Archive for November, 2013

The rarest important books of the twentieth century?

By Jon Agar, on 27 November 2013

Red Data Book Vol 1 Mammalia (1966)In 1966, two books were published that have a claim to being the rarest important books (in their original form) of the twentieth century. Ironically, their subject was rarity itself.

Red Data Book, Volume 1: Mammalia and Volume 2: Aves were the brainchild of the wildfowl conservationist Sir Peter Scott. They were published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). Scott was the chair of the IUCN’s Survival Service Commission. They are loose-leaf binders. Each sheet summarised the facts known about threatened or endangered species and subspecies. They are poignant and compelling compilations, aiming at comprehensiveness, of the next victims of the global, modern wave of extinction.

The reason why they are incredibly rare – in their original form – is that the books’ own readers were given instructions to destroy them, in part. To keep the books up-to-date, new sheets were posted every six month after publication. ‘To avoid confusion’, recommended the book’s introduction, ‘it will generally be found advisable to destroy original sheets removed from the volume when replacements are received’. This advice means that it is quite possible that no 1966 Red Book, in the form it was published in, has survived. Even the British Library’s copies have been updated. The first Red Data Books could be extinct.

The Red Data Books were extraordinarily influential. To say that a creature was a ‘Red Data’ species became a shorthand for rarity and the need for conservation. The template was copied. Volumes on plants, fish and invertebrates followed, as did national analogues. You can now find red data books of the lichens of Britain, the organisms of Malta, or the threatened birds of the United States.

The books were also read in surprising ways. For a listing of standardised data and references, the response of readers could be unexpectedly emotional. Here, for example, is the primatologist Russell Mittermeier, recalling his first encounter:

I still have fond memories of receiving in the mail my copy of the first Red Data Book… I was about 20 when I first received this publication, and it had a profound impact on me. I pored over every page, reading each one dozens of times, feeling awful about those species that were severely endangered, and resolving to dedicate my career to doing something on their behalf (quotation from 2000 IUCN Red List, p. xi).

The reason I am reading the Red Data Books is because I am tracing how science was used to redefine categories of threat to species in the twentieth century. The redefinition of the criteria for inclusion, basing them on quantitative population biology, is a later story, and is the main focus of my historical investigation. (Do get in touch – jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk – if this sounds interesting to you.) Nevertheless, the Red Data Books of 1966 are the key texts of this project to assess and categorise the threatened wildlife of the world.

This is what a sheet from a Red Data Book – for Cuvier’s hutia – looked like (plus a pic I found on the web):

Cuvier's hutia RDB vol 1 sheethutia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cuvier’s hutia (Plagiodontia aedium) is a medium-sized rodent that is spotted once in a blue moon in the forests of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. As the sheet notes, the creature was not recorded between Cuvier’s description of the type specimen in the 1830s and its rediscovery in 1947. The sheet describes some characteristics, a few scattered distribution facts, and possible reasons for decline (assuming it was ever common). It is a standardised template, deliberately so: gaps were left in plain view to encourage others to fill them with data. The Cuvier’s hutia sheet is white, which means that it was relatively unusual in its scarcity. The Red Data Books were colourful texts: ‘Pink sheets are used to draw attention to those mammals which are believed to be the most gravely endangered. Green sheets are used for mammals whose survival was at one time in question but which are now regarded as out of danger’. There almost no green sheets.

I’m interested in classification, and the criteria used to pigeonhole species. (There are fifteen pigeons and doves pigeonholed in volume 2.) If you look at the Cuvier’s hutia page, down at the bottom left, there is a ‘status category’ made up of letters and numbers. The key for decoding these is as follows. There’s a Category number, (a) or (b) to denote species or subspecies, sometimes some qualifying letters, and, for the rarest, stars:

Category 1. ENDANGERED. In immediate danger of extinction: continued
survival unlikely without the implementation of special protective measures
Category 2. RARE. Not under immediate threat of extinction, but occurring in
such small numbers and/or in such a restricted or specialised habitat that it
could quickly disappear. Requires careful watching
Category 3 DEPLETED…
Category 4 INDETERMINATE. Apparently in danger, but insufficient data
currently available on which to base a reliable assessment of status. Needs
further study

Star listing: *** Critically endangered
Symbols:
(a) Full species
(b) Subspecies
E Exotic, introduced or captive populations believed more numerous than
indigenous stock
M Under active management in a national park or other reserve
P Legally protected, at least in some part of its range
R Included because of restricted range
S Secrecy still desirable
T Subject to substantial export trade

Cuvier’s hutia is a 4(a), a frank – and frequently found – statement of lack of knowledge. The weird lemur, the Aye Aye was a 1(a)***, the Orang utan 2(a)**, and the Asiatic lion, 1(b)*P. The thylacine, almost certainly already extinct, was a 1(a)***P. A similar system was used for birds, so the Maui nukupuu, for example, was a 1(b)P***, and the enormous Monkey-eating eagle of the Philippines was a 1(a)PS***. These symbols are rather important, since the difference of a single letter might mean serious conservation effort or regretful neglect. The assessment was by expert judgement, either by the compilers (Noel Simon in the case of Mammalia and Jack Vincent for Aves) or by specialists of locality and taxon.

In a world of conservation success, the Red Data Books would be empty, every form having been discarded and the books entirely destroyed. In fact, the IUCN’s Red List is now an enormous online resource, which monitors over 70,000 species and lists over 20,000 of them as threatened. The IUCN’s criteria are one of the central organising standards of international conservation, and are even used, in their version 3.1 form, to categorise rare species on their Wikipedia pages (look under the picture, on the top right hand side, for example here).

It is this significance that invites historians’ attention. Why did they take the form they did? Why was the template so successful? Can we trace how they were read and used? What was the place and roles of science in shaping conservation knowledge and practice?

 

 

 

 

 

What’s your CHOICE?

By Jon Agar, on 26 November 2013

Material culture is crucial to understanding the history of science and technology, right?

It’s a lesson I’ve taught in many places over the years. One class project that I’ve enjoyed running with students from Manchester, Oxford, Harvard and here at UCL has been to ask them to come up with designs for an exhibition on modern science and technology.

I give them the dimensions of space and an unlimited budget (it is a fantasy, I know). They propose 10 objects, a design and rationale for both. They have always responded with imagination and flair. We discuss the assumptions made, the stories that are possible (and impossible) to tell, how visitors might respond, and what messages about science and technology’s past are most important. It’s a great class.

However, I’ve begun to notice a recurrent feature. Most of the stories that we want to tell are those that are sourced, first and foremost, from written history – history that is built from engagement with primary documents and secondary literature. This, I feel, shouldn’t be the case if material culture is a key to interpreting the major themes of past science and technology. There’s a danger of paying pious lip-service to the notion of the importance of material culture unless we can point to examples of where it matters.

So let me ask a question: what’s your CHOICE?

CHOICE stands for Crucial Historiographical Object in Collections or Exhibitions. I propose that a CHOICE has two ideal features:

1) a CHOICE object reveals significant, otherwise inaccessible, knowledge about a significant historical narrative.

2) materially, either in total or in part, a CHOICE represents a ‘fork in the road’, a moment of significant historical contingency, revealing how history could have been different.

Let me pick out a few words from these features and explain my thinking. Let’s start with ‘inaccessible’. I tend to come to interpreting objects *after* having read about their history. What I rarely – ever? – see is an object that reveals otherwise inaccessible knowledge. Believe me, I’m aware of the tacit knowledge debate, and that is, of course, a kind of relevant, otherwise inaccessible knowledge. But where are the examples of how otherwise inaccessible knowledge contributes to the large-scale historiographical narratives? When have they done so in the absence of written interpretations of the objects?

The key word – I’ve used it three times – is ‘significant’. I would very much like to show an object to students and be able to say: ‘See that? Because we can see that thing we must think of history differently’.

As a naive historian of science, CHOICEs are what I would want to find in a science museum or object collection. Not the only things for sure, but there – and emphasised – nonetheless.

It might be a question that is most relevant to thinking about modern collections. Modern science and technology has generated an immense documentary (as in textual) record that is, in practice if not in preaching, historians’ first and sometimes only port of call. For earlier history fewer documents survive and objects necessarily become our traces of evidence of the past. For most of human existence – prehistory – objects are the only sources we have. If you are studying Magdalenian culture, everything is a CHOICE.

One candidate might be the Science Museum’s rebuilt Difference Engine, of Charles Babbage fame. Only by rebuilding the object with tools and practices matching Victorian ones could it be shown that the scheme was feasible. Of course, we are only prompted to ask the question of feasibility because we know from written documents about the struggle to engineer such a device. Nevertheless, it might pass the tests of historiographical significance, inaccessibility of knowledge and contingency. On the other hand, it is not (if we are worried about authenticity, which we might not be) an ‘original’ object, and I’d like other examples.

So, curators! historians of science and technology! Tell me your CHOICE!

Either CHOICEs exist, in which case we have examples. Or CHOICES do not, in which case what is wrong with my historiographical expectations of scientific or technological objects? Either way, it should be interesting…

GMOs as chimaeric archives

By Jon Agar, on 22 November 2013

I was reading an otherwise very dry and sober account of different definitions of rarity of organisms, written in 1984, and was struck by this odd aside:

Indeed a time can be foreseen when genetic engineering will allow huge numbers of valuable genes to be stored as part of a composite living organism, an animal with multiple features from many species or a vast polyploid plant bearing a hundred different flowers and fruits from its branches.1

The bizarre idea seems to be that in a world of disappearing species, genetic diversity could be archived by combining them in the body of a single organism.

It’s a fantasy of a universal genetic chimaera. It brings up pictures to mind of a monster with the claws of a Siberian tiger, the strength of a mountain gorilla and the carapace of a sea turtle. An animal or plant Frankenstein made to blunt extinction. An Ark made flesh. An Ark of living wood.

I was wondering whether anyone knew of similar or related concepts? Perhaps in science, but maybe more likely from science fiction? It would be fascinating to know whether this suggestion was a single flash of the imagination or whether it has counterparts, a history or a context. If this rings any bells, then please leave a comment below.

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1. Paul Munton, ‘Concepts of threat to the survival of species used in Red Data Books and similar compilations’, in Richard and Maisie Fitter (eds.), The Road to Extinction: Problems of Categorizing the Status of Taxa Threatened with Extinction, Gland: IUCN, 1987, pp. 71-88, pp. 87-88.