Environmental History & History of Science: The New Synthesis?

Alpine lake with wildflowers in Switzerland, a natural environment manicured by grazing ungulates.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure to attend the 3rd Northeast Environmental History Conference at Yale.  The theme this year was "Two Kingdoms: New Perspectives on Flora and Fauna in Environmental History."  And a few weeks prior, I was in Madison for the American Society for Environmental History Conference, where the theme was "From the Local to the Global."

What struck me at both occasions was the number of Historians of Science and Technology in attendance.  This was my first time at either event, and I was glad to meet many old friends I had not expected to see before next year's History of Science Society Meeting in San Diego.  But beyond this, I also heard a large number of presentations by people I've never met before, people who primarily self-identify as Environmental Historians, that could have just as well been presented at HSS or SHOT.

What's going on here?  Are the two field converging on one another?

In at least two ways, I think that they are.  And, so far as I'm concerned, the development is a welcome one.

In a mundane sense, Historians of Science have become increasingly interested in biological fields of study such as ecology, evolution, and behavior that used to be eclipsed by the physical sciences.  So on a purely thematic level, there is increasingly commonality with Environmental History.

But there is also a deeper and ultimately more interesting sense in which the two fields are in dialogue with one another.  My sense is that Environmental Historians have become increasingly aware that one cannot simply take the natural world as a given.  Nature is now routinely interrogated as category of historical analysis.  (Of course, this is not entirely new.  People like William Cronon who are on the vanguard of the discipline have been doing it for a long time.  But what used to be a fairly radical position seems to have become more or less mainstream.)  In so doing, environmental history has found much inspiration from historians of science, scholars who have sought to embed our knowledge and experience of the natural world within narratives of social and cultural change for several decades.

At the same time, Historians of Science have much to learn from Environmental History.  While it is certainly true that nature should be historicized alongside of everything else, this does not mean everything is cultural.  Although plants and animals--to take up the theme of yesterday's conference at Yale--do not exist independently of human culture, they also exhibit a certain degree of resilience and push back against our efforts at control.  There is a quote in David Blackbourn's most recent book, a fairly longue durĂ©e history of German efforts to divert rivers and streams, largely for the purposes of land reclamation, of which I'm quite fond:

"when I read yet another book or article about an 'imagined landscape,' it is sometimes tempting to complain, like Gertrude Stein, that 'there is no there there.'  And I want to ask: are all topographies in the mind, is every river nothing more than a flowing symbol?"

What makes Blackbourn's Conquest of Nature such an intriguing book is not that he simply denies the impact of humans upon their landscape.  Nor does he deny that our imaginations matter.  Rather, he looks at how the social, cultural, and political imaginary of Germans exerted a material impact on their landscape.  Over the centuries, Germans sought, and to some extent succeeded, in imposing their vision onto the natural world.  They diverted streams and rivers, drained swamps, and executed ambitious hydrological projects.  But the landscape was not merely inert matter, sitting there for people to shape after their own image.  Rather, he narrates a complex and messy dialectical process in which nature and culture interact to the point that it is hard to say where one ends and the other begins.

Historians of science have been moving in that direction, but I think there is much that remains to be learned from the best and most sophisticated work being done by Environmental Historians today.  The title of this post is meant to be tongue in cheek, harkening back to E.O. Wilson's controversial 1976 publication of Sociobilogy: The New Synthesis.  Still, the conversations we've been having about the material construction of scientific evidence (especially here, as well as here and here) might point to one way in which a synthesis of Hist. Sci. and Environmental History that would benefit both sides might be achieved.


Thanks for this, Lukas – it makes me think of lots of things, and I like especially the highlighting that environmental history and history of science (in their recent iterations) are where ideas are meeting material reality in the most convincing ways in historical practice. It also sounds like our ongoing discussion of the distinction between humans (and human kinds) and non-humans (and natural kinds).

Let me ask about hylozoism. In particular, this is what Schaffer and others accused Latour of, most famously in Schaffer's "Eighteenth Brumaire of Bruno Latour" (1991). Actor-network theory in its prime (which feels like so long ago, doesn't it?) was a new model for how minds and "things" come together – in the form of eliding the boundary between humans and non-human objects. Somehow, I feel like the field left that critical project behind – but what you're suggesting is that there are other, less polemical ways to blur the boundaries.

Obviously we've got to be self aware about what knowledge we take on board and what knowledge we critique. This is behind the worries about actors' vs. analysts' categories, as you know. Could you maybe spell out a bit further how you see this line-drawing operating in EH and HOS? In particular, do HOSers have to be more reflexive and cautious about drawing on scientific knowledge than EHers?

Great post, Lukas. I agree--definitely saw more historians of science at ASEH this year than ever before. I think the most exciting directions in both fields are headed toward "synthesis," as you say. There are already great models out there for how to do this: Paul Sutter's "Nature’s Agents Or Agents of Empire?" or Michelle Murphy's Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty, for example. There is a lot to gain for both sides from this move, but the danger for historians of science is of course the potential to lose our critical stance toward science, since we have to use it to reconstruct nature's historical agency. I think the above examples manage to escape this danger in part by conveying actors' uncertainty and the provisional nature of scientific knowledge. (And Hank--Both of these examples draw on ANT, but I don't see them as being polemical. They're strongly informed by STS, but stick with the tradition in EH of having really engaging narratives.)

I've also seen a growing interaction with some elements of the history of technology and EH and HOS. This may be some evidence that HOT is getting over its HOStilities, but that's a story for another day. I think a large part of this "synthesis" is just the seductive pull of the environmental history, which is very chic today. HOST wants to get in on that action. SHOT has recently instituted the Joel A. Tarr Envirotech Article prize (http://envirotechweb.org/organization-news/the-envirotech-article-prize/).

But I share Hank's hesitancy about whether this mutual space implies a shared theoretical understanding about causality, actors, and forces. Though I would love to be wrong about that.

I would love to see someone spell out the shared historiographical/theoretical concerns of these streams and also where they differ.

Lee: I guess my impression differs, in that I think the emergence of an interest in place, materiality, and the historical agency of nature among historians of science is less because EH is "sexy" and more of a reaction to (or readjustment after) the cultural turn. A lot of historians of science seem to be interested in those issues without knowing very much EH, but some have found that EH is a literature out there that already takes the natural world seriously.

Anyway, different impressions could based on experiences at different institutions. Here at UW-Madison we are blessed with an overabundance of interaction among historians of science and environment, and many grad students who consider themselves to be both. As far as whether there are "shared theoretical understandings" etc.––definitely on either end these are quite distinct (critical stance toward science vs. using science to make nature an actor in the narrative). But, re: my 2 examples above, and if it's not too obnoxious to cite my advisor Gregg Mitman, I think the people who have most successfully begun to "synthesize" the two fields do seem to share a similar theoretical approach.

(BTW, Fun discussion! And a great procrastination tool! Now I've got to get back to writing!)

Lukas, I'm interested in your further reflection on this convergence of history of science and environmental history after this weekend's Joint Atlantic Seminar in the History of Biology. Not one of the eleven papers (all graduate student contributions) addressed subjects or drew on methods that would be thought of as environmental history. (A possible exception being Robin Scheffler's discussion of contamination in Simian Virus 40 research -- a non-human element of the environment driving changes in research practice and content in truly significant ways.) But it was particularly striking to me given that nearly all of the papers at the "Two Kingdoms" conference at Yale would have fit easily under the umbrella "history of biology" and been welcomed at JAS-Bio.

Thinking about why this might be, I wondered whether we should consider historical sources much as subjects (i.e., history of ecology) and methods (i.e., attention to materiality) as areas of convergence. If you want to write about non-human nature in history, you're likely to end up looking at sources produced by scientists, or natural philosophers or other knowledge-producers, as Megan points our in her comment. And if you as an environmental historian appropriately historicize this knowledge of the natural world, you will end up with something that looks very familiar to a historian of science.

I agree with Helen that we did not see much of the synthesis I just announced on display at this year's Joint Atlantic Seminar. Should I issue a retraction?

Perhaps so. But perhaps we could see things in another way too. Could we view the absence of Environmental History at the Joint Atlantic as a sign that our sub-field (the history of biology) is dragging its heels somewhat? Of course, I don't mean to say that everyone should stop writing about laboratory experiments etc. and focus on the environment instead. Far from it. But I do think there is an interesting methodological innovation taking place that involves working out just exactly how to integrate intellectual history with material culture. And I guess I would have liked to see more engagement with that larger theme at JAS-BIO (although you are right to note it was not entirely absent).

I was hoping that a broadly materialist approach of the kind I began to describe in the post might serve as an alternative to the deeply un-intuitive metaphysics espoused by Bruno Latour.

My sense is that there is a strong and a weak reading of the argument. The strong reading insists that non-human entities like bacteria ought to be treated as no different from human ones. Everything is on the same ontological plane.

A weaker one is perhaps less exciting but a good deal more sensible. It involves viewing the natural world as made up of all sorts of things, some of them are human and others are not. Each has it's own ontology specific to it. This gives rise to a lot of individual questions about what those different things are like, and what they are capable of. Cognition is an interesting axis to follow. Why can't we just say there is a continuum on which rocks and trees simply don't engage with the world along a cognitive dimension, whereas insects do, but that they do so in a very different way than humans or dogs?

The question of exactly how this matters for the stories we tell -- where we assign causal agency -- about the past is separate yet again. Surely a tree can make a difference in human history without it's making a difference in the same way that botanists do.

As I read over my previous comment just now, I had an additional thought that might be worth sharing. It connects to a discussion we had at the end of the Yale conference a few weeks ago.

Someone might object to my comment above in the following way: I am espousing a very anthropocentric view of history. For example, we might indeed grant that there is a continuum of cognition roughly along the lines I described. But parsing the world in this way looks a great deal like the old Scala Naturae, in which humans come out on top, microbes are near the bottom, and rocks are even further down. But there are other ways to carve up the world. For example, we could also ask about which organisms are most efficient at converting resources into energy. Here, humans -- indeed, all mammals -- would no longer come out on top. Reptiles would best us, and insects would best them, and, although I don't know for sure, I'm pretty confident microbes would best insects.

So am I being anthropocentric? I suppose to some extent I am. But what would a history that fails to take such a hierarchical view of the world into account look like?

My bet is that it would look a great deal like the natural sciences. If you want to know who is efficient at converting matter into energy, don't ask a historian. Ask the physiologist instead!

At the Yale conference, we had a discussion about how to write narratives which do not privilege human actors. I'm very much on board with this, in principle. But I think that one can get carried away too. We should ask ourselves: what are narratives for? And what are they good at?

If you read Aristotle on Poetics it's pretty clear that narratives are not only designed for human consumption, they are structured in a way that appeals to our human way of being in the world. We tell stories in which a beginning leads to a middle leads to an end in a more or less linear fashion because that's how we make sense of our own lives.

My feeling is that if we want to talk about the history of the world in a way that does not privilege the human experience of it we might have to abandon the narrative form. Evolutionary biologists, for example, have lots to say about the history of life. But they use tools like phylogeny to do so. And geologists use stratigraphy. So why assume that narrative is the best way to talk about the past in a way that does not privilege the human?

To conclude, someone (I'm thinking of my friend Nasser Zakariya in particular) might now object that in fact both phylogeny and stratigraphy look very much like a narrative. Hence, there is a sense in which they too are anthropocentric. I would not disagree with this too much. But if you were to press the issue, I would only say that it proves we must anchor our thinking somewhere, and, being humans, we have no choice but to anchor it in our own experience of the world. It is, after all, we who are trying to make sense of the world and it's history, so it would make sense that we do so in a way that, well, makes sense to us. What was that line by Donna Haraway about abandoning the God-trick and being honest about the situated nature of our own knowledge instead?

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

back to top