Taking Constructivist Criticism: A Review of Making Natural Knowledge:Constructivism and the History of Science

Book Review Jan Golinski.  Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science. 2nd edition with a New Preface, Chicago / London: Chicago University Press, 2005, xxii + 236 pp., illus., $25.00. ISBN-13: 978-0226302317 ISBN-10: 0226302318.  Kindle Edition cited here.

 

To my colleagues working in science: we‘re being watched.  Not by the NSA or the CIA, but by the HST, SSK, and HPS.  Significantly less scary than spy agencies, these groups are scholars in the fields of the History of Science, the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge, and the History and Philosophy of Science.  If you are a scientist working in an academic institution, you should know that these folks are working somewhere on your campus, tucked away wherever they put your liberal arts people and they are very interested in you.  You probably enjoy reading about the history of science or even find  History Channel documentaries fascinating entertainment, but these are not the same thing.

For instance, Jan Golinski authored a history of the history of science, Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science.  The University of New Hampshire professor, by way of Cambridge University (B.A and M.A.) and the University of Leeds (Ph.D.), offers an intellectual history. It is not a walk in the park, but it is a walk you should take, especially if you invested your college career acquiring credits for a bachelor of science degree and only took two or three humanities classes.  Golinski, like many historians of science, espouses the constructivist view of the subject. He outlines various categories of research into the activity we call science, claiming that “scientific knowledge is a human creation… rather than simply the revelation of the natural order… independent of human action” (Loc 473).

Golinski’s constructivist approach states that human choices and interpretations determine the knowledge product.  You are social actors, even in your role as scientists; therefore gaining scientific knowledge is contingent on an array of social factors such as your station on life, where you live, or your gender.  Your work is not merely about revealing the secrets of nature.  The layers of unknowing are not peeled back simply for their own sake. The author notes the history of science for the better part of four hundred years has been a history of glory. As it has been told until around the 1970s, a spark struck humanity; we progressed to the highest point of creation, fueled by the secrets of the universe we discovered in doing pure science.  Now, HST, SSK, and HPS make it all about you.  For example, Golinski offers up Biagioli’s 1993 work Galileo, Courtier which insists the astronomer’s scientific work must be comprehended in relationship to his position in the court of the Grand Duke of Tuscany.  Well, who doesn’t have an appreciation of their relationship with the signers of grant checks?

As Golinski follows the development of this approach to the history of science, he presents other theories besides his preferred constructivist view.  The “actor-network” theory of Bruce Latour, is especially interesting because you will find the topics and language quite familiar.  Latour and his researchers actually spent time in laboratories observing the work behaviors of scientists and technicians.  This ethnographical approach spotlights very practical aspects of generating scientific knowledge, marrying scientists to technology not only at the level of basic science but also for other end-users (Loc 928).  Latour calls this technoscience, which somewhat equates with “applied science” (Loc 3256).  He also recognizes the importance of instrumentation as an actor in the network, the same as humans.  Latour astutely assigned heavy prominence to metrology(Loc 1183).  “Things” are what they are solely because we say so.  We say so because our instruments can identify and measure them.  The onus returns to humans to place the appropriate controls around an experiment and to properly calibrate or standardize the instruments, so our “things” can be universally understood.  

To be fair, Golinski does not shoo Latour out the door.  The actor-network descriptions smacks of constructivism with an extra layer. For example, a story of Hobbes’s objection to Boyle’s air pump. “For Hobbes, a device of this kind was simply not an appropriate means of producing philosophical knowledge: ‘not everyone that brings from beyond seas a new gin, or other jaunty device, is therefore a philosopher. For if you reckon that way, not only apothecaries and gardeners, but many other sorts of workmen, will put in for, and get the prize’ (Loc 3140). Tell that to the creators of the Large Hadron Collider.  

                There are important themes addressed in this work.  Scientific knowledge as a product of human labor, changes in intuitional settings, fieldwork outside of the controlled environment of laboratories, inconsistencies of data from lab to lab—all these themes feed into an ultimate question: how pure, how true is science?  There is a mandate that science must be good because “Adherence to scientific reason is a constituent element of cultural belief in advanced industrial societies, even in countries like the US where a vast portion of the population also believes that the world was created in six days. The authority of science is thus a central vehicle in a technocratic democracy.”[1]   Making Natural Knowledge underscores the critical elements needed to fulfill that mandate.  Read it.

 

[1]Andrew Ross, “Cultural Studies and the Challenge of Science” in Disciplinarity and Dissent in Cultural Studies, Cary Nelson, Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar, eds. Psychology Press, 1996, p. 174).

 

Book Review: Reading Golinkski’s “Constructivist Bible” in its Third Decade

Jan Golinski. Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science (revised edition). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. 236 pp. $35.00. ISBN 0-226-30231-8.

In this text, now in its second printing and with a new preface from the author to show for it, Jan Golinski successfully makes a case for the application of a constructivist framework to the history of science. Tracing the use of constructivism in the field to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Making Natural Knowledge functions as an extended historiography of constructivism as applied to the study of science both historically and as a discipline. Golinski’s argument is reasonably straightforward and, to my eyes, not very contentious: constructivism, he says, has changed the way we study the history of science for the better. Constructivist studies have contributed to a richer, more complete understanding of how scientific knowledge can be (and has been) shaped from a variety of sociopolitical forces rather than simply discovered. Golinski seeks to encourage academics, and especially their students, to adapt this framework for future work. The book also functions as a necessary evaluation of the “state of the field” in which Golinski asks the reader to consider what science means as a discipline and how historians of science shape knowledge.

Golinski defines constructivism loosely as a methodological orientation that “[draws] attention to the central notion that scientific knowledge is a human creation, made with available material and cultural resources, rather than simply the revelation of a natural order that is pre-given and independent of human action” (6). Golinski frames constructivism in opposition to more traditional “Whig history,” which implies that the history of science is a march of progress toward a more perfect and complete understanding of the universe. This line of thinking suggests that there are natural realities and truths simply waiting to be discovered, and that it is the scientist’s job to make the discoveries and the historian’s job to recount them. Believing that the best case to be made for constructivism lies in its successful application, Golinski unites works of scholarship which forego this empirical, often teleological, approach in favor of an approach which emphasizes the role of “human beings as social actors” (6). He does so, it should be noted, with little regard for whether or not the scholars themselves considered the work constructionist, making “constructivism” more of a flexible tool than a strict doctrine.

Golinski makes smart organizational choices to make the book as functional and readable as possible. He chooses to organize his historiography thematically rather than chronologically, an organization which itself resists the urge to establish a narrative of progress and gradual enlightenment in favor of a more nuanced perspective. The first chapter is dedicated to what Golinski perceives as the roots of constructivism in application to the history of science; he traces this back to Kuhn and through the strong programme and SSK (the sociology of scientific knowledge) in the 1970s and ‘80s. The chapters that follow establish different thematic areas in which a constructivist approach in the scholarship has provided enlightenment on how scientific knowledge is made: the identity of the scientist, the locations where scientific knowledge is created (the laboratory and in the field, for example), the nature of scientific discourse, the representational techniques scientists use in experimentation and communication, and the “culture” of science. Finally, the book ends with a brief examination of the narratives historians of science can and should be telling in the constructivist tradition, acknowledging that the work of historians (telling stories about the past in a meaningful way that is not necessarily linear or progressive) is often “at cross-purposes with scientific practitioners’ own narrative understandings of the development of their fields” (192).

Golinski mentions in his new preface to the second edition that the book has found an audience with graduate and upper-level undergraduate students of the history of science. This is for good reason; the book is an excellent introduction to the field and to the scholastic opportunities constructivism presents for finding fresh angles on old stories. Graduate students will find scholars they are already familiar with tucked between new names, making this text a logical companion to other texts about historical methods and practice. Just this semester I read Foucault and Geertz for a class on historical methodology; in Making Natural Knowledge these foundational works serve as jumping-off points for Golinski’s exploration of different elements of constructivism, helping me draw the kinds of connections that make reading academic scholarship, and historiographies in particular, so rewarding.

Also in the new preface, Golinski insists that he is not defending constructivism, merely illustrating what the approach has offered thus far and suggesting possibilities for the future (xix). However, that’s obviously something of a misrepresentation; by listing out constructivist contributions to scholarship, he is implicitly arguing that the approach has been a success and that future scholars (for example, the graduate students reading the book) should consider it for their own work in lieu of other, more conservative, approaches. If he thought constructivism was no good, he wouldn’t have devoted a book to lovingly drawing out its historiography, so this half-hearted claim to neutrality seems unnecessarily coy. I wonder, too, what perceived need drove the creation of this book—was constructivism under attack from unnamed conservative scholars in the late 1990s? From where I’m standing, a product of a liberal arts education in 2014, the general approach Golinski highlights in this book seems de rigueur, to the point that it almost feels as though practicing scientists need this book more than historians do. A crop of historians raised on post-structuralism, as I sense my peers and I have been, may appreciate this book mostly because it puts a name and a lineage to the way we’ve been trained to think about history and provides insight into how this general approach can be brought into conversation with the sciences.  

Mosquito Empires: An Inference to Explanation, but Is it the Best Explanation?

McNeill, J.R. Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean 1620-1914. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-521-45910-5. Paperback. 390 pages.

Professor J.R. McNeill, Georgetown University, has accomplished an incredible achievement. To wit, he has more than accomplished his objective; he has excelled in its completion. No doubt a thesis that synthesizes nearly three hundred years of history, spans geographies as diverse as the “Greater Caribbean,” and explains the rise and fall of empires by appeal to one significant causal mechanism is the sort of ambitious goal dreamt of by graduate students, denied by their advising committees, and is only successfully realized by the most thoughtful, analytic, clever, and courageous scholars. McNeill is a member of the rare class of academic scholars, satisfying the lattermost conditions.

The accomplishment, of course, is Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 (hereafter: “ME”). Broadly, McNeill’s thesis is this: quests for wealth and power changed ecologies in the Greater Caribbean, and these changes, in turn, shaped empires, wars, and revolutions, between 1620-1914 (2). More specifically, McNeill argues through a wealth of case studies that ecological conditions resulting from a plantation economy were such that mosquitoes carrying yellow fever and malaria enjoyed optimal breeding conditions. These mosquitoes, the carriers of diseases, are but one side of the coin. At the heart of McNeill’s argument is the notion of “differential immunity” (4): the state of affairs in which particular classes of peoples, namely recently-immigrated and visiting Europeans, are more susceptible to infection than other classes, namely, to a small extent, some indigenous populations but mostly African-born slaves brought to the Greater Caribbean to fuel the very plantation economy that sparked the proliferation of yellow fever and malaria via mosquitoes.

The pillars of McNeill’s argument, then, are two-fold: first, the sugar-plantation-driven “creole ecology” (23) of the Atlantic coastal regions, referred to by McNeill as the “Greater Caribbean, was such that human-directed ecological change coupled with an influx of African slaves introduced yellow fever and malaria to the region via mosquitoes. Of course this introduction of disease by itself presumably would help or hinder all parties with equal consequence—no different than crowd diseases, “which played a fairly consistent role in world history” (10). It is this crucial second premise McNeill needs to make his case: “differential immunity” ensured that yellow fever and malaria would disproportionately impact recent residents of the Greater Caribbean more so than others. This differential immunity, all other things being equal, made the geopolitical difference in the region and explains the significance of mosquitoes in the shaping of Greater Caribbean history.

McNeill’s argument is a significant contribution to environmental history, military history, and the histories of empire and revolution during the stained centuries of the Atlantic slave trade. His argument shows the unconsidered effects of human environmental agency while simultaneously lifting up factors of human non-agency as significant drivers of ecological and geopolitical change. ME flirts with environmental determinism, but it is noted that although ecological changes influence history in ways human actors could not predict, these changes are brought about only by human agency (6). This distinction may appear subtle, but it is appropriate to make clear McNeill’s stance as to respond to the potential objector who worries that McNeill’s framework is deterministic.

Considerations of ME, however, are not wholly without complaint. In the remaining paragraphs I will raise two worries of my own: first, I take it as uncontroversial that McNeill thinks he is providing a causal explanation, the best explanation, of the geopolitical changes in the Greater Caribbean between the 17th and 20th centuries. I worry that in service of rhetoric, McNeill sacrifices thoroughgoingness; by this I mean to say that his appeal to mosquitoes as the agents of historical change appears prima facie justified, but I worry that his argument may suffer damage from closer scrutiny. My second worry is this: McNeill may have missed the forest for the trees. I will argue that a meta-narrative could be argued for using ME, but when McNeill has the opportunity to connect the dots, so to speak, at the bookends of his work, he misses a greater point. That is, power begets power—and I don’t discount the irony of my own deterministic leanings inherent in this claim. I will take these worries in turn.

It is wise of McNeill to begin ME with a rough sketch of his argument. If McNeill can get his reader on board with his thesis in the first few pages, the balance of the book seems to just fall out of these central ideas. This is an effective argument strategy, but effectiveness strategies and sound arguments are not perfectly correlated. I want to pause and temper my remarks before continuing: undoubtedly the central features of McNeill’s argument are well supported. Indeed, human agency influenced ecological change in ways agents would not anticipate. Indeed, differential immunity was a difference maker. ME is a well-reasoned defense of an exciting contribution to history, as noted above. My worry is not plainly that McNeill is wrong. I have a more nuanced complaint. I worry that if McNeill’s project is to explain geopolitical changes in the Greater Caribbean during the 17th through 20th centuries, is the mosquito the primary actor?

The mosquito is the carrier of yellow fever and malaria. Yellow fever and malaria are the essential ingredients to both the successful and failed attempts at empire expansion and revolution. It would seem from this simple analysis that the mosquito is the best explanation of historical change. I argue that mosquitos are the consequence of more fundamental events.

One way to test for identifying the explanatory cause of an event is to consider counterfactually what would happen in the absence of the identified cause. McNeill leaves us with little insight as to what would happen just if the mosquito had not been present. McNeill explains that an influx of slaves brought disease to the Greater Caribbean, plantation conditions facilitated the breeding of mosquitoes, no disease among Cornwallis’s troops may have left would-be United States more fractured across North/South lines, and without certain hospital practices (planting beds in buckets of water to prevent crawling insects, or grouping patients by ethnicity) disease may not have spread so readily. These are pristine examples of difference making differences that counterfactually explain what would have happened in their absence. However, when a critical reader wonders what would have happened had their been no mosquitoes, McNeill is silent. In the opening argument McNeill baldly asserts mosquitoes as dramatis personae (3). I wonder why the book could not be titled Differentially Immune Empires or Medically Inept Empires. It’s not clear to me why the phenomena explained by appeal to mosquitoes are not equally well explained by other factors. No doubt mosquitoes are explanatorily relevant to the geopolitics of the Greater Caribbean (I repeat my point, McNeill isn’t wrong), but I’m curious if he’s provided evidence that mosquitoes are the best explanation of ecology and geopolitics.

My first worry calls into question the explanatory priority of the causal mechanisms at work in the geopolitics of Atlantic coastal communities during the Atlantic slave trade, in this sense I complain about an ordering of reasonably inferred facts. My second worry is much more interpretative in nature. I fear that when bookending ME, McNeill has failed to acknowledge his work as both beginning and ending with the search for empire propagated by wealthy nations.

The colonization of the Greater Caribbean and Americas is nothing short of the search for wealth, resources, and laborers (McNeill makes this point, 3). The story of ME is imperialism highlighted by unforeseen consequences. In his conclusion McNeill explains the groundbreaking work of US Army doctor Walter Reed and one of his “converts” future Surgeon General William Gorgas. It was America’s investment in mosquito population control and prevention that helped to eradicate yellow fever and malaria in Cuba and the Panamanian Canal Zone. McNeill is explicit that this creates an opportunity for America to expand unabated by the diseases we’ve discussed throughout. Says McNeill, “[i]n effect, the rich got healthier and the healthy got richer (and more powerful)” (313). McNeill does acknowledge his worry that perhaps the health revolution will never become universal (ibid.), but the interpretation not made explicit is that geopolitics are shaped by the unforeseen consequences of human agency. This is not determinism, but it is a failing for humans to account for their own actions. If McNeill were to turn toward prescriptiveness, this is the position to take up.

When Yellow Was Not A Cheerful Color: A Review of J.R. McNeill’s Mosquito Empires

Book Review: J. R. McNeill, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 371 pages. $95.00 (cloth); $24.99 (paper); $20.00 (e-book). ISBN: 978-0-521-459105.

J.R. McNeil’s compelling tale of nature’s part in human history begins with an account of doomed British soldiers and sailors dispatched to take Cartagena, Columbia, from the Spaniards. The retelling of the deaths of 22,000 men out of 29,000 in 1741, mostly from disease, sets the tone of this highly readable book.  McNeill outlines a familiar political history of the Caribbean.  First the Spaniards arrived, followed by Portuguese, French, British, and Dutch who all desired the rich resources of the Caribbean.  He then documents the most powerful of invaders—mosquito-borne diseases—and their lethal, cyclic rule.

McNeill, an environmental historian on the faculty of Georgetown University, clearly proposes that Europeans in search of wealth in the seventeenth through twentieth centuries changed the ecology of the greater Caribbean.  In turn, the changes in the environment unleashed a deadly force in the form of diseases that proved as much a driving force in the area’s history as the human desire for Empire.  That thesis rests on the wings of the female Aedes aegypti and Anopheles quadrimaculus mosquitos.  Their fragile appearance misleads because, as this book reveals, the agents of yellow fever and malaria traveling within their bodies managed to take anthropocentric history down a notch or two.

By dividing the work into three parts, McNeill keeps tabs on the effect of mosquito-borne diseases on economics, military imperial encroachment, and revolutionaries as they fought to shake off rule from across the Atlantic.  Part One sets the stage and names the players that will participate in three hundred years of struggle.  In Part Two, he relates how later arriving Europeans not only fought the established Spaniards with their creole troops already “seasoned” with immunities, but also very powerful diseases.  The author’s three-part strategy does more than provide convenient break points.  It builds on familiar history and then demonstrates how the political power of the region could not be budged by newcomers because of the yellow fever and ecological changes.  In Part Three, when the readers are primed for the importance of disease in the maintenance or gaining of military power, McNeill, brings in some very surprising ideas about the shift of dominance to young nations, including the new United States.  

Because his thesis advances environmental theories, his methods rely upon thoroughly instructing the reader in the biology, behavior, and barrios of mosquitoes.  He examines the establishment of Spanish sugar plantations on the islands.  These labor-intensive operations encouraged the slave trade opened the door for diseases from West Africa.  These were diseases that the Africans either successfully achieved a beneficial biological adaptation or individually acquired immunity.  Once the diseases and their vectors reached the New World, they needed only to wait for new non-immune visitors to continue their life cycles.  Certain agricultural practices and urban water management provided the physical environment necessary for the mosquitoes thrive.

The forty-seven page bibliography consists of fourteen archives and ten pages of material that originated before 1850, including rich primary sources such as memoirs, travel diaries, and military records.  Another list (thirty six pages) of books, dissertations, and other documents generated after 1850 help speak for the author.  Unfortunately, his references are not broken down into primary and secondary sources.  Several citations that give the impression that they are directly taken from primary sources were actually quoted in secondary sources.  For example, words of Major General Robert Sedgwick were actually quoted by S.A.G. Taylor in his work The Western Design: An Account of Cromwell’s Expedition to the Caribbean, written in 1969.  Another lengthy block quote from a colonist is quoted from Hart’s work in 1929.[1]

Because his thesis advances environmental theories, McNeill’s methods rely upon thoroughly instructing the reader in the biology, behavior, and barrios of mosquitoes.  He examines the establishment of Spanish sugar plantations on the islands.  As these labor-intensive operations encouraged the slave trade, a door was opened for diseases from West Africa that the Africans either successfully achieved a biological adaptation or individually acquired immunity.  Once the diseases and their vectors reached the New World, they only had to wait for new non-immune visitors to continue their life cycles.  Certain agricultural practices and urban water management provided the physical environment necessary for the mosquitoes thrive.

In this work, the footnotes cannot be ignored by historians.  McNeill rolls a great deal of information and interpretive rationale into the endnote citations and many, I believe, should have been in the body of the book.  In them, one finds comments such as “the biologists I consulted on this point uniformly accepted the idea of heritable immunity.” These biologists might in the long list of individuals recognized in the Acknowledgments section, but the names and the ideas are not otherwise connected.  On the other hand, a non-historian—or anyone not inclined to navigate through a Sargasso Sea of footnotes—can easily read and enjoy the book.  

Taking these three developed parts together, it is easy to see how this work expands the historiography of multiple topics.  It not only increases the documented political and military history of the Caribbean, but also pulls the United States into the story of the other Americas in a way not associated with US imperialism.  Most epidemic histories emphasize the effect of disease as “swords… scything down…populations.”[2]  This book demonstrates how military powers used disease to their advantage.  Mosquito Empires takes an important place in the burgeoning historiography of the nexus of disease and human endeavors, a field in part engendered by McNeill’s father, William H McNeill, who wrote Plagues and People in 1976.  According to the University of Chicago’s website, the elder “forged that path with a sweeping book that took a new approach to disease history.”  The Oxford University Press rejected the Plagues and People manuscript, saying it was “too speculative.”  The non-academic Anchor Press ultimately published his book.[3]  In the same way, today a medical professional reading Mosquito Empires (published by the Cambridge Press) might squirm over the younger McNeill’s retrospective diagnosis of disease, but the massive amount of research, clearly presented evidence, and the growing acceptance of environmental theories ensure that the sins of the father are not visited upon the son.

 

[1]The work referred to is Francis Russell Hart 1929. The Disaster of Darien: The Story of The Scots Settlement And The Causes Of Its Failure. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin).

[2] J.R. McNeill, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. p.10

[3] The University of Chicago Magazine Website. http://magazine.uchicago.edu/1008/features/a-germ-of-an-idea.shtml. Accessed 3/31/2014.

Mosquitos and Memory: A Review of J.R. McNeill’s Mosquito Empires

J.R. McNeill

Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

371pp. $25.99

ISBN 9780521459105

J.R. McNeill’s Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 is an excellent reassessment of imperial machinations in the Caribbean. In Mosquito Empires, McNeill argues that the mosquitos Aedes aegypti and Anopheles quadrimaculatus, the vectors of yellow fever and malaria, respectively, were major agents of historical change. For McNeill, yellow fever epidemics (and to a lesser extent, malaria) shaped the course of Caribbean history. McNeill illustrates his point with several case studies ranging from failed colonization attempts such as the Scots at Darien and the French at Kourou to military campaigns in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Yellow fever epidemics kept rival imperial powers at bay (in the case of the British invasion of Cuba) and later kept European metropolitan powers from suppressing Caribbean revolutions such as those in Haiti and Cuba. European armies could always defeat local Caribbean armies on the battlefield, but they never had the levels of immunity to yellow fever that local populations made up of European colonists, African slaves, and Native Americans had.

McNeill’s argument is clearly influenced and in the tradition of Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism, an oft-cited and groundbreaking work that assesses the impact imperial expansion had on ecologies both on the imperial periphery and in the metropole. Crosby illustrates the impact livestock and other invasive species had on the New World, and McNeill definitely follows this methodology when discussing the role that plantation economies had in unintentionally creating landscapes perfect for mosquito reproduction. European colonists cleared massive tracts of forests to make room for both livestock and plantation agriculture. This created space for stagnant water and also provided many hosts for the mosquitos in the form of livestock. Additionally, the constantly damp environments of Caribbean port cities like Havana, New Orleans, and St. Domingue provided mosquitos with better breeding habitats and a large population of human hosts, making these cities ripe for yellow fever epidemics. Most notably, McNeill notes that the transatlantic slave trade directly brought yellow fever and malaria-carrying humans and mosquitos to the New World. He points out the irony of diseases originally brought to the Americas via the slave trade eventually helping end it in places like Haiti, where revolting slaves simply had to wait for invading British and French armies to whither and die from epidemics. 

McNeill’s discussion of the landscapes of plantation economies (from plantation fields to the ports that exported their goods) as incubators of deadly epidemics was one of the most impactful parts of the book. For me, it showed that even the very landscape produced by the slave trade produced mass death. This exploration of a further dark side of the often idyllically portrayed plantation system further underscored my own support and desire for a revamped historical interpretation at plantation sites throughout the American South, which outside of a few on the Eastern Seaboard still mainly interpret the plantation as a charming historical home with little to no discussion of the institution that they represented. This is in keeping with new developments in the field. In a session titled “Living Landscapes” that I attended at the National Council on Public History’s annual meeting, Anne Lindsay of the University of Central Florida argued for a change in the way plantation homes are interpreted. She advocated a new form of interpretation that brings the landscape to the forefront instead of the home itself. This book, with its discussion of how land clearing, livestock, and the slave trade made large disease-carrying mosquito populations explode, could make this prospect even more feasible and connect it to the issue of human impact on the environment. McNeill’s book also briefly mentions huge yellow fever epidemics in New Orleans, which aren’t discussed much in New Orleans historical sites. This also really made me think about historical events that communities choose to remember versus those that they choose to forget.

Another aspect of Mosquito Empires that provides a much-needed corrective to traditional narratives is McNeill’s discussion of military campaigns throughout the Caribbean. One thing I’ve noticed with the majority of military history books is that they will briefly mention the greater amount of casualties caused by disease during pre-twentieth century wars, but quickly return to a focus on generals and battles. McNeill (and a book that he cites, Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Course of the American Civil War) is part of a growing historiography that shifts military history to focus on disease, medicine, and science. When one considers that the overwhelming majority of deaths in pre-twentieth century wars were due to disease, it becomes obvious that our knowledge of what these diseases were, how rampant they were, and the impact that they had on the outcomes of war have been underrepresented in historiography. McNeill explores Cornwallis’ campaigns in the American South during the American Revolution and comes to the conclusion that mosquito-borne illness, not American and French battlefield superiority, ultimately drove him to surrender at Yorktown. He sarcastically ponders the absence of monuments to the mosquito at the Yorktown battlefield, and frankly, this is a very good point. In popular American memory of WWII, the rampant amount of diseases such as malaria in the Pacific Theater is almost unknown outside of recent productions like HBO’s The Pacific. In most of human history, armies in the tropics have literally been composed of very sick men, yet this image is practically unheard of in popular ideas about the American Revolution, the American Civil War, and WWII.

Mosquito Empires is an excellent work of ecological and environmental history. McNeill is also excellent at telling the story of a region, the Caribbean, rather than one limited to a particular nation. There are a couple of gripes I have with the book, but those are limited to his reliance on shaky evidence for retroactive diagnosis and his chapter on the United States in Cuba and Panama, which I found engaging but much too short when compared with the other chapters. This is a very readable work that synthesizes historiography and scientific literature into a fascinating discussion of how the annoying mosquito shaped the Caribbean. It is a pity that this method of combining natural and environmental history with political and military history is not more widely used in historic sites such as plantations. That’s up to the next generation of historians.

Book Review: Dancing at the “Cotillion of Co-Evolution” with J.R. McNeill’s Mosquito Empires

John R. McNeill, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010). ISBN: 978-0-521-459105. Paperback. 371 pages. $25.99.

In Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914, environmental historian and Georgetown University professor John R. McNeill advances the arguments offered by Alfred W. Crosby in The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (1972). Crosby argued that the story of Columbus could and should be understood in an ecological framework, as an exchange of diseases (particularly smallpox), plants, and animals from old world to “new”; McNeill continues this line of argumentation chronologically, tracing the connection between ecology, disease, and imperialism in the greater Caribbean through the age of high imperialism and up to the beginning of World War I. Using an abundance of case studies, McNeill moves through time and space with dexterity, crafting a clearly-presented argument that acknowledges the important mutual relationship through which humans manipulate their environment and this ecology, in turn, acts as an agent of historical change in human affairs. As McNeill says in his introduction, “humankind and nature make their own history together, but neither can make it as they please” (6).

Although laid out with elegant simplicity, McNeill’s argument is deceptively complex: in the Greater Caribbean, creole ecologies created by the invasive imperialism practiced by white Europeans during this period served as the perfect breeding ground for mosquitos (brought over on European ships) carrying yellow fever and malaria. Local indigenous populations and early colonizers built up some immunity to these diseases, but those from higher latitudes possessed no such immunity, and new waves of military troops and civilians bent on further colonization provided the mosquitos with fresh supplies of humans to infect. This imbalance (McNeill calls it differential immunity) allowed native and local populations to remain relatively healthy while new arrivals perished in crippling numbers, essentially a reverse of the pattern set during the Columbian exchanges. The eventual result was, McNeill contends, that disease played a powerful role in complicating imperial efforts and often tipped the scales in favor of revolting and rebelling indigenous populations. European imperialists laid the ecological groundwork for their own destruction by importing, unwittingly breeding, and feeding the mosquitos which carried diseases primed to kill them.

It is to McNeill’s credit that he makes this complicated argument, spread over centuries and a reasonably large geographical area, accessible even to non-scholars. When necessary he uses scientific terminology like differential immunity (acquired when exposure to a disease makes individuals more resistant to re-infection) and herd immunity (conferred upon a whole population when a certain number of individuals possess immunity, cutting off the disease’s ability to circulate effectively) clearly, always careful to define how his use of the terminology is applicable to his argument. McNeill is similarly unafraid to adapt or create words of his own, allowing him to be both specific and concise. In the first chapter he defines the geographical spread of the work by establishing the term “Greater Caribbean” in reference to the “Atlantic coastal regions of South, Central, and North America, as well as the Caribbean islands themselves, that in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries became plantation zones” (2). This allows him to move freely between Cuba and the Southern United States, between Haiti and Surinam, in service of his argument without particular concern for modern geopolitical boundaries. Perhaps the best example of this technique in action is the phrase “creole ecology,” a concept that beautifully encapsulates the process by which European imperialists, through trade and agriculture, unwittingly shaped the land they conquered into the ideal breeding ground for imported mosquitos and created a “motley assemblage of indigenous and invading species, jostling one another in unstable ecosystems” (23).

McNeill carefully cultivates a light, almost conversational writing style that makes reading this substantial book a real pleasure. Robust footnotes allow the text itself to flow like a cohesive narrative, undoubtedly appealing to non-scholarly readers, while scholars need only look to these footnotes for a wealth of primary evidence and historiographical connections. He doesn’t shy away from humor or the occasional colorful rhetorical flourish (as when he calls “the mutual and reciprocal impacts of geopolitics and ecology” a “cotillion of co-evolution”), even when it might threaten to damage his credibility to some readers (7). McNeill acknowledges that he is privileging a readable and entertaining narrative over the “standards of the historical profession” by describing 17th century medical practices in less-than-neutral terms (63). He’s equally up-front in anticipating accusations of environmental determinism (or “mosquito determinism”), admitting in the introduction that the elevation of one factor of historical change in an argument (in this case, disease) sometimes necessarily requires downplaying other contributing factors (6). Getting this out of the way early and clearly prevents endless hedging and caveats throughout the book. It’s refreshing to find an author willing to pull back the curtain and let the reader see how the sausage is made; I’d argue that in a book this complex, that straightforwardness is necessary.

If I have a concern about McNeill’s occasional tendency to sacrifice subtlety for readability, it’s that he often finds himself in the position of using historical accounts to diagnose diseases, primarily yellow fever and malaria but also dengue, smallpox, and others. As a caveat of my own, I’ll acknowledge that I don’t have much experience with this technique as a form of historical evidence, and I’m not nearly as familiar with the symptoms of these diseases as McNeill is. However, this seems like a risky endeavor; modern scientists, doctors, and historians understand these diseases completely differently than they did two or three hundred years ago, and there’s considerable crossover of symptoms. Misdiagnosis from historical accounts would be easy to do, but McNeill sometimes has to stand on this shaky ground or he’d have nothing to work with. In other cases, McNeill makes deductive leaps from data that I don’t think quite proves his case; for example, when discussing malaria in the Southern U.S. during the American Revolution, he points to the fact that 77% of deaths of people under twenty in a parish in Charleston occurred during the malaria season (209). This correlation is certainly suggestive of a malarial epidemic, but I don’t think it’s sufficient to prove causation or eliminate other possible causes of death. Some things historians can never know for certain, and that can’t and shouldn’t prevent them from trying to tackle important topics anyway, but every once in a while a minor crack like this appears in the armor of McNeill’s argument.

Mosquito Empires is a valuable addition to the fields of environmental history and the history of the age of imperialism. It’s not a complete historical account of the myriad complex factors and historical agents that impacted European imperialism in the Greater Caribbean, but then it doesn’t claim to be. What it is, however, is clear, well-reasoned, honest about its contributions and limitations, and fun to read. In a way it’s also powerfully provocative; the fundamental argument of the book encourages the reader to think critically about the changes humans have wrought on their ecology, and the consequences these ecological changes can in turn have for shaping human events. We might do well to note the parallels as the chickens of our own heavily-industrialized society—species extinction and climate change—come home to roost.

Wikipedia, Women Scientists, and the Dr. Zoidberg Problem

Noam Cohen’s New York Times article “Define Gender Gap? Look Up Wikipedia’s Contributor List” includes an example from Sue Gardner that sums up the absurdity of Wikipedia’s gender problem: a comparison between the Wikipedia articles devoted to author Pat Barker and  Grand Theft Auto IV protagonist Nico Bellic. Cohen notes that at the time of the comparison, Bellic’s Wikipedia page was five times as long as Barker’s.

This juxtaposition of Barker, an author of beautiful, haunting novels about WWI poets with Bellic, a ridiculous fictional character embodying every Slavic stereotype down to the tracksuit, could not serve as a better illustration of the gender issues faced by Wikipedia.

Unfortunately, the juxtaposition of a key female contributor to a field with a random video game character is not unique to novelists. It is almost too easy to see a disparity between articles on female scientists with fictional male scientists. For example, let’s compare the length and citation amounts of articles about female scientists that I randomly selected from a list of wiki articles that had been improved with the express purpose of better-representing female scientists with those of articles about fictional male scientists.  These comparisons show that even with a concerted effort to improve Wikipedia’s coverage of female scientists, these articles still manage to occupy little editorial attention when compared with those on fictional male scientists.

Round 1:

Rosalind Pitt-Rivers, key thyroid researcher

Dr. Zoidberg, noted anthropomorphic lobster

While Pitt-Rivers was a discoverer of one of the thyroid hormones and a leading expert in the field, her article’s length is no match for Dr. Zoidberg’s, who manages to claw his way to the top of this bracket. However, both of these articles share a similar number of citations (9 for Pitt-Rivers, 8 for Zoidberg). The research is out there, but not being utilized in this case.

Round 2:

Janet Niven, developer of vaccine against scrub fever, member of Royal Army Medical Corps, and viral researcher.

Miles, “Tails” Prower, sidekick to Sonic the Hedgehog and “mechanical prodigy.”

This even further illustrates the problem. Niven’s article is almost stub-length and only has four citations. The article for Miles Prower is massive in comparison; it even has thirty-five (!) citations. This comparison is so lopsided as to seem unfair on my part, so let’s be more generous and compare the article on Miles “Tails” Prower with a Wikipedia article on a more famous female scientist, Sally Ride.  Sally Ride’s article has forty citations, but although her entry is much longer than both those of Pitt-Rivers and Niven, it still manages to be much shorter than the article on the fictional scientist and prodigious Miles Prower.

What do these comparisons show us? I would argue that they illustrate the gender gap in Wikipedia editing. Unfortunately, Wikipedia editors tend to skew towards a male, tech-oriented demographic that values things that they consider important. In this case, it’s quite clear that fictional male videogame and sitcom scientists occupy a much larger space in Wikipedia’s radar than the scientific contributions and careers of actual, real-world female scientists.

Although this sample size is small, I invite the reader to compare articles on Data, Gordon Freeman, Doc Brown, with any number of female scientists. If you want to abandon the model of looking at fictional male scientists, take a look at the massive entry on Nikola Tesla, noted idol (although a real-world figure, his accomplishments are grossly exaggerated online) of the tech demographic, with the articles on Marie Curie or Ada Lovelace. While the articles on Curie and Lovelace are extensively cited, the amount of text devoted to them pales in comparison to that devoted to Tesla, the quintessential “mad scientist” archetype that appeals to Wiki’s current editorial demographic.

As of now, Wikipedia’s editors skew heavily towards an Anglophone, male, and tech-oriented demographic. This brief comparison of articles on key female scientists with articles on fictional male scientists further underscores the need for a concerted effort to get more women working as Wikipedia editors.