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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 and in Seminar Room 2 unless otherwise stated.

Organised by Olin Moctezuma-Burns (om345).

To join online, no booking will be required. Zoom links will be circulated beforehand.

Book in-person attendance through Eventbrite. Tickets will be released a week before. As places are limited, we encourage students and early career researchers to reserve tickets early. Please book only if you will be able to attend and let Olin Moctezuma-Burns know as soon as possible if you need to cancel your booking to let others take your place. The room is well ventilated, and full vaccination and mask use are expected for those without an exemption. Please follow the Department's general guidance for the safety of all participants.

Lent Term 2022

24 January
Daniela Sclavo (HPS, Cambridge)
Interlaced spaces: the importance of fieldwork and presence on crop conservation histories

History is often imagined as an endeavour full of documents, of endless aisles crowded with archives and also – although less frequently – of formal interviews. In this talk I will touch on the role of fieldwork in the history of science, basing myself on my PhD research on the conservation of chili pepper in Mexico. In particular, I will highlight the importance of implementing informal and more horizontal conversations with our actors, as in many cases formal interviews are inappropriate, extractivist, and distrustful for our interviewees (especially when working in non-western settings). Thus, I will focus on the creation of spaces for the co-construction of stories, on sensitivity and bonding, and on giving actors autonomy for the narration of their own existence, as part of the process of history-making.

My project investigates the history of chili pepper conservation in Mexico 1970s-present by analysing the imaginaries and conceptualisations of different social groups (e.g. agricultural scientists, ethnobotanists, local peoples, industry) around chile and its relations to flavour, culture, heritage and senses of belonging. As part of this, I collaborate with the project 'Cocina Colaboratorio', created in 2016 as a joint effort between Wageningen University and Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, which seeks to improve local agro-alimentary systems by forging horizontal connections between communities, biologists, artists, chefs, anthropoligists, and historians. My research is set in Santo Domingo Tomaltepec in Oaxaca, Southern Mexico, where I work with a group of women who hold extensive local culinary knowledge.

31 January: Online only
Minakshi Menon (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science)
What's in a name? William Jones, 'philological empiricism' and botanical knowledge making in 18th-century India

'What is Indian Spikenard?', asked the 18th-century orientalist Sir William Jones in a famous paper, published in Asiatick Researches, Volume II (1790). The question serves here as a point of entry into Jones's method for creating culturally specific plant descriptions to help locate Indian plants in their Indian milieu.

This paper discusses Jones's philological method for identifying the jaṭāmāṁsī of the Sanskrit verse lexicon, the Amarakośa, and materia medica texts, a flowering plant with important medicinal properties, as the 'Spikenard of the Ancients'. Philology, for Jones, was of a piece with language study and ethnology, and undergirded by observational practices based on trained seeing, marking a continuity between his philological and botanical knowledge making. The paper follows Jones through his textual and 'ethnographic' explorations, as he creates both a Linnaean plant-object – Valeriana jatamansi Jones – and a mode of plant description that encoded the 'native' experience associated with a much-desired therapeutic commodity. The result was a botanical identification that forced the jaṭāmāṁsī to travel across epistemologies and manifest itself as an object of colonial natural history. In the words of the medic and botanist William Roxburgh, whose research on the spikenard is also discussed here, Jones's method achieved what 'mere botany' with its focus on the technical arrangement of plants, could not do.

7 February
Sophia Spielmann (Technische Universität Berlin)
Bernardino Gomes' quest for 'local knowledge': ipecacuanha in Brazil around 1800

In the 18th and 19th centuries, dried ipecacuanha root was highly sought after in Europe because of its medicinal effectiveness as an emetic, but little was known about its geographic origin and the plant itself. Bernardino Gomes (1768–1823), a Portuguese physician, was the first to describe in detail how the roots were collected and traded in Brazil while participating in a military expedition along the Atlantic coast between 1797 and 1801. His treatise (1801) also provided a comprehensive botanical description that was later translated into Latin and published in the Transactions of the Linnean Society by his colleague, Félix de Avelar Brotero (1744–1828). Gomes' observations can be analyzed in the context of Portugal's efforts to gain 'local knowledge' on the Brazilian territory and its resources. This entanglement of scholarly and economic interests is particularly visible in Gomes' concern about the plant's increasing rarity. Ipecacuanha was not systematically cultivated, but collected in the Atlantic Forest by predominantly indigenous collectors. The demand for the roots had grown significantly during the 18th century and already, the plant had become extinct in some regions. This talk examines where and by which methods Gomes acquired knowledge on ipecacuanha as well as the applications he envisioned for his findings. It is part of a larger ongoing project in which I aim to contribute to critical examinations of colonial science and commerce, especially regarding Europe's appropriation of plant resources and indigenous knowledge.

14 February
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 grey 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.

21 February: Online only
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 British West Indies, the local and imperial government was 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 place 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 roles that botanical interest played in island society.

28 February
Huiyi Wu (CNRS-Centre Alexandre Koyré)
Chinese natural history objects in 18th-century Paris: reflections on the non-circulation of knowledge

During his stay in Macao during the 1720s, the French doctor Jacques-François Vandermonde (?–1746) built up a collection of Chinese minerals with the help of local apothecaries. The collection of 79 mineral samples, recently rediscovered in the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle in Paris, was carefully labeled in Chinese, and accompanied by a French translation of the mineral section of Li Shizhen's Bencao gangmu [Compendium of materia medica]. However, these carefully assembled materials failed to produce a tangible impact once they arrived in Paris, avid as it was of things Chinese. This talk builds around this case study to offer some reflections on the collections of Chinese natural history objects in 18th-century France, the networks undergirding them, and the limitation of their role as medium of knowledge.

7 March
Svit Komel (University of Ljubljana)
The political anatomy of natural history: on Petty's contrivance of the Down Survey (1655–1659)

The Down Survey was a cadastral survey, initiated in 1655 during the Cromwellian occupation of Ireland to redistribute confiscated Catholic lands among Protestant soldiers. Charged with this colonial cataloguing was William Petty, principally known today as a political-economist and statistician. This talk will examine the Down Survey as an exercise in natural history. Petty not only used the Survey to amass natural-historical information, but conceived surveying itself as an object of natural history. Following Bacon, the history of trades or the systematic description of mechanical arts became a privileged sub-domain of natural history. The Hartlib Circle and Royal Society produced histories that codified the craft knowledge of such diverse arts as bog-draining, iron-working, husbandry, mining, etc. An affiliate of both these associations, Petty likewise managed the Survey by breaking down the art of surveying into individual operations, tools, materials and their costs. Thus implementing a meticulous division of labour, he composed hundreds of specialized laborers into a hierarchical surveying apparatus. In Petty's administration of the Survey, natural history emerged as a self-referential method for overseeing the process of observing Irish geography. I will argue that Petty's contrivance illustrates a broader contemporary shift in natural knowledge which displaced questions of method from logic, aimed at disciplining individual reasoning, to logistics, concerned with managing a collective body of workers. Petty's Irish stint further demonstrates that his later statistical writings were not simply an epistemological break in how he viewed data, but rather stemmed from the techniques he applied as a natural historian for organising surveying work and its intellectual products.

14 March: Online only
Emiliano Cabrera Rocha (Geography, Cambridge)
The Amazon Third Way and the Fourth Industrial Revolution: an attempt to overcome history through technology

In recent years, a group of natural and social scientists have been crafting a vision of economic development that pursues both industrialising and preserving the biodiverse Amazon forest. Baptised 'Amazon Third Way', this vision seeks to transcend what its proponents conceptualise as the binary opposition between the 'First Way' of tropical conservation and the 'Second Way' of extractivist development. Key to this vision is the role of so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics and biotechnology. In this talk, I will analyse how the abovementioned vision attempts to overcome historical inertias, and more broadly, I will situate it within longer histories of techno-economic and environmental imaginaries for the Amazon.