A Cultural Anthropologist Reads A Life Science Journal

This morning, chasing down a lead about research on plant memory from an article published in The Economist, I ended up at the journal Oecologia. This trajectory is increasingly familiar: a news source renders a popular account of life science research, and, trying to learn more, I end up at the academic source. The table of contents quickly overwhelmed me, though, and provoked me to stop for a moment and take stock of what I look for or find interesting in journals on genetics, biology, and botany. Continue reading

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Ethnography of Life Forms

How are life forms best rendered as ethnographic subjects? Currently, in science studies, they are farmed principally as objects of interests to the human subjects under study—e.g. various practitioners in the life sciences. So their status is largely limited to “representations” in the heads and publications of scientists. But the various efforts at formulating multispecies ethnography suggest, even require, a more direct approach. Stefan Helmreich’s Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas (2009), frames this development succinctly. Continue reading

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Nonhuman Gardeners (ants, for instance…)

When looking for culture among nonhumans, it’s not “meaning” that matters so much but the capacity to care for (to domesticate) other species: to render them plastic and mutable, rather than the fixed types we often imagine natural objects to be. But from culture (which many sociable nonhumans may possess) to cultivation (which entails some form of division of labor with the capacity to transform and enlist other species) involves a shift in scale of relating and relationships. From the variety of multispecies relations, cultivation stands out. Like domestication, cultivation generates questions of who’s doing what to whom. They’re both about, or largely assume, conscious, volitional acts. And they’re entangled in key narratives and assumptions about the emergence of humanity, touching in different ways upon “culture”: domestication as that thing which our capacity for culture allowed us to pursue; cultivation, overlapping with this connotation, but also standing as the perhaps originary drive from which culture emerged. Both are inflections of lines between wild (lacking in humanity) and civilized (the epitome of civilization). Both involve that key doubling term, breeding, as noun and verb.

Since cultivation leads directly to culture, this is where the possibilities of thinking and writing simultaneously about humans and nonhumans crystalize. Yes, maybe the human is shot through with multispecies, upon which our very existence depends; but can they do what we do when we cultivate? Continue reading

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Barcoding Speices, Part II

DNA barcoding highlights the variety of ways we bunch and characterize species—“disease vector species,” “invasive” and “conservation” species, as well “provisional” or “vouchered” species and “cryptic species complexes.” The first set of these labels reflects distinct interests and concerns as varied as public health or landscaping or climate change; the second stem from the knowledge apparatus by which we scientifically classify species. DNA barcoding is drifting somewhere between these distinct orientations—interested versus ostensibly neutral or at least objective. The barcoding approach is not designed for classification; rather, it relies entirely upon orienting samples to specimens that have been authoritatively connected to a species name by a taxonomist and stored somewhere.

Barcoding detaches and dissolves species being—its relationship to a genus, an environment, and a phylogeny—by distilling and rendering it as a genetic sequence that can be uniquely associated with one previously established taxon. Continue reading

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Barcoding Species

The philosophical conundrums presented by the concept of species are immense, offering an expanse of theoretical and methodological controversies entailed by identifying species—either classifying “new” ones or locating existing ones amidst mutable taxonomical criteria and schemas. Much of this complexity seems to dissipate in the face of developing technologies that heighten our capacities to identify and observe species, though maybe without knowing them any better than we do now—just recognizing them more efficiently. New techniques such as DNA barcoding, satellite and cellular tagging, and drones, help alleviate much of our inability to recognize species, making them more familiar and accessible, but without contributing much yet to the taxonomic knowledge projects concerned with species. That is, these developing abilities to monitor and track species opens a critical rift with the centuries-old endeavors to know species through classification.

DNA barcoding is increasingly in the news, though its role in taxonomy and biology is somewhat disparaged. This technology is about identifying rather than discovering and classifying species; its uses are principally aimed towards regulatory and commercial concerns and functions, more than epistemological projects. The overarching goal towards which it is directed is moving species steadily towards ever-growing catalogues—that cultural form whose meanings and uses remain principally defined by the marketing innovation by Montgomery Ward in 1872, as the primary mechanism behind his mail-order empire. Not surprisingly, the technology’s inventor, Paul D.N. Herbert (University of Guelph), conceived of it as he reflected upon the singular capacity of a single form to identity, track, and properly all of the items in a supermarket (Wade, 2004). Today its uses are largely regulatory and commercial; it represents an effort at standardizing species, or our recognition of them, reflecting a principal concern with markets rather than taxonomy; this is principally applied to species that already have established niches in our commodity chains.

The growing applications of this technology reflect a fundamental unfamiliarity with the species, or at least their commodity forms, of which we are most fond. This was revealed in the news item that brought DNA barcoding into public awareness. Continue reading

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Model Organisms

Species that serve as fables of naturalism today are called model organisms. Their significance lies in the lessons that can be wrought from them regarding other species, even onto big meaning questions about “life itself.” These are not forms of fancy from myth or legend; these species dwell in lab spaces and field sites and appear on the rigorously vetted pages of scientific journals. Their stories may spread from such sites, out through the media, and are taken up in any number of popular and fanciful versions of “the way things are.” But they start out as empirical artifacts, though this doesn’t undermine their parabalistic qualities or aspects. The topics they concern—life and death, health and sickness, cleverness and values—are strikingly similar to Aesop’s fables.

A basic economy informs model organisms: there are far too many species for us to know sufficiently thoroughly; and of this excess, most also make inconvenient objects of research and learning. For efficiency’s sake, researchers privilege a select few life forms through which to organize and operate lab-based science: those that are convenient to store, breed, and standardize. The key point is that, like the fables, these species are selected for their representativeness, depicting life processes, gene-expression, and interactions with the environment . In this economy of examples, capacity for extrapolation is key. The knowledge they generate must be transferable across species lines and applicable to other life forms.

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Drawing the line tw tamed and untamed

Pigeons are a staple character in figuring interspecies exchanges across the line between domesticated and untamed in Aesop’s tales. Used as snares, by a bird-catcher, tamed pigeons are chastised by captured wild ones—“being of the same race, they should have warned them of the trap.” But the tamed version of the species relates they’re far too fearful of the master’s displeasure to think that way (282).* “A pigeon, kept in a dovecote, boasted loudly of her fertility, until a crow wryly notes, “the more children you have, the more you should lament slavery” (302). Playing a similar role as they did for Darwin, pigeons delineate the line between artificial and natural selection, so it is striking when one, driven by thirst (301) mistakes a painted water fountain for a real one and dies as a result. In contrast, when a partridge, caught and anticipating death, offers to cross the line into domestication by serving as a lure, the option is foreclosed by the hunter “since you wish to ensnare your friends and comrades” (300).

A similarly useful partridge protests its eventual butchering (285), reminding the bird-catcher of its service as lure: “All the more reason to sacrifice you, since you have not even had mercy on your own kindred.” Along with bird-catchers (and gardeners, fisherman, and ploughmen), another major category of human laborer is that of the shepherd, who is often called upon to distinguish species (5, 311-318), most famously the wolf trying to mimic a sheep. These occupations all involve multispecies relations, their management and the forms of discernment they require.

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Fables as Cultural Form

Aesop’s Fables are cultural forms that circulate through a variety of mediums, surfacing or lying just out of sight in a host of contexts. Analyzing cultural forms requires foregoing the assumption they’re transparent—as in the hope of reading the social ideology “behind” the form. Attending instead to the social life of the form as it circulates. Rather than serving as ciphers for the social, cultural forms, as they circulate, highlight the shifting interpretive conventions brought to bear in facilitating their movement. The questions to ask are not what do they mean but why do they travel and how are they rendered commensurate. What forms of commensuration, then, can we see in the fables, especially in relation to species thinking? There are at least two. First, they stage other species as capable of speaking to us. This is of course, not unfettered or human speech; the fables can rightfully all be charged with ventriloquizing nonhumans in shamelessly moralistic manners. But they do present both the possibility and problem of how we might listen to and then learn from other species (Oliver, 2009). As in species thinking, the predicaments of nonhumans are seen as having bearing on our situations and being entangled in our fate and livelihoods. The fables are an argument that other species are worthy of attention for more than their functional uses, because we may be able or need to learn something from them.

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Species thinking

Dipesh Chakrabarty uses the phrase “species thinking” to characterize a major twist in social theory. This is a mode of thinking that takes humanity-as-species for its object: a shift from the condition of “species being” as invoked by Marx, towards an analytic awareness based on a recognition of “boundary parameters of human existence.”[i] For an historian and critic of globalization—that earth-encompassing phenomena, feeding on and reproducing inequality wherever it travels—this is a notable shift in focus for Chakrabarty, because it entails thinking humanity in “universal” terms. He elaborates: “These parameters are independent of capitalism…They have been stable for much longer than the histories of [its] institutions” . These parameters come into view out of a breach “between the present historiography of globalization and the historiography demanded by anthropogenic theories of climate change….”

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They make us who we are

Another approach to the question of nonhuman culture begins not with considering how they might do what we do too, but rather with the recognition that our version of culture was largely developed entirely through engagements with or attention to nonhumans. Paleoanthropologist Pat Shipman makes the case that “the animal connection”—underlying tool-making, symbolic thought and behavior, and domestication of plants and animals—is the basis for humanity. Her researchis in the news today, on the results of her just released report, “How do you kill 86 mammoths?” Involve dogs, is the basic answer. More broadly, her view is that emergence of early modern humans was predicated on “an unprecedented alliance between domesticated or partly domesticated canids and humans”—not just “technology.”

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