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Abstracts for Cabinet of Natural History

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 in Seminar Room 1, with the exception of the special lecture-demonstration held on Thursday 19 October at 11am – 12.30pm in the New Gallery, Whipple Museum. You are welcome to bring your lunch with you to the Monday seminars.

Organised by Sebestian Kroupa (sk796).

Michaelmas Term 2017

Show overview

9 October Nicholas Thomas (Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, Cambridge)
On Tupaia Street: the travels of artefacts from Cook's first voyage
This presentation reviews the history of collections and particularly ethnographic collections made during Cook's voyages. The field has been much studied over the last 50 years and it might be assumed that the histories of extant artefacts and other records are now well established. Taking as examples the travels of textiles and the misidentification of Australian artefacts that have recently become highly controversial, the talk explains why not, and why new complexities have emerged that point to a fresh programme of cross-disciplinary research.
16 October Lachlan Fleetwood (History, Cambridge)
'The motion of the blood is in fact a sort of living barometer': altitude sickness, poisonous plants and instrumentalised bodies in the Himalaya, 1800–1850
Motivated by both science and empire, European explorers increasingly ventured into the high Himalaya after 1800, where they encountered the insidious yet little understood effects of altitude sickness. They did not, however, do so alone. Tensions arising from the highly unpredictable distribution of symptoms were exacerbated by the way explorers were dependent on pre-existing networks of expertise and labour, which forced them to measure their minds and bodies against those of their Asian guides and porters. In this talk, I examine altitude physiology in the early nineteenth century, largely overlooked by scholars in favour of the systematic and often institutionally-sponsored scientific studies of the later period. I consider the way travellers presented their bodily debility in relation to their guides in published accounts, their examination of the indigenous explanation for altitude sickness (resulting from the Bis or poisonous miasmas from plants), and their experimental approaches around quantification and the instrumentalisation of bodies. I use these to examine expedition sociability and agency, and bring into focus the practical, everyday aspects of intermediary relationships. Throughout, I situate this story within the context of the constitution of the Himalaya as the northern borderlands of British India. I also show that grappling with the problem of altitude was an intrinsically comparative process for the European actors, drawing on perceived and actual differences with the Alps and the Andes, and argue that this allows us to examine the formulation of what was an inherently global science.
Thu 19 October
11am – 12.30pm
Brian J. Ford
Complex constructs from the simple microscope
This extended session is co-organised with the Whipple Museum and Library and includes demonstration from the speaker.
Conventional academic accounts reiterate a standard view of early microscopes – they were capable only of low magnification and inferior resolution, and museum displays perpetuate the notion that they generated images that were distorted by chromatism and spherical aberration. Popular presentations emphasise that the pioneers crudely tore their specimens open to peer uneducatedly at what lay within.

The deficiency lies, not in the microscopes, but the in present-day neglect by scholars of the need for technical precision and investigative originality. Surprisingly, single-lens microscopes from the seventeenth century can be used to provide images that were within a factor of four of the maximum theoretical resolution of a conventional optical microscope. Today we will revisit the work of the pioneers, and we can personally experience how they used their instruments.

The dawn of microscopy underpinned the era of the scientific enlightenment, yet present-day interpretations can mislead the unchaperoned enthusiast. Here we will witness how microscopical discovery was made.
23 October Annual Fungus Hunt
30 October Andrew Lacey (Making & Knowing Project, Columbia University)
Experimental reconstruction of the bronze life-cast lizard of the Renaissance
The technique of recreating objects or processes to gain deeper understanding has been used widely in the disciplines of archaeology and anthropology. Complex multi-staged processes with a verifiable material outcome offer the greatest scope for this method of analysis. As such, the anonymous sixteenth-century French artisanal and technical manuscript (MnF MS. Fr.640 for short) currently being explored by Pamela Smith with The Making and Knowing Project offers numerous opportunities for such an investigation. One particular chapter discusses life casting in exquisite detail, involving the sacrificial loss of the subject consumed by the fire and replaced by the bronze. These cremated animals included snake, salamander, toad and crab. Such macabre yet beautiful objects offered the Renaissance scholar a meditation on natural history and the cycle of life and death through technical virtuosity.

This paper focuses on one particular passage from the chapter dedicated to the life-casting of a lizard in MnF MS. Fr.640. The solid bronze lizard experimentally recreated here from this text, was dissected and subject to x-ray analysis for comparison with similar museum artefacts. However, by embodied experience of the recreation one may go beyond the material and gain unique insights that may not be reached otherwise. Consider that the anonymous author of the text lived in a time when material transformations were observed and governed by the senses. The author's internal thoughts, hesitations and warnings given in notes, diagrams and marginalia are made visceral when experienced directly through the senses. We may then understand more of the unspoken tacit knowledge underpinning the text.
6 November Catarina Madruga (Universidade de Lisboa)
What's in a name? Negotiations of credibility and authority in the naming of the giant otter shrew (Potamogale velox)
The nineteenth century is commonly associated with the growth of imperial trade routes and a 'deluge' of specimens that is said to have flooded natural history museums and collections together with a surge in the number of known biological species. However, the practice of naming new species continued to pose a challenge to an increasingly larger, more international, and more specialized community of naturalists.

This paper introduces the context behind the numerous names and descriptions of the elusive giant otter shrew (Potamogale velox), a small African mammal with a laterally compressed tail, aquatic feeding, and elusive behaviour that challenged its first scientific descriptions. In his travel accounts in 1861, the French-American explorer Paul Du Chaillu provisionally called the animal that he had caught in Gabon – and that he thought was a new species of carnivore – Cynogale velox. After observing the specimen, John Edward Gray, the keeper of the British Museum, called the animal Mythomys, a figment of the explorer's imagination. When new and more complete specimens arrived in Europe some years later, the Portuguese zoologist and museum director José Vicente Barbosa du Bocage, proposed to review it as the insectivore Bayonia angolensis, while almost at the same time, the Scottish professor George J. Allman named it Potamogale velox, referring back to Du Chaillu as the original describer.

The problematic characteristics of the actual animal were reflected in the confused description, publication, and nomenclature process. Beyond the specimens themselves, this paper demonstrates that the naturalists' practices of negotiation of credibility and authority were just as problematic, as these experts put forward their claims for what constitutes a credible name and an appropriate description, and fought over who should have the credentials to name new species. This paper shows how the Code for Zoological nomenclature, the nature of which was being discussed in the community at the time, was not sufficient to assure standardization of practices when so little information was available and, especially, when credit, authority, and reputation were at stake.
13 November Jenny Bulstrode (HPS, Cambridge)
Iron holds the whale
Just past noon, on 30 January 1839, a fight broke out in the Admiralty Library. On the one side, an official committee of savants in magnetic surveying, appointed to reform the Navy's dangerously defective compasses; on the other, the Reverend William Scoresby, a whaler turned clergyman who ministered to his congregation of mariners from a floating pulpit. While the committee and the former captain shared a common evangelism, they differed in its expression; a conflict that erupted over knowledge of iron.

A household name for his whaling journals and Arctic natural histories, in 1836 Scoresby caused a stir among the magnetic community for his remarkable mastery of the properties of iron. In particular, his 'compound needle' drew envious eyes, so light, and so powerful it would surpass the finest variation compass. In spring 1838, the committee solicited Scoresby's help; a year later they pulled him, and his compound needle, apart in a heated contest of disputed ownership. Through the early nineteenth century, revolutionary changes in the means of production transformed the nature of iron, rendering its properties in flux and uncertain. The right to make, manipulate, and assess iron became the stuff of ferocious contest for savants of the survey sciences, as it was for combinations protesting the depreciation of their work under the changing labour economy. Scoresby staked his claim to knowledge of the metal by drawing on the labour law of the whale-boats, a culture peculiarly preoccupied with the properties of certain materials, ink and skin, parchment and iron. Extant collections of Scoresby's iron in Greenwich and Whitby are the traces of a battle between ways of knowing this protean metal; 'not down in any map; true places never are'.
20 November Alex Aylward (University of Leeds)
From natural histories to man-made futures: the origins and ends of R.A. Fisher's Darwinism
The Modern Synthesis in evolutionary biology (ca. 1930–1950) is supposed to have provided a unified and comprehensive approach to the study of life, its diversity, and its evolution. However, several naturalists and historians have complained that natural history has been routinely side-lined – scientifically, institutionally, and historiographically – from the story. One means of rectifying this situation is to examine the constructive and critical roles of self-describing naturalists in the making and shaping of the synthesis. Another is to examine the role(s) of natural history – its practices, insights, and style of thought – in the work of the recognised synthesis 'architects'.

In focusing upon Ronald Aylmer Fisher (1890–1962), the present paper takes the latter approach. A trained mathematician and principal founder of theoretical population genetics, his 1930 work The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection is cited by many as the most important evolutionary work since Darwin's Origin. Several commentators have puzzled over Fisher's unwavering commitment to Darwinism, given his training in a context (pre-war Cambridge) in which the stock of the gradualist doctrine stock was low, and Mendelian-saltationist accounts of organic change held sway. Nevertheless, in comparing Fisher's evolutionary world-view with that of the American geneticist Sewall Wright (1889–1988), historian Bill Provine influentially cites the 'Importance of Traditions in Natural History and Taxonomy' in understanding their differing visions of organic change. We hear that the tradition to which Fisher was a neo-Darwinian, adaptationist one, whilst Wright's challenged such a view. This paper will explore (and ultimately contest) the historical accuracy and historiographic utility of accounting for Fisher and Wright's theoretical divergences by reference to their immersion in opposing natural historical and taxonomic 'traditions'. It turns out that, more than describing and accounting for life's past and present diversity and adaptedness, Fisher's particular reimagining of Darwinism allowed the tantalising possibility of remaking and remodelling life – and particularly human life – for the future. From this perspective, we can begin to understand the ways in which Fisher drew upon natural historical resources, material and conceptual, whilst at the same time extricating them from their bases in both 'Nature' and 'History'.
27 November Katalin Pataki (Central European University, Budapest)
A silent servant of natural knowledge: the herbarium of 'The Flying Monk' Brother Cyprian
The herbarium of Brother Cyprian (1724–1775) is a unique collection of 283 medicinal herbs and other plants that the Camaldolese lay brother, nicknamed 'The Flying Monk' for his legendary Daedalic exploits, collected in the surroundings of the so-called Red Monastery (Červený Kláštor, Slovakia) in the Pieniny and Tatra Mountains at the borders of the Hungarian Kingdom and Poland. Brother Cyprian was in charge of the infirmary of the monastery, as well as providing medical services to the inhabitants of the nearby settlements, and his herbarium contains valuable records about his medical experience and observations. Although Cyprian's work has attracted the attention of historians of medicine and botanists, who pointed to his receptivity to current trends in natural knowledge, no written evidence has been found that would inform about his ambitions to use his knowledge in long-distance networks of intellectual or material exchange. For this reason, my research focuses on two alternative ways to learn about his strategies and attitudes to acquire and use his natural and medical expertise. On the one hand, I explore his personal interactions with other intellectuals in the region as potential mediators, who shaped his interests and ways of observations. On the other hand, relying on the inventories of the monastery, I will reconstruct Cyprian's working environment and investigate the making and the use of the herbarium in the context of the material culture in which it was created.