undersigned, wish to raise international awareness concerning the current critical situation for these collections.


Anatomical and pathological collections are medically relevant not only for future generations of medical students and faculty, and for future medical research. They are also important in the history of medicine generally, for the history of the institutions to which they belong, and also for a wider understanding of the cultural history of the body.


These collections sometimes document diseases and medical conditions that are now rare or simply no longer exist, teaching methods and preoccupations currently unfashionable or apparently superseded, and techniques of manufacture and display no longer practised. Collections often hold rare and extraordinary materials that are records of unique scientific investigations, medical conditions, and skills. In some cases these materials are the only documents that allow us to understand key changes and developments in Western medicine, and their dissemination.


Moreover, anatomical collections are crucial to new scholarly inter-disciplinary studies that investigate the interaction between arts and sciences, especially but not exclusively medicine. Such collections allow the study of interactions between anatomists, scientists and anatomical artists, and other occupational groups involved in anatomical and pathological displays. They embody the rich histories related to the display of natural history and medical cabinets; they reveal how new artistic and documentary techniques and materials were adopted by physicians and scientists in other historical periods; they demonstrate how new knowledge about the body and the natural world was presented by and for the medical, scientific and sometimes lay audiences.


Ultimately anatomical collections are important in knowing ourselves and the bodies we are. In this sense they are no less important than world famous artworks like the “Mona Lisa”, the “Venus de Milo” or Michelangelo’s “David”.


We urge medical faculties worldwide to mobilise all possible means in order to protect and preserve the important academic, medical, institutional, scientific and cultural heritage these collections represent.


Moreover we urge funding bodies to recognise and cherish these collections.



Babke Aarts (assistant curator, Utrecht University Museum)

Prof. Rosa Ballester (historian of science, University Miguel Hernández)

Roberta Ballestriero, M.Phil. (art historian, associate lecturer for the Open University, Manchester, photographer)

Dr. Philip Beh, MBBS, DMJ, FHKAM(Path), FFFLM (Associate Professor forensic pathology, the University of Hong Kong)

Dr. Leo van Bergen (medical historian, Royal Netherlands Institute for South East Asian and Caribbean Studies, Leiden)

Timo Bolt, MA (medical historian, UMC Utrecht)

Prof. Jose-Luis Bueno-Lopez (President Spanish Society of Anatomy, the University of the Basque Country, Leioa, Spain)

Owen Burke (medical physicist at Glan Clwyd Hospital, photographer)

Prof. Li Chong Chan (Chair, Professor of Pathology, the University of Hong Kong)

Prof. Montserrat Cabré (historian of science, Universidad de Cantabria)

Prof. P.H. Dangerfield (clinical anatomist, University of Liverpool)

Andries J. van Dam (conservator, Leiden University Medical Centre and directory board member Committee for Conservation, International Council of Museums, ICOM-CC)

Prof. Dr. Sven Dupré (professor of History of Knowledge, Institute for Art History, Freie Universität Berlin)

Dr. James M. Edmonson (Chief Curator, Dittrick Museum, Case Western Reserve University, Secretary General of the European Association of Museums of the History of the Medical Sciences)

Dr. Florike Egmond (cultural and science historian, Leiden University)

J. Carlos Garcia-Reyes (historian of science, CSIC, Barcelona)

Dr. Anita Guerrini (historian of science, Oregon State University)

Ayda Christina Garzón Soarte (Conservator and museologist, Universidad El Bosque, Bogota, Colombia, South America)

Dr. Alette Fleischer (historian of science)

Prof. Dr. Inge Fourneau (professor in vascular surgery and anatomy, KU Leuven)

Drs. Bart Grob (curator, medical history, Museum Boerhaave, Leiden)

Prof. Hughes Dreyssé (chairman UMAC-ICOM (University Museums and Academic Collections – International Council of Museums))

Dr. Glenn Harcourt (historian of art and visual culture, independent scholar, Los Angeles, CA)

Marieke Hendriksen (MA, MRes, cultural and medical historian, Leiden University)

Christopher Henry (Director of Heritage, The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh)

Dr. Marijn Hollestelle (historian of science, Foundation for the History of Technology, Eindhoven)

Assoc. Prof. PD MAG. Dr.phil. Dr. Med. Sonia Horn (Medical University of Vienna)

Dr. Nick Hopwood (historian of medical science, University of Cambridge)

Prof. Frank Huisman (medical historian, University Medical Center Utrecht)

Hieke Huistra Msc (medical historian, Leiden University)

Dr. Tiffany Jenkins (sociologist, & arts and society director of the Institute of Ideas)

Dr. Karin Johannisson (medical historian, Uppsala)

Dr. Stephen C. Kenny (historian, University of Liverpool)

Dr. Rina Knoeff (medical historian, Leiden University)

Prof. Richard L. Kremer (historian of science, curator of the King collection of Historic Scientific Instruments, Dartmouth College, USA)

Dr. Anna Maerker (medical historian, King´s College London)

Dr. Daniel Margocsy (assistant professor of history, Hunter College – CUNY)

Prof. G.M. Morriss-Kay (Balliol College, Oxford)

Dr. Ulrika Nilsson (medical historian, Stockholm University, Sweden)

David Pantalony (curator, physical sciences and medicine, Canada Science and Technology Museum)

Dr. José Pardo-Tomás (medical historian, CSIC, Spanish Council of Scientific Research)

Dr. Sebastian Pranghofer (historian of medicine, Helmut-Schmidt-University, Hamburg and Durham University)

Prof. Concepcion Reblet, MD, PhD (The University of the Basque Country, Leioa, Spain)

Dr Ruth Richardson (historian, King’s College, London and Hong Kong University)

Prof. Dr. Alessandro Ruggeri ( Director of “Museo delle Cere Anatomiche “Luigi Cattaneo” Alma Mater Studiorum Bologna University -Italy

Dr. Miguel Ruiz-Rubiano (Anatomy Professor,)

Lisa Temple-cox (independent researcher, Essex)

Dr. Michael Sappol (historian, National Library of Medicine, USA)

Prof. Thomas Söderqvist (Director Medical Meseion, University of Copenhagen)

Dr. Cindy Stelmackowich (artist, art historian and medical historian, New York Academy of Medicine and Carleton University)

Prof. Laurence Talairach-Vielmas (Professor of English, University of Toulouse (UTM))

Prof. Dr. Thomas Schnalke (medical historian, Director of the Berlin Museum of Medical History at the Charité)

Somayyeh Shahsavari (medical student (MBBS4), St. George’s University of London)

Dr. Rajul Singh, FRC Path (Good hope hospital, Sutton Coldfield)

Dr. Stefan Sommer (Department of Biological Sciences, Northern Arizona University)

Barbara Tramelli (doctoral student, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin)

Prof. Dr. Geert Vanpaemel (historian of science, KU Leuven)

Robert Vonk, MA (medical historian, VU university medical center, Amsterdam)

Darren Wagner (cultural and medical historian, University of York)

Dr. Cornelia Weber (General Manager, Hermann von Helmholtz-Zentrum für Kulturtechnik, Humboldt University of Berlin)

Dr. Elizabeth A. Williams (Ph.D., medical historian, Oklahoma State University)

Dr. Kaat Wils (cultural historian, KU Leuven)

Ieteke Witteveen (National Archaelogical-Anthropological Memory Management, Curacao, Carribbean)

Dr. Alfons Zarzoso (historian and curator, Museu d’Història de la Medicina de Catalunya, Barcelona, CEHIC, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)

Prof. Dr. Robert Zwijnenberg (Leiden chair of art in relation to the sciences, Leiden University)





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Mar 07 2012

Cultures of anatomical collections

Filed under Anatomy,Animals,History

A few weeks ago, I attended the conference “Cultures of Anatomical Collections” in Leiden, the Netherlands.  I’m still thinking about and absorbing all the things I learned there.  It was the kind of conference where you are still up at midnight talking about things – in this case, dead bodies, anatomical waxes, anatomical preparations, anatomical models.  Rina Knoeff, who organized the conference, brought in artists, curators, and art historians as well as historians of science, and the interactions among the artists and historians brought new insights to me and I hope to them.  Some highlights included Ruth Richardson’s wonderful piece, “Organ Music,” in which she imagines the long-dead body parts in the London College of Surgeons telling their stories.  I was especially happy to meet Ruth, author of two amazing books: Death, Dissection, and the Destitute, and The Making of Mr Gray’s Anatomy .  She has just come out with a new book on Oliver Twist and workhouse life in Dickens’s London.

There were so many wonderful papers I cannot describe them all.  Just a few highlights would include Rina Knoeff’s paper on Frederik Ruysch (whose bizarre tableaux came up in quite a few other presentations); Anna Maerker on the nineteenth-cen

Cheselden, Osteographia, 1733

tury papier-mâché anatomical models of Dr. Auzoux, which made their way around the world; the artist Lisa Temple-Cox’s account of casting her own head in a wonderful exploration of art, anatomy, and identity; and Alfons Zarzoso and José Pardo Tomás on the wild and wonderful Roca Museum in 1930s Barcelona.

I was sad to hear Kathryn Hoffman’s presentation about the dismantling of the Musée Delmas-Orfila-Rouvière in Paris, an enormous anatomical collection that had occupied the eighth floor of the Paris Medical Faculty’s building on the rue Saint-Pères in the sixth arrondissement in Paris.  When I visited it in 2000, its director Roger Saban had said that the medical school’s administrators wanted the space, and now a decade later they have gotten their wish.  This was an amazing collection that included Paul Broca’s collection of brain casts, dozens of skulls from the nineteenth century, as well as some items by Honoré Fragonard (who founded it in 1794), whose displays at the veterinary school in Alfort are well known from Jonathan Simon’s essays.  It also included the Spitzner collection of anatomical wax models from the nineteenth century which included a famous mechanical Venus that appeared to be breathing. According to Kathryn, it will take €10M to bring it back.  I don’t think that’s likely any time soon.

We talked a lot at the conference on the value of anatomical collections: what are they for in these days of computer imaging? We toured the Boerhaave Museum and the anatomical museum at the Leiden Medical School, and I have tried since to sort out the meanings of these places and why they hold such fascination for me and others.  Part of it is simply seeing the body (human and animal, male and female, child and adult, normal and abnormal).  There is something about the materiality, the tactile values, of an actual specimen that no image can provide.  The body is simply an amazing and complex mechanism that is still being deciphered.  And the tropes about mortality and the fragility of life that (so I have claimed in my own work) are always there in the dissecting room are certainly there in these anatomical collections.  I found many of them quite moving.

Just last week, I saw the Body Worlds exhibit currently on display at OMSI in Portland – another kind of anatomical collection.  It was packed.  I have seen Body Worlds several times before, and I was prepared to be cynical about it, with the slightly queasy feeling that von Hagens’s plastinations evoke.  But I was drawn in yet again, seeing the same fascination with the bodies on display that I had felt in Leiden.  A woman standing next to me as we looked at a display of viscera said, “I can’t believe all that is in here,” pointing to herself.  “Wow.”



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Dec 27 2011

Animals or Brutes?

Filed under Anatomy,Animals,History

du ventre inferieur, from Historia anatomicaAs I have been reading a number of anatomy texts from the seventeenth century, I have been struck by the ambiguity of the term “animal.”  Now, these texts are all in Latin (a few were translated into the vernacular, in this case French, but not many).  There is a clear distinction drawn between “animal” (the same in French), “homo” (or “homme”) and “brutus” (or “brute”).   The Swiss anatomist and naturalist Caspar Bauhin (1560-1624)  asserted in the dedication to his Theatrum anatomicum (1605) that man was “animal admirandum” and the proper subject for natural philosophy, much as Shakespeare at about the same time referred in Hamlet to man as “the paragon of Animals.”  The language of the Theatrum anatomicum displays frequent slippage from “human” to “animal,” repeating the phrase  “as it is in other animals” (quam fit in aliis animalibus),  where “animal” encompasses both animal and human.  Like other anatomists, he referred to animals alone as “brutes.”  His contemporary, the French anatomist André du Laurens (1558-1609), waxed eloquent in his Historia anatomica humani corporis (1593) about the wonderfulness of humans: “Quam mirabilis sit humani corporis dignitas & structura,” “what a miracle is the dignity and structure of the human body,” he said.  Only humans have hands, that most important of organs; and they have intelligence and souls.  Among the major structural differences he noted, though, apart from walking upright, were the number and position of the breasts and the existence of pubic hair.  I have to say I never thought of these as our major distinction from the beasts.  Although du Laurens is more careful than most to demarcate clearly the human from the animal, he too cannot help but refer to humans as “first among animals,” not as totally distinct from them.  This lack of demarcation continued throughout the seventeenth century.  Seventy years after Bauhin, the anatomist Guillaume Lamy (1644-1683) likewise referred to “l’homme ou les autres animaux” as interchangeable, and this assumption provided the basis of much of the interrogation into the nature of life in the seventeenth century.

The Latin word “animal” derived from the word “anima” which originally meant  simply air or breath – and thus signified life – but later took on additional meaning.  “Anima” could refer to the principle of life, or what distinguished life from death.  As well as the physical breath it came also to mean the ineffable soul.  It seems peculiar to our Cartesian-attuned ears that the word for “animal” should have “soul” at its base since the basis of Cartesian dualism was that animals did not have souls, in the sense that they could not know God.

The term “animal” in antiquity referred to all living things, including plants, since they too were thought to somehow possess the breath of life.  But it also referred specifically to what we would now call non-human animals.  Indeed Cicero used “animal” as an insult much as we might today.   “Brutus,” on the other hand, was an adjective in antiquity, not a noun as it later became.  Animals could be “bruti” – heavy, thick, dull – but so could humans.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “animal” in Old English and in Old French specifically excluded humans.  The 1694 Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, however, gave every possible meaning to the term.  As an adjective, it denoted the “sensitive soul.”  As a noun in Holy Scripture, it implied the sensual over the spiritual body.  But it also could simply mean a living body “which has sense and motion” (“du sentiment et du mouvement”).  Ordinarily, the dictionary entry went on, “animal” referred to a four-footed terrestrial animal, but it could refer to others kinds as well.  This would presumably include humans, who were also animated bodies with sense and motion.  But the final definition returned to Cicero’s insult.  An animal was “une personne stupide & sans esprit.”  Only at the end of the eighteenth century, however, do we find “animal” equated with “bête” or “brute.”

Because anatomists continued to use animals as human surrogates, this ambiguity of definition was certainly in their interests.  But I am fascinated by the ways in which language and practice in this case coincide.



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Nov 27 2011

Acclimatization and restoration

Harriet Ritvo’s essay “Going Forth and Multiplying: Animal Acclimatization and Invasion,” with numerous comments, including mine, can be found here.

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Oct 20 2011

The Future is Not the Past

Filed under Environment,History

On Tuesday, I gave a talk at the US Geological Survey office in Portland on the topic “The Future is Not the Past: the Role of History in a Changing Landscape.”  In the talk, I summarized an article that I have been working on with Eric Higgs and a bunch of other people that defends the continued use of history in ecological restoration, even in the face of “non-analog” or novel environments that have no direct referent to the past.    I also talked about ideas about anthropogenic biomes, described in this article by Ellis and Ramankutty from 2008.   Then  this morning I came across this piece in the October 7 issue of Science that I wish I had read before my talk, on debates about whether we are in fact in a new geological age, the Anthropocene.  These all support my contention that we really live in a world dominated by humans, that there is very little of it that is untouched by humans, and that therefore any attempt at restoration, indeed any discussion of ecological conditions,  must acknowledge human presence and human history.  This is not exactly an original contention, but I continue to find people who seem surprised to hear it.

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