What’s American (Studies) about the History of Science in America?

Kimberly A. Hamlin, Miami University

(An essay in the “What’s American About the History of Science in America?” series)

Unlike many historians of science, few of us in American studies come from a background in science. We are trained to analyze culture from an interdisciplinary perspective and to connect the past to the present, often explicitly. Our research reflects this training as does our overriding concern for issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, and access. Like the history of science, most American studies research on science and technology currently focuses on twentieth century developments and it is increasingly transnational in scope, again begging the question of “what’s American about the history of science in America.” I should also note that, to-date, American studies scholars have been more engaged with technology than with science, though in the last couple of years work on science has increased as well. Indeed, more and more scholars of science and culture seem to be gravitating toward the American Studies Association (ASA) as a possible organizational home and more exciting work on science has emerged from within American studies. In 2007, the ASA’s Constance M. Rourke prize for the best article published in the American Quarterly was awarded to Maria Farland (Fordham University) for her essay entitled “W. E. B. DuBois, Anthropometric Science, and the Limits of Racial Uplift” (December 2006). This year’s John Hope Franklin Prize for the best book in American studies went to Julie Sze (UC-Davis) for Noxious New York: The Racial Politics of Urban Health and Environmental Justice (MIT Press, 2007). Sze’s research represents the best that an American studies approach to science can offer – it is rigorously interdisciplinary, and it places contemporary campaigns for environmental justice in a broad cultural (and historical) context. Her recognition by the ASA indicates that the field itself is becoming increasingly interested in engaging with the history of science, particularly as it intersects with culture.

In fact, perhaps it is science’s intersections with culture that define what is “American” (and American studies) about the history of science in America. As scholars in recent decades have established, science is, by definition and by practice, transnational. On the flip side, however, the ways in which people understand and respond to scientific ideas and findings are inherently local and culturally contingent. American studies scholars are particularly interested in the ways in which scientific ideas are received, resisted, and reformulated in culture, often in unanticipated (and unscientific) ways.

My current research project analyzes the popular and scientific reception of Darwinian evolution through the lens of gender. In exploring the American response to Darwin’s The Descent of Man (1871), I was surprised to find many references to the work, both explicit and implicit, in courtship advice books. In 2006, I presented a paper at the History of Science Society conference in Vancouver about the reverberations of The Descent of Man, especially the theory of sexual selection, in nineteenth-century prescriptive literature. Of course Darwin probably did not anticipate that he would be cited as a reference in debates about the efficacy of “false bosoms” in attracting mates, to give just one example, but that was precisely the point. Scientific ideas travel throughout all layers of culture. And they are often disseminated and discussed by non-scientists who may or may not be familiar with their exact origins or concerned with presenting them in their scientific context. Indeed, it is through these secondary and tertiary iterations that many people interact with science. While I was nervous about presenting such a cultural analysis at the HSS, I received very helpful and supportive feedback from members of the Society and have continued to seek out ways to build bridges between historians of science and American studies scholars.

In 2007, Carolyn de la Peña (UC-Davis) and I founded the Science and Technology Caucus within the American Studies Association to provide a community for scholars interested in the interdisciplinary study of science and technology within and beyond American culture, as well as foster more discussion of scientific issues within the ASA. We were honored that Robert “Jay” Malone, executive director of the History of Science Society, traveled to Philadelphia to attend our inaugural meeting and express his interest in collaborating with the Caucus. During the Caucus’s two years of existence, we have organized several science- and technology-related panels at ASA meetings, as well as an archives tour of the Chemical Heritage Foundation. We are also delighted that the University of Massachusetts Press has announced a new series on Science, Technology, and Culture, edited by Caucus members Carolyn de la Peña and Siva Vaidhyanathan.

While there are many exciting developments in terms of research on the history of science in America, it appears that more could be done in the classroom to integrate science into the broader study of the history and culture of the United States. Many of us in American studies and related fields wholeheartedly agree with Clark Elliot’s observation in his July 2008 contribution to this essay series that “One of the primary failures in the development of history of science in America (as a field of study) seems to be the relative lack of progress in integrating science into American studies and the overall writing and teaching of American history.” I recently conducted an (entirely unscientific) survey of current and recent course offerings at several of the top American studies programs. What I found confirmed Clark Elliot’s observation. With a few very notable exceptions (such as Daniel Kevles’s courses at Yale and several at UC-Davis), most schools do not offer any American studies electives on science or technology. Nor does it appear that the history of science is a focal point in many introductory classes. The same could be said for many history departments, especially those that do not have a historian of science on the faculty. Perhaps the ASA Science and Technology Caucus and the Forum for the History of Science in America could work together to develop ways to better incorporate the history of science into history and American studies curricula.

Weaving science more fully into history and American studies classes not only enriches our understanding of U.S. history and culture, it also appeals to a broad range of students and can yield interesting results. This academic year, I have been fortunate to teach the American studies senior capstone course on the theme of “Darwin in America.” While most of the students had not previously devoted much thought to the ways in which evolutionary theory has influenced, and continues to influence, American life and culture, I have been exceedingly impressed by their enthusiasm for the topic and by their capstone projects. One student has designed and will actually teach a seven-week film course on depictions of evolution in popular culture, and another has planned a week’s worth of public events commemorating the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. These events will culminate in a university- and community-wide birthday party for Darwin on February 12, 2009 to be held at Miami University’s Hefner Zoology Museum. While Darwin would no doubt be surprised by such a celebration, just as he may have been puzzled as to why he was invoked in discussions of “falsies,” his birthday offers a unique opportunity for us to reflect on the interplay between science and culture in America. As we blow out the candles on Darwin’s birthday cake, let us continue to think about new and innovative ways to incorporate these insights about the history of science into all levels of history and American studies classes.

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