Canguilhem’s historical epistemology continues to inspire historians and anthropologists to attend to how current and former human practices of science shape our conceptualizations and engagement with natural and experimental environments, non-human beings, and human life. Now, with the publication of a translation of La connaissance de la vie ( 2008), which contains many of Canguilhem’s key works, “The Living and Milieu” speaks with new urgency.[ In the spirit of the History of Anthropology Newsletter’s call for multidisciplinary exploration of novel topographies for the history of anthropology, this Special Focus Section gathers five insightful considerations of reversals and collapses in relations between organism and environment for the history of human and life sciences since their seminal characterization in “The Living and Its Milieu.”
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In “The Living and Its Milieu,” Georges Canguilhem tells the story of Jakob von Uexküll’s tick. The tick when mature climbs to a high point, such as a branch on a bush. It falls only in response to a single stimulus, the odor of rancid butter, helpfully explained as a component of the sweat of mammals. If there is no corresponding 37-degree centigrade body to latch on to, the tick climbs back up. Apparently von Uexküll kept a tick in his laboratory for eighteen years before providing this stimulus to it, and it was still able to fall on cue, suck blood, and lay eggs when the opportunity was provided. One has to wonder about the number of ticks, and the frequency of testing. Why eighteen years? There is no detail provided about what happened to the other ticks kept “in a state of inanition” beyond 18 years, if there were any.