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Cowboys, Scientists, and Curators August 18, 2008

Posted by Jenny Ferng in Uncategorized.
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Will has been reminding me of my inactive presence on this blog so I finally decided to get my act together and contribute something more history of science-ish.

Having been inspired by Will’s numerous reviews on the recent Isis from June 2008, I thought I would tackle Jeremy Vetter’s essay (in the same issue) “Cowboys, Scientists, and Fossils,” which underscores several history of science questions about the tensions between local collaborators and experts from the “outside,” including professional collectors, scientists, and museum curators. While American paleontology in the early 20th century is not exactly a specialized interest of mine, it does, however, dovetail into some of the similar challenges faced by European geologists in the early 19th century (some of whom I do study). I did read the work of Robert Kohler a long time ago whose books Lords of the Fly and Landscapes and Labscapes: Exploring the Lab-Field Border in Biology stimulated my scholarly curiosity about how contestations in the field affected the bigger picture of making science and whose concepts are echoed in Vetter’s ideas about the status of the field site as a place of contentious negotiation. The intervention of museum curators and field assistants is also not a new topic in art history or history of science, where there are many books on American natural history museums, their practices of visual display, and the curatorial attitudes garnered from these public exhibitions, whether they be on gorillas, fish, or embryos (Donna Haraway, Carla Yanni, and Nick Hopwood)

Vetter promotes a new place in history for the lay collaborators of scientists who, in his words, are either erased by the structure of the laboratory setting or even more harshly, eradicated altogether since they leave no discernible paper trail or fail to publish any written publications or records. In art history, this is an almost identical problem in tracking down artisans who specialized in more obscure trades such as metallurgy and textiles. This is where archives are guilty in refashioning the afterlife of scientific figures, a notable fact left out by Vetter. I did enjoy one of his footnotes that cited scientists’ wives as “invisible technicians” who assisted in managing camp life during expeditions. The image that came to mind was that of women standing around a stewpot on a fire and ironing their husbands’ clothes, filling the stomachs of their scientists with hearty fare and making sure they were comfortably dressed for their ventures into hostile territory. Vetter also mentions in his footnotes Martin Rudwick, an influential scholar in the history of the earth sciences, and Roy Porter, another big name as well, who focused on the role of gentlemanly scientists. Rudwick, in his newest book Worlds Before Adam (2008), is unapologetically focused on the work of elite intellectuals, who, according to him, made geology happen as a science. I do agree with Rudwick that the more well known scientific figures made many important advancements possible, to which more lesser-known historical actors and lay persons could then contribute their knowledge. What is the defining line between someone who is a major contributor and a historical actor who is playing only a minor part in the drama that is the history of science? Local ranchers and landowners in Vetter’s account often performed physical labor such as digging for fossils and offered social contact (such as dinner invitations) for their visiting guests. Do these activities qualify as major scientific contributions?

But I digress so back to Vetter’s essay. Receiving permission to dig on fossil sites and prospecting on Indian reservation lands were complicated. Some quarries were visually occupied by squatting field parties while others were simply open public domain. The Carnegie Museum was granted leeway to make Earl Douglass’ site in Utah a “National Dinosaur Monument” in order to continue their excavation process. The narrative of the Cook family and their part in creating the Agate Fossil Beds in Nebraska is comparable in this sense. This part of the essay I found intriguing because it does suggest some provocative intersections of law and intellectual property with scientific expertise and public space.

One bewildering concept was Vetter’s usage of the term “epistemic value.” During the course of the article, it seemed that there was a singular amount of superior “knowledge” that was at stake but what this knowledge comprised or what it signified was never clarified. The discovery of the Agate fossils were contested by the Cooks who thought they deserved more credit than they were given but later forged a more amiable working relationship with the American Museum. Knowledge was equated only with control of natural resources and expertise but at the same time, it was somehow framed as something greater. Harold Cook attempted to limit the circulation of fossil specimens and more often than other local inhabitants, tried to leverage how the museums published their scientific claims. I was not sure if the Cooks’ right to claim the discovery as their own was part of their own active intent to define paleontological success in the discipline and/or if this is what Vetter wanted the reader to assume? In his conclusion, he states that this case of scientific fieldwork demonstrates the struggle over the “social structure and authority of modern science.” At the end of the essay, however, the story of the Cooks remained a localized example without broader implications (for someone such as myself unschooled in American paleontology). It would have been productive to compare this instance to other analogous field sites that experienced legal conflict or competing claims for authorship (I am also reminded of the similarities here to archaeological sites and anthropological expeditions that encounter issues of native participation and local tacit knowledge).

So what does this article’s approach offer up-and-coming historians from across the sciences? I think Vetter is correct to advocate for a reexamination of lay collaborators of all kinds, and I feel that this methodology would possess great relevance for sub-fields of history of science such as environmental history, which I believe is becoming more popular because of its contemporary relevance to global issues at hand. The lone case study may not be enough material perhaps to make larger arguments about how local inhabitants functioned in the structuring of a discipline such as paleontology. His article did remind me of the research of some of my colleagues in the STS department at MIT who are working on related topics about field site negotiation. Etienne Benson’s now completed dissertation, for instance, addresses how animal species were monitored via radio-tracking technologies by experts and non-experts to make nature more manageable, which had a great impact on 20th century environmental policy-making. Vetter’s essay also reveals the dearth of scholarship on the earth sciences in the Americas, Asia, and Europe, particularly paleontology, which could provide much needed illumination on the state of our historical field and the one in our own backyard.

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Comments»

1. Michael Robinson - August 18, 2008

Hi Jenny, interesting post. I haven’t read Vetter’s article yet, but on your second paragraph: it seems you are saying that Cook tries to define his paleontological success where the intellectual merits of the find are still unclear. Am I reading this right? If so, it reminds me a bit of Roger Lewin’s book Bones of Contention (don’t let Will know I’ve cited this book yet again, he’s going to think I go to sleep with it nestled under my arm) where he states that paleontology is a bit funny in attributing such fame and prestige to fossil finders rather than fossil analyzers. Indeed Richard Leakey seemed proud of stating the fact that he was not a trained scientist. Nevertheless, there are heaps of articles in Nature with his name on them and he retained tremendous power in directing resources and patronage. I wonder if this is where Cook’s authority comes from, “the prestige of of the finder.”

2. Jenny Ferng - August 19, 2008

Hi Michael, thanks for your comments. I will have to check out the Bones of Contention. I think I was trying to articulate my own confusion about the Cooks’ motivations as historical actors. I agree with you that fossil finders in paleontology gain credibility as being the first discoverers. It seemed like James Cook wanted credit as a fossil finder and to structure the field site as open access while Harold Cook wanted to gain more control over the circulation of specimens and the output of scientific publications (but he lacked influence). I was curious if Vetter believes the Cooks’ intentions were aimed at restructuring the “modern authority of science” and if he does, I am not so sure that was clear in the article. And I believe that from his narrative, usurping the structure of how paleontology was practiced was something that the Cooks set out to do…

3. Jenny Ferng - August 19, 2008

Oops, I meant that usurping the structure of how paleontology was practiced was something they DID not set out to do…


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