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The Subversive Science Reconsidered


for Members

The Subversive Science Reconsidered

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Columbia University

When Ernst Haeckel coined the word ecology in 1866, he envisioned a science like other sciences, one whose subject matter would be interrelationships among living things in their natural environments, what Darwin and other writers referred to broadly as the “conditions of existence.” Thirty years later, when a new science finally began to take shape around the word, it was more or less as Haeckel had imagined it, with a few wrinkles he could not have anticipated. Following its somewhat inauspicious beginnings in the 1890s, the new science grew by fits and starts over the first half of the twentieth century. As with practitioners of every new discipline, emerging ecologists in America and Europe attempted to define their subject matter, demarcate their intellectual and scientific turf among the other disciplines, identify key concepts and principles, and garner what institutional support they could. Fast-forward to the 1960s, and ecology, the once inconspicuous science, now emerged in the public consciousness as much more than a science. It was, and still is, conceived as a social movement, a philosophy for living, a spiritual union with nature, an ideology, even a critique of traditional science and technology. To the best of my knowledge, no other science, or rather name for a science, has this dual role. This talk will explore selected episodes and themes in the history of ecology, with some emphasis on areas where ecology the science and ecology the social/cultural phenomenon have intersected, with thoughts about how ecology acquired its “subversive” character.


Eugene Cittadino

New York University

Eugene Cittadino has been teaching history of science, science and technology studies, and environmental history for many years and all over the country. I’ve held teaching positions at SUNY-Potsdam, Harvard, Wisconsin, California-Berkeley, Brandeis, and of course NYU, and I’ve had research positions at MIT, Harvard, and Yale. My history of science is from the University of Wisconsin, and I did graduate work at Berkeley (philosophy) and Michigan State (plant ecology) as well. Most of my research and writing has been on the history of ecology and evolutionary biology. My current projects include completing a book on the history of ecology, under contract with Johns Hopkins Univ. Press and the inspiration for this talk, and an ongoing investigation into a 1920s American border dispute over valuable oil land that led to a major Supreme Court case involving the use of many scientists, including ecologists, as expert witnesses, not to mention such issues as resource conservation, regulation in the petroleum industry, the proper use of public lands, and Native American rights. Hopefully, this project will also result in a book in the not too distant future.