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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


This research seminar is concerned with all aspects of the history of natural history and the field and environmental sciences. The regular programme of papers and discussions takes place over lunch on Mondays. In addition, the Cabinet organises a beginning-of-year fungus hunt and occasional expeditions to sites of historical and natural historical interest, and holds an end-of-year garden party.

Seminars are held on Mondays at 1pm on Zoom. Zoom links will be circulated beforehand.

Organised by Olin Moctezuma-Burns (om345).

Easter Term 2022

9 May
J'Nese Williams (University of Notre Dame)
Caring only for canes? Botanical sociability in the Anglo-Caribbean in the age of revolution

In Britain, a visible interest in botany could be a sign of status and allegiance to 'improvement' in its various forms. In the Anglo-Caribbean, the local and imperial government were active in supporting botany, but the attitudes of the local people are less clear. The superintendents of the government botanic gardens in St Vincent and Jamaica lamented leaving their active botanical social lives in Britain to toil in a region where the 'planters mind nothing but sugar canes'. Despite the pessimism of the government botanists, there was a botanical community on the British sugar islands, and its members ran agricultural societies, kept lush private gardens, and maintained a lively correspondence across the Caribbean and the Atlantic. This paper will outline the contours of this botanical community in the Anglo-Caribbean, including some of the social meanings that could become attached to botanical interest within island society.

16 May
Osiris Sinuhé González Romero (University of Saskatchewan)
Aztec botany and natural history in the 16th century (1552–1580)

This talk aims to show an overview of the Aztec botany, considering the primary sources available such as codices, sculptures, manuscripts, and chronicles, which the Spaniards wrote. A general objective is to highlight the role of indigenous knowledge, which frequently faces a lack of acknowledgement; this talk addresses the Aztec system of classifying plants based on the Nahuatl language. Also, the methodologies used to gather this knowledge will be under review. A specific objective will be analysing the influence of classical works (Aristoteles, Plinio the elder) in the writing and organisation of natural history works written during the 16th century. This talk focuses on three very well-known works: 1. De la Cruz-Badiano Codex, which is the first herbarium written in America by indigenous peoples; 2. the Florentine Codex or General History of the New Spain written by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún; and 3. the Natural History of New Spain written by Francisco Hernández. He headed a research expedition for seven years with the support of the Spanish Crown. The abovementioned cases are paradigmatic examples of the globalisation of knowledge and bio-coloniality during the 16th century.

23 May
Anna Guasco (Geography, Cambridge)
Whale-watching in the archives: methodological experimentation for more-than-human histories

This presentation shares some of the methodological challenges and possibilities raised by more-than-human histories. Focusing on archival methods and my doctoral dissertation on histories, stories, and justice issues surrounding gray whale migration in the North American Pacific, I propose alternative ways of envisioning and practicing archival methods. I will discuss some of the practical challenges of 'whale-watching in the archives', and I also will share some stories from my archival research to raise questions about power, memory, knowledge, and agency in these archives. I aim to bring together conversations from history of science (particularly histories of natural history), STS, animal and more-than-human histories, cultural and historical geographies, environmental justice, and political ecology to argue for the necessity of interdisciplinary and experimental approaches to archival research for more-than-human histories.

30 May
Alix Cooper (SUNY-Stony Brook)
Pleasures and perils of family-based natural history in early modern Europe

Among the many settings in which the activities of natural history were practiced in early modern Europe and its colonies, the home is one which has been receiving increasing attention. This talk, part of a larger project, will explore some of the ways in which interactions between family members helped to shape the pursuit of natural history in domestic spaces and beyond. In particular, the talk will examine the complications that natural-historical interests seem to have sometimes created for family members like siblings. While a son (or, under some circumstances, a daughter) might go on to 'follow in the footsteps' of a father (or, under some circumstances, a mother, or other family member), siblings sharing a passion for plants or other natural objects might, if they both wanted to pursue natural history as a career, find themselves competing for scarce positions in this not-always-well-financially-rewarded field. The talk will explore the cases of some of the Scheuchzer and Baier siblings (in early modern Switzerland and Germany respectively), contrasting their situation with those of other naturally-inclined brothers and sisters elsewhere. As the talk will aim to show, doing natural history in the family context sometimes created challenges of its own.