history of science

Dispatches from Princeton’s History of Science Colloquium: Jutta Schickore’s “Contributions to a History of Experimental Controls”

By Guest Contributor Alison McManus

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Prof. Jutta Schickore

Princeton’s History of Science Colloquium series recently welcomed Jutta Schickore, professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University, to present a talk titled, “Contributions to a History of Experimental Controls.” In addition to her position at Indiana University, Schickore is a member of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study for the 2017–18 academic year. As I listened to her talk earlier this month, I found myself fully immersed in uncharted territory. Experimental controls are themselves an under-studied problem, but Schickore’s attention to the practice of experimental controls rendered her project a truly novel intervention. Though her project remains in its early stages of development, it no doubt pinpoints the need to historicize the “controlled experiment,” and it lays further claim to the established strategy of examining experimenters’ practical concerns prior to grand scientific theories.

 

 

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John Stuart Mill

Schickore’s scholarship is better defined by theme than by scientific discipline. Her previous monographs examine the long history of the microscope (2007) and a yet longer history of snake venom research from the seventeenth to the twentieth century (2017). Both monographs emphasize debates about scientific method, and the latter is particularly attentive to nonlinear, contingent methodological developments, which stem from the intricacies of experimental work rather than unified theory. Schickore’s current project extends this approach to new territory. Despite their manifest importance to scientific work, experimental controls have rarely been a topic of inquiry for historians and philosophers of science. The unique exception is Edward Boring’s 1954 paper in the American Journal of Psychology, in which he distinguished between colloquial and scientifically rigorous uses of the term “control.” In a further move, he identified John Stuart Mill’s “method of difference” as the first notion of a controlled experiment, a concept that Mill outlined in A System of Logic (1843). Boring’s identification of a theoretical rather than experimental origin of “control” reflects the state of the field prior to the “material turn” of the 1990s, and the time has come to integrate the controlled experiment into studies of scientific practice.

 

Even with a precise definition of the term, any effort to identify the first controlled experiment will likely end in failure. Probing the origins of the term’s modern popularity is a far more productive exercise. A preliminary Google search indicates that the term rose to prominence in late nineteenth-century scientific scholarship, and the same is true of its German counterpart (Kontrollversuch/Controllversuch). In order to identify the roots of its popularity, Schickore selects case studies from ostensibly marginal German agricultural field trials nearly one century before the “controlled experiment” took a prominent position in the scientific literature.

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Wilhelm August Lampadius

The German pharmacists Sigismund Friedrich Hermbstädt and Wilhelm August Lampadius both sought to apply their chemical expertise toward agricultural production in the early nineteenth century. Both men had engaged with Lavoisier’s chemistry in their work, albeit to differing degrees. Whereas Lampadius was a staunch advocate of Lavoisier’s theory, Hermbstädt remained closer to the German chemical tradition, despite having published translations of Lavoisier’s work. Hermbstädt and Lampadius conducted near-contemporaneous field trials on fertilizer, both seeking to minimize product loss and thereby improve Germany’s economic position. However, theirs and others’ experiments reveal an inconsistent, multivalent use of the term “control.” Schickore notes that “control” occasionally served its now-familiar function as an unmanipulated unit of comparison, as in the case of Hermbstädt’s comparative category of “infertile land.” Yet Hermbstädt and Lampadius also used the concept in conjunction with other management terms. A third notion of control emerged as improved apparatuses for organic analysis began to circulate in the mid-nineteenth century. In addition to making Lavoisier’s approach less costly for agricultural scientists, these novel instruments enabled scientists to perform repeat analyses and apply different analytic methods to the same problem.

 

 

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Sigismund Friedrich Hermbstädt. Line engraving by G. A. Lehmann, 1808 (Wellcome Collection).

To add to this already complex terrain of meanings, Schickore notes that even in its most familiar scientific usage, the controlled experiment poses an implicit epistemological problem. When designing an experiment, each researcher must select which features shall remain unmanipulated, according to their own worldview. In the case of Hermbstädt’s experiments, his aforementioned category of “infertile land” meant land devoid of organic matter—a reflection of his vitalist notion of plant nutrition. Schickore’s observations identify a dire need to historicize both the text and the subtext of experimental controls.

 

The experience of my young career has led me to approach historical questions with a sort of inverse Occam’s razor, which holds that the more nuanced and heterogeneous causal accounts are the better ones. By turning away from theorists’ concerns and engaging instead with experimenters’ array of pragmatic preoccupations, the historian of science vastly expands her sites of methodological and conceptual production. Given Hermbstädt’s and Lampadius’s keen sensitivity to economic exigencies and technological innovation, I imagine that the larger field of nineteenth-century European agricultural science also developed its methods in conjunction with site-specific economic and instrumental circumstances. Schickore’s approach promises to extract a fruitful bounty of experimental practices from this uneven terrain of pragmatic concerns.

Alison McManus is a Ph.D. student in History of Science at Princeton University, where she studies twentieth-century chemical sciences. She is particularly interested in the development and deployment of chemical weapons technologies.

Review Essay: Caomhánach on Hamlin, Milam, and Schiebinger

By Contributing Editor Nuala F. Caomhánach

Kimberly A. Hamlin. From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Erika Lorraine Milam. Looking for a Few Good Males: Female Choice in Evolutionary Biology. Animals, History, Culture. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

Londa Schiebinger. Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004.

Although women were excluded from the biological sciences, women were very much on the minds and the scientific research of the men who excluded them. The three books under review explore gender and natural history in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American and European society. I argue that the books form a triad of analytically distinct interlocking pieces about the construction of sexual difference as a means of excluding women from the public sphere and science.  The authors use the categories of science, class and gender, not because they perceive them as natural, but because they recognize that these categories form lines of historical power. Hamlin’s From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America (2014) examines how American feminists responded to and integrated Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory in Gilded Age America. Milam’s Looking for a Few Good Males: Female Choice in Evolutionary Biology (2010) presents the history of post-Darwin biological research on the concept of female choice, showing how men were mediators between biology as a body of knowledge and society. Schiebinger’s Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science explores how the gender-binary has molded biology since the eighteenth century. This triad demonstrates how science reinforced the binary of gender and created associated traits, how science is not external to culture but forms a symbiotic relationship that reflects societal and political order, and how biology “is not value neutral but participates in and continues to support scientific knowledge that is highly gendered” (Schiebinger x).

Sexual Difference and the Rank of Woman

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Londa Schiebinger, Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science (New Brunswick, 2004).

Schiebinger argues that “scientific sexism” (xi), related to the concepts of the masculine and feminine, co-evolved with the emergence of modern biology. She shows the roots of sexual difference as being created by elite men who “read nature through the lens of social relations” (17).  When Hamlin’s Darwinian feminists challenged, and Milam’s (male) biologists tackled this sexual difference, they provide additional support for Schiebinger’s argument that the gender binary had become fully ingrained into society. Schiebinger explains how Linnaeus’s Systema naturae (1735) created a hierarchical system of the natural world. Although contemporary naturalists recognized his scheme being artificial, he placed female traits (pistils) into the rank of order and male traits (stamens) into the rank of class. In the “taxonomic tree of life”, order was subordinate to class (Schiebinger 17). In taxonomy, traits mattered; Linnaeus prioritized male traits for identification. Schiebinger argues that Linnaeus had “ no empirical justification” (17) for this decision and here lay the origins of gendering science.

For Hamlin, the Bible created the gender binary. Hamlin argues that the biblical creation narrative, for Darwinian feminists, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was “the single most powerful barrier to female equality” (49). The legacy of Eve had shaped conceptions of womanhood. When Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871) were published, these texts enabled woman’s rights activists to upend traditional ideas about gender roles. Hamlin shows how Darwin’s Origin provided the ideal “ballast” to fight this legacy by offering an alternative narrative of human origins (52). This new theory enabled woman’s rights activists to use objective science to subvert the assumptions that women were created from Adam’s rib and, therefore, subordinate to men.

Milam argues that Darwin’s sexual selection theory was “built on his assumptions about normative relations between men and women” (10). Darwin argued that the “psychological continuity of all animal life” proved sexual difference and supplied the reason why women were intellectually inferior to men (Milam 11). Darwin applied Victorian gender roles to nature, suggesting that females were “less eager” to mate and acted “coy” and “passive” to the aggressive, hypersexualised male (Milam 15). As males competed for females, females chose males. This implied a “rational choice-based behaviour” (1) of aesthetics which required an intelligent mind and “in such cerebral evaluations lay the problem” (15).  Biologists were hesitant to ascribe to animal minds this cognitive ability and reframed female choice as a reaction to male dominance. The female body, thus,  became the site of analysis.

Animal-Human Kinship and the Female Body

Schiebinger demonstrates how the masculine morphology in humans became representative of the normal form and the feminine an anomaly. Linnaeus delimited hairy, lactating quadrupeds as being mammals (Mammalia); at first this seems to invert Schiebinger’s argument but she shows how this descriptor did not elevate the feminine. It was a patriarchal lesson for women to return to their natural functions, such as breastfeeding and motherhood. As naturalists became obsessed with the primate order— Linnaeus coined the term “primates,” meaning “of the first rank,” in 1758 (Schiebinger 78)—they reinforced notions of sexual difference along the animal-human continuum.  Schiebinger argues that a focus on female primates’ primary and secondary characteristics advanced the masculine form as rational and intellectually superior. Milam explains that the biologist’s model of the female assumed they were naturally passive and always  “needed stimulation to persuade them to mate” (34). Biologists never questioned the male-female binary. The research of scientists Vernon Kellogg, Julian Huxley, and the Fisher-Haldane-Wright triumvirate rarely focused on female choice because they felt that Darwin’s natural selection theory sufficiently explained female-male interactions.

Hamlin explains how this animal-human kinship model supported Darwinian feminists’ demand for the equitable division of household labor, “fit pregnancy” (98), and ability to work outside the home because gendered differences did not characterize the animal kingdom. Hamlin shows how Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Antoinette Brown Blackwell declared the separate-spheres ideology a man-made construct. When Darwinian feminists argued that women as mothers could improve the genetic stock of the human species, it became a powerful tool for women to claim a natural right to reproductive autonomy. Hamlin notes that Margaret Sanger’s fight for autonomy over the female body and her birth control movement was shaped by these popular discussions. Milam shows how biology was intrinsically at odds with popular discussions of evolutionary theory.  Biologists and physiologists struggled to frame female choice, and thus they dismissed it as a viable mechanism in nature because females were limited in cognitive ability.

Science as a Male Pursuit

Hamlin shows how science became an “unwitting ally” (17) for Darwinian feminists and states that it metamorphosed into a “sexist science” as it increasingly “professionalized and masculinized” (59). Schiebinger, however, finds that science was always exclusionary. Schiebinger shows that botany was considered suitable for upper-class women, but they did not have the ability to shape biology.  Hamlin argues that women did shape science. Blackwell and Helen Hamilton Gardener tried to redefine the female “mind-body dualism” by asserting their distrust in the research findings of male scientists (59). Blackwell suggested that women needed to create the “science of feminine humanity” (60) because to study female bodies “one must turn to women themselves” (62). As science gained more cultural authority, Hamlin argues, Darwinian feminists played an active role in shaping science because they rejected biological determinism and demanded accurate research. Milam’s book provides historical evidence that biology was a male pursuit and women were always excluded.

Conclusion

These authors show that biology is not a neutral practice but emerges from complex cultural and political networks. They are impressive books that shed light on the development of modern biology and the popularization of evolutionary science by dethroning notions of objectivity in science, providing  a significant contribution to gender and science studies.

What has Athens to do with London? Plague.

By Editor Spencer J. Weinreich

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Map of London by Wenceslas Hollar, c.1665

It is seldom recalled that there were several “Great Plagues of London.” In scholarship and popular parlance alike, only the devastating epidemic of bubonic plague that struck the city in 1665 and lasted the better part of two years holds that title, which it first received in early summer 1665. To be sure, the justice of the claim is incontrovertible: this was England’s deadliest visitation since the Black Death, carrying off some 70,000 Londoners and another 100,000 souls across the country. But note the timing of that first conferral. Plague deaths would not peak in the capital until September 1665, the disease would not take up sustained residence in the provinces until the new year, and the fire was more than a year in the future. Rather than any special prescience among the pamphleteers, the nomenclature reflects the habit of calling every major outbreak in the capital “the Great Plague of London”—until the next one came along (Moote and Moote, 6, 10–11, 198). London experienced a major epidemic roughly every decade or two: recent visitations had included 1592, 1603, 1625, and 1636. That 1665 retained the title is due in no small part to the fact that no successor arose; this was to be England’s outbreak of bubonic plague.

Serial “Great Plagues of London” remind us that epidemics, like all events, stand within the ebb and flow of time, and draw significance from what came before and what follows after. Of course, early modern Londoners could not know that the plague would never return—but they assuredly knew something about its past.

Early modern Europe knew bubonic plague through long and hard experience. Ann G. Carmichael has brilliantly illustrated how Italy’s communal memories of past epidemics shaped perceptions of and responses to subsequent visitations. Seventeenth-century Londoners possessed a similar store of memories, but their plague-time writings mobilize a range of pasts and historiographical registers that includes much more than previous epidemics or the history of their own community: from classical antiquity to the English Civil War, from astrological records to demographic trends. Such richness accords with the findings of the formidable scholarly phalanx investigating “the uses of history in early modern England” (to borrow the title of one edited volume), which informs us that sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English people had a deep and sophisticated sense of the past, instrumental in their negotiations of the present.

Let us consider a single, iconic strand in this tapestry: invocations of the Plague of Athens (430–26 B.C.E.). Jacqueline Duffin once suggested that writing about epidemic disease inevitably falls prey to “Thucydides syndrome” (qtd. in Carmichael 150n41). In the centuries since the composition of the History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides’s hauntingly vivid account of the plague (II.47–54) has influenced writers from Lucretius to Albert Camus. Long lost to Latin Christendom, Thucydides was slowly reintegrated into Western European intellectual history beginning in the fifteenth century. The first (mediocre) English edition appeared in 1550, superseded in 1628 with a text by none other than Thomas Hobbes. For more than a hundred years, then, Anglophone readers had access to Thucydides, while Greek and Latin versions enjoyed a respectable, if not extraordinary, popularity among the more learned.

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Michiel Sweerts, Plague in an Ancient City (1652), believed to depict the Plague of Athens

In 1659, the churchman and historian Thomas Sprat, booster of the Royal Society and future bishop of Rochester, published The Plague of Athens, a Pindaric versification of the accounts found in Thucydides and Lucretius. Sprat’s Plague has been convincingly interpreted as a commentary on England’s recent political history—viz., the Civil War and the Interregnum (King and Brown, 463). But six years on, the poem found fresh relevance as England faced its own “too ravenous plague” (Sprat, 21).The savvy bookseller Henry Brome, who had arranged the first printing, brought out two further editions in 1665 and 1667. Because the poem was prefaced by the relevant passages of Hobbes’s translation, an English text of Thucydides was in print throughout the epidemic. It is of course hardly surprising that at moments of epidemic crisis, the locus classicus for plague should sell well: plague-time interest in Thucydides is well-attested before and after 1665, in England and elsewhere in Europe.

But what does the Plague of Athens do for authors and readers in seventeenth-century London? As the classical archetype of pestilence, it functions as a touchstone for the ferocity of epidemic disease and a yardstick by which the Great Plague could be measured. The physician John Twysden declared, “All Ages have produced as great mortality and as great rebellion in Diseases as this, and Complications with other Diseases as dangerous. What Plague was ever more spreading or dangerous than that writ of by Thucidides, brought out of Attica into Peloponnesus?” (111–12).

One flattering rhymester welcomed Charles II’s relocation to Oxford with the confidence that “while Your Majesty, (Great Sir) shines here, / None shall a second Plague of Athens fear” (4). In a less reassuring vein, the societal breakdown depicted by Thucydides warned England what might ensue from its own plague.

Perhaps with that prospect in mind, other authors drafted Thucydides as their ally in catalyzing moral reform. The poet William Austin (who was in the habit of ruining his verses by overstuffing them with classical references) seized upon the Athenians’ passionate devotions in the face of the disaster (History, II.47). “Athenians, as Thucidides reports, / Made for their Dieties new sacred courts. / […] Why then wo’nt we, to whom the Heavens reveal / Their gracious, true light, realize our zeal?” (86). In a sermon entitled The Plague of the Heart, John Edwards enlisted Thucydides in the service of his conceit of a spiritual plague that was even more fearsome than the bubonic variety:

The infection seizes also on our memories; as Thucydides tells us of some persons who were infected in that great plague at Athens, that by reason of that sad distemper they forgot themselves, their friends and all their concernments [History, II.49]. Most certain it is that by the Spirituall infection men forget God and their duty. (8)

Not dissimilarly, the tailor-cum-preacher Richard Kingston paralleled the plague with sin. He characterizes both evils as “diffusive” (23–24) citing Thucydides to the effect that the plague began in Ethiopia and moved thence to Egypt and Greece (II.48).

On the supposition that, medically speaking, the Plague of Athens was the same disease they faced, early modern writers treated it as a practical precedent for prophylaxis, treatment, and public health measures. Thucydides was one of several classical authorities cited by the Italian theologian Filiberto Marchini to justify open-field burials, based on their testimony that wild animals shunned plague corpses (Calvi, 106). Rumors of plague-spreading also stoked interest in the History, because Thucydides records that the citizens of Piraeus believed the epidemic arose from the poisoning of wells (II.48; Carmichael, 149–50).

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Peter Paul Rubens, Hippocrates (1638)

It should be noted that Thucydides was not the only source for early modern knowledge about the Plague of Athens. One William Kemp, extolling the preventative virtues of moderation, tells his readers that it was temperance that preserved Socrates during the disaster (58–59). This anecdote comes not from Thucydides, but Claudius Aelianus, who relates of the philosopher’s constitution and moderate habits, “[t]he Athenians suffered an epidemic; some died, others were close to death, while Socrates alone was not ill at all” (Varia historia, XIII.27, trans. N. G. Wilson). (Interestingly, 1665 saw the publication of a new translation of the Varia historia.) Elsewhere, Kemp relates how Hippocrates organized bonfires to free Athens of the disease (43), a story that originates with the pseudo-Galenic On Theriac to Piso, but probably reached England via Latin intermediaries and/or William Bullein’s A Dialogue Against the Fever Pestilence (1564). Hippocrates’s name, and supposed victory over the Plague of Athens, was used to advertise cures and preventatives.

 

With the exception of Sprat—whose poem was written in 1659—these are all fleeting references, but that is in some sense the point. The Plague of Athens, Thucydides, and his History had entered the English imaginary, a shared vocabulary for thinking about epidemic disease. To quote Raymond A. Anselment, Sprat’s poem (and other invocations of the Plague of Athens) “offered through the imitation of the past an idea of the present suffering” (19). In the desperate days of 1665–66, the mere mention of Thucydides’s name, regardless of the subject at hand, would have been enough to conjure the specter of the Athenian plague.

Whether or not one built a public health plan around “Hippocrates’s” example, or looked to the History of the Peloponnesian War as a guide to disease etiology, the Plague of Athens exerted an emotional and intellectual hold over early modern English writers and readers. In part, this was merely a sign of the times: sixteenth-century Europeans were profoundly invested in the past as a mirror for and guide to the present and the future. In England, the Great Plague came at the height of a “rage for historical parallels” (Kewes, 25)—and no corner of history offered more distinguished parallels than classical antiquity.

And let us not undersell the affective power of such parallels. The value of recalling past plagues was the simple fact of their being past. Awful as the Plague of Athens had been, it had eventually passed, and Athens still stood. Looking backwards was a relief from a present dominated by the epidemic, and from the plague’s warped temporality: the interruption of civic and liturgical rhythms and the ordinary cycle of life and death. Where “an epidemic denies time itself” (Calvi, 129–30), history restores it, and offers something like orientation—even, dare we say, hope.

 

A Story of Everything

By guest contributor Nuala F. Caomhánach

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Nasser Zakariya, A Final Story: Science, Myth, and Beginnings (University of Chicago Press, 2017)

In his A Final Story: Science, Myth, and Beginnings (2017), Nasser Zakariya pries open a Latourian black box to reveal how natural philosophers and later scientists constructed “scientific epics” using four possible  “genres of synthesis”—historic, fabular, scalar, foundational—to frame all branches of scientific knowledge. Their totalizing aspirations displaced outliers, contradictions, and obstructions to elevate a universal, global history of the universe. Zakariya highlights the paradox of the process of science from the 1830s to the present.  He shows how the parallel forces of narration and scientific explanatory methods merely continued to confirm discursive, epistemological and ontological pluralism. The desire to tame this pluralism legitimized the boundaries of science through pedagogy, priority and authority. A panel of historians recently met to discuss the book at New York University, including the author (UC, Berkeley), Myles Jackson (NYU), Hent de Vries (NYU), and Marwa Elshakry (Columbia University), moderated by Stefanos Geroulanos (NYU) (an audio recording of the event is available above).

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Prof. Myles Jackson (NYU)

Jackson agreed that the invention of a myth or tradition “usually deals with origin stories and tend to be universal.” Tradition “result[s] from some sort of conflict, or debate, shaken identity, boundary dispute and…[has] a moral dimension.” Jackson emphasized how critical the 1820s and 1830s proved as science began to specialize alongside the invention of the term ‘scientist’ (1834) by William Whewell. He wholeheartedly agreed with Zakariya’s interpretation that for such natural philosophers as John Herschel, the “scientific context is irrelevant, precisely because science is universal.” Jackson elaborated on the conflictual divisions between artisans and natural philosophers whereby makers of scientific instrumentation—crucial for advances in science—were denied the status of philosophers themselves.  This division proved social, cultural and political at the turn of the nineteenth century, as knowledge became commodified, and natural philosophers legitimized their role as creators and curators of science. Jackson mapped out the “contextual moral” for this transition, and pointed to the Industrial Revolution and its effects on Handwerk and Kopfwerk. Natural philosophers insisted that artisans “should reveal their secrets so that their knowledge could be managed and applied universally, a great Enlightenment trope.” Their interest in economic efficiency focussed on replacing artisan skills and human calculators with controllable machines. For these natural philosophers “the key was the unity of science serving as models for other forms of knowledge.” Yet, as Jackson concluded, “there is an ethics for scientific imperative….the usefulness of useless knowledge….a moral argument that we must do it because it is about knowledge itself.”

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Prof. Nasser Zakariya (UC Berkeley)

Zakariya agreed that there are “still richer contexts” in the analysis of “matters of material practices.” He acknowledged that his actors “were deeply engaged in reconstruction of both technical craft they were working through, and the theorization of that technical craft.” Discourse drew Zakariya away from material practice, toward his actors’ resistance to a historical synthesis. Their anxieties rested with who they imagined had the expertise to undertake this synthesis. Therefore, the synthesis “starts to construct… despite their democratizing impulses… a particular kind of elite that will carry out that democratization.” For Herschel, an author like Alexander von Humboldt in his Kosmos suggested that “if [synthesis] were possible… people like Humboldt [were the philosophers] to do it and yet we find Humboldt is insufficient to be able to do this.” For Zakariya, the discursive maneuvers in trying to articulate “what is and what is not possible” within these genres is at stake. His actors are not stating that synthesis is not possible, only that a historical narrative of the universe was not possible.

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Prof. Hent de Vries (NYU)

For de Vries what is at stake is contemporary scholarship that has returned to the “age-old appeal to myth.” He met Zakariya‘s use of the term “myth” with suspicion, albeit agreeing with its premise. Zakariya echoed Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s concerns in Dialectic of Enlightenment by arguing that “[J]ust as myths already entail enlightenment, with every step enlightenment entangles itself more deeply in mythology. Receiving all its subject matter from myths, in order to destroy them, it falls as judge under the spell of myth” (10). Myth and enlightenment co-evolve into a constricting knot, despite the notion that the foundation of the inductive sciences was based on “the rejection of tradition, mythic authority” (10). With additional knowledge of the physical and natural world, de Vries pointed out the possibility “that there is “a final story” to be told about the emergence of the frames or “genres for synthesizing” knowledge in question.” He emphasized this as “a meta- or mega-narrative, a myth of myth” but problematized that final theories of stories “offer just that” because they are built on  “empirical finalities that are… particular, not general and decidedly partial, but also on account of a fundamental, call it transcendentally grounded, incompleteness, of sorts.” “Or is it?” he asked.

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Prof. Marwa Elshakry (Columbia)

Elshakry also probed at Zakariya’s categories of “myth”, “epic” and “universal histories,” out of “genuine curiosities.” She found the main tension was conceptual, not semantic, and was “connected ultimately to [the] alpha and omega of universal history, with myth concerning ultimately and uncomfortably the notion of final ends [and] epic… primarily a concern with origins.”  The quest of the scientists as they vacillated  “between the known and unknown” is to begin to recognize that “this very heroic quest” may also reveal the “story of self-destruction rather than point the way to cures and wonders or the idea that being human… engages us in an extended historical  process of self-destruction.” She wondered about the logic behind the pursuit of “scientific realism as a Hegelian process of negation and  death.” Surely this pursuit suggested that humans can “induce and deduce our own ultimate species death and extinction… and yet we cannot.” Therefore, there was an inherent tension between “the secular humanist order and a sacred one.” She concluded with a tantalizing question “what is the final story—if in our own minds own science narratives or cosmic epics, come up with a good origin, but [we seem in our] collective species being imaginaries incapable of dealing with the problem of death itself.”

Zakariya tackled these questions eloquently. He explained how these scientists did not endorse myth uncritically, acknowledging their awareness of the paradoxes they had adopted. This paradox was a “tendency to have this eruption of a kind of mythic status to the project of knowledge, despite the project of knowledge seeing itself often as undercutting the grounds upon myth stands.” These natural philosophers’ and scientists’ totalizing ambitions forced them to question the very axioms with which the framework was constructed. Zakariya noted the constant reinscription “of the work of doing the totalizing” as these men argued that science was the most effective and natural discipline to tell this scientific epic. Their frameworks were limitless, but as they enlarged these structures, the edges became frayed, and they were forced to brood over questions that “[brought] us back to critiques of reason.”

In response to Elshakry, Zakariya revealed that she had uncovered “a number of elements [he] hadn’t quite thought about.” In answer, he discussed Hermann von Helmholtz ‘s views on the idea of universal history. In a period where thermodynamics was emerging around the contradictory concepts of entropy, enthalpy, and conservation, it began to reflect the impossibility of an infinitely old universe. By integrating thermodynamics into a scientific epic, Helmholtz realised that one must “bear up to this idea that it spells a conclusion of ourselves.” Similarly, these epics, for Zakariya, “forc[e] us to dwell on our mortality as a species.”

This book is a must for scholars in both the sciences and the humanities. Zakariya’s intervention, fusing the physical, natural and human histories, shows how the historical narrative in epic form was not self-evident, and a “strict chronology was not the ultimate arbiter” (126). Political contexts and contests influenced competing worldviews of humanity, the Earth, and the universe, in the professional and the public sphere. He demonstrates how a scientific worldview grows from the kind of questions asked, how these physical and metaphysical spaces are symbiotic, complementing and contradicting at the same moment, and how many universes can emerge. At the core of this narrative is a selection of personalities, from Mary Somerville to Steven Weinberg, who oversaw the totalizing visions circulating between professional and popular epics. As they shoe-horned these visions into a single narrative, some made the synthesis, many others sank, and some were transformed, leaving behind the forces, traces, and circumstances they had come up against. Slowly, the “suburban position of humanity and the earth” revealed the real limits of science (313). In this anxiety, the voice of the scientists metamorphosed into the only voice for the planet itself, thus claiming hegemony over the history of the universe.  The reader travels through Zakariya’s mindfully researched and vividly written tales of the attempt to stage the construction of a whole of knowledge, of everything. Thus, “whatever the future condition of species being and knowing, the universal human story must be maintained in the generic form of an epic” (339).

Nuala F. Caomhanach is a Ph.D. student in the History Department at New York University, and research associate in the Invertebrate Zoology Department at the American Museum of Natural History.

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.

 

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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).

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.).

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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
locomotion:

  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).
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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.