Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Science for the History of Science: An Imperfect Tool

· March 3rd, 2021 · No Comments

By Whitney Barlow Robles

If given the option to expand my already-lengthy article, “The Rattlesnake and the Hibernaculum,” which appeared in the January 2021 William & Mary Quarterly—well, I would probably decline for fear of losing my reader in its serpentine folds. If forced to expand my essay, on the other hand, I would have probed yet one more methodological challenge I faced when trying to access the elusive lives of historical animals: how to use recent scientific research to interpret the past without giving science the last word.

One reviewer wrote of my use of contemporary scientific studies: “This is not an uncommon feature in human-animal studies . . . but it risks treating the products of a particular historical moment and cultural space—e.g., the epistemological assumptions of naturalists working in the present time—as having universal truth.” I tend to agree. I included one sentence as a nod to my reviewer, describing such studies as “an imperfect window into the animal world, past and present,” which can nevertheless help historians unpack early modern sources about the environment. But the dilemma has plagued me for years. As a former science writer and editor by trade and the co-author of a scientific article myself, I’m comfortable wading through journals like Science, Nature, PNAS, and Herpetologica, parsing materials and methods sections, and pondering p-values. There is a danger, however, that in employing such research we make the past seem too pat. How can we draw on this robust domain of knowledge, using it as another tool in the animal historian’s armamentarium, without taking such studies at face value or assuming today’s biologists have finally reached the truth of how animals really are? How can recent research deepen and multiply our questions instead of simply answering them, making the animals of the past murkier, stranger?Moreover, if animals, like humans, change over time—as animal historians are often out to prove—how can we claim such studies tell us anything at all about the nonhumans of centuries ago?

I have tried to steer a middle course. Drawing on such studies can, in fact, be a means of historicizing and even critiquing modern-day research. I approach a scientific journal article as I do any other document: not as a privileged source of information, but as the product of particular people in a particular historical moment, and therefore rife with its own blinders and biases. And yet, when used alongside a variety of other sources, contemporary biology offers a critical body of evidence that can help us piece together some semblance of these animal beings as beings and not just human constructions invented on paper.

For example, my article draws on scientific research through its discussions of rattlesnake kinship networks, noticed only very recently by Western biologists. Despite their longstanding reputation as solitary animals, timber rattlesnakes in fact have complex social worlds. Reading scientific articles about rattlesnake communities, familial ties, and the close bonds among females, in particular, helped me interpret eighteenth-century sources with fresh eyes: the social lives of rattlesnakes surfaced again and again in my historical material, hidden in plain sight. This revelation helped me see why early modern violence toward basking groups of rattlesnakes proved so devastating. Female snakes, suggested by herpetologists to be of paramount importance to the survival of each community of timber rattlers, bask together in the sun, especially while gestating their young. And it was these highly visible aggregations of slow-moving, sunbathing snakes that settlers targeted with avarice. They extinguished two generations simultaneously with each attack, dealing a crushing one-two punch to the species. But, as I also started to read these recent studies alongside Native accounts from early America like that of Blanket—a Cherokee man who described serpent social worlds in tremendous detail—I realized he was centuries ahead of herpetologists in noticing these animal dynamics. Blanket’s account made modern-day science seem behind the times. While Victor Hugo wrote that “science says the first word on everything, and the last word on nothing,” in this case it did neither. Cautiously employing science can thus ask us to ask ourselves: what might we have missed, and what are we still missing?

In the end, though, I am drawn to the writings of modern-day scientists not so much for their objectivity, impartiality, or cold-blooded calculation, but for their sentiment. It was a scientist who, when once asked what good rattlesnakes are anyway, resisted the temptation to respond: “Well, what good are you?” and wrote with wonder of his fieldwork: “I felt I was looking through a small window onto an alien world.” It was another team of scientists who wrote of timber rattlesnakes: “Seeing one of these snakes quietly coiled on the forest floor on a warm summer day is a naturalist’s or hiker’s thrill of a lifetime.” These people care deeply for animals and have devoted their lives to their study and protection. In addition to reading their articles, I am in frequent communication with biologists as I continue to research rattlesnakes and other animals for my forthcoming book on early modern natural history. Scientists are flawed, but so are historians. The former have proven to be some of the kindest and most generous interlocutors of all for my project. They have answered countless emails and phone calls from a stranger. They have thought of this stranger often and sent the latest new studies her way. And one even entrusted this stranger with the sensitive knowledge of a rattlesnake lair, taking her to see these highly endangered animals in their natural habitat under an oath of secrecy.

But to hear more about that last one, you’ll have to wait for the book.

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