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On Biography

doing research

Every year, history conferences feature panels about biography. These are not talks which offer a biography in the manner of A & E’s Biography Channel  (which profiles Kirstie Alley tonight) but ones that consider biography as a genre. They come with titles like “Making a Case for Biography: New Methods in the History of X.”

Why do professional historians feel the need to defend biographies? They have never stopped writing them.  Academic presses remain eager to publish them. Yet biography still carries a reputation of being popular at the expense of being deep, of being an intellectual lightweight in a world of hipper, higher-powered genres: micro-histories, cultural histories, comparative histories, and transnational histories. In the high-cultural universe of academic writing, biography is Gilligan’s Island.

There are many reasons for this, but one key reason is structure. Biography focuses on the role of individuals in shaping events. As such, it sails against the wind of modern scholarship which, for forty years or so, has located historical change in institutions, corporations, governments, and national cultures. And individuals? Go to Barnes and Nobles.

Moreover, biography is tricky as a genre because it sometimes lures historians into thinking that they are really psychoanalysts, that they can interpret the thoughts and feelings of their subjects. If Freud couldn’t ferret out the real causes of his patients’ behavior, why do we think biographers will prove any better at it with people who are dead?

Sigmund Freud's Couch

Sigmund Freud's Couch

That said, I like biographies. If the genre has limitations, it also has spirit. Whether or not people offer a useful way to look at historical change, they are interesting to read about. And the way biographers choose to tell the stories of individuals is interesting too.

john ledyard

For example, Ed Gray’s biography of John Ledyard (which I reviewed here) gives a rich account of Ledyard’s travels. Yet Gray avoids the temptation to put him on the couch and Ledyard remains a mysterious figure, a shadow in the foreground of a brightly painted world.

By contrast, Tim Jeal is far freer with his psychological analysis of Henry Morton Stanley. This should probably make me uneasy. But Jeal builds his psychological hypothesizing on a solid foundation of evidence. He has done his homework on Stanley, a man who left an Africa-sized archive of primary source material.

Better yet, Jeal uses his analysis of Stanley to say interesting things. For example, he observes that Stanley inflated the number of Africans that he killed from the island of Bumbireh in Lake Victoria, a strange boast given that it contributed to Stanley’s reputation as a cold-hearted killer.

henry morton stanley

Yet Jeal argues that Stanley’s actions make sense only if one understands his shame at being humiliated by the leader of Bumbireh weeks earlier, something that Stanley — abandoned by his parents and raised in a workhouse — was keenly sensitive to. Moreover, Jeal argues that Stanley misjudged his audience’s reaction to the Bumbireh story, thinking that Europeans and Americans would like stories of warfare in Africa, much as they liked “big kill” stories about the Indian wars of the American West.

Despite their very different styles, I recommend both books.

Book Review: Science and Empire in the Atlantic World

science and empire in the atlantic world

JAMES DELBOURGO and NICHOLAS DEW (eds.), Science and Empire in the Atlantic World. New York: Routledge, 2008. Pp. xiv + 365. ISBN 978-0-415-96127-1. £18.99 (paperback).

Maybe I shouldn’t read too much into titles, but Science and Empire in the Atlantic World caught my attention. At first glance, it seemed a strange choice of words since “science and empire” has become a common, almost clichéd, phrase in the history of science and science technology studies (STS). The phrase took hold in the 1970s when Marxist scholarship revealed the exploitative functions of imperial science and gained inspiration from other critiques such as Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978.

By the 1980s, books and articles containing “science” and “empire” blossomed in the scholarly press. Yet the phrase has since witnessed a slow decline, as scholars have grown uneasy with portrayals of colonial science as a hegemonic expression of European power. Replacement terms tend to emphasize the reciprocal relationships in the production of science. Most notable among these is “Atlantic World,” a term that now races like a forest fire through history of science titles, probably due to Bernard Bailyn’s influential Seminar in the History of the Atlantic World which he instituted at Harvard in 1995. Why, then, marry “Science and Empire” with “Atlantic World” together in one title?

Bernard Bailyn

Bernard Bailyn

The answer comes from the function of “empire” within this edited collection. All twelve essays here challenge empire, or more precisely, an imperial top-down model of science in describing the Atlantic World. The “Empire” of the title, in other words, does not represent a historic process to be revealed, but a historiographic concept to be critiqued, a goal that Dew and Delbourgo accomplish with devastating efficiency. By focusing on famous “heroic narratives of discovery” (5) Delbourgo and Dew argue, studies of imperial science have missed the day-to-day activities which shaped the study of nature in the Atlantic World. In other words, historians of science (including me) have grown too comfortable thinking of Atlantic science through the image of a sextant-wielding Baron von Humboldt.

Alexander von Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt

As Science and Empire demonstrates, knowledge of the Atlantic World depended upon the labors of far lesser-known figures: sailors, surgeon-barbers, Creole collectors, and diasporic Africans among others. Most essays go beyond describing the actions of these invisible networks, connecting them with better known ones.

Alison Sandman, for example, explains how pilots competed with learned cosmographers to control cartographic knowledge in early modern Spain. Júnia Ferreira Furtado’s essay, focused on Brazil, shows how Dutch surgeon-barbers “broke the monopoly of erudite knowledge enjoyed by doctors,” (Furtado, 132) giving tropical medicine a pronounced, empirical tilt. Even well known figures are not what they appear. Joyce Chaplin revisits Benjamin Franklin, poster-child of elite science, to show how he relied upon the reports of sailors and sea captains in describing the Atlantic “Gulph Stream.”

Franklin Map of Gulf Stream, 1769

Franklin Map of Gulf Stream, 1769

Taken together, the essays portray Atlantic science differently than the influential center-periphery model of science described by Bruno Latour in Science in Action (1987). Within Latour’s model, knowledge of the world starts and ends in the metropole where men of science provide the questions and instruments needed to understand nature at the edges of empire. While Latour’s system works well in describing many aspects of state-sponsored expeditions, it fails to explain other types of knowledge networks.

Bruno Latour

Bruno Latour

For one thing, Atlantic networks were unstable. As Neil Safier explains in tracing the work of French naturalist Joseph de Jussieu, acquiring and transmitting information was a precarious business. “The successful circulation of information from one point in the Atlantic to another was often dependent on circumstances that could just as easily go wrong as right” (Safier, 219). The networks developed by Spanish botanical expeditions, as described by Daniela Bleichmar, were of sturdier stuff. Yet Bleichmar points out other weaknesses in the Latourian model, specifically how “periphery” is a term ill-suited to describe botanical science in the Americas: “Circulation [of information] did not resemble the flight of a boomerang, always returning to the center, but rather a more reciprocal paddle game. Every letter or shipment from one side provoked a reply from the other.” (Bleichmar, 239). While European “centers” were important – no one disputes the asymmetries in power between mother country and colonies – they were dependent upon colonial peoples’ cooperation. This was not merely a question of finding Indians and Africans to collect things. As Susan Scott Parrish and Ralph Bauer point out in essays on diasporic Africans and Native American magic, respectively, Europeans adapted indigenous knowledge systems to make sense of an occult, magical nature. If London, Paris, and Madrid operated as hubs of scientific calculation, they were centers shaped by the world wheeling around them.

With such a strong theme linking all the essays, Science and Empire does not really need section headings. I found the four offered — “Networks of Circulation,” “Writing an American Book of Nature,” “Itineraries of Collection,” and “Contested Powers” – too vague to be useful. There are fruitful subordinate themes that track across essays, such as the tension between theory and empiricism (Sandman, Bauer, Furtado, Barrera-Osorio) and environmental history and technology (Golinski, Dew, Delbourgo, and Regourd). Still this is a minor quip. Dew and Delbourgo have managed to square the circle of edited collections: bringing together a diverse set of essays to target an important historiographical issue.

This review will be published in the upcoming issue of the British Journal for the History of Science. My thanks to BJHS for permission to reprint it here.

The Forging of Races

forging-of-races

I’m not in favor of ducking debates, but in matters of science and religion, it’s best to keep one’s head down. Not that I mind giving and taking a few hits, but the slings and arrows hurled by various bloggers are not easily deflected by reason. Much of the time, arguments on both sides seem to proceed without any sense of historical nuance.

For example, creationists often speak about science as if they were playing billiards: science is a game of facts, observable, measurable, linked together by visible and predictable causes. Any forces that take place off the felt table (such as phenomena of the far away or the deep past) fall into the zone of “theory,” a pejorative term that comes to mean speculation or opinion. This works well with pool, but hardly science, where strict empiricism or “Baconian science” has been out of vogue since the 18th century.

On the other side, the polemical evolutionists tend to lump anti-evolutionary arguments together under the category of “anti-science.” This would have been news to nineteenth-century scientists such as Richard Owen and Georges Cuvier, both of whom advanced serious objections to evolution on scientific, not religious, grounds.

Richard Owen

Richard Owen

I bring these issues up not because I have picked up my sword and plan to fight the good fight, but because I’m reading an excellent book on science and religion by Colin Kidd called The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000.

Kidd argues that scriptures are largely color-blind, agnostic on the question of racial hierarchies. Yet he also argues that the Bible became the guide for western scholars trying to understand the origins of human races.

It is one of the central arguments of this book that, although many social and cultural factors have contributed significantly to western constructions of race, scripture has been for much of the early modern and modern eras the primary cultural influence on the forging of races. [Kidd, 19]

Even more interesting, Kidd argues that scriptures held racism or “racial essentialism” in check for much of modern history. As much as one can see rampent racism in the development of the Atlantic slave trade (pioneered by Christians and other followers of the Book), Europeans and Euro-Americans usually reaffirmed the common humanity of the races as “Children of Adam.” To do otherwise was to exclude some races from the original sin (and the promise of salvation) which emerges out of Genesis.

adam_et_eve

By the nineteenth century, certain scholars advanced the theory that non-white races were “Pre-Adamites,” humans who were formed by God in a separate act of creation. As religious theories of racial origin gave way to increasingly secular explanations, racial thinking became even more extreme, leading to policies of racial social control, eugenics, and genocide.

In short, the Bible was — unintentionally perhaps — a bulwark against the most extreme ideas of racial theory. If it promoted ideas of racial origin which now seem naive and far-fetched, it also protected the Atlantic World from some of the full blown horrors of racism realized during the more “scientific” age of the twentieth century.

Call Me Starbuck

Guy Waterman

Guy Waterman

On February 6 2000, Guy Waterman drove his Subaru Impreza to Franconia Notch in New Hampshire, hiked up Mt Lafayette, and in the windy -16 degree night, let himself die of exposure.

Waterman was a man of many gifts and torments, a climber, writer, and environmentalist who lived for thirty years with his wife Laura Waterman  off-the-grid in Vermont.

Of these torments, which drove him into deeper and deeper isolation, Waterman said little. Yet he wrote about them through the characters of literature. He was Shakespeare’s Ariel battling the witch-child Caliban. He was Milton’s proud Satan. He was tragic Prometheus. He was Melville’s Ahab.

Prosper and Ariel, William Hamilton, 1797

Prosper and Ariel, William Hamilton, 1797

Ahab.  As I read Laura Waterman’s spare, graceful memoir, Losing the Garden: The Story of a Marriage , it seemed an appropriate metaphor for Guy Waterman.

Then, this morning, reading Maria Coffey’s book, Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow: The Dark Side of Extreme Adventure, Ahab surfaced once again.  Near the summit of Everest in 1996,  David Breashears and Ed Viesturs come across a body near the Hillary Step.

They found [Bruce] Herrod’s body clipped on to fixed ropes with a figure-eight rappel breake. He was hanging upside down, his arms dangling, his mouth open, and his skin black. “Like Captain Ahab,” Breashears later wrote, “lashed to his white whale.” [Coffey, 118]

It made me pause. One hears different many different literary metaphors for explorers and adventurers, but rarely Ahab.

mobydick

Successful explorers find comparison to Odysseus, the brilliant, cock-sure hero of Homer’s Odyssey. (Confined to the scurvy-ridden cabin of Advance over the long winter of 1854, Arctic explorer Elisha Kane would keep up the spirits of his men by reading them Alfred Tennyson’s Odyssean poem “Ulysses”) Those explorers who perish are commonly portrayed as Icarus, a boy whose joy with altitude overcame good judgment, causing him to fall to earth.

Both of these are figures are imperfect but bright of heart. Ahab is a different creature, a man of darker spirit, a figure turned in upon himself. Ahab’s travels to the ends of the earth bring no discovery or enlightenment; he sees only the white whale. Ultimately his obsession brings tragedy to all, not only Ahab, but to those who follow him.

Is Ahab the true spirit of extreme adventure? You would not think so reading most adventure literature. While these books reveal some of the dirty laundry of expeditionary life, they mostly chronicle struggle and attainment, heroism and transcendence.  Indeed, elite climbers often speak of the transcendent moment as the Holy Grail of high-altitude climbing, that thing which brings them back, time and time again, to the most dangerous mountains in the world.

Yet transcendence, going beyond oneself, is the opposite of obsession, a psychic tunneling-in so extreme that it diminishes or excludes everything around it: Golem’s ring, Ahab’s whale, Herrod’s mountain.

Grim metaphors indeed. Perhaps the legions of 8000-meter peak baggers and Seven-Summiters should read Moby-Dick, digest the moral of Ahab, and then turn their attention to the Ahab’s Quaker First Mate Starbuck:

[H]is far-away domestic memories of his young Cape wife and child, tend[ed] to bend him … from the original ruggedness of his nature, and open him still further to those latent influences which, in some honest-hearted men, restrain the gush of dare-devil daring, so often evinced by others in the more perilous vicissitudes of the fishery. “I will have no man in my boat,” said Starbuck, “who is not afraid of a whale.” By this, he seemed to mean, not only that the most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward. [Melville, Moby-Dick]

If this seems too tame or Quakerish for the modern climber, perhaps they’d learn more from a more modern Starbuck, the character Kara “Starbuck” Thrace of the Sci-Fi channel’s Battlestar Gallactica. Thrace is a woman of many demons, of violent appetites. Her thirst for transcendent experience has no limits.  But ultimately she channels her dare-devilry into objects of common interest, the search for Earth, the return home.

Kara "Starbuck" Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) of Battlestar Galactica

Kara "Starbuck" Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) of Battlestar Galactica


Thank You FHSA

logo_hss

This morning the Forum for the History of Science in America presented me with their 2008 Book Prize for my book The Coldest Crucible. Officer Paul Lucier presented the prize:

On behalf of the membership and officers of the Forum for the History of Science in America, it is my pleasure to announce that the 2008 Forum Prize Committee has unanimously agreed to award this year’s book prize to Michael F. Robinson for The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture, published in 2006 by the University of Chicago….this is a history of science of a very different sort. Instead of focusing on how the explorers collected specimens or tried to map the icy unknown, Robinson explains, in very clear and refreshingly concise fashion, how the Arctic and its explorers tried to collect sponsors and funding, and how they tried to present themselves and their expeditions as relevant to a large public.

My last time in Pittsburgh was in 1998, also at a History of Science meeting. It was the occasion of my first academic paper. I read it, hunched over a podium, to four elderly men in varying states of consciousness. I was tense, the paper was dry, but I don’t think anyone was awake enough to notice. The paper made me wonder why I spent so much time working on these subjects when no one was ever going to read or care about them.

It feels particularly good, then, to receive this award in Pittsburgh (at the same hotel no less). Thank you FHSA! Thanks too to for the generous write-ups in the Hartford Courant and the University of Hartford’s UNotes Daily.

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