Who do fossils belong to? The question is far from new: in various guises, it has preoccupied paleoscientists, museum curators, and occasionally officials for many years, although ongoing debates about the decolonization of science and natural history collections have renewed its significance. For my childhood self, the answer would have been simple: fossils belong to anyone who cares to be enchanted and educated by them. Adult life is undoubtedly more complicated. Here, I begin to sketch an answer with a reminder of what is at stake. As remnants of past geological ages, plant and animal fossils often belong to a time when the Earth’s physical geography was markedly different from now, to say nothing of its geopolitical organization. That their ownership matters today clearly indicates how science and politics intersect: fossils provide a scientific lens through which to investigate the deep past, but they also help to weave that past into the politics of the present and the making of the future.Continue reading “Owning the (Deep) Past: Paleontological Knowledge and the Political Afterlives of Fossils”
From Interest in Latin America to Contested Latin American Studies
Research on Latin America has long been a tradition in Germany and especially in Berlin, with interest dating back to Alexander von Humboldt’s expeditions (1799–1804). Early research focused on a distant region whose society and landscape, especially, were largely unknown in Germany. The aim was to explore this region and to produce new knowledge about the “other” in order to better understand the world in its complexity. From early on, decision-makers in political and economic arenas increasingly demanded detailed information about different regions of the world.
Johan Östling’s Humboldt and the Modern German University has been translated from Swedish into English. Even better, this Lund University Press publication is OpenAccess and can be downloaded as a PDF.
From the abstract:
By combining approaches from intellectual history, conceptual history and the history of knowledge, the study investigates the ways in which Humboldt’s ideas have been appropriated for various purposes in different historical contexts and epochs. Ultimately, it shows that Humboldt’s ideals are not timeless—they are historical phenomena and have always been determined by the predicaments and issues of the day.
Skepticism and debate are always welcome and are critically important to the advancement of science. . . . Skepticism that fails to account for evidence is no virtue.
The executive director of the American Meteorological Society, Keith Seitter, made this distinction about skepticism in his letter to the U.S. Secretary of the Department of Energy, Rick Perry, on June 21, 2017. In that letter, he bemoaned the secretary’s rejection of empirically based knowledge about climate change. At the same time, he underlined the importance of related research and of taking the resulting evidence seriously.
The stimulating blog Black Perspectives has published an online roundtable on Black Women and the Politics of Respectability that includes two posts clearly relevant to the history of knowledge. Instead of exploring the link between education and respectability that is familiar, for example, in European social history, these pieces scrutinize the special role played by respectability in African American communities as part of what W.E.B. Du Bois called “this sense of looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.”1 One response to this acute awareness of scrutiny in a racist society were “pedagogies of respectability,” produced for and circulated via black periodicals and films in the early twentieth century. See Jane Rhodes, “Race, Media, and Black Womanhood in the Early Twentieth Century” for more.
Ein Forscher, eine Forscherin ist meines Erachtens mit Abschluss der Promotion wissenschaftlich mündig.
After earning a PhD, a scholar has, in my opinion, reached academic adulthood.
I have only ever heard the German term Nachwuchs in an academic context, which I understood to be a label for people rather junior in the profession, “trainees” or “young ones,” if you will. The word sounds strange enough when talking about people with one or more books behind them, families, substantial teaching experience, and so on. Nachwuchs can even mean “offspring,” however, which fits perfectly with the parental term one uses in German for a dissertation advisor—Doktorvater or Doktormutter. Thus my translation of the above quotation, which comes from a worthwhile read by Karoline Döring on what Americans might call the status of scholars with “nontraditional” academic careers in Germany: “Wollen wir wirklich BeStI(e)n sein? Ein Plädoyer an und gegen ‘den wissenschaftlichen Nachwuchs,'” Mittelalter, February 13/14, 2017. (Don’t miss the comments.)
In my initial academic encounters with Germany in the late 1980s and early 1990s, one of the things that impressed me was the availability of handbooks as well as specialized encyclopedias such as Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. The textbook series Oldenbourg Grundriss der Geschichte was a new experience for me. Each volume offered a concise, chronologically organized survey (with key terms in the margins for rapid orientation), followed by a substantial historiographical discussion and bibliography. At the time, I did not appreciate the massive effort behind such compilation and systematization efforts. I just found these tools were quite practical for orienting myself in a given historical subject. Why didn’t we have such useful tools in the United States?