This coming week Rob and I will both be traveling to the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) annual conference in Madison, Wisconsin. I really enjoy the ASEH conference each year. I have been to the last several, co-presented a poster at one and organized a panel at another. There are many reasons to like ASEH; great panels, interesting participants, useful workshops. The reason I like ASEH so much is that it attracts a number of presenters and participants who have science and technology backgrounds and training. I am fascinated every year by papers on topics ranging from historical GIS to scientific nomenclature to apples to wolf migration. Granted, this is a history conference but I have to say, I go for the science…which may be like subscribing to Penthouse for the articles. I don’t normally get to hear people talk about science in my day to day world so I look forward to hearing about scientific topics, albeit in historical context, at ASEH.
Let me start by saying that I really like science. I loved my science classes in high school, especially biology, but I didn’t get to take any science courses in college. In my next life I plan to be an evolutionary biologist (if I can squeeze it in when I finally get a full time job I might start working on a degree). Maybe it is the historian in me that draws me to evolutionary biology, I don’t know, but there I am watching all the documentaries on Netflix and standing in the “Biology etc.” aisle at Books a Million with three creepy nerds who seem to be wondering if I am lost.
I really want to read more biology. I borrowed a biology textbook from a friend last summer and have made it through most of the book… absolutely fascinating stuff but complicated, even though it was just a BIO 101 textbook for non-majors. There are lots of articles (especially about the Genome project) out there that I would like to understand better but I just don’t have the background. Science and Nature certainly have pieces that are interesting and accessible to a general audience, including me, but I am constantly aware when I glance through these publications that I don’t know shit about science! Forget knowing which president came before Lincoln, what caused the Civil War, or why 20th century refugee policy was, at best, ad hoc, what about knowing how my circulatory system works, or where my spleen is located. I am unable to explain why the sky is blue beyond knowing that it has something to do with light and reflections and the sun. Let me reiterate: I spent 30 years in formal education on 2 continents, I have a high school diploma, an AAS, a BA, an MA, a PhD, and come May a CAS and I am currently not able to answer basic questions about my own biology or this planet’s basic characteristics! I wonder if science faculty bemoan the lack of scientific awareness in modern society the way historians bemoan the lack of historical awareness?
I have to admit that I read history because it is my job. I don’t read history for fun. I don’t take David McCoullough, Eric Foner or John Bodnar to the park on a summer day. I take Matt Ridley, Bryan Sykes and Natalie Angier. They write popular science books and I read them the way others read popular history. I admire science writers who can take jargon saturated theories, studies, data etc. and craft narratives that people, like me, can understand. I wonder if scientists roll their eyes at these authors the way academic historians roll their eyes at popular historians? I hope not.
Science, and especially my interest in biology, springs to mind every year when ASEH rolls around. I think it is because at ASEH I see historians engaging with science and scientists. By engaging with scientists and science I think historians offer these brilliant women and men and their disciplines and sub-disciplines the respect they are due. Up here on the banks of the Stillwater, I hear humanities folks belittling science and scientists. I think this is unfortunate and points to a dangerous preoccupation among some in the humanities to diss anything that falls outside their comfort zone. Is this really the behavior we want to model for students? ASEH stands out to me as a place where science and history talk to each other. Maybe it isn’t a perfectly linear conversation but there is something going on just below the surface at ASEH that could serve as a model for other sub-disciplines in history. I am not an environmental historian or a scientist, I don’t think I am evolved enough in my thinking to be either…but maybe in my next life I will be.