Uniting Diverse Research Interests

One of the highlights of today was an energizing and engaging lecture by Professors Sakura Christmas and Matt Klingle. As we delved into two readings, “The Problem with Purity” by Richard White and “History and Biology in the Anthropocene: Problems of Scale, Problems of Value” by Julia Thomas, the interconnected nature of our group’s varied research projects began to emerge for me for the first time. In his 1999 lecture focusing on the problematic yet inextricable mixing of the social and the natural, Thomas questions, “Having created a mixed and dirty world in which what is cultural and what is natural becomes less and less clear and as hybrids of the two become more and more common, what do we do?” I think this is a question that can serve as a theoretical framework to unite each of our diverse research interests. Over the course of the next two weeks, we will explore fisheries, zoos, activism surrounding nuclear energy, Buddhism, traditional medicine, and animation—all of which demonstrate clear links to the environment, but not necessarily clear links to one another. As we rapidly move from site location to site location (and research topic to research topic), I think that continuing to actively engage with this framework will enrich our projects and allow us to cultivate a deeper understanding of their larger sociocultural implications. It will also be useful to question: how do our own cultural conceptions of nature affect our ideas about nature in a Japanese cultural context? How can we preemptively increase our awareness of these preconceived notions within our own group before departing for Japan? Given that many of us students and professors alike come from diverse cultural backgrounds, it seems that one starting point would be continuing to discuss our own cultural notions of nature in order to elucidate points of similarity and difference.

Reconciling the humanities and the sciences

Today marks the start of a major step in my Bowdoin education: this summer I will live and study in Japan. I am excited and grateful to start my studies in Japan with my classmates in the Japanese program as we explore our research projects on Japan and the environment.

In discussion today, we looked at two foundational articles in environmental history with the goal of getting everyone on equal footing with environmental history terminology and methodology as well as allowing each of us to see how the academic discipline of our individual projects is informed by environmental history, or vice versa. My research topic — the development of Sapporo as a urban space in colonial Hokkaido — is deeply rooted in the discipline of history so it was useful for me to step outside my history bubble, so to speak, and hear what my peers had to say about how reading an historian’s point of view can inform research in the natural sciences. In “History and Biology in the Anthropocene: Problems of Scale, Problems of Value,” historian Julia Adeney Thomas encourages scientists to value the work of historians in order to give social, cultural, and political context and relevance to the findings of scientists. I think that this idea will be a critical point of discussion for us as we not only pursue our individual projects, but also as we attempt to use each other’s work to inform our own projects, whether they are rooted in the sciences or humanities.

Today’s reading also lead us to discussing how humans categorize and interact with nature. Richard White’s “The Problem with Purity” puts nature on a spectrum and somewhere along that spectrum lies purity, where humans fence of nature and conceive it as orderly. Somewhere else on this spectrum is hybridity, where human and natural factors are inextricably mixed to the point that one cannot distinguish between the human and the natural. This idea sets the ground for me to look towards my own project and explore how this spectrum acts in an urban, colonial setting — was Hokkaido a hybrid landscape before the colonial incursion of the young Meiji state? Did Sapporo as an urban space push out nature? I look forward to further discussions this week as we delve into reading about the various environmental issues in Japan, while keeping today’s foundational discussion in mind.

Prepared with only the purest that nature can offer?

A plastic Godzilla glares at us from across the table, arms raised in defiance, painted teeth bared. Professor Matt Klingle, a History and Environmental Studies “double major” at Bowdoin College, sits behind the scale toy replica of the famous monster, arms crossed, teeth equally bared in a expectant, knowing grin.

“Is Godzilla natural?” Professor Klingle asks again. We all consider the question and the deeper implications of the question. What is natural? What is nature? Is nature pure?

~~~

After a brief crash course in environmental history, these were the core questions that drove our kickoff discussion, alongside two articles: “History and Biology in the Anthropocene: Problems of Scale, Problems of Value” by Julia Adeney Thomas and “The Problem with Purity” by Richard White. Nature is a part of all human societies, but the ways in which we perceive nature vary greatly. Nature has long been thought of as this “pure” entity, something separate from humans, something to be kept pristine and categorically different with discrete boundaries. Now, though, those lines are less clear. As White argues, “purity” is difficult, especially when it comes to culture versus nature, because they are “mingled, confused, and increasingly impossible to separate.” Thomas echoes these sentiments, pointing to the different scales at which biologists operate and how those complicate the supposed “purity” of nature; that is, if humans are composed of an incredibly diverse microbiome (i.e. microbiologists’ scale) that is constantly perfused and penetrated by various chemicals, benign and toxic (i.e. biochemists’ scale), how can we call humans and nature separate at all?

Are we getting hung up on all these abstract definitions of “nature” and “purity” and “scale” and “value”? I don’t think so. These questions inform other questions about environmental issues, how we define the Anthropocene (i.e. humans becoming a major driving planetary force on numerous scales, a position formerly reserved only for geologic processes), and even issues of race and gender.  Here, purity plays a big role; reducing race and gender to biology as a justification is no more than confusing the categories of “culture” and “nature.” And, all of these definitions and culturally-loaded interpretations of these terms we discussed in English. Now try translating that to Japanese or any other language.

~~~

I’m excited for all the other discussions we’ll be having on a variety of environmental topics and Japan. I’m especially interested in seeing how everyone’s individual projects fit into the larger picture and also the details of what we each discover in this journey. Today’s discussion definitely set a strong framework to work with and have in our minds, moving forward. So to you, dear readers, I pose the same question Professor Klingle and Richard White and Julia Adeney Thomas posed to us:

What is nature?

“Nature”

“Nature” We kicked off discussion today by examining a plastic Godzilla toy. We were asked, are we looking at nature? Some of us argued that it is nature because the creature arose from nature. Matter is neither created nor destroyed, so it has to be from nature regardless of whether we are talking about the toy or Godzilla itself. Conversely, others in the group argued that it was not nature because humans interfered. Humans are the ones synthesizing plastics from oil and splitting atoms, and is that part of nature?

After this fascinating introduction, Professor Matthew Klingle in the environmental studies department led our group discussion on the following readings:

  1. The Problem with Purity by Richard White
  2. History and Biology in the Anthropocene: Problems of Scale, Problems of Value by Julia Adeney Thomas

Objective categories are pretty much impossible. White argued that adhesion to purity is a problem. But why? When we start to define what is “pure” and what is not, we forget the social context that these definitions carry. For example, we talked about the problematic view that gender is biologically determined. The societal norm is that the XX chromosome combination will result in a male and XY chromosome combination will result in a female, and those who do not fall into either of those categories are “unnatural.” But if it is genetically possible, i.e. through nature, for people not to fall into those categories, is that really against nature? This reminded me of Caster Semenya, the South African runner who was put under scrutiny over her gender. And also Dutee Chand (click here for more information–the person who wrote that gave a talk in a class I took two years ago), the teenage Indian runner who was banned from competition for having too much testosterone. It is not like she was taking steroids; that is what her body produces. There was just some policy put in place to define what it means to be a woman (under the notion that having more testosterone means better athletic performance, which is actually not that well-correlated.*) The people who make these policies use biology to sound objective but really it is laced with social implications.

Think about scale and value. Using Thomas’s paper, we focused on agency, structure, and power.

  • Agency: acting on our own behalf
  • Structure: ideology, norms, etc that are in place
  • Power: the extent an individual can exercise agency or put structure in place (prevent or do something)

Does nature have agency? Is it historically significant?

It was especially interesting to see the connection between biology and history. Science always exists in political and cultural contexts, though scientists sometimes fail to see that. Actually, it probably would not be too much of an assumption to say that all disciplines fall into the trap of ignoring the influences they do not focus on.

All in all, this was a great first day! These readings tie in nicely to each of our projects, and they made me think critically about definitions and categories while also highlighting the importance of interdisciplinary work.

*Karkazis K, Jordan-Young R, Davis G and Camporesi S (2012) Out of Bounds? A Critique of the New Policies on Hyperandrogenism in Elite Female Athletes. The American Journal of Bioethics 12(7):3-16

“Nature is Good to Think With”

While today’s readings:
– The Problem with Purity by Richard White
-History and Biology in the Anthropocene by Julia A. Thomas
were curled up in a tight knot of ideas the night before, this morning they unraveled as the discussion took place.
Professor Matt Klingle led the discussion by presenting us with an action figure of Godzilla, and prompted the question: “Is this Nature?”
There isn’t a right or wrong answer because it all depends on which approach you decide to take. While Godzilla’s value or representing is that of an angered force of nature-we could argue its natural. But since its an action figure, an item one would not typically find naturally in nature-we can argue its not. But since the materials from which it is made are technically supplied by the earth-its natural. Which brings us to the problem of PURITY-There is no such thing; there is always going to be an exception. Nature and culture are deeply entangled and it is almost impossible to separate. The concept of nature or the natural is usually invoked in order to try to eliminate a bias or to eliminate responsibility  by stating “it is natural, and it JUST is.” Meaning, we tend to see nature as separate from us, humans. The discussion encouraged us to think not as nature vs humans, but as a hybrid world in which we influence each other through our agency, structure, and power.

Furthermore, we discussed the richness of an interdisciplinary approach between the Humanities and Sciences. As an Asian Studies major and pre-med student, this reading and discussion were encouraging to not only my project surrounding illness in Japanese culture, but to the rest of my Bowdoin Career. Overall, Today’s discussion was extremely engaging and thought provoking–Professor Klingle asked questions that seriously got our mind-wheels spinning and the chosen readings encouraged us to be open and critical about our findings and the pathways that lead to them.