A collection of vignettes from fisheries observers' working lives. They're short and not extremely polished, of interest to those who want that firsthA collection of vignettes from fisheries observers' working lives. They're short and not extremely polished, of interest to those who want that firsthand information--as a prospective observer, a family member, or to research a more structured piece of writing, as in my case--but not probably of much value to the general reader of environmental issues. There is maybe not as much here as I had hoped for, though I definitely found it worthwhile for my project....more
Somehow convinced myself to read this right after complaining about this sort of environmental history in my review of Pan's Travail. It's another ofSomehow convinced myself to read this right after complaining about this sort of environmental history in my review of Pan's Travail. It's another of these encyclopedic tomes, biting off the whole history of the island (including geological time) and following a few major threads in periodized chunks throughout that whole span. I like the chronological approach here better than the subject matter divisions in Pan's Travail just because it makes each era feel like a distinct and semi-whole unit, but Totman fails to provide any of the anecdotes, quotes, and particularizing details that make Pan's Travail valuable.
Japan feels almost completely anonymized. There are place names but no people's names, a few plants but after the initial description only tangential mentions of wild species of any sort, and really no cultural angles at all. It feels like he's going for a kind of from-space humans-as-animals deal but there is no theoretical reading to accompany that, not centering population growth or trade or labor dynamics as explanatory factors around with other things follow. It really just feels like a boring infodump with no clear sense of purpose. Totman does have a general "humans degrading nature" angle, which is hella shallow for an environmental historian, but especially surprising given his other work focusing more on forest management. That process gets a disappointingly thin treatment here too--again, Totman just doesn't seem interested in questions of causality in governance, land use, etc. There are also a lot of asserted causal relationships that seem sketchy but aren't justified or interrogated: at one point he suggests that the population of northeast Japan stagnated for a period because a variety of rice became popular that grew better in southwest Japan?
I quit after the "late agricultural period" and didn't go into the industrial stuff. It's a lot and slow going and not really even memorable? The important gist seems to just be that Japan was in constant contact with Korea and China and was a kind of shallow spillover pond with slight isolation where their people and diseases and ideas and modes of production could diverge slightly but with frequent exchange. And more importantly, that Japan saw the same process of deforestation, erosion, siltation, land conversion, etc, as other population centers in Eurasia throughout this period, but maintained soil fertility through labor-intensive irrigation, mulching, and ocean-based fertilizer sourcing. ...more
Rat is, unsurprisingly, very much cut from the same mold as Robert Sullivan's Rats. They differ in journalistic particulars, which I'll get to, but thRat is, unsurprisingly, very much cut from the same mold as Robert Sullivan's Rats. They differ in journalistic particulars, which I'll get to, but they're both from the themed collection of facts school of book writing, and they emerge from the impulse to use facts to sell papers/books rather than to pose and answer questions. Obviously as an academic I think that's a bad way to write a book in general, but with rats it's much more annoying. Rats sell magazines and books as a boogeyman, which gives authors plenty of incentive to play up that narrative with anecdote and personal experience and also to maybe not work too hard to emphasize the degree of confidence and commonness that can be ascribed to certain wowing tidbits.
Langton is a bit more bold about the fact that this is journalism, not academia. He cites dozens of scientific and historical facts about rats, often with only minimal caveats as to their reliability. Yet not a single one of them has a citation! There is no way to chase down these claims and get more information on how they were determined or whether any of them are sheer hearsay and poppycock. Langton claims, for instance, that rats can leap 4 feet up in the air without a running start. I've seen young rats do 2 ft, but four seems like it would take a special kind of rathlete. But maybe it's typical in wild rats who have to do that sort of thing to access garbage. Hard to be sure, since I don't know where Langton got that information. That's something I don't let my undergrad students get away with on throwaway assignments and I don't understand why his editor let him get away with it (or maybe they had him cut it, who knows).
Where Sullivan dismissed pet rats as a fundamentally different animal, not worthy of his consideration, Langton seems quixotically fascinated with the pet rat owner, an object of his gawking narration even more than the rats themselves. He interleaves chapters with, among other documents, three letters sent to the Saskatchawan government to protest their proposed ban on pet rats. Many of these are clearly written by children, full of pent-up anger and shoddy grammar, and it feels exploitative and cruel. It's hard to imagine the logic behind their inclusion, and it feels vaguely unethical? There's a chapter that partly covers contemporary pet rat owners, and the tone is disgustingly psychoanalytic. He paints us as weirdo loner goth outsiders, probably unattractive and shunned by their families, who identify with rats because they're outcasts. Oof.
(To give a sense of just how much of an out-of-touch Boomer Langton comes off as: "It doesn't come as a huge surprise that he's into a style of music he calls "death metal" and used to play in some "pretty nasty" bands himself.")
Part of that bitterness seems to come from an antagonism he established after publishing the articles that formed the seed for this book. He got a lot of angry mail from pet rat owners and advocates who were doing some damage to the facts in order to make our little friends look good. This is, unfortunately, entirely believable, and I can see it getting pretty annoying. He seems to have overcorrected a teensy bit, and he pretty uncritically frames rats as a historic and universal enemy of the human race, which is dumb.
All of that collectively got me pretty upset with Mr. Langton, and I was about ready to tweet angrily about how fuckin heated people would get if someone wrote a book like this about stray dogs--how gross they were, how many people they'd killed (one of Langton's clearest whoppers is that more people are bitten by rats than any other animal--all the stats I could find didn't even mention them; dogs are the clear leader, and cats in second, for obvious reasons), how hard they are to control, etc. But then he did it! He claims to be responding to pet rat owners who liken rats to dogs, and points out that this is a bad comparison since dogs are so brutal. That got my attention and won me over a bit.
After that I found some other redeeming features here. First, he does a lot of on the ground reporting, but unlike Sullivan, he never makes a big deal out of his own experiences. It's so low-key that his biggest pilgrimage (the Karni Mata rat temple in India) I'm not actually sure he made, which isn't great, but it's better than Sullivan's pretentious Thoreau-lite fare. Second, his weird hangups didn't stop him from interviewing over a hundred (he claims) pet rat owners and looking into the history of their domestication, which Sullivan just wrote off. He never discusses the advantages of rats as pets, of course, but it's something.
Finally, despite the lack of sources, he generally puts anecdotal claims at arm's length, at least implying he's interested in vetting claims and that the other facts are from primary lit or experience by extension (not that that's the only reason to cite sources, obv). He also shows a ton more curiosity about rat evolution, ecology, and history than Sullivan did, which of course is the whole point of the endeavor (from my end). The benefits of that curiosity are a bit tempered by the fact that I can't dive into the bibliography and learn more, but it's appreciated.
It's just a shame that he completely lacks the historian's self-consciousness of his own culture, of the assumptions he brings to this project. He never questions why he or his readers might take the idea of keeping rats as pets to be taboo and weird. He takes it for granted that rats are disgusting and any aberrations from that idea must be explained through desperation or pathology. For instance, he discusses the filthy and disease-laden conditions of Africans with Black rats living in their thatched roofs in lurid detail, like living near animal poop was some unique form of African poverty and suffering, and then reveals that these rats constitute a major food source for those households. It's painted as a uniquely modern problem, a situation born of desperate poverty and the defaunation of landscapes by overhunting and habitat conversion. The idea that *not* eating rats might be a more unique and Western phenomenon doesn't seem to have occurred to him. Of course there is no discussion of the potentially complex and interactive nature of this relationship as rats became domestic animals in the first place....more
Unnatural Metropolis is maybe the least inspired history I've ever read. It's plenty factual and informative about a broad set of New Orleans' environUnnatural Metropolis is maybe the least inspired history I've ever read. It's plenty factual and informative about a broad set of New Orleans' environmental travails (clean water, sewage, marsh drainage and subsidence, flooding, levees, yellow fever, etc) but it's more like an extended wikipedia article than what I'd normally think of as a history per se. That's fine, and I found it pretty helpful as a guide moving into my touristic activities, verifying and contextualizing some of the claims made by tour guides and such. It just feels as bland and generic as New Orleans is vibrant and layered, which is a shame. Like, there's nothing the least bit poetic or evocative about how it portrays the eons long process of sediments piling up and breaking down that New Orleans sits on top of. And it's not just that Colten isn't an expressive writer; it just isn't there. This is particularly clear in the ecology of yellow fever, for instance, where it's never really made clear how exactly the mosquito ecology really was before the swamps were drained, and how the city changed it; whether the disease emerged periodically from reservoirs in the city or from new strains introduced by migration. It's just one example, but the book feels systematically disinterested in environments for their own sake, as compelling as the NOLA area bioregion is.
In the intro and conclusion, Colten sets his book up as an entry into a larger conversation about NOLA as an urban entity, a development pattern. He disparages previous attempts to explain this pattern as a purely economic question, whereas ecology seems clearly relevant. That's an easy point to make, and one with a clear ideological valence. But the rest of the book doesn't seem aware that it's part of this discussion at all. The nature of this "purely economic" explanation is never expounded, much less the pattern it's trying to explain. It really just feels like Colten is starting from scratch. Many times he mentions economic limitations as to why the city government did or didn't solve an environmental problem, but they're presented as detached conditions independent of the environment even as they dictate its fate. I would have appreciated a presentation that made policy feel like the product of political economy that included the city's economic life as a dynamic partner.
Fixing all those omissions would have made this a much longer book (not that it's terribly long already), though that would be a less tiresome prospect if there were some flavor to it (there are no named people in any of these arcs, which is a choice I like in theory except that the systems don't really rise up as characters in their place either). Either way, it's useful and good enough for some purposes, but it's not really worth reading for its own sake. ...more
I'm very much into environmental history of course, and STS is something I've read about but never actually read in practice, so this seemed like a peI'm very much into environmental history of course, and STS is something I've read about but never actually read in practice, so this seemed like a perfect opportunity. Not to mention Dolly Jorgensen has done some very interesting work. I was just a bit underwhelmed by these first few essays. Their application of "STS frameworks" don't seem to bring all that much insight to their topics; they feel like you could strip away the language (partly because it *isn't* dense or abstruse) and be left with a straightforward explanation of a social scenario. ...more
There's a chapter early on with a good overview of recent work on human evolution and migration research, though it left me wanting mooooooore (and wiThere's a chapter early on with a good overview of recent work on human evolution and migration research, though it left me wanting mooooooore (and without a clear sense of how much more was out there or if the questions it raised were just gaps in the fossil record/existing knowledge). There's tons of recent history genetic stuff I had expected to be in here, I think, and it definitely is not. The rest of the book feels like Rutherford bookmarked every bad popscience article about genetics in a folder and then just a wrote a book about why they all sucked. This is edifying enough in bits but it gets a bit repetitive and Rutherford's informal shtick becomes less endearing. I also found the focus on quashing myths and bashing pseudoscience and bad journalism to distract from a clear and coherent explanation of what's actually going on.
The whole race debunking thing feels particularly confused, and though I think I get what the takehome message is, the three arguments feel a bit contradictory and he doesn't clarify them well. On one hand, everyone alive today is probabilistically speaking descended from every single person who was alive 5000 years ago if their lineage didn't die out (they assume 20% of individuals hit dead ends). That seems to imply a kind of "we're all the same, everyone shares genes all the time" kind of deal. But the argument Rutherford uses to invalidate colloquial ideas of race is that genetic data show, for instance, huge variation within the umbrella of 'black' or 'Indian' people. That line of argument shows a remarkable persistence of genetic groupings surprising given the amount of migration and population mixing we now know took place throughout early human history. If anything, that conclusion supports a kind of revised racial schema, rather than the absence of one. It feels like he didn't want to acknowledge that lest he appear to support some kind of new scientific racism, and it leaves the conversation on uneven footing. Rutherford casually uses these geographic groupings in other contexts throughout the book without any apparent contradiction, and it would have been nice to hear a more coherent take....more
As the title kind of intimates, On Deep History and the Brain is a short prospectus for two (related but distinct) historical projects: deep history (As the title kind of intimates, On Deep History and the Brain is a short prospectus for two (related but distinct) historical projects: deep history (extending history into "prehistory") and neurohistory (history through the lens of neurochemistry). The first 100 pages focuses not on deep history itself, but the intellectual hangups that have kept it from being the norm. It's a historiography of the history/prehistory divide, tracing it from Biblical truth to rearguard action against geological revealed deep time and evolution to the lingering bias built into the discipline against methods not focused on written records and especially the subjects that demand such methods.
He builds this story in more detail than he perhaps needed to, but on the other hand, I'm constantly incredulous about this stuff, so maybe it is necessary. From the point of view of a modern academic, the premises of deep history are insultingly obvious: humans are animals subject to ecological rules, and the flow of history follows the logic imposed by those limitations, locating causal factors in blindly selected adaptations to changing conditions rather than intentional design and leadership. In a sense, it can't help but feel like Smail is ego-stroking us for the blessing of being born in the enlightened present, though it isn't framed that way of course. I'm just constantly astonished at how long the great man narrative approach to history persisted (he calls it the Bad King John approach, which was new to me), how long they clung to the specter of free will and intentionality. I've been reticent about really believing this idea was widespread for so long, since it reflects to poorly on so many historians, but Smail establishes a pretty solid case here.
In breaking down the barrier to deep history (ie, abolishing the concept of "prehistory"), he also eloquently makes the case for a history throughout time based on a broader body of evidence, focused on processes that may not be apparent to historical actors. Of course, this is a less pressing point, and it's more preaching to the choir than advocating deep history, perhaps. But it's still fun. Instead of giving an example, Smail details a line of research based on the eco-evolutionary logic of deep history that gives an understudied handle stretching across the divide into the deep past: neurochemistry.
Smail's idea of neurohistory walks a weird line between insight and tautology. The idea is that material circumstances and, especially, cultural patterns, shape our neurochemistry in discernible ways. Men in the South have measurably higher stress responses to offense due to the masculinity norms they were raised with. Women in Victorian England were, he speculates, physiologically more prone to fainting than women in other time periods, because their socialization was written in their endocrine system. That idea appeals to me, though extending it into history risks a lot of misleading analogy and speculation.
But his more general point is that most economic activity is driven by goods and activities that modulate human neurochemistry. I think it takes a careful thinker, and perhaps a particular case, for this to be meaningfully different from "people do things because they feel good." After all, the idea that some human activities are pleasurable but not necessarily adaptive is nothing new. This is maybe a bit unfair; unpacking the ways that social change is driven by new opportunities in mood-altering might offer more insights in the particulars than the observation that people do it reveals in general. It might, though Smail (perhaps in his intense aversion to evolutionary psychology?) doesn't make much of this, offer a way to chain histories of production to the evolutionary history of the human species (or its domesticated partners).
I'm a big fan of the way of thinking Smail advocates here, and he makes the case eloquently and concisely. It's perhaps not necessary reading if you're already convinced, though. ...more
Came here from an excerpted chapter I read in Aeon (https://aeon.co/essays/how-disgust-ma...). That article, and the first part of the book, hint at aCame here from an excerpted chapter I read in Aeon (https://aeon.co/essays/how-disgust-ma...). That article, and the first part of the book, hint at a grander effort than the book actually aims for. It's a pretty conventional popsci survey, limited by the scope of available research and eager to emphasize the cool and snazzy, but also a quick and easy read with a lot of fun implications. Parasitology is quite incredible, and there are a lot of neat vignettes here. McAuliffe isn't the most artful science writer out there, and it can definitely too journalistic at times, but she's competent enough to let the material shine for itself.
The problem is that its thesis is so far-reaching that it feels like a manifesto for a new generation of research in ecology, environmental history, evolutionary psychology, and political science. The science she cites is most solid in ecology, and also seems to have the most widespread import. She implies that parasites essentially function to bind together predator-prey relationships on a scale never imagined by past ecological theory. There's solid evidence already, and it seems ripe for further experimental and descriptive work to evaluate its true importance. On the other hand, parasitism and disease have been widely drawn upon as ecological organizing factors in the past, and McAuliffe makes no effort to link the new research she heralds to that prior framework, either to find continuity or departure. Regardless, it's an exciting paradigm, and I was particularly looking forward to seeing it linked up with the material I knew was coming later in the book.
Unfortunately, the broad ecological perspective of parasitic manipulation is more like an early feature than a defining theme of the book. Later sections are largely independent ideas: reviewing by-now rote ideas about gut microbes, and emphasizing the potentially vast and underestimated influence of the "behavioral immune system." There are some strong intuitive points on the disgust train of thought, but practically all of the research is speculative and dubious psychological experiments or epidemiological correlation stuff. I don't know how meaningful it is to say that it "feels" right or convincing, since it plays to my biases--it undermines free will by providing environmental explanations for social and individual histories.
All doubts aside, it toys with a lot of neat ideas and summarizes some exciting angles of research. My biggest gripes were large oversights that might just represent the limited state of the research. It's incomprehensible that she could write a book like this without ever discussing domestic animals. It's a whole arc in Guns, Germs, and Steel, which she mentions in passing, and it is seemingly a relatively well-known entry point for the modern western parasite load. Better-documented environmental history angles are overlooked as well, from the sanitary movement to changes in population density to international travel.
It occurred to me that a parasite-cultural theory might be particularly interesting and rich applied to Native America--how the relative absence of Eurasian and domestic animal-borne pathogens shaped cultural mores, trade, and institutions like slavery and "Mourning Wars." And then how those norms were exploited and altered by Old World organisms during the Colombian Exchange. I'm not saying McAuliffe should have engaged in such a project--the evidence may not even exist to do that work, and if it did, it would be at least it's own book's worth of material if not several.
As a source of inspiration for fiction, however, the book's limitations don't really hold it back. For ecological fantasy in particular, though also for social/cultural history worldbuilding, the parasite life cycle and its potential to be manipulative, deceptive, and shape social interactions and intentions is incredible. McAuliffe mentions a couple of notable influences in scifi/fantasy, like vampires (rabies) and more overt imagery like Alien's chest-bursting larvae. But that's superficial shit (though the rabies thing is remarkable if true) and there remains a huge potential to play with these ideas in deeper ways. ...more