Thursday, June 05, 2014

Biology, Ecological Change, and Native Species


Center for Environmental Research Lunchtime Lecture by Kevin M. Anderson

2014 Lunchtime Lecture theme – Nature and the American Mind

June Lunchtime Lecture: Biology, Ecological Change, and Native Species

Biology emerged as a science in American during the 19th Century debate over Darwin’s theory of evolution. That debate between Asa Gray and Louis Agassiz was won by Gray and the evolutionists, but Agassiz popularized biology as a science by urging teachers and students to study nature directly in the field. They and professional biologists surveyed American nature during a time of profound ecological change in America, and their legacy is still found in lists of “native” species whose numbers and distribution were in part the result of the ecological change wrought by the settlement of America. In my June lecture, I will recount the context and impacts of the emergence of biology as a science on our understanding of American Nature.
 

June 10 Tuesday NOON to 1pm at Waller Center, 625 East 10th Street [Between Red River and I-35]

June 11 Wednesday NOON to 1pm at Dougherty Arts Center, 1110 Barton Springs Road

June 18 Wednesday NOON to 1pm at Austin City Hall, Boards and Commissions Room 1st Floor

Monday, May 12, 2014

American Natural History and the Theory of Degenerate Nature

May 2014 Lunchtime Lecture - American Natural History and the Theory of Degenerate Nature - Twice This Week!

May 13 Tuesday NOON to 1pm at Waller Center, 625 East 10th Street, Austin, Texas [Between Red River and I-35]

• Center for Environmental Research Lunchtime Lecture by Kevin M. Anderson
• American Natural History and the Theory of Degenerate Nature


• The practice of natural history became a science of describing and classifying nature as America became an independent nation. One of the founders of this new science was the French polymath Comte de Buffon who published his 36-volume encyclopedia Natural History between 1749 and 1788. In it, he argued that, compared to the Old World, all New World species were weak and feeble, since the dismal, cold climate of the New World made them so. Moreover, any species brought to the New World would succumb to the degenerative effects of this swamp-like world - a process, Buffon argued, which applied equally to Europeans immigrating to America. This theory of degeneracy appealed to the prejudices of many European thinkers and leaders, and it meant that describing the natural history of America was closely bound to nation-building and to refuting this European prejudice against American nature. And so, from Jefferson to Thoreau, early American naturalists not only described American nature but defended American nature against this largely forgotten (and profoundly wrong!) theory. Join me this month as I explore this history of American natural history and how it still influences our understanding of American nature.

May 14 Wednesday – NOON to 1pm at Dougherty Arts Center, 1110 Barton Springs Road
• American Natural History and the Theory of Degenerate Nature


 

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Natural History in the Wasteland

This month my Lunchtime Lecture focuses on the development of American Natural History from the 18th Century to the present. One early driver for American natural history was the desire to refute Buffon's claim that American nature was degenerate. As Jefferson put it in Notes On the State of Virginia - "The opinion advanced by the Count de Buffon, is 1. That the animals common both to the old and new world, are smaller in the latter. 2. That those peculiar to the new, are on a smaller scale. 3. That those which have been domesticated in both, have degenerated in America: and 4. That on the whole it exhibits fewer species." The history of this idea of degenerate nature is well told in Lee Alan Dugatkin's book Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose [get the book to learn about the moose episode].

As I work on the lecture, I hear echoes of European scorn in the hatred of "non-native species" and the dread of "invasive species" as they invade our homeland. The power of mythology lays behind part of the appeal of scientific ideas. And for those of us enchanted by the ecology of wastelands, we run up against resistance grounded in mythic belief in good nature and bad nature - pure and degraded. At least, the points that Jefferson enumerated could be factually refuted, even though facts alone did not dissuade believers in the theory of degeneracy. A similar challenge exists for pushing Americans beyond cherished beliefs in good, pure, untouched, harmonious, balanced nature. Where the resilience and dynamics of wasteland ecology enchants me, there is much work to do to invigorate the narrative of resilient nature and the charms of marginal nature.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Earthday in the Wasteland


April 22nd finds us in the river at Hornsby Bend teaching high school students about the ecology and hydrology of the river.



Friday, April 11, 2014

Inhabiting the Wasteland

Spending time this morning imagining what their world is like...flourishing in the wasteland. These imaginings go against and beyond the aesthetics of American nature, human-centered land ethics, and facile despair about the end of nature. Instead they confront us with the resilience of nature and nonhuman agency where these little creatures and their parents take advantage of new opportunities in the margins. Join me next Wednesday at Austin City Hall noon for my Lunchtime Lecture on "Resilient Nature" for more on this morning's musings.