Life Histories (of nonhumans)

Rooting around among accounts of nonhumans—as I regularly do in listening to my biological anthropology colleagues and, more widely, in the pursuit of multispecies ethnography—I was surprised to come across “life history” as an analytic. My associations with the term have always involved humans. Indeed, I availed myself of this standard ethnographic method during the course of my fieldwork in Detroit, when the “hillbillies” I was studying turned violent. I had to find more tranquil sources, so I began talking with older residents of the neighborhood, asking them to tell me their life histories so I could compile an “insiders” view of that part of Detroit. But ethnographers don’t have a monopoly on this method. Continue reading

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The Whiteness of Pets

In racial analysis, the focus is predominantly on dynamics of othering or dehumanization. This draws into view how police office Darren Wilson clearly saw a monster—“like a demon” or “Hulk Hogan,” not speaking, just making “a grunting, like aggravated sound”—rather than a human when he fired at Michael Brown. But this is only part of how race works; these perceptions are buttressed and arguably preceded by recognitions of sameness. This is key to understanding the way whites are able to recognize and favor each other, socially, economically, and politically. But the operations of sameness extend across the line between human and nonhuman that seems so central to othering or dehumanization, and perhaps this is a deep source of its power. Consider the extensions of personhood and protection to pets. Continue reading

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Culture is for the birds…and bees, and dolphins, and other nonhumans.

Just published in Nature: “Experimentally induced innovations lead to persistent culture via conformity in wild birds.”This is such an important, fascinating report because it 1) expands the scope of “cultural species” beyond the primates; 2) shifts the analysis of cultural transmission across diverse taxa from the lab to the wild; 3) underscores the value of the model of sociality formulated by G. Tarde explicitly to encompass nonhumans, centered succinctly on innovation and imitation. Continue reading

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Multispecies vs Anthropocene

What just happened in Anthropology? In the 2013 annual meeting there were zero abstracts or paper or panel titles featuring the word “Anthropocene”; this year there were 64! Compare that with “multispecies,” which has held steady at between 16-23 invocations after it first made its appearance in the program in 2010.[i] Why the surge of interest? More importantly, given overlapping concerns highlighted by these two keywords, why the sudden prevalence of one over the other? Continue reading

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Free the social!

The fundamental limitation of social is that it has been articulated as a foil to the individual as a core, highly valued category in modern culture. As much as anthropologists invest in theorizing and analyzing the social and culture, we keep coming back to the challenges presented by unthinking the individual— both in terms of our contemporary audiences and the foundational debates and claims from which social theory emerged. Continue reading

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Species: a keyword

Species is a means for thinking both the stability and mutability of life forms. Species mark stabilized “moments”—sometimes over eons—as organisms transition from one discernible, reproducible form to another. Species organize varying degrees of internal variation—genetic and phenotypic—over against external constraints or resources that distinctly locate these life forms. Though the focus is often on specifying life, taxonomically species are reminders of the commonalities across genera, of the enormous amount of overlap in how life diversifies into multitudinous forms. Not just constitutionally (longevity, fertility, disease-resistance, etc.), but behaviorally as well. For taxonomists, species are a hypothesis, a speculation that a certain combination of morphology, behavior and location constitutes one of these unique tips of a genera. Species, then, is a point at which thought pauses in considering life, recognizing the import of form; focusing on the tension between diversity and uniformity, before scaling temporally through the vast expanse of time or spatially across the immensity of the planet.

A basic question highlights the complexity of species: how many are there? After 250+ years of the taxonomic project, that question is not yet answerable. With some 1.2 million species currently catalogued (, there may yet be more than 8.7 million eukaryotic unidentified species globally, of which ~2.2 million are marine.[1] The challenge of knowing species is utterly immense. Continue reading

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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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