history of science

An “Extreme Turn”? Some Thoughts on Material Culture, Exploration, and Interdisciplinary Directions

By Contributing Writer Sarah Pickman

In 1848 Peter Halkett, a lieutenant in the British Royal Navy, published his designs for a most curious invention. Halkett was interested in the numerous exploratory expeditions the Navy had sent to the Canadian Arctic during the previous few decades. In particular, he’d learned that British explorers desired small boats for expeditions that were lightweight and could be carried overland when not in use. Halkett’s proposed solution, illustrated in a series of published engravings, was the “Boat-Cloak or Cloak-Boat,” an inflatable craft made of waterproof rubberized cloth – with a stylish windowpane check pattern, it might be added. Deflated, the boat could be worn as an outer cloak. When confronted with a body of water, the wearer could simply take off the cloak and inflate it. While Halkett’s craft was designed for polar explorers and not urban dandies, the figure in his illustrations wearing the deflated boat cuts a dashing silhouette for an 1840s London gentleman. Since Halkett assumed his wearers would be carrying walking sticks and umbrellas, he proposed that these fashionable accessories be used as shafts for boat paddles and sails, respectively.


Images from Boat-Cloak or Cloak-Boat, Constructed of MacIntosh India-rubber Cloth, Umbrella-sail, Bellows, &c. Also, an Inflated Indiarubber Cloth-boat for Two Paddlers. Invented by Lieutenant Peter Halkett, R.N., 1848. Image reproductions from National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

While the Navy never adopted Halkett’s design for general use, the “Boat-Cloak” was an early example of a solution to challenges posed by Western exploratory voyages in extreme environments that also had an eye towards style. This melding of utilitarian expedition gear and high design is the subject of the exhibition Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme, now on view at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (MFIT) in New York. The exhibition, curated by MFIT’s deputy director Patricia Mears, is the first major study to address the work of high fashion designers inspired by Western exploration, particularly by expeditions of the last two centuries. It’s organized around five types of “extreme environments” that have been the subject of exploratory interest: polar, deep sea, outer space, mountains, and savannah/grasslands. Within each of the five environments, the exhibition draws on MFIT’s rich holdings and several unique loans, such as an Inuit-made fur ensemble worn by Matthew Henson, to juxtapose the work of twentieth and twenty-first century fashion designers with expedition garments that inspired them. For example, in the mountaineering section visitors can view original Eddie Bauer down-filled jackets and pants, made for high-altitude mountaineering in the 1930s, with iconic high fashion “puffer coats” by Charles James (1937), Norma Kamali (1978’s famous “sleeping bag coat”), and Joseph Altuzarra (2011) that were inspired by utilitarian down-filled outerwear. The interplay between designer, utilitarian, and in the polar section, indigenous-made, garments not only blurs the lines between categories like “fashionable” and “functional,” but asks visitors to consider the creative ways humans respond to extreme environments, or their perceptions of such environments, and their impact on them.



Norma Kamali “sleeping bag” coat, c. 1977, Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technolgy. Gift of Linda Tain.

I was fortunate to be able to contribute an essay to the exhibition catalogue on the role of dress in polar exploration at the turn of the twentieth century. As someone interested in the material culture of exploration, especially clothing, it was gratifying to see Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme come to fruition, since both exhibition and catalogue (and also a symposium on the topic of “Fashion, Science, and Exploration,” organized in conjunction with the exhibition) are contributions from fashion scholarship to the growing body of work in the humanities on humans and the “extreme environment.”

In the last two decades, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of academic books on aspects of exploratory history, particularly European and Euro-American exploration from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. Ten years ago in an essay for History Compass, Dane Kennedy identified two main strands of inquiry in this area: one encompassing “the institutional, social, and intellectual forces…that inspired the exploration of other lands and oversaw its operations,” and the other addressing the “cultural encounter between explorers and indigenous peoples.” Kennedy himself has been a standard-bearer for such work, along with Michael F. Robinson, Felix Driver, Michael Bravo, Beau Riffenburgh, Helen Rozwadowski, Lisa Bloom, Johannes Fabian, and D. Graham Burnett, to name just a few. To the areas Kennedy identified we can now add studies of textual and visual media produced by expeditions; historiography of explorers; material tools of exploration; work on race and gender in exploration; and broad global surveys of exploration. This is to say nothing of the rich bodies of writing across the humanities with ties to exploration: work from history of science on scientific fieldwork and the role of local informants or go-betweens; studies of representations of landscape from art historians; work across disciplines on genealogies of natural history collecting and scientific museums. And the list goes on.

Along with the “cultural encounter between explorers and indigenous peoples” Kennedy described, “exploration” as a category provides a space for thinking through different human encounters with, and approaches to, environments. In this space, we might dovetail the growing body of work on exploration to new scholarship from history of science on the history of physiology in extreme environments. In this category we can include recent and forthcoming work from Rebecca M. Herzig, Sarah W. Tracy, Philip Clements, Matthew Wiseman, Matthew Farish, David P. D. Munns, and Vanessa Heggie, whose article “Why Isn’t Exploration a Science?” is a succinct entry to thinking about knowledge produced in the context of exploratory expeditions. These studies (by no means an exhaustive list) of European and Euro-American actors examining bodies in extreme environments – largely in the polar regions, on mountains, and in outer space – might be seen in conversation with scholarship on histories of tropical medicine, but in different geographic contexts.

Yet an examination of science in extreme environments specifically also provides a bridge between the “heroic” exploratory voyages of the long nineteenth century and the development of modern field-based sciences. It also allows us to think through how we, as humanities scholars, use the categories of “extreme” and “normal.” In other disciplines these terms are fairly well defined. In biology, for example, “extreme environment” is a category that has been in widespread use since the 1950s. Textbooks note that it describes places hostile to all forms of organic life save for some very highly adapted microorganisms. These places range from the rocky deserts of Antarctica, to extraordinarily alkaline lakes, to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest place in the world’s oceans. In 1974, R. D. MacElroy introduced the term “extremophile” in an article in the journal Biosystems as a grouping for these lifeforms.

But the history of the category of “extreme environment” as it pertains to human life has less to do with common inherent features of those environments and more to do with the kinds of historical actors interested in them. As Vanessa Heggie discusses in her forthcoming book Higher and Colder: A History of Extreme Physiology, by the first half of the twentieth century some field physiologists were beginning to group the Arctic, Antarctica, and high-altitude mountain ranges together. They often shared research and advice for traveling through these areas. Occasionally seasoned mountaineers took part in polar expeditions, and vice versa. But as Heggie notes, “There is an artificiality to these connections, since they are inventions of the human mind rather than necessarily reflecting an objective ‘natural’ relationship between very different geographical regions…So what really connects these environments is human beings – their motivations and specific interests.” “Specific interests,” in this case, referred to the performance of what Heggie calls “temperate-climate bodies” in these places. When indigenous populations existed in these places, nineteenth-century European and Euro-American explorers usually ignored them or employed them as guides but later downplayed their contributions to expeditions. Over the course of the twentieth century, some American and British physiologists were increasingly interested in isolating what they assumed must be innate biological features that allowed the indigenous inhabitants of these regions to thrive, but often with the goal of using this information to select soldiers for mountain or polar combat. (The U.S. military’s Arctic, Desert, and Tropic Information Center, established in 1942, was an example of grouping disparate environments together based on their challenges to conventional Western warfare).

While “extreme environment” may be a twentieth-century actors’ category, we can find earlier antecedents for grouping environments together in this way. By the late nineteenth century, there were numerous organizations in Europe and the United States that supported exploration, such as the Royal Geographical Society in Britain and the Explorers Club in the U.S., and their ranks were filled with members interested in a wide range of geographic settings, from the rainforests of Central Africa to the icy Arctic Ocean. Though they may not have used the term “extreme,” the members of these clubs arguably created a social space in which these disparate places could be talked about in the same breath. These were locations that tantalized Western explorers as “prizes” to be claimed via expeditions, while at the same time (or because) their environmental conditions resisted agriculture-based settler colonialism. Arguably, one can find the roots of the “extreme environment” even earlier in the “sublime environment” of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which overwhelmed the viewer and provoked awe and terror at nature’s grandeur – but was also predicated on Western ways of seeing and understanding.

In short, the historical study of the human body in the extreme environment – considering exploration, field science, lab-based physiology, recreation, anthropology, travel and other related areas – is a fruitful space for scholars, and a place with the potential for productive, interdisciplinary work across the humanities and a way to reach beyond to the sciences. It poses questions for historical research: How did this “extreme” grouping work for historical actors, and how did they conceptualize the “normal” body in opposition to one transformed by harsh environments? How does extreme field science’s roots in heroic exploration inform the work of current scientists, such as those published in journals like Journal of Human Performance in Extreme Environments and Extreme Physiology and Medicine? Of all of the ways of pursuing knowledge, why did certain actors choose paths not in spite of their high risk for bodily harm or death, but because of it; as Michael F. Robinson has written, research where “Danger is not the cost of admission, but the feature attraction”? Most fundamentally, who sets the terms for which environments are considered extreme, particularly in places with indigenous populations? What’s at stake when one’s home region is the extreme to someone else’s normal, when human populations are considered to be biological extremophiles? It is important that we fully historicize our definitions of “normal” and “extreme” in the contexts of the body and the environment, especially at a time when anthropogenic climate change, biohacking, post-humanism, and commercial space travel – not to mention terrestrial “adventure tourism” – have the potential to shift them. The body of recent historical research cited here can provide a way to tackle these questions. Does this research constitute the cusp of an “extreme turn”? Possibly. But even if it is too soon to call it a “turn,” it is already a rich pool for study, and with work currently being undertaken by emerging scholars, a pool that is not likely to dry up soon.

I’d like to suggest that museums have a critical role to play in this ongoing conversation about the extreme, as spaces to engage not just with texts, but also with objects, which represent the tangible ways humans mediate bodily experience of environments. It’s notable that organizations like the Royal Geographical Society or the Arctic, Desert, and Tropic Information Center often served as clearinghouses for information about appropriate gear for explorers and soldiers headed to particular places. As Dehlia Hannah and Cynthia Selin have written, climate “must be understood as a lived abstraction,” and clothing especially “is a sensitive indicator and rich site for the critical exposition of our increasingly turbulent seasons.” Put another way, what we put on, in, and around our bodies reflects how we conceptualize our normal environment, and in contrast to it, the extreme environment. For example, let’s return to Halkett’s boat-cloak. It is an object that, at first glance, appears comically unusual. But the device was Halkett’s attempt to solve a problem posed by an unfamiliar environment – how to traverse both land and water, without carrying extraneous, heavy gear – while also appealing to the Victorian British sense of the comfortable and the familiar, by reconfiguring the expedition boat as an extension of the ubiquitous gentleman’s cloak. The polar environment might require the explorer to do something extraordinary, outside of his comfort zone. But rather than turning to, say, indigenous Arctic technologies, Halkett’s invention reassured users that recognizable British items could solve any problem with enough foresight and some creative reconfiguration. The boat-cloak demonstrates the power of the extreme, as a frame, to make sense of unusual things, and to reveal which boundaries, both physical and cultural, historical actors were and weren’t willing to cross.

Objects can provide entry points into how historical actors understood these categories, and since the study of material culture has always been interdisciplinary, it also allows a way of thinking about extremes that is interdisciplinary as well. “Fashion’s greatest designers have…continued to pursue the outer limits of their own creativity as they seek inspiration from the extreme,” Patricia Mears writes in the catalogue for Expedition. Likewise, historians, historians of science, and other humanist scholars can find in the idea of the “extreme” a space to push the boundaries of their own research in exciting and productive ways.

Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme is on view at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York until January 6, 2018. The accompanying catalogue, which contains the author’s essay “Dress, Image, and Cultural Encounter in the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration,” is available from Thames & Hudson.

The author would like to thank Michael F. Robinson, for his thoughtful comments on an early draft of this post, and Vanessa Heggie, for sharing a draft of her forthcoming book Higher and Colder: A History of Extreme Physiology.

Sarah Pickman is a Ph.D. student in History of Science and Medicine at Yale University. Her research centers on American and British exploration, anthropology, and natural history museums in the long nineteenth century, with a focus on the material culture of expeditions, particularly in the exploration of the Arctic and Antarctica. She holds a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Chicago and an M.A. in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center of Bard College.

Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, Brothers of Continuity

By guest contributor Audrey Borowski

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a young German polymath ventured into the heart of the South American jungle, climbed the Chimborazo volcano, crawled through the Andes, conducted experiments on animal electricity, and delineated climate zones across continents.  His name was Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859). With the young French scientist Aimé Bonpland and equipped with the latest instruments, Humboldt tirelessly collected and compared data and specimens, returning after five years to Paris with trunks filled with notebooks, sketches, specimens, measurements, and observations of new species. Throughout his travels in South America, Russia and Mongolia, he invented isotherms and formulated the idea of vegetation and climate zones. Crucially, he witnessed the continuum of nature unfold before him and set forth a new understanding of nature that has endured up to this day. Man existed in a great chain of causes and effects in which “no single fact can be considered in isolation.” Humboldt sought to discover the “connections which linked all phenomena and all forces of nature.” The natural world was teeming with organic powers that were incessantly at work and which, far from operating in isolation, were all “interlaced and interwoven.” Nature, he wrote, was “a reflection of the whole” and called for a global understanding. Humboldt’s Essay on the Geography of Plants (1807) was the world’s first book on ecology in which plants were grouped into zones and regions rather than taxonomic units and analogies drawn between disparate regions of the globe.

In this manner, Alexander sketched out a Naturgemälde, a “painting of nature” that fused botany, geology, zoology and physics in one single picture, and in this manner broke away from prevailing taxonomic representations of the natural world. His was a fundamentally interdisciplinary approach, at a time when scientific inquiry was becoming increasingly specialized. The study of the natural world was no abstract endeavor and was far removed from the mechanistic philosophy that had held sway up till then. Nature was the object of scientific inquiry, but also of wonder and as such, it exerted a mysterious pull. Man was firmly relocated within a living cosmos broader than himself, which appealed equally to his emotions and imagination. From the heart of the jungle to the summit of volcanoes, “nature everywhere [spoke] to man in a voice that is familiar to his soul” and what spoke to the soul, Humboldt wrote, “escapes our measurements” (Views of Nature, 217-18). In this manner Humboldt followed in the footsteps of Goethe, his lifelong friend, and the German philosopher Friedrich Schelling, in particular the latter’s Naturphilosophie (“philosophy of nature”). Nature was a living organism it was necessary to grasp in its unity, and its study should steer away from “crude empiricism” and the “dry compilation of facts” and instead speak to “our imagination and our spirit.” In this manner, rigorous scientific method was wedded to art and poetry and the boundaries between the subjective and the objective, the internal and the external were blurred. “With an aesthetic breeze,” Alexander’s long-time friend Goethe wrote, the former had lit science into a “bright flame” (quoted in Wulf, The Invention of Nature, 146).

Alexander von Humboldt’s older brother, Wilhelm (1767-1835), a government official with a great interest in reforming the Prussian educational system, had been similarly inspired. While his brother had ventured out into the jungle, Wilhelm, on his side, had devoted much of his life to the exploration of the linguistic realm, whether in his study of Native American and ancient languages or in his attempts to grasp the relation between linguistic and mental structures. Like the German philosopher and literary critic Johann Gottfried Herder before him, Humboldt posited that language, far from being a merely a means of communication, was the “formative organ” (W. Humboldt, On the Diversity of Human Language, 54) of thought. According to this view, man’s judgmental activity was inextricably bound up with his use of language. Humboldt’s linguistic thought relied on a remarkable interpretation of language itself: language was an activity (energeia) as opposed to a work or finished product (ergon). In On the Diversity of Human Language Construction and its Influence on the Mental Development of the Human Species (1836), his major treatise on language, Wilhelm articulated a forcefully expressivist conception of language, in which he brought to bear the interconnectedness and organic nature of all languages and by extension, various worldviews. Far from being a “dead product,” an “inert mass,” language appeared as a “fully-fashioned organism” that, within the remit of an underlying universal template, was free to evolve spontaneously, allowing for maximum linguistic diversity (90).


Left to Right: Friedrich Schiller, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Alexander von Humboldt, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, depicted by Adolph Müller (c.1797)

To the traditional objectification of language, Wilhelm opposed a reading of language that was heavily informed by biology and physiology, in keeping with the scientific advances of his time. Within this framework, language could not be abstracted, interwoven as it was with the fabric of everyday life. Henceforth, there was no longer one “objective” way of knowing the world, but a variety of different worldviews. Like his brother, Wilhelm strove to understand the world in its individuality and totality.

At the heart of the linguistic process lay an in-built mechanism, a feedback loop that accounted for language’s ability to generate itself. This consisted in the continuous interplay between an external sound-form and an inner conceptual form, whose “mutual interpenetration constitute[d] the individual form of language” (54). In this manner, rhythms and euphonies played a role in expressing internal mental states. The dynamic and self-generative aspect of language was therefore inscribed in its very core. Language was destined to be in perpetual flux, renewal, affecting a continuous generation and regeneration of the world-making capacity powerfully spontaneous and autonomous force, it brought about “something that did not exist before in any constituent part” (473).

As much as the finished product could be analyzed, the actual linguistic process defied any attempt at scientific scrutiny, remaining inherently mysterious. Language may well abide by general rules, but it was fundamentally akin to a work of art, the product of a creative outburst which “cannot be measured out by the understanding” (81). Language, as much as it was rule-governed and called for empirical and scientific study, originated somewhere beyond semio-genesis. “Imagination and feeling,” Wilhelm wrote, “engender individual shapings in which the individual character […] emerges, and where, as in everything individual, the variety of ways in which the thing in question can be represented in ever-differing guises, extends to infinity” (81). Wilhelm therefore elevated language to a quasi-transcendental status, endowing it with a “life-principle” of its own and consecrating it as a “mental exhalation,” the manifestation of a free, autonomous spiritual force. He denied that language was the product of voluntary human activity, viewing instead as a “mental exhalation,” a “gift fallen to [the nations] by their own destiny” (24) partaking in a broader spiritual mission. In this sense, the various nations constituted diverse individualities pursuant of inner spiritual paths of their own, with each language existing as a spiritual creation and gradual unfolding:

If in the soul the feeling truly arises that language is not merely a medium of exchange for mutual understanding, but a true world which the intellect must set between itself and objects by the inner labour of its power, then the soul is on the true way toward discovering constantly more in language, and putting constantly more into it (135).

While he seemed to share his brother’s intellectual demeanor, Wilhelm disapproved of many of Alexander’s life-choices, from living in Paris rather than Berlin (particularly during the wars of liberation against Napoleon), which he felt was most unpatriotic, to leaving the civilized world in his attempts to come closer to nature (Wulf 151). Alexander, the natural philosopher and adventurer, on his side reproached his brother for his conservatism and social and political guardedness. In a time marred by conflict and the growth of nationalism, science, for him, had no nationality and he followed scientific activity wherever it took him, especially to Paris, where he was widely celebrated throughout his life. In a European context of growing repression and censorship in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat, he encouraged the free exchange of ideas and information, and pleaded for international collaborations between scientists and the collection of global data; truth would gradually emerge from the confrontation of different opinions. He also gave many lectures during which he would effortlessly hop from one subject to another, in this manner helping to popularize science. More generally, he would help other scholars whenever he could, intellectually or financially.

As the ideas of 1789 failed to materialize, giving way instead to a climate of censorship and repression, Alexander slowly grew disillusioned with politics. His extensive travels had provided him insights not only on the natural world but also on the human condition. “European barbarity,” especially in the shape of colonialism, tyranny and serfdom had fomented dissent and hatred. Even the newly-born American Republic, with its founding principles of liberty and the pursuit of happiness, was not immune to this scourge (Wulf 171). Man with his greed, violence and ignorance could be as barbaric to his fellow man as he was to nature. Nature was inextricably linked with the actions of mankind and the latter often left a trail of destruction in its wake through deforestation, ruthless irrigation, industrialization and intensive cultivation. “Man can only act upon nature and appropriate her forces to his use by comprehending her laws.” Alexander would later write in his life, and failure to do so would eventually leave even distant stars “barren” and “ravaged” (Wulf 353).

Furthermore, while Wilhelm was perhaps the more celebrated in his time, it was Alexander’s legacy that would prove the more enduring, inspiring new generations of nature writers, including the American founder of the transcendentalist movement Henry David Thoreau, who intended his masterpiece Walden as an answer to Humboldt’s Cosmos, John Muir, the great preservationist, or Ernst Haeckel, who discovered radiolarians and coined our modern science of ecology” Another noteworthy influence was on Darwin and his theory of evolution. Darwin took Humboldt’s web of complex relations a step further and turned them into a tree of life from which all organisms stem. Humboldt sought to upend the ideal of “cultivated nature,” most famously perpetuated by the French naturalist the Comte de Buffon, whereby nature had to be domesticated, ordered, and put to productive use. Crucially, he inspired a whole generation of adventurers, from Darwin to Joseph Banks, and revolutionized scientific practice by tearing the scientist away from the library and back into the wilderness.

For all their many criticisms and disagreements, both brothers shared a strong bond. Alexander, who survived Wilhelm by twenty-four years, emphasized again and again Wilhelm’s “greatness of the character” and his “depth of emotions,” as well as his “noble, still-moving soul life.” Both brothers carved out unique trajectories for themselves, the first as a jurist, a statesman and a linguist, the second arguably as the first modern scientist; yet both still remained beholden to the idea of totalizing systems, each setting forth insights that remain more pertinent than ever.


Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, from a frontispiece illustration of 1836

Audrey Borowski is a historian of ideas and a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford.

The New Bibliographical Presses at Rare Book School

by editor Erin Schreiner, and guest contributor Roger Gaskell


The Rare Book School Replica Copperplate Press, in the Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of  Virginia

In the inaugural issue of the Journal of the Printing Historical Society (1965), Philip Gaskell defined the bibliographical press as “a workshop or laboratory which is carried on chiefly for the purpose of demonstrating and investigating the printing techniques of the past by means of setting type by hand, and of printing from it on a simple press.” Just a few weeks ago, we had the honor and pleasure of inaugurating the bibliographical pressroom and exhibition space at the University of Virginia, in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. Thanks to a collaboration between the University Library, Rare Book School, and the bookseller Roger Gaskell, UVa is now home to two bibliographical presses for use in public demonstrations, bibliographical instruction, and scholarly research. One is a common letterpress, used for printing text and images from type and relief blocks; the other is a rolling press, used for printing from intaglio plates. This is the first and only bibliographical rolling press, and it is a significant step for scholars not only of the history of printing, but also of the history of art, science, cartography, and other disciplines which rely on historical texts printed from intaglio plates, either exclusively or in combination with letterpress text.

Roger Gaskell, a scholar and bookseller, designed the new bibliographical rolling press, a replica based on the designs published in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie in 1769. As an antiquarian bookseller specializing in natural history and science books, Roger has always been interested in the production history and bothered by the lack of rigorous bibliographical language for the description of illustrated books. In 1999, a fellowship at the Clark Library in Los Angeles allowed him to study intaglio plates inserted into letterpress printed books, and he formed the idea then that building a replica wooden rolling press was essential for a better understanding of the mechanics and workshop practices of intaglio printing. Six years ago, Michael Suarez invited him to teach at Rare Book School and over dinner, Roger pitched to Michael the idea that Rare Book School should commission the building of a wooden rolling press based on a historical model. Some years later they discussed this again. But what to build? A press based on the design published by Bosse in 1645? That has been done: there is a fine replica in the Rembrandt House in Amsterdam that is frequently used for public demonstrations. A copy of an existing press? Gary Gregory was doing this for his Printing Office of Edes and Gill in Boston. It was the inspired suggestion of Barbara Heritage to build a press based on the Encyclopédie engravings. By good fortune Roger had seen a surviving press of very similar design on display in the print shop of the Louvre in Paris some years earlier. This made the Encyclopédie the perfect source as its accuracy, as well as a number of constructional details, which could be verified by examination of a contemporary press. The Chalcographie du Louvre press is now in storage at the Atelier des Arts, Chalcographie et Moulage at St Denis to the North of Paris where Roger spent a day photographing and measuring, in preparation for his new press.

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Robert Bernard (b. 1734) after Jacques Goussier (1722–1799). Imprimerie en taille-douce, Développement de la Presse, in Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 7 (plates). Paris, 1769.

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The Chalcographie du Louvre press at the Atelier des Arts, Chalcographie et Moulage at St Denis. Photograph by Roger Gaskell.

The use of working replicas gives students and researchers access to the technologies of book production that shaped the transmission of texts and images. Traditionally, the production of literary texts has driven the development of bibliography, bibliographical teaching, and the bibliographical press movement. But it has also long been understood that the ability to print images in multiples was as revolutionary for the development of other disciplines, including medicine, science, technology and travel literature, as the printing of texts has been to religious movements and imaginative literature. At UVa and Rare Book School, students and researchers can now work with the two – and only two – printing technologies responsible for all book production before the nineteenth century: relief and intaglio printing. There we can develop the habits of mind necessary to understand the implications of the extraordinary synergy of mind, body and machine which shaped the modern world in the west. Presses like these were used to print engravings and etchings for collectors, popular broadsides and ballads, indeed all kinds of ephemera as well as printed books.


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Erin Schreiner, the rolling press, and prints in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, UVa

As a discipline, bibliography has been shaped by its leading scholars’ interests in English drama, poetry, and fiction, and in incunabula. Scholars working in the history of art and science, and anyone working with books on travel and exploration, are at a bibliographical loss – it’s hard to understand why an illustrated book came to be the way it is because bibliographical literature (with a very few exceptions) does not address the problems raised by printing in non-letterpress media. What’s more, this problem extends beyond rolling press printed matter and the handpress period and into twentieth century non-letterpress materials made on mimeograph, ditto, and Xerox machines. Much of the work by media historians is rightly viewed with skepticism by the bibliographical community, yet this community has not yet figured out how to think about printed matter that isn’t made from folded sheets of letterpress.

Printing is the work of the body as much as it is the work of the mind; it’s time to roll up our sleeves. Particularly in the absence of substantial archival records of rolling press printers and intaglio plate artists, we must get our bodies behind the press to confront the constraints of printing for books from intaglio plates. We need to print images and put them in books, we need to confront the reality of doing this in multiples (and probably also in debt), and in coordination with the production of letterpress text. Doing this work will make way for the kind of grounded thinking about print that makes for good scholarship.


Megan McNamee, RBS Mellon Fellow & A.W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery, pulls a print on the Rare Book School Copperplate Replica Press. 

Roger Gaskell is a scholar and bookseller, now living and working in Wales. He teaches The Illustrated Scientific Book to 1800 course bi-annually at Rare Book School, and teaches a regular seminar, Science in Print in the Department of History and Philosophy at the University of Cambridge.

Reptiles, Amphibians, Herptiles, and other Creeping Things: Variations on a Taxonomic Theme

by Contributing Editor Spencer J. Weinreich

King Philip Came Over For Good Soup. Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. Few mnemonics can be as ubiquitous as the monarch whose dining habits have helped generations of biology students remember the levels of the taxonomic system. Though the progress of the field has introduced domains (above kingdoms), tribes (between family and genus) and a whole array of lesser taxons (subspecies, subgenus, and so on), the system remains central to identifying and thinking about organic life.


Green anaconda (Eunectes murinus): a reptile, not an amphibian (photo credit: Smithsonian’s National Zoo)

Consider “reptiles.” Many a precocious young naturalist learns—and impresses upon their parents with zealous (sometimes exasperated) insistence—that snakes are not slimy. The snake is a reptile, not an amphibian, covered with scales rather than a porous skin. Reaching high school biology, this distinction takes on taxonomic authority: in the Linnaean system, reptiles and amphibians belong to separate classes (Reptilia and Amphibia, respectively). The division has much to recommend it, given the two groups’ considerable divergences in physiology, life-cycle, behavior, and genetics. But, like all scientific categories, the distinction between reptiles and amphibians is a historical creation, and of surprisingly recent vintage at that.

When Carl Linnaeus first published his Systema Naturæ in 1735, what we know as reptiles and amphibians were lumped together in a class named Amphibia. The class—“naked or scaly body; molar teeth, none, others, always; no feathers” (“Corpus nudum, vel squamosum. Dentes molares nulli: reliqui semper. Pinnæ nullæ”)—was divided among turtles, frogs, lizards, and snakes. Linnaeus concludes his outline with these words:

the benignity of the Creator chose not to extend the class of amphibians any further; indeed, if it should enjoy as many genera as the other classes of animals include, or if that which the teratologists fantasize about dragons, basilisks, and such monsters were true, the human race could hardly inhabit the earth” (“Amphibiorum Classem ulterius continuare noluit benignitas Creatoris; Ea enim si tot Generibus, quot reliquæ Animalium Classes comprehendunt, gauderet; vel si vera essent quæ de Draconibus, Basiliscis, ac ejusmodi monstris si οι τετραλόγοι [sic] fabulantur, certè humanum genus terram inhabitare vix posset”) (n.p.).


Sand lizard (Lacerta agilis), an amphibian according to Linnaeus (photo credit: Friedrich Böhringer)

In the 1758 canonical tenth edition of the Systema, Linnaeus provided a more elaborate set of characteristics for Amphibia: “a heart with a single ventricle and a single atrium, with cold, red blood. Lungs that breathe at will. Incumbent jaws. Double penises. Frequetly membranaceous eggs. Senses: tongue, nose, eyes, and, in many cases, ears. Covered in naked skin. Limbs: some multiple, others none” (“Cor uniloculare, uniauritum; Sanguine frigido, rubro. Pulmones spirantes arbitrarie. Maxillæ incumbentes. Penes bini. Ova plerisque membranacea. Sensus: Lingua, Nares, Oculi, multis Aures. Tegimenta coriacea nuda. Fulcra varia variis, quibusdam nulla”) (I.12). Interestingly, Linnaeus now divides Amphibia into three, based on their mode of

  1. Reptiles (“those that creep”), including turtles, lizards, frogs, and toads;
  2. Serpentes (“those that slither”), including snakes, worm lizards, and caecilians;
  3. Nantes (“those that swim”), including lampreys, rays, sharks, sturgeons, and several other types of cartilaginous fish (I.196).

Smokey jungle frog (Leptodactylus pentadactylus), a reptile according to Laurenti and Brongniart (photo credit: Trisha M. Shears)

Linnaeus’s younger Austrian contemporary, Josephus Nicolaus Laurenti, also groups modern amphibians and reptiles together, even as he excludes the fish Linnaeus had categorized as swimming AmphibiaLaurenti was the first to call this group Reptilia (19), and though its denizens have changed considerably in the intervening centuries, he is still credited as the “auctor” of class Reptilia. The French mineralogist and zoologist Alexandre Brongniart also subordinated “batrachians” (frogs and toads) within the broader class of reptiles. All the while, exotic specimens continued to test taxonomic boundaries: “late-eighteenth-century naturalists tentatively described the newly discovered platypus as an amalgam of bird, reptile, and mammal” (Ritvo, The Platypus and the Mermaid, 132).

It was not until 1825 that Brongniart’s compatriot and contemporary Pierre André Latreille’s Familles naturelles du règne animal separated Reptilia and Amphibia as adjacent classes. The older, joint classification survives in the field of herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians) and the sadly underused word “herptile” (“reptile or amphibian”).

“Herptile” is a twentieth-century coinage. “Reptile,” by contrast, appears in medieval English; derived from the Latin reptile, reptilis—itself from rēpō (“to creep”)—“reptile” originally meant simply “a creeping or crawling animal” (“reptile, n.1” in OED). The first instance cited by the Oxford English Dictionary is from John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (c.1393): “And every neddre and every snake / And every reptil which mai moeve, / His myht assaieth for to proeve, / To crepen out agein the sonne” (VII.1010–13). The Vulgate Latin Bible uses reptile, reptilis to translate the “creeping thing” (רֶמֶשׂ) described in Genesis 1, a usage carried over into medieval English, as in the “Adam and Eve” of the Wheatley Manuscript (BL Add. MS 39574), where Adam is made lord “to ech creature & to ech reptile which is moued on þe erþe” (fol. 60r). Eventually, these “creeping things” became a distinct group of animals: an early sixteenth-century author enumerates “beestes, byrdes, fysshes, reptyll” (“reptile, n.1” in OED). I suspect the identification of the “reptile” (creeping thing) with herptiles owes something to the Serpent in the Garden of Eden being condemned by God to move “upon thy belly” (Gen. 3:14). The adjective “amphibian” is attested in English as early as 1637, but in the sense of “having two modes of existence.” Not until 1835—after the efforts of Latreille and his English popularizer, T. H. Huxley—does the word come to refer to a particular class of animals (“amphibian, adj. and n.” in OED).

The crucial point here is that the distinction between the two groups, grounded though it may be in biology and phylogenetics, is an artifact of taxonomy, not a self-evident fact of the natural world. For early modern, medieval, and ancient observers, snakes and salamanders, turtles and toads all existed within an ill-defined territory of creeping, crawling things.


Fourteenth-century icon of Saint George and a very snakelike dragon (photo credit: Museum of Russian Icons, Moscow)

The farther back we go, the more fantastic the category becomes, encompassing dragons, sea serpents, basilisks, and the like. Religion, too, played its part, as we have seen with Eve’s serpentine interlocutor: Egypt’s plague of frogs, the dragon of Revelation, the Leviathan, the scaly foes of saints like George and Margaret, were within the same “reptilian”—creeping, crawling—family. To be sure, the premodern observer was perfectly aware of the differences between frogs and lizards, and between different species (what could be eaten and what could not, what was dangerous and what was not). But they would not—and had no reason to—erect firm ontological boundaries between the two sorts of creatures.

When we go back to the key works of medieval and ancient natural philosophy, the same nebulosity prevails. Isidore of Seville’s magisterial Etymologies of the early seventh century includes an entry “On Serpents” (“De Serpentibus”), which notes,

the serpent, however, takes that name because it crawls [serpit] by hidden movements; it creeps not with visible steps, but with the minute pressure of its scales. But those which go upon four feet, such as lizards and geckoes [stiliones could also refer to newts], are not called serpents but reptiles. Serpents are also reptiles, since they creep on their bellies and breasts” (“Serpens autem nomen accepit quia occultis accessibus serpit, non apertis passibus, sed squamarum minutissimis nisibus repit. Illa autem quae quattuor pedibus nituntur, sicut lacerti et stiliones, non serpentes, sed reptilia nominantur. Serpentes autem reptilia sunt, quia ventre et pectore reptant.”) (XII.iv.3).

The forefather of premodern zoology, Aristotle, opines in Generation of Animals “there is a good deal of overlapping between the various classes;” he groups snakes with fish because they have no feet as easily he links them with lizards because they are oviparous (II.732b, trans. A. L. Peck).


Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica), a reptile according to modern phylogenetics (photo credit: NOAA Photo Library—anim1991)

As it turns out, our modern category of “reptile” (class Reptilia) has proved similarly elastic. In evolutionary terms, this is because “reptiles” are not a clade—a group of organisms defined by a single ancestor species and all its descendants. Though visually closer to lizards, for example, genetically speaking the crocodile is a nearer relative to birds (class Aves). Scientists and science writers have thus claimed—sometimes facetiously—that the very category of reptile is a fiction (see Welbourne, “There’s no such thing as reptiles”). The clade Sauropsida, including reptiles and birds (as a subset thereof), was first mooted by Huxley and subsequently resurrected in the twentieth century to address the problem. Birds are now reptiles, though they seldom creep. If I may be permitted a piece of Isidorean etymological fantasy, perhaps this is the true import of the “reptile” as “creeping thing,” as they creep across and beyond taxonomic boundaries, eternally frustrating and fascinating those who seek to understand them.




The Great Art

By guest contributor Adrian Young

One can hardly imagine a more audacious ambit for a museum exhibit than that of the Staatlische Museen zu Berlin’s new show, Alchemy: the Great Art, now at the Kulturforum. In the curators’ words:

“Alchemy is a creation myth and therefore intimately related to artistic practice – this idea permeates all eras and cultures, shaping Alchemy’s theoretical underpinnings as well as artistic creativity. An exhibition dedicated to the art of Alchemy is consequently predestined for the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, whose diverse collections stretch over time from pre- and early history to the present. Alchemy is a universal theme for a universal museum”

As if to underpin its universal sweep, that thesis is inscribed on a wall above Matthäus Merian the Elder’s beautiful image of the cosmos, published in 1617.  Here, the position of the heavens above, the earth below, and humanity in between are assured within a hierarchy ordained by the divine unity of creation. The planets correspond to metals and vice versa, mercury for Mercury, at once products and signifiers of the same heavenly power.

L0029108 R. Fludd, Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet...

Robert Fludd, Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica, physica atque technica historia (1617-1618). (Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library)

From this document, and from the assemblage of some 200 remarkable objects like it, spanning continents and millennia, we are meant to learn something of the universal creative ambition that drove alchemy as a global, timeless, and human craft. As a creative practice, the ars magna (or “great art,” to use alchemy’s medieval European appellation) wedded the pursuit of beauty and the pursuit of knowledge within the same practical tradition. It was only after the advent of Enlightenment rationality obscured their longstanding relationship that art and science seemed to diverge into bifurcating paths. However, though we rational moderns may have lost sight of a creative unity the pre-moderns knew well, by assembling the material culture of a deep alchemical past alongside the artistic products of a scientifically minded present, the exhibit suggests that “art” and “science” need be understood as separate enterprises. Rather, it claims, we have always been modern. We have always sought truth and beauty alike in the manipulation and transformation of material things. Creators have always been alchemists.

It is a seductive and tantalizing notion. Historians might chafe instinctively at claims of universality, as I did when I read the exhibit’s opening scrawl—“this idea permeates all eras and cultures”? But why not? One is inclined to indulge the thought, at least for a moment, while examining the treasures assembled here. And there are treasures. A ding, or ritual cauldron, from thirteenth-century BCE China still draws viewers in with a ring of intricately rendered cicadas; the metamorphosis of these insects suggest that a similar same property of transformation operated inside this metal crucible, and in remains at work in crucibles like it in laboratories and workshops the world over. Wall scrolls by sixteenth-century Daoist artist Lu Zhi depict the search for truth as the work of gathering herbs in the mountains. These hang near sixteenth-century European allegorical representations of the mountainous earth as a temple in which to mine divine knowledge.  Alchemical correspondences abound.

Whether these artifacts were products of “art” or “science” is of course a nonsensical question. Indeed, the exhibition reminds its visitors that artists and alchemists were practitioners of allied creative crafts, which they often plied in the same princely courts. A small work by Hans Jakob Sprüngli from the early seventeenth century drives that point home well. In his “Venus and Armor against the backdrop of renaissance architecture,” painted figures are ensconced in a field of gold leaf and stained glass. Master artists, like master alchemists, relied on an intimate, practical, and embodied knowledge of the materials from which they produced their works of truth or beauty. Artists today are much the same in their attention to material things, an alchemical affinity they even share with contemporary scientists. Think of Joseph Beuys, for instance, whose works are represented in the exhibition by a 1986 offprint displaying his “goldkuchen.” In Beuys’s use of fur, fat, and gold, physical objects became agents of affect, begetting emotional reactions and transformations. Pieces by a younger generation of artists do much the same. Sara Shönfeldt’s 2013 series “All You Can Feel (Maps)” is an object lesson in the commonalities of practice between science and art. Shönfeldt placed dissolved chemical compounds like the recreational drug MDMA onto pretreated negatives which, once developed produced full-color portraits of chemicals. Their crystalline browns and greens are reminiscent of minerals or landscapes, feeling simultaneously geological and geographical.  It is a use of darkroom technology that recalls earlier work by Walter Ziegler and Heinz Hajek-Halke, also represented in the gallery. Photography and its attendant chemical techniques long provided a practical if little-celebrated bridge between the hands-on work of art and science. Can we meaningfully call those shared practices alchemy? The genealogy, here at least, is manifest.

Continuities with the past need not be happy ones. Deep in the heart of the exhibit, in its lower level, lurks the specter of the homunculus. The artificial being, made living by the alchemist’s manipulation of inanimate matter is also evoked here to suggest alchemical practice’s persistence into our present.  Underscoring the idea’s lingering presence in the popular imagination, images of Frankenstein’s monster sit next to a copy of Japanese graphic novel Full Metal Alchemist. That the notion of a monstrous artificial life still haunts us powerfully reinforces the exhibition’s argument; in our era of genetically modified and artificial life, one of alchemy’s chief ambitions is enacted daily in scientific practice. At the center of the “Homonculus” section is one of the “Ripley Scrolls,” on loan from the Getty and one of the exhibition’s most arresting objects. Unwound inside a twenty-foot-long case, it becomes the body of arcane alchemical knowledge now splayed open for visitors. However, the exhibit which most monstrously evokes the grotesque possibilities of alchemical transformation might well be on the floor above, where another of Sara Schönfeldt’s pieces melds scientific and artistic practice. “Hero’s Journey (Lamp)” (2014) stores urine inside a large glass tank, lit by lamps on both sides. The light only penetrates so far through the liquid murk, fading from amber to blood red before disappearing in a dark center of clotted black.

By assembling in one gallery historical objects and art pieces from across time and space, the exhibition attempts a kind of curatorial alchemy, building a synthesis from diverse elements. Like most grand experiments, it falls somewhat short. Though the SMB is indeed a universal museum, Europe’s heritage dominates. While the exhibit proffers alchemy as a universal mode of creation, there are no representative objects from the New World, sub-Saharan Africa, or Oceania with which to substantiate such a claim. East Asian objects appear much more frequently–the Museum für Asiatische Kunst is the source of a number of fascinating exhibits– though these sometimes seem to reaffirm Western narratives. A section on the “chemical wedding” is a case in point. In a famous alchemical allegory, male and female, corresponding to mercury and sulfur, are bonded and give rise to a hermaphroditic compound.  It was a notion that originated with Jābir ibn Hayyān and spread in alchemical texts throughout the Mediterranean world, though we see it represented directly only by Western European artifacts. However, we are told that the idea shared an affinity with the wedding of opposites in other traditions—enter a bronze sculpture depicting the marriage of Shiva and Parvati from late eighteenth- or early nineteenth- century Madurai, which gestures at similar alchemical dualities in the Hindu world. The bronze’s precise relation to “alchemy” is sadly unexplained; rather,  we are left to ponder the exact global unities between such dualities on our own.

Those artifacts which do receive closer temporal or spatial framings are all the more compelling for it, even if the resulting narratives are in tension with the exhibition’s universal aspirations. Assertions of timeless continuity might productively trouble our understanding of science and art in the present, but historians of science have long offered more circumscribed historically situated assertions of continuity between alchemy, chymistry, and chemistry. In this show, too, the artifacts that best challenge the too-neat dichotomies that seem to separate modernity and reason from premodernity and magic are those that speak evocatively of their own historical moments. Take, for instance, that eminently enlightenment document, the Encyclopedie, whose entry “Chemie” is represented by Louis-Jacques Goussier’s engraving “Laboratoire et Table des Reports,” (1771).  Here, a table arranges the traditional signs for the elements, rationally ordering notations inherited from alchemy. Or, better, take the image of Sigismund Bacstrom’s “Apparatus to attract the Lunar Humidity” in Johan Freiderich Fleischer’s 1797 Chemical Moonshine, on loan from the Getty. Here, the glassware of the empirical chemical laboratory (an alchemical inheritance, to be sure) is turned toward the goal of capturing the fleeting essence of moonlight itself. It evokes Yoko Ono, but gestures even more strongly toward the tumultuous, contingent, and fleeting worlds that existed on the edges of the chemical revolution.

Adrian 2 Chemical Moonshine 10_1024

Sigismund Bacstrom (German, ca. 1750–1805), “Device for Distilling Lunar Humidity,” ink and watercolor in Johan Friedrich Fleischer, “Chemical Moonshine,” trans. Sigismund Bacstrom, 1797, frontispiece. 950053.4.1 (Image courtesy of the Getty Research Institute.)


 Was I ultimately taken in by the allure of the exhibition’s universal aspiration? More than I might have expected. Assertions of similarity between art and science abound in books and museum exhibits, perhaps less because we aim to bridge C.P. Snow’s two cultures and more because we in the fragile arts hope to ally with the slightly sturdier sciences in this era of shrinking funding and diminishing respect for the academy.  Alchemy, by focusing our attention on the practical knowledge required by the work of creation, suggests genuine and overlooked affinities. I am inclined to understand those commonalities as the product of a shared, historically and regionally specific genealogy. But no matter. If the ideal of a common and universal human creative impulse can compel us to study the rich material heritage of the alchemical past, or indeed any past, then all to the good. Like the elusive philosopher’s stone, perhaps the ambition itself is of less consequence than the things learned in yearning for it. What’s more, artists and alchemists alike have long known what some historians have only recently rediscovered: that objects can speak with a vocabulary the written word does not always afford. In this exhibit, aesthetic objects, whether contemporary sculptures or scientific plates, evoke their pasts with a remarkable richness. As windows into the practical histories of alchemy and art, these materials, whatever their ordering, exude a transformative power of their own.

“Alchemy: The Great Art” is on view at the Kulturforum in Berlin until the 23rd of July, 2017.

Adrian Young is a postdoctoral fellow at the Berlin Center for the History of Knowledge, where he is revising his dissertation “Mutiny’s Bounty: Pitcairn Islanders and the Making of a Natural Laboratory on the Edge of Britain’s Pacific Empire” for publication. Though not a historian of alchemy by any stretch, he maintains an abiding interest in material culture and object lessons.

Evolution Made Easy: Henry Balfour, Pitt Rivers, and the Evolution of Art

by guest contributor Laurel Waycott

In 1893, Henry Balfour, curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, UK, conducted an experiment. He traced a drawing of a snail crawling over a twig, and passed it to another person, whom he instructed to copy the drawing as accurately as possible with pen and paper. This second drawing was then passed to the next participant, with Balfour’s original drawing removed, and so on down the line. Balfour, in essence, constructed a nineteenth-century version of the game of telephone, with a piece of gastropodic visual art taking the place of whispered phrases. As in the case of the children’s game, what began as a relatively easy echo of what came before resulted in a bizarre, near unrecognizable transmutation.

Plate I. Henry Balfour, The Evolution of Decorative Art (New York: Macmillan & Co., 1893).

In the series of drawings, Balfour’s pastoral snail morphed, drawing by drawing, into a stylized bird—the snail’s eyestalks became the forked tail of the bird, while the spiral shell became, in Balfour’s words, “an unwieldy and unnecessary wart upon the, shall we call them, ‘trousers’ which were once the branching end of the twig” (28). Snails on twigs, birds in trousers—just what, exactly, are we to make of Balfour’s intentions for his experiment? What was Balfour trying to prove?

Balfour’s game of visual telephone, at its heart, was an attempt to understand how ornamental forms could change over time, using the logic of biological evolution. The results were published in a book, The Evolution of Decorative Art, which was largely devoted to the study of so-called “primitive” arts from the Pacific. The reason that Balfour had to rely on his constructed game and experimental results, rather than original samples of the “savage” art, was that he lacked a complete series necessary for illustrating his theory—he was forced to create one for his purposes. Balfour’s drawing experiment was inspired by a technique developed by General Pitt Rivers himself, whose collections formed the foundation of the museum. In 1875, Pitt Rivers—then known as Augustus Henry Lane Fox—delivered a lecture titled “The Evolution of Culture,” in which he argued that shifting forms of artifacts, from firearms to poetry, were in fact culminations of many small changes; and that the historical development of artifacts could be reconstructed by observing these minute changes. From this, Pitt Rivers devised a scheme of museum organization that arranged objects in genealogical fashion—best illustrated by his famous display of weapons used by the indigenous people of Australia.

Plate III. Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers, The Evolution of Culture, and Other Essays, ed. John Linton Myres (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1906).

Here, Pitt Rivers arranged the weapons in a series of changing relationships radiating out from a central object, the “simple cylindrical stick” (34). In Pitt Rivers’ system, this central object was the most “primitive” and “essential” object, from which numerous small modifications could be made. Elongate the stick, and eventually one arrived at a lance; add a bend, and it slowly formed into a boomerang. While he acknowledged that these specimens were contemporary and not ancient, the organization implied a temporal relationship between the objects. This same logic was extended to understandings of human groups at the turn of the twentieth century. So-called “primitive” societies like the indigenous groups of the Pacific were considered “survivals” from the past, physically present but temporally removed from those living around them (37). The drawing game, developed by Pitt Rivers in 1884, served as a different way to manipulate time: by speeding up the process of cultural evolution, researchers could mimic evolution’s slow process of change over time in the span of just a few minutes. If the fruit fly’s rapid reproductive cycle made it an ideal model organism for studying Mendelian heredity, the drawing game sought to make cultural change an object of the laboratory.

It is important to note the capacious, wide-ranging definitions of “evolution” by the end of the nineteenth century. Evolution could refer to the large-scale, linear development of entire human or animal groups, but it could also refer to Darwinian natural selection. Balfour drew on both definitions, and developed tools to help him to apply evolutionary theory directly to studies of decorative art. “Degeneration,” the idea that organisms could revert back to earlier forms of evolution, played a reoccurring role in both Balfour’s and Pitt Rivers’ lines of museum object-based study. For reasons never explicitly stated, both men assumed that decorative motifs originated with realistic images, relying on the conventions of verisimilitude common in Western art. This leads us back, then, to the somewhat perplexing drawing with which Balfour chose to begin his experiment.

Balfour wrote that he started his experiment by making “a rough sketch of some object which could be easily recognized” (24). His original gastropodic image relied, fittingly, on a number of conventions that required a trained eye and trained hand to interpret. The snail’s shell and the twig, for instance, appeared rounded through the artist’s use of cross-hatching, the precise placement of regularly spaced lines which lend a sense of three-dimensional volume to a drawing. Similarly, the snail’s shell was placed in a vague landscape, surrounded by roughly-sketched lines giving a general sense of the surface upon which the action occurred. While the small illustration might initially seem like a straightforward portrayal of a gastropod suctioned onto a twig, the drawing’s visual interpretation is only obvious to those accustomed to reading and reproducing the visual conventions of Western art. Since the image was relatively challenging to begin with, it provided Balfour with an exciting experimental result: specifically, a bird wearing trousers.

Plate II. Henry Balfour, The Evolution of Decorative Art (New York: Macmillan & Co., 1893).

Balfour had conducted a similar experiment using a drawing of a man from the Parthenon frieze as his “seed,” but it failed to yield the surprising results of the first. While the particulars of the drawing changed, somewhat—the pectoral muscles became a cloak, the hat changed, and the individual’s gender got a little murky in the middle—the overall substance of the image remained unchanged. It did not exhibit evolutionary “degeneration” to the same convincing degree, but rather seemed to be, quite simply, the product of some less-than-stellar artists. While Balfour included both illustrations in his book, he clearly preferred his snail-to-bird illustration and reproduced it far more widely. He also admitted to interfering in the experimental process: omitting subsequent drawings that did not add useful evidence to his argument, and specifically choosing participants who had no artistic training (25, 27).

Balfour clearly manipulated his experiment and the resulting data to prove what he thought he already knew: that successive copying in art led to degenerate, overly conventionalized forms that no longer held to Western standards of verisimilitude. It was an outlook he had likely acquired from Pitt Rivers. In Notes and Queries on Anthropology (1892), a handbook circulated to travelers who wished to gather ethnographic data for anthropologists back in Britain, Pitt Rivers outlined a number of questions that travelers should ask about local art. The questions were leading, designed in a simple yes/no format likely to provoke a certain response. In fact, one of Pitt Rivers’ questions could, essentially, offer the verbal version of Balfour’s drawing game. “Do they,” he wrote, “in copying from one another, vary the designs through negligence, inability, or other causes, so as to lose sight of the original objects, and produce conventionalized forms, the meaning of which is otherwise inexplicable?” (119–21). Pitt Rivers left very little leeway—both for the artist and the observer—for creativity. Might the artists choose to depict things in a certain way? And might the observer interpret these depictions in his or her own way? Pitt River’s motivation was clear. If one did find such examples of copying, he added. “it would be of great interest to obtain series of such drawings, showing the gradual departure from the original designs.” They would, after all, make a very convincing museum display.

Laurel Waycott is a PhD candidate in the history of science and medicine at Yale University. This essay is adapted from a portion of her dissertation, which examines the way biological thinking shaped conceptions of decoration, ornament, and pattern at the turn of the 20th century.

Coming to Terms with the Cybernetic Age

by guest contributor Jamie Phillips

Rare the conference attracting a crowd on a cold December Saturday morning, but such happened recently at NYU’s Remarque Institute. Space filled out early for the conclusion of a two-day conference on Cybernetics and the Human Sciences (PDF). The turnout bore out the conference’s contention of a renewed historiographical and philosophical interest in cybernetics, the science of “control and communication in the animal and the machine,” as Norbert Wiener subtitled his 1948 work that gave the interdisciplinary movement its name. As Leif Weatherby, co-organizer of the conference along with Stefanos Geroulanos, noted in his introductory remarks, the twentieth century was a cybernetic century, and the twenty-first must cope with its legacy. Even as the name has faded, Weatherby suggested, cybernetics remains everywhere in our material and intellectual worlds. And so for two days scholars came to cope, to probe that legacy, to trace its contours and question its ramifications, to reevaluate the legacy of cybernetics as a history of the present.

The range of presenters proved particularly well-suited to such a reevaluation, with some working directly on cybernetics itself, while others approached the subject more obliquely, finding, as it were, the cybernetic in their work even where it had not been named. Ronald R. Kline, author of the recent The Cybernetics Moment: Or Why We Call Our Age the Information Age, set the tone early in emphasizing the disunity of cybernetics. Despite the claims of some of its advocates and latter-day commentators, Kline contended, cybernetics never was one thing. On this point general consensus emerged the conference tended to eschew a search for definitions or classifications in favor of a wide-ranging exploration of the many faces of cybernetics’ legacy. And wide-ranging it indeed was as papers and discussion touched on topics from international relations theory and the restrainer of the Antichrist, to Soviet planning in Novosibirsk, the manufacture of telephones, brain implants and bullfights, Voodoo death, and starfish embryos.

A number of papers spoke to the pre-history (or rather pre-histories) of cybernetics. Mara Mills emphasized the importance of the manufacturing context for the emergence of ideas of quality control, as a crucial site for the development of cybernetic conceptions of feedback. Geroulanos addressed physiological theories of organismic integration, stemming from WWI studies of wound shock and concerns with the body on the verge of collapse, and leading to Walter B. Cannon’s concept of homeostasis, so pivotal for early cyberneticians. Other papers spoke to the varying trajectories of cybernetics in different national contexts. Diana West discussed the appeal of cybernetics in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s as offering promise of a more dynamic form of large-scale regional planning, a promise expressed in abstract theoretical modeling and premised on a computing power that never came. Isabel Gabel explored the intersections of biology, embryology and metaphysics in the work of French philosopher Raymond Ruyer. Jacob Krell gave an entertaining appraisal of the strange humanist engagement with cybernetics by the heterogeneous “Groupe des dix” in post-68 France, while Danielle Carr spoke to the anxious reaction against visions of human mind control in the Cold War United States, through the work of José Manuel Rodriguez Delgado. Other papers still, particularly those of Weatherby and Luciana Parisi, directly confronted a cybernetic metaphysics, and between them they raised questions concerning its novelty and significance with respect to the history of philosophy and contemporary media theory.


Stefanos Geroulanos

Taken together, the papers compellingly demonstrated the ubiquity and diversity of the cybernetic across disciplines, decades, and geographical and political contexts. Taken together, however, they also raised a question that has long been posed to cybernetics itself. Here we might cite the words of Georges Boulanger, president of the International Association of Cybernetics, who asked, in 1969: “But after all what is cybernetics? Or rather what is it not, for paradoxically the more people talk about cybernetics the less they seem to agree on a definition” (quoted in Kline, The Cybernetics Moment, 7). Indeed, just as cybernetics itself declined as it expanded into everything, there is perhaps a risk that in finding cybernetics everywhere we lose hold of the object itself. To push the point further, we might echo the frustration of one of the interviewees cited by Diana West in her talk (and here I paraphrase): ‘They promised us cybernetics, but they never gave us cybernetics.’

Over two days, the conference answered this challenge through the productive discussion it generated. The more people talked about cybernetics, the more they seemed to find common ground for engagement.. Beyond the numerous schematics that served as the immediate graphic markers of the cybernetic imagination (see image), conversation coalesced around a loose conceptual vocabulary—of information, of feedback and system, of mechanism and organism, of governance, error and self-organization—that effectively bridged topics and disciplines, and that gave promise of discerning a certain conceptual coherence in the cybernetic age.


A cybernetic schematic: “A Functional Diagram of Information Flow in Foreign Policy Decisions,” from Karl Deutch’s 1963 The Nerves of Government (courtesy of Stefanos Geroulanos)

This proved true even when (or perhaps especially when) understandings of the cybernetic seemed to point in very different directions. A panel of papers by David Bates and Nicolas Guilhot was particularly exemplary in this regard. Bates and Guilhot brought contrasting approaches to the question of the political in the cybernetic age. Bates presented his paper in the form of a question—on the face of it paradoxical, or simply unpromising—of whether we might think a concept of the political in the cybernetic age through the work of Carl Schmitt. Referring to Schmitt’s concept of the katechon (from his post-war work The Nomos of the Earth) as the Restrainer of the Anti-Christ, Bates proposed thinking the political as a deferral of chaos, a notion he linked to the idea of an open system that maintains itself through constant disequilibration, and to an organism that establishes its norms through states of exception. Recalling, through Schmitt, Hobbes’ conception of the Leviathan as an artificial man in which sovereignty is an artificial soul, Bates argued for a concept of the political that would enable us to think mechanism and organism together, that could recover the human without abandoning technology.


Nicolas Guilhot, David Bates, and Alexander Arnold (courtesy of Stefanos Geroulanos)

Guilhot, by contrast, looked at the place of cybernetics in international relations theory and the work of political theorists in the 1960s and 1970s. Cybernetics, Guilhot suggested, here offered the promise of an image of the political that was not dependent on sovereign actors and judgment, one that could do away with decision making in favor of structure, system, and mechanistic process. Where Bates expressed concern that the technical had overrun the capacity of humans to participate in their own systems, for Guilhot’s theorists this was precisely the appeal: coming at a moment of a widely perceived crisis of democracy, cybernetics promised to replace politics with governance as such. For Guilhot here too, though, there was a critical intervention at stake: the image of the political as a system does not remove decision making, he contended, but rather obfuscates it. Prompted by the panel chair to respond to each other directly, Bates and Guilhot agreed that their papers were indeed complementary, with Bates speaking to an earlier moment of concern in the history of cybernetics that had subsequently been lost. The lively discussion that ensued served as proof of the productive engagement that can come from bringing it to the fore again.

Seen in this light, it was a fitting—if unwitting—coda to the conference as a whole that the menu at the post-conference lunch that Saturday afternoon rendered the title of the conference as “Cybernetics and the Human Services” (see image). One might take this as an occasion to think about the flow of information, about the place of error in systems of control and communication. But for present purposes, and for the present author, this fortuitous transposition of ‘human sciences’ into ‘human services’ serves rather to bring to the fore the question implicit in the conference’s agenda: how does the effort to reevaluate the legacy of cybernetics as a single history of the present change our possibilities for understanding and acting within it. What service, in short, can the human sciences render?


(© Jamie Phillips)

In his paper that concluded the conference, Weatherby referred to an occasion at one of the Macy Conferences where the participants, considering the question of whether the brain was digital, confronted the further problem of defining the digital itself. Here, Weatherby suggested, they suffered from a lack of contribution from the humanities—no participant could themselves help the group to arrive upon a definition of cybernetics, what it does, how it works. Such is the work, it seems, that awaits the return to cybernetics. As the conference amply demonstrated, this will not and cannot be simply a matter of narrow definition: any attempt to come to terms with the cybernetic age and our continued place within it must pay heed to the pluralities, the disunities, the dispersed and intertwined trajectories that constitute that legacy; for all its own promise to unify the sciences, cybernetics was never one thing. At the same time, coming to terms with the cybernetic age will entail an effort to find a commonality in the plurality: if cybernetics indeed saturates the human and social sciences, how can we distill it; if it is everywhere without being named, what does it mean to name it, and what does it allow us to see. In this respect, one hopes, the menu will not be the last word, but will point rather to the urgency of continuing the ongoing reevaluation. An edited volume, I am told, is in the works.

Jamie Phillips is a Ph.D. candidate in modern European history at NYU. His dissertation examines the history of psychoneurology as a total science of the human in early twentieth century Russia, and its relation to the project of creating a ‘New Man.’ 

The Brain-for-Itself: Soviet Psychoneurologists Debate the Psychophysical Problem

by guest contributor Jamie Phillips

At a meeting of the Society of Psychoneurologists-Materialists in Moscow in 1930, the Chairman of the Society, Aron Zalkind, appraised the current the state of their field in the Soviet Union, and spoke in particular about the work of the Institute of Higher Nervous Activity at the Communist Academy: “here they not only work experimentally,” he said, “but also sometimes philosophize” (Arkhiv Rossiiskoi Akademii Nauk [ARAN], f. 351 op. 2 d. 25 l. 23ob).


Workers at the Institute for the Study of Higher Nervous Activity, part of the Communist Academy, Moscow, 1931. It is not immediately clear from their behavior to what extent they are philosophizing. (Image Source: Arkhiv Rossiiskoi Akademii Nauk, f. 350 op. 1. d. 1077 l. 15)

Such a remark might evoke Monty Python-esque images of a workday never begun, of materials left untouched on tables, as white-robed scientist-philosophers pace about the lab in anticipation of the eureka moment. Coming from Zalkind, however, these were words of praise. Soviet psychoneurologists frequently bemoaned and disparaged what they saw as the naïve empiricism of their Western scientific counterparts, their lack of theory, their reluctance to philosophize. And nowhere was this truer than at the Communist Academy, and its Society of Psychoneurologists-Materialists, formed in 1928 with the express goal of bringing ideological direction to the scientific study of psyche, brain and behavior, and of uniting the work of these sciences into a materialist, dialectical theory of the human.

But what was a materialist—let alone dialectical—theory of the psyche? The Soviet Union in this period saw some rather spectacular attempts at reductive explanations of the psyche through correlations in the structures of the brain. Most famously (or notoriously), a group of researchers at the Moscow Brain Institute spent several years cutting Lenin’s brain into thirty thousand little slices in search of the material substrate of his genius, and claimed to find it, at least in part, in an exceptional development of the pyramidal cells of the third layer of the cerebral cortex. Around the same time, the psychoneurologist Vladimir Bekhterev issued a proposal for a “Pantheon of the USSR,” a Pantheon of Brains, in which the brains of outstanding dead Soviet individuals would be displayed in glass cases, alongside their biographies and list of works, with accompanying diagrams and explanations to demonstrate the correlation between them. Such a Pantheon, Bekhterev suggested, would serve both to advance scientific understanding of the brain and psyche and as “propaganda for the materialist view on the development of creative human activity.” (V. M. Bekhterev, “O sozdanii panteona SSSR,” Izvestiia, June 19, 1927).

For all the fanfare of such endeavors—and they seem to have been greeted enthusiastically by both government and public—doubts remained. Bekhterev’s own brain, removed from his skull mere months after its proposal for the Pantheon (and intended, ironically, to be its first occupant), proved in death to be rather unremarkable, in mute defiance, as it were, of the ideas of its living predecessor, as if to say, ‘What, after all, is there to see here?’

Человек и Природа, 1929-02, П???????????? ?  Проблема анатомийеской основы одаренности и мозг В. И p. 16 cropped.jpg

The material substrate of his genius: microphotographs of slices of the brain of Lenin (right) and an “ordinary person” (left). From N. I. Prozorovskii, “Problema anatomicheskoi osnovy odarennosti i mozg V. I. Lenina,” Chelovek i priroda No. 2, 1929, p. 16.

The claims made of Lenin’s brain provoked skepticism as well. A discussion in the Presidium of the Communist Academy briefly considered whether it might be possible to put the brain back together again to subject it to other methods of study. “They’ve shredded it to smithereens,” one lamented, “the conclusions are negligible, and the brain is lost” (ARAN f. 350 op. 1 d. 188 ll. 36-39). More than mere empirical questions, there were conceptual concerns about the overly “mechanistic” understandings of the psyche that such explanations offered. Where in these big or small cells, to paraphrase one objection, was class consciousness? (ARAN f. 350 op. 1 d. 269 l. 8). Such research might be useful, it was argued, but was in need of ideological direction, a push toward more “dialectics.” They didn’t philosophize enough, it would seem, or they philosophized badly.

It was in the context of such concerns that, in late 1928 and early 1929, philosophers, psychologists, physiologists and others came together at the Society of Psychoneurologists-Materialists for a discussion between mechanists and dialecticians on the psychophysical problem. The transcripts remain preserved in the archive of the Communist Academy in Moscow (ARAN f. 350 op. 2 d. 337, 393). They make for dense and at times inscrutable reading; a full exegesis would require volumes. But a brief consideration might provide some insight into what—if anything—came of this meeting of minds and brains.

Comrade V. N. Sarab’ianov, a mechanist philosopher, gives the principal paper. Are our thoughts, or ideas, our sensations, he asks, material or not? When Marx says that “being determines consciousness,” does he mean to oppose consciousness to being, in the sense that consciousness is not being, is not objective, spatial, material? Absolutely, as Sarab’ianov affirms: he opposes them. That which in itself is objective, a physical act in the body, Sarab’ianov continues, , is for me subjective, a psychical act. To the disappointment of the reader, he then launches into a long disquisition on primary and secondary qualities, from Locke and Galileo to Plekhanov and Lenin. (Sarab’ianov’s preferred example, fitting for the circumstances, was the quality of red-ness). But his point, in effect, comes to this: subjective phenomena are immaterial and cannot be objectively observed, and the only path to an objective materialist science of the psyche is through what is directly observable in the body and behavior. The dialecticians’ attempts to treat the psyche as “objective being,” Sarab’ianov contends, prove essentially wrong-headed.

The dialecticians, in turn, counter that


What is there to see here? A cabinet full of brains in the Institute for the Study of Higher Nervous Activity, Moscow, 1931. (Image Source: Arkhiv Rossiiskoi Akademii Nauk, f. 350 op. 1. d. 1077 l. 18)

Sarab’ianov has confused the ontological problem with an epistemological one, and that the mechanists fail to understand, as one dialectician puts it, “the development of the world,” the emergence of new orders of lawfulness at different stages of development. The mechanists, they argue, conceive of the world only in terms of physical and mechanical forms of motion, and either attempt to reduce the psyche to primary elements, to the brain and physiology, or—what amounts to much the same—isolate consciousness from the world, and render it unintelligible. Either way, they are “unwitting idealists,” for they ignore the problem of the psyche as a distinct property of highly organized matter, as a distinct property of that specially organized piece of matter called the brain. The problem with the mechanists, the psychologist-dialectician Iu. V. Frankfurt asserts, is that they cannot imagine that matter can think. They fail to understand the brain as a thinking thing; they fail to understand the brain, he says, as a “thing in itself and for itself.”

Does any of this make any sense? Certainly, there is no eureka moment here—or in the discussion that follows—and indeed the prevailing sense is of an immense confusion. The psychophysical problem is not solved. Rather, what we begin to see is that they are in fact posing different questions. At the risk of stretching Frankfurt’s use of the term here (though not, I think, the stakes of a broader intervention), the problem of the brain ‘for-itself’ for the dialecticians was not, in the first instance, a question of matter and sensation, but of the possibility of conscious and purposeful action, of the active role of consciousness, as they liked to say, in human behavior. It was a problem of the place of the psyche in the world.

In this respect, we might begin to see how a push towards “dialectics” could point to a different approach to the brain, and to what a materialist explanation of the psyche would be. On one hand, it entailed a turn away from the physical and immediately observable as the privileged form of explaining the psyche: thinking the brain as a thinking thing, the demonstration of “substrates” and “correlates” in itself was of no explanation at all. On the other, it focused attention, above all, on the question of development, and the relation of the brain to the structure of consciousness. Posed in this way, the question to be answered was not one of how the brain produced ideas and sensations, but rather of why, of the role of thought and affect in conscious human activity. In this vein, a number of Soviet psychologists in these years would turn to evidence from the clinic, from child development, and even from socialist construction, to understand the development of specifically human higher psychological functions. As Alexander Luria would later say of the work done in this period by Lev Vygotsky (himself one of the participants in the psychophysical discussion), it was a question of how “history ties new functional knots in the cortex” (Luria, “L. S. Vygotsky and the Problem of Localization of Functions,” p. 391).

The fate of that research is a story for another time. The idea here is not that such attempts to rethink the brain came out of this one discussion, or even that they had much to do with dialectics as we might understand it. Rather, it is to consider how such attempts at “ideological direction” may have raised significant questions about what it is we can see, and what it is we explain, when we look at the brain—dead or alive. In this respect there is still perhaps some value in not only working experimentally, but also, sometimes, philosophizing. And, just maybe, in thinking historically as well.

Jamie Phillips is a Ph.D. candidate in modern European history at NYU. His dissertation examines the history of psychoneurology as a total science of the human in early twentieth century Russia, and its relation to the project of creating a ‘New Man.

Further reading:

For more on the dispute between the Mechanists and Dialecticians, see David Joravsky, Soviet Marxism and Natural Science, 1917-1932 (Routledge, 2009)

For lighter fare, join Joy Neumeyer as she takes A Visit to Moscow’s Brain Institute to explore what’s left of the Pantheon in a delightful article for Vice.


Prophetic Medicine in the Indian Yūnānī Tradition

by guest contributor Deborah Schlein

When Greek medical texts were transmitted and translated in the ʿAbbasid capital of Baghdad in the ninth and tenth centuries, they paved the way for original Arabic medical sources which built off Greek humoral theory (the four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile; in Arabic: dam, balgham, ṣafrāʾ, and sawdāʾ). The most famous of these sources is Ibn Sīnā’s (d. 1037) Qānūn, Latinized to Avicenna’s Canon. The Qānūn is often cited as the foundation of what became known as Yūnānī Ṭibb, or Greek medicine, hearkening back to its use of Greek humoral theory as the basis of aetiology, diagnosis, and treatment. With the movement and transmission of texts such as the Qānūn, the study and practice of Yūnānī Ṭibb flourished and adapted to new surroundings.

While Yūnānī medicine has a long history in the Islamic world, popular medicine also drew enthusiastically on other traditions. Practices included the use of amulets, local knowledge of flora and their medicinal properties, prayer, and al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī, or Prophetic medicine. This last is characterized by the use of folk remedies, medical traditions cited in the Qur’an, and, most notably, the use of medical ḥadīth, or sayings of the Prophet Muḥammad, which were collected in book form.

Both al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī and Yūnānī Ṭibb had a large following in the Islamic world, and still do to this day. India is a perfect example of the staying power of these kinds of medicine. When Yūnānī arrived in South Asia, scholars and intellectuals fleeing the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century brought with them medical knowledge based on Arabic sources, beginning a medical tradition which would adapt and thrive from the period of the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1516) into the modern day. Knowledge of al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī also accompanied these scholars to India. Today, Yūnānī colleges are supported by the Indian government, and medical practice in the region is a mixture of the traditions that flourished there, including Yūnānī, Ayurveda, al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī, and allopathy (often called Western medicine).

Yet, too often, the medical traditions are discussed separately, without mention of the ways in which they influenced one another, particularly in regard to Yūnānī‘s adoption of treatments from al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī. Even a cursory glance at the sources, however, can tell a reader how these medical traditions interacted and shaped each other over the centuries. A study of Yūnānī manuscripts and their reception gives a clearer picture of that mix of Yūnānī Ṭibb and al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī during such earlier periods as the Mughal empire, showing that the different bodies of knowledge in fact interacted.

One way to better understand the reception of these texts and the interactions of these medical traditions is to study the marginal notations in the premodern manuscripts. These notes are a window into the thoughts of the readers themselves: they refer to other medical sources, describe prescriptions the readers used and knew to be beneficial, and relate the realities of the medical traditions in practice. One single manuscript can have marginal notations with references to Galen, Ibn Sīnā, and the Prophet Muḥammad, all concerned, for example, with the best remedy for toothache. These notes, therefore, tell us a great deal about the usage and understanding of the text at hand.

The major medical encyclopedia of Najīb al-Dīn al-Samarqandī (d. 1222), al-Asbāb wa alʿ-ʿAlāmāt (The Causes and the Symptoms), and its attendant commentaries follow Yūnānī medical theory. Copies of both the commentaries and the original work number in the hundreds in the Indian manuscript collections, not far behind Ibn Sīnā’s Qānūn and its commentaries. Al-Samarqandī’s sources come from medical greats such as al-Rāzī (d. 925), al-Majūsī (d. 994), and, of course, Ibn Sīnā, but unlike the five-volume medical compendium that is the Qānūn, al-Samarqandī’s al-Asbāb wa al-ʿAlāmāt is a handbook of medical diagnoses and treatments that was meant for personal use, to be referred to and utilized in practice. Other medical scholars, such as Nafīs b. ʿIwad al-Kirmānī (flourished 1437) and Muḥammad Akbar Arzānī (flourished 1700) took up the text and wrote major commentaries on it, in Arabic and Persian respectively. I now turn to an Indian manuscript of al-Kirmānī’s Sharḥ [commentary of] al-Asbāb wa alʿ-ʿAlāmāt in an effort to shine light on the interactions of Yūnānī Ṭibb and al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī.

Al-Kirmānī dedicated this Sharḥ to his patron, the Timurid ruler Ulugh Beg, in whose royal court he was a physician. Copies of the Sharḥ can be found all over India, and are even more common in the region than al-Samarqandī’s original text, upon which the commentary is based. The Raza Library in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh holds six manuscripts of al-Kirmānī’s Sharḥ al-Asbāb wa alʿ-ʿAlāmāt, ranging in date from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries and covering the transition of power from the Mughals to the British Raj. One particular manuscript, No. 3999 (Raza Library, Acc. No. 4195 M), is an eighteenth-century copy of al-Kirmānī’s Sharḥ, and its margins are littered with explanations, prescriptions, and references to other medical sources, mostly in Arabic. While some notes offer quotes from Galen or Ibn Sīnā, others refer to the works of al-Samarqandī himself. What makes this manuscript important to the study of Yūnānī and Prophetic medicine’s interactions, however, are the many notations citing early Islamic and, in some cases, pre-Islamic medical advice.

The margins of fourteen folios exhibit references to the Prophet’s advice and actions in the realm of medical practice. These various ḥadīth are reported by a total of twelve different companions and members of the Prophet’s family, and they showcase Muḥammad’s own knowledge of the region’s flora and their medical benefits, as well as the traditional folk medicine of the Arabian peninsula. For example, the mid-point of al-Kirmānī’s Sharḥ advocates the use of medicaments to rid the body of excess fluid to relieve dhāt al-janb, or pleurisy, which is an inflammation of the tissue lining the lungs and the chest cavity. The marginal note on this page relates the report of Zayd b. Arqam, a companion of the Prophet, who says that Muḥammad named zayt (oil) and wars (memecylon tinctorium, a Yemenite dye-yielding plant) as treatment for pleurisy (MS. No. 3999, f. 166b). Similarly, while al-Kirmānī explains al-Samarqandī’s definition of kulf, or freckles, as localized changes of color in the face to shades of black or red, the ḥadīth states that Umm Salama, one of the wives of Muḥammad, related that the Prophet spoke of the use of wars (seemingly, a common medicament at the time) to coat the affected areas of the face in order to counteract these spots (MS. No. 3999, f. 336a). Here, these marginalia serve to underscore the accuracy of the lessons of the text’s author, but they also give more specificity to how the ailment should be treated.

One additional notation is worth noting because it predates Islam: it is attributed to Luqmān the Ḥakīm (literally, wise man), a pre-Islamic sage who is mentioned in the Qur’an. His treatments (Elaj-e-Lokmani, or “treatment of Lokman”) are still practiced today in an orally-transmitted medical tradition in Eastern India, particularly Bengal. Luqmān’s medical advice, like the ḥadīth of the Prophet, recalls the medicine practiced in Arabia at the time. The notation before the text begins prescribes a treatment using gharghara (a gargle) and julāb (julep, a fruit- or petal-infused drink) for problems originating in the stomach (f. 1a, MS 3999) and is written in Persian. The Arabic note following it describes the above treatment’s source, denoting Luqmān the Ḥakīm as its originator. This reference to a pre-Islamic sage’s medical advice brings to the fore the Arabian medicine upon which al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī is based. These references reveal the thoughts of the manuscript’s reader, and force the scholar to question the boxes to which these medical traditions have often been assigned.

It is clear that the early Arab medicine described by the Prophet, and practiced before and during his lifetime, was very much alive and influential throughout the time of Yūnānī medical manuscript production and study in India. The treatments explained in al-Kirmani’s Sharḥ must have reminded the reader of the Prophet’s own medical advice. He may have written these thoughts down as a memory aide, for future readers of the text, or to underscore the benefits of these remedies. Whatever the reasoning behind these notations, the margins of this particular Yūnānī manuscript show that there was an awareness of al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī in the study of Yūnānī Ṭibb, and the two were not at all mutually exclusive.

Deborah Schlein is a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. She is currently pursuing archival research in India with the support of a Fulbright-Nehru grant.

Malthus Redivivus/Malthus Revisited

by guest contributor E.G. Gallwey

In the history of ideas, the rate of population growth or decline has carried strong associations with the trajectories of societies and states. The eighteenth-century writer Thomas Robert Malthus’s principle of population has set the standard for discussion of the implications of demographic change, and placed the problem of scarcity at the center of human experience. For Malthus, scarcity of food (the limits to what could be produced from the earth’s resources), coupled with the continuous desire for sexual reproduction, was the abiding condition of human existence.


Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) by John Linnell (1834)

Malthus was not the first to talk about the implications of scarcity on economic life. But since his work was first published, he has been associated with a profoundly unfeeling attitude towards the fate of the poor. Thomas Carlyle branded political economy the “dismal science” on account of Malthus’s contention that human beings would always have to live within the limits of natural law, and that human attempts to alter natural law by schemes of improvement would most likely have negative long-term effects. Such views were largely a consequence of Malthus’s position relative to the social reform schemes championed by advocates of human plenty and invention who had developed their ideas in the context of the French Revolution, the pinnacle of Enlightenment optimism.

Just as scholars of the eighteenth century have done much to rehabilitate the tired and outdated picture of Adam Smith, Malthus’s reputation has been deemed ripe for re-evaluation. Coinciding with the 250th anniversary of Malthus’s birth and the publication of Joyce Chaplin and Alison Bashford’s exciting new book, The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus, a conference at Malthus’s alma mater, Jesus College, Cambridge on June 20-21 engaged in a substantial and timely reassessment of Malthus’ thought. Scholars from a range of disciplines, including history, political science, demography, and economics, gathered for the two-day meeting.

A series of panels on day one explored the historical origin, intention, reception, and propagation of Malthus’s thought from the eighteenth through to the twenty-first century. The opening session provided re-readings of Malthus’s principles in the context of the eighteenth century’s relationship to enlightenment and revolution and to European powers’ imperial expansion in the “new worlds” of the Americas and Pacific.

Joyce E. Chaplin’s paper on the reception history of Malthus’s thought demonstrated how the 1803 “Essay on Population” not only drew directly from new world societies in its evidence base, but also sought directly to engage in a debate about the future of colonial settler societies. Largely forgotten as a critic of imperial schemes of territorial conquest and settlement, Malthus cast serious doubt on the settler fantasy of a terra nullius in the ideology of settler imperialism. Instead, writing in the vein of Enlightenment universal histories, Malthus aimed to demonstrate how new world societies illustrated the limits of resources and the dangers of displacing indigenous populations from the land. Timing was fundamental, however, to the reception and circulation of Malthus’s work; and when the revolutions and subsequent independence of North and South American colonies, suggested the possibility of an escape from the dynamics and limits of the old world, the ensuing optimism resulted in a highly partial reading of Malthus.

Christopher Brooke’s paper reconstructed the possibility of Malthus’s unacknowledged debt to the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a relation deriving at least in part from the influence of Malthus’s father, a devoted follower of Rousseau. Though both Rousseau and Malthus have long been recognized as expounding influential theories of property relations, the latter has often been depicted as a theologically-driven theorist, engaged in formulating a theodicy for lapsarian man. Brooke instead placed Malthus within a tradition of thought initiated by Montesquieu and carried forward by Rousseau, wherein the question of population was part of a broader debate on the role of climate, the size and scale of states, and their relationship to the moral sentiments of the poor as much as the wealthy. Such republican concerns engendered an interest in the form of economic development most conducive to the stability of political regimes and to the maintenance of constitutional liberties.

Such an alternate reading of Malthus, placing him outside the traditional stress on his combative engagement with the progressive reformist schemes of Condorcet and Godwin, was echoed by Niall O’Flaherty in his paper on Malthus’s approach to the amelioration of poverty. Situating his ideas within Enlightenment debates about the stadial progress and poverty of nations. O’Flaherty identified Malthus’ scientific arguments on the elements of European culture which had alleviated some of the worst population checks, suffered by earlier more primitive societies. Malthus was influenced by Adam Smith and William Paley in his utilitarian analysis of the conditions for the improvement of the poor, including his account of self-love and the role of decent and useful pride in encouraging prudence.

Alison Bashford provided a powerful explanation for Malthus’s curious non-engagement with the question of slavery, even as the multiple editions of the essay spanned the course of the debate on abolition. Citing archival evidence on the Malthus family’s involvement in a protracted legal dispute over the inheritance of a Jamaican plantation, Bashford helped contextualize the omission, which was particularly glaring given the economic significance of the Caribbean colonies in the British empire—a fact of which Malthus, as professor of political economy at the East India Company’s own college, could hardly have been unaware.

The afternoon session considered Malthus’s influence on the trajectory of economic thought and analysis in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Gareth Stedman Jones addressed the afterlife of Malthusian thought in the socialist circles of utopianism and early Marxism. Though Malthus’ thinking on the the poor evoked vituperative responses from radicals like William Godwin and the later Owenites, Stedman Jones pointed toward some important areas of synergy. These included the preponderance of mind over matter in Malthus and Godwin’s account of human nature and the contribution of Malthus’ theory to Marx’s own writing on the declining rate of profit.

This latter point formed a nice transition into Duncan Kelly’s assessment of John Maynard Keynes’s engagement with Malthusian thought. Keynes himself pursued a substantial reassessment of Malthus’s legacy, including an adumbration on the greater advantages to the development of nineteenth-century political economy if the science had followed Malthusian rather than Ricardian logic. Many of the key problems Keynes tackled in his formal economic work, as well as his polemical and political writing, drew on Malthus’s originality in thinking about deficiency in demand and economic cycles: the usefulness, in macro terms, of public-works projects in depression-hit economies. Kelly explained how the connection between social reform, eugenics, and human agency in Keynes’s mature thought intended to address intergenerational justice and the quality of states’ populations, over the traditional geopolitical concern to boost population numbers as an assurance of national strength.

Three final papers by Leigh Shaw-Taylor, Richard Smith, and Paul Warde tested Malthus’ claims against the evidence of centuries of economic and demographic change in England. There followed a public lecture, in which E.A. Wrigely provided a thorough recapitulation of the close link between Malthus’s observations on the laws guiding the behavior of land, labor, and capital and his theory of human nature. He concluded with an observation on the irony of Malthus’s theory governing the limits to growth of organic economies having been brought forth just as human societies began to discover new forms of energy which would revolutionize economic production.

The shifting perspectives of the past, present, and future on the question of scarcity and the morals and politics of human agency were frequently addressed on day two of the conference. The series of panels brought a more contemporary and global focus, though historical treatments of the role of Malthusian language and traditions of thought in the politics and economics of international development allowed for important critiques of the application of Malthusianism in non-western settings. Much of the discussion in the morning centered on how mid-twentieth-century anxieties over an impending food crisis drew on a neo-Malthusian revival. The role of states and of non-governmental institutions like the Rockefeller Foundation, and the revival of disciplines like demography, spurred a renewed interest in earth’s carrying capacity and the damage being done by the manipulation of new technologies in botany and human fertility.

The concluding panel offered a vivid sense of the way in which climate change has replaced food crisis as the dominating concern of the twenty-first century. Yet the origins of ecology and climate science, and even key concepts like the anthropocene, can be understood to have borrowed much from Malthusian thinking. Indeed, the application of temporal and geographic scale in understanding the direction of human and planetary history is by no means the only legacy Malthus imparted to his readers.

E.G. Gallwey is a PhD candidate in American History at Harvard University. Her dissertation research explores the intellectual history of political and economic thought in the long eighteenth century, with a focus on republican debates over public credit in the revolutionary Atlantic.