The 2018 History of Science Society (HSS) conference in Seattle, Washington, was blessed with a rich offering in the history of anthropology, staking the field’s relevance to growing conversations around science in the world, Indigenous knowledges, and comparative cosmology.
For the first time, a formal land acknowledgement was explicitly incorporated into the plenary opening the conference. The settlement now known as Seattle sits on the historical territory of the Duwamish. After an introduction by Eli Nelson (Williams College), member of the Kanien’kehá:ka and historian of Native science, Cecile Hansen, Chairwoman of the Duwamish tribe, rose to the podium. She extended a welcome to members of HSS and detailed the tribe’s history in the area, including its ongoing struggle for federal recognition, and invited the packed audience to visit the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center.
Fittingly, this introduction was followed by a panel session on “Knowledge / Violence / Futures: History of Science and Its Genealogies,” featuring Pablo Gómez (University of Wisconsin, Madison), Joseph Masco (University of Chicago), Michelle Murphy (University of Toronto), and Kim TallBear (University of Alberta). Moderator Gregg Mitman (University of Wisconsin, Madison) posed the central question: what would the genealogies of the history of science look like if we began from reparations of violence rather than narratives of progress? Each panelist, in their own way, spoke to this question’s deep relevance for the history of anthropology. Reflecting on methodology in the social studies of science, Pablo Gómez asked scholars to reflect on the fact that the disciplines of history and anthropology themselves were bound up in the creation of the violent and unequal modern world. Michelle Murphy outlined the parallel histories of Robert Boyle (1627–1691) as a progenitor of modern science and as a deeply implicated protagonist in the genocide of Native American communities in New England through his role as Governor of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel – stories almost never told alongside each other. Joe Masco returned to an early attempt by John von Neumann (1903–1957) to develop a new kind of “land relations” for scientists in the wake of the Manhattan project and his recognition of the “suicide circuit of technoscience” – a line of thought implicitly juxtaposed with the cosmology of the Pueblo communities explored in Masco’s book Nuclear Borderlands. Finally, Kim TallBear asked how we might reframe our narratives away from “origins” and towards ongoing relations, ceasing to shore up an American dream of progress imbricated with a deeply violent exceptionalism.
History of anthropology was equally well represented in the regular conference panels, even in unexpected places. At one panel organized around “Expeditions, Specimens and Ideas,” HAN editor Paige Madison (Arizona State) placed the physical and intellectual tug-of-war over the famous Liang Bua fossil skull in the context of the longer history of paleoanthropology in postcolonial Indonesia. Cultural and political concerns, she suggested, became intertwined with the objects of anthropological study. The controversial episode in which the remains of Homo floresiensis were moved (and allegedly damaged) in 2004 could be read as indicative of different moral economies between Western and Indonesian paleoanthropologists – in part due to the long history of the drainage of hominid fossils from Indonesia by Dutch scientists and others.
On a panel dedicated to “Queer Science,” Eli Nelson (Williams College) attended to the life of Omaha ethnologist Francis La Flesche (1857–1932), who shifted over the course of his career from “Native informant” to a professional anthropologist in his own right, ultimately working for the Bureau of American Ethnology. Nelson argued that La Flesche’s work embodies the “queerness” of Indigenous science: his Native identity always made him “not quite” an ethnologist, and his commitment to understanding Osage beliefs on their own terms rendered his work “difficult” from the point of view of contemporaries like A. L. Kroeber. At the same time, Nelson suggested, we can glimpse Indigenous resistance to Western classification through La Flesche’s reinvention of ethnographic practice.
At the Forum for the History of the Human Sciences, philosopher of science Alison Wylie (University of British Columbia) delivered this year’s distinguished lecture on “Histories of Science in and for Practice: Turning Points in Archaeology.” Although archaeology has received much attention from historians of science, she noted, archaeologists themselves have been prodigious historians of their own field. Among other forms of historical work, Wylie suggested that archaeologists use particular techniques to make new data from old (e.g. reinterpreting records of finds from decades-old excavations), a kind of historical practice integral to archaeological work itself. If archaeologists are already doing a kind of history and philosophy of their own discipline, what paths are there for productive collaboration with professional historians? The theoretical and political assumptions of older archaeologists also shaped what data they collected and how – and historians attuned to these factors would be well positioned to assist contemporary archaeologists in their efforts at critical recovery.
At a special roundtable on Ethics in the Human Sciences of the Global South, HAN editor Rosanna Dent (New Jersey Institute of Technology) discussed the ethics of contemporary Brazilian geneticists’ ongoing use of blood samples collected by biological anthropologists during the Cold War, as detailed by Joanna Radin’s Life on Ice, and the historian’s role in navigating such questions in collaboration with researchers today. Julia E. Rodriguez (University of New Hampshire) introduced her new project on the nineteenth-century “Americanist” movement, including the practice of physical anthropology in Latin America. How do analytical tools from the history of emotions help us understand the uncanny feelings that historical actors described in their encounters with human remains? Ben Silverstein (Australian National University) described the ongoing project at ANU on “Rediscovering the Deep Human Past.” Here, researchers have partnered with local Indigenous communities to examine what a re-articulation of the Aboriginal past might look like, shorn of the narrative of deep time, which relegates Aboriginal origins to an inert, empty, distant, and non-modern past.
Finally, a special panel convened to discuss the legacy of Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth, a major cross-disciplinary symposium organized by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in 1955 on the newly urgent concern for human interaction with the planetary environment. Given the significant ramifications of the symposium, each panelist focused on a different aspect or set of participants. Emilie Raymer (John Hopkins University) focused on the geographer Carl O. Sauer (1889–1975) and the cultural anthropologist Julian Steward (1902–1972), who both refused to understand the human and natural elements of landscapes apart from each other. James Bergman (Temple University) unearthed a recurring discourse around the “balance of nature” in the conference, with subtle scientific and normative valences. Jonathan Phillips (John Hopkins University) compared new ideas around goal-oriented human evolution in the 1955 symposium to the Darwin Centennial Celebration at Chicago four years later (which included several overlapping participants). Zachary Loeb (University of Pennsylvania) analyzed the dour prognosis for human civilization of symposium co-chair and public intellectual Lewis Mumford (1895–1990), and his clash with the more panglossian attendees. Finally, HAN editor Simon Torracinta (Yale University) compared the global scale for understanding human-environmental relations in much of Man’s Role to the anthropologists working on the multi-sited ethnographic Cross-Cultural Regularities Project of the same years, which sought instead to emphasize context and particularity.
HAN managing editor Adrianna Link (American Philosophical Society) provided commentary. Panelists agreed that, for all the global aspirations of the elite scientists gathered at Man’s Role, their visions of human and environmental past and future were distinctly narrow. Following the prompt of the opening plenary, the panelists asked instead: how might we imagine the genealogy of the present “Great Derangement” of climate change (to quote Amitav Ghosh) from the perspective of multiple knowledges, as opposed to the linear logics of scientific progress? If the panels at HSS 2018 were anything to go by, the history of anthropology is already beginning to offer a means to investigate these questions.