About Etienne

Historian of science, technology, animals, and the environment.

Unbearable Future

Unbearable Future,” Limn 3, Sentinel Devices (2013).benson_polarbear_72-220x293

I wrote this piece in response to an invitation by Frédérick Keck and Andy Lakoff to contribute to a special issue of the new online/print magazine Limn on the idea of “sentinels,” i.e., what Keck and Lakoff describe in their preface to the issue as “signs of an ominous and rapidly encroaching future.”

Polar bears recently have come to symbolize the threat posed by anthropogenic climate change to biodiversity, or even to nature writ large. My very brief article is an attempt to understand the roots of this development by going back to a moment in the 1960s when there was also great alarm about the polar bear’s fate, but when the main culprits were hunting and Arctic development rather than melting ice.

This understanding of threat launched the construction of what one politician at the time described as a “machinery for the future” that would monitor the status of the polar bear. Much has changed since then, I argue, but many of the basic assumptions about the future, risk, and the human impact on nature remain the same. (The U.S. polar bear trophy import program that I have mapped here can be seen both as a result and a component of this machinery.)

Many of the other pieces in the issue focus on the use of animals as sentinels; see for example Chloe Silverman on bees, Adriana Petryna on swallows, Hannah Landecker on experimental rodents, Ann H. Kelly on mosquitoes, Christelle Gramaglia on shellfish, Frédérick Keck on poultry, and Lyle Fearnley on waterfowl.

All of these articles (as well as the non-animal-related pieces) are well worth checking out, as are the previous two Limn issues on “Crowds and Clouds” and “Systemic Risk.”

‘a microscope in the field is worth two in the lab’

NikonH1968
From the archives … though unfortunately I can’t remember which, and the photocopy I have of this ad for the Nikon H “hand or field microscope” only indicates the date of publication: April 1968.

The man’s clothing seems more appropriate to the office than to the field (or the lab, for that matter), but I suppose the rolled sleeves indicate that he is “at work.”

I don’t think you could find a clearer illustration of the twentieth-century effort to bring lab-like instrumentation and rigor to field biology. Of course, most biologists didn’t approach the “lab in the field” with such literal-mindedness.

According to this account by Bill Amos, the Nikon H, which was only on the market for a few years, was based on a field-microscope design from the 1930s.

Click the image for a larger version with legible text.

science under scrutiny

Reposting below an overview of some of my work on endangered species, regulation, and ethics, which I wrote in December 2012 for the web site of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. Original version is here.

Science under Scrutiny: How Endangered Species Protection Reshaped Twentieth-Century Field Biology

Since the 1970s, studies that involve attaching radio-tags to whales and other wild animals have been subject to rigorous ethical and environmental regulations. Photograph by Brandon Southall. Courtesy U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Since the 1970s, studies that involve attaching radio-tags to whales and other wild animals have been subject to rigorous ethical and environmental regulations. Photograph by Brandon Southall. Courtesy U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Scientists played a central role in the emergence of a movement to protect endangered species from extinction in the twentieth century. This movement, in turn, reshaped scientific practices, communities, and personas and reoriented research toward new goals. Among other things, vast databases of species were constructed that both reflected the state of the art in biological knowledge and helped to determine the future paths of, and legal constraints on, biological research. Endangered species became objects simultaneously of intense epistemological interest and of special ethical care. This entanglement of ethics and epistemology, social movements and scientific knowledge, is the subject of ongoing research affiliated with the Sciences of the Archive project in Department II of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.
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the significance of the unimportant

I just came across, randomly, through one of those serendipitous and unexpected JSTOR journeys, a 1966 article by ornithologist Herbert Friedmann on “The Significance of the Unimportant in Studies of Nature and of Art,” which seems to anticipate a core theme of Carlo Ginzburg’s famous essay on “Clues,” including its reliance on Morelli, although Friedmann compares art-historical methods to natural-history taxonomy rather than to medical diagnosis. A quick web search suggests that these two authors are not often cited together, but when they are it is where you might suspect: in works on biosemiotics, like this one by Thomas Sebeok.

roundtable on wired wilderness

Thanks to the efforts of Jake Hamblin and three very generous and perceptive reviewers, a series of reviews of Wired Wilderness, with my response, is now available via H-Environment Roundtable Reviews. (Or go straight to the PDF.) Very grateful to all for the chance to think again and to clarify some of the goals of the book!

Demarcating Wilderness and Disciplining Wildlife: Radiotracking Large Carnivores in Yellowstone and Chitwan National Parks

Demarcating Wilderness and Disciplining Wildlife: Radiotracking Large Carnivores in Yellowstone and Chitwan National Parks, in Civilizing Nature: National Parks in Global Historical Perspective, ed. Bernhard Gißibl, Sabine Höhler, and Patrick Kupper (New York: Berghahn, 2012), pp. 173-188.

the art of surveillance

a bird caught by a “camera trap” on bumpkin island

In the summer of 2008 I was lucky enough to be able to collaborate on an artistic experiment on camouflage and surveillance on one of the islands in the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area. It’s hard to believe that was almost four years ago. On the principle that late is better than never, I thought I’d attempt to describe what we did and why it turned out to be such an exciting experience/experiment.

The Camoufleurs project was initially dreamed up by historian of science Hanna Rose Shell and architect Dan Hisel, who successfully proposed it to the coordinators of the Bumpkin Island Art Encampment, then in its second year. At the time, Hanna was in the process of writing what would turn out to be a fascinating book about the history of camouflage. Dan had also been studying the history of camouflage and teaching his students about its relevance to architecture. Continue reading