History Meets Biology at the AHA

2013Logo(250x324)I make a habit of writing about the seminars I go to so here is what you missed from the American Historical Association annual meeting. This was my first time at the AHA so I didn’t really know what to expect. The best part was all the fascinating people I met, some of whom I’ve been exchanging emails with for quite a while. I hope I can manage to keep in touch with them.

Four of the six sessions I attended can really be summed up under the title history meets biology. All four of these sessions could be said to be grappling with the “reconceptualization of the depth of human past”, to quote James Webb. In some ways I am puzzled by their difficulty and why they have previously essentially limited themselves to the last 3000 years or less. I assume that most biologists (like myself) and anthropologists think on evolutionary time, so there are no real barriers to historical thinking. The good news in these four sessions is that there are quite a few historians trying to embrace the real longue durée and are looking to biology as a new tool.

A few thoughts on the sessions in the order that I saw them.

Session 75: Evolutionary History: How Biology Can Help Us Understand History

This session was organized by Edmund Russell who appears to be leading this movement first outlined in his book Evolutionary History: Uniting History and Biology to Understand Life on Earth. (I picked up his book and will eventually review it here.) One of the themes of the session was the human role in altering evolution of other organisms.

Feral Animals in the American South: The Science and Culture of Broken Symbiosis by Abraham Gibson

Horses and swine in the southeastern states are the feral animals in question. I have to say that I didn’t know there are as many feral horses in the eastern US as there apparently are. Gibson talked about the biological distinctiveness of the feral horse and swine in the eastern US, no longer either part of the domestic or wild populations. I would have like a little more on the biological distinctiveness but even as much has he had challenged some of the historians in the audience who didn’t think it was necessary. These feral populations were not founded or sustained by escaped animals but intentional human release going back to British colonial times. It is important to bring biology into this discussion because it can unravel some of the folklore and faulty assumptions that have built up around feral animal issues. I enjoyed his talk and its a very important issue today for both the rural economy and ecology. This is a project that shows the importance of fusing history and science.  I hope we all hear more about in the coming years.

Canine Evolution and the “Improvement” of Nature in British America, c. 1600-1800 by Joshua Kercsmar

This was a very interesting paper on attitudes in colonial America on breeds of dogs raised by both colonists and Native Americans. Dogs became a proxy for views of the “other”, so colonists saw Native American dogs as savage or semi-wild. On the other hand, Native Americans saw the various European breeds brought to America as both reflecting their owners personalities and as signs of European power over nature. He talked about the common evolutionary origins of dogs and that Native American breeds go back to the same common ancestor(s). Yet Native American dogs were always viewed as more wild and savage, more wolf-like. Can you name a Native American dog breed other than a Husky? He talked about the fates of native breeds and how humans have shaped canine evolution, differently in Europe and N. America. (And yes, artificial selection is still a type of evolution.)

A Taste of Combat: How the Coevolution of Grapes and Yeast with Bacteria, Fungi, Insects and Mammals Shaped the Traits of Wine by Edmund Russell

This paper was more of a straight up discussion of coevolution with relatively little history. My notes are not as good on this talk. He focused on some of the characteristics of wine  — alcohol, sweetness, bitterness, and aroma(?) and how they are the product of coevolution. I’m not sure that the audience knew what to do with it and I think he needed more of the human element at least for that audience.

The whole concept of evolutionary history interests me a great deal. These talks show the promise of the technique but also its difficulties. Getting the balance correct between history and biology is tough. Convincing historians (or history buffs) that the biology is necessary to tell the story is a challenge at least for a biologist. This brings up the question of audience. Who is the target audience? I do believe there is an audience. A lot of science folks like history enough to be that audience, but can the humanities be convinced of this middle ground?

Session 97: Science and the Human Past: A New Initiative at Harvard University

Obviously this session was  a showcase for some new collaborations and projects at Harvard. As someone in the audience mentioned to me, only at Harvard could these kinds of projects be put together with in-house faculty (and institutional support).

Climate Change and the Fall of the Roman Empire by Michael McCormick

He presented too much detailed information for useful notes. One of his main points was that the Roman empire existed in a brief period of optimal climate that begins to degrade in the sixth century, including multiple sources of support for 18 months of extreme cold beginning in 536. He also talked about his current project the Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilization which will eventually include climate data.

How Genetics Can Inform History by Nick Patterson

I don’t have notes on this one. He talked about genetic admixture in deep time. This was more a talk about the possibilities of historical genetics than about a specific story or study.

Daniel Snail didn’t give the paper in the program. He talked about human behavior science and once again stressing that learning deep history is possible. History doesn’t begin with written documents.

Scientific Approaches to Ancient Disease: The Case of the Columbian Contact by Noreen Tuross

Tuross questioned the role of ‘virgin soil’ epidemics and its after effects. Is the concept of ‘virgin soil’ really as significant as it has been claimed? She stressed the importance of using aDNA in pre-contact cemeteries to determine what pathogens like Helicobacter pylori were already here. I didn’t take as many notes as I should have on this one. I do think it is right to question the importance of the ‘virgin soil’ concept. All it means is a lack of herd immunity and this was probably more common than we normally think for diseases that came around once a lifetime or less. Differences in immunity are surely important and does account for some of the differential mortality rates between communities, but there may be other additional causes for the drastic mortality rates of Native Americans (like the synergy of being challenged with more than one ‘virgin soil’ pathogen at a time). I do think that its important to look for pre-contact Native American pathogens in part for what it can tell us about the age and evolution of those pathogens.

Session 143: The Power of Cartography: Remapping the Black Death in the Age of Genomics and GIS.

I participated in this session and my resource post is already up here. I have to admit that I never take notes in sessions I participate in so I’m not going to try to review it. I think these talks will appear in some written form eventually. If they all appear together, I’ll be sure to mention it here on Contagions. Here is a link to all of our abstracts. I do want to thank Monica Green for organizing this session and for helping me meet so many great people in New Orleans. Hopefully this session will be a beginning of a new synergistic period in plague studies.

Session 192: A Prospectus for a Global Health History (Roundtable)

This session collected experts on a variety of history of medicine topics to discuss how develop the field taking into account new information on the depth of human history. The participants and their primary areas were: Mariola Espinosa, Yellow Fever and Caribbean diseases; Monica Green, deep history of TB and leprosy; Angela Ki Che Leung, Beriberi in SE Asia; Nukhet Varlik, plague in the Ottoman empire; and James Webb, Global Malaria. Each gave a short talk about recent developments in their area, particularly developments that challenge the standard story. For example Nukhet Varlik talked about there being no separation between the second and third plague pandemic in the Ottoman empire. The standard story of the plague is that it dies out by the early 18th century but that is not true outside of western Europe.  I think we can all agree that plague studies have been far too Eurocentric.  Their was some discussion on their areas but also on how to teach this material. James Webb reminded the panel and audience that public health and science folks in general are often more interested in the depth and history of global health than others in the humanities. Like evolutionary history in the first session, they need to conceptualize who their audience is and how to cope or adjust if they want to widen their audience.

I found all four sessions to be very stimulating. Honestly, more stimulating that I thought the AHA would be for me when I first looked at the program (outside of the last two sessions organized by Monica Green). Maybe its the sessions I chose, but a sessions seemed to be oriented toward what can be done in the future rather than conveying information. When I got back someone asked me what was the most interesting thing I learned and I had a hard time answering. In part because these sessions were more about field development than conveying specific information. There was lots of good info. These sessions are also short, so there is only so much story that can be conveyed in a maximum of 15 minutes. Conferences are about learning what people are working on and being stimulated in your own work. On those grounds the AHA was a very pleasant surprise.

For the other two sessions I indulged by inner medieval geek. I may write about one of them on my medieval history blog (and even that session was about what new technology can bring to history).

Plague doctor Marti Gras mask
Plague doctor Mardi Gras mask

What else would I bring home to remember a plague session in New Orleans but a plague doctor Mardi Gras mask? I need to find a better way to display it. The crystals just don’t sparkle enough there.

Now back to blogging about all the new plague papers that came out in just the last couple weeks!

3 thoughts on “History Meets Biology at the AHA

  1. Is there any evidence, apart from a much reprinted book illustration, that doctors actually wore such a mask in time of plague?


    1. I believe there are written descriptions but they are relatively late. Plague masks would not have been worn during the Black Death and its early aftershocks. Think more like the 16th and 17th centuries.


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