Suman Seth is associate professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies, at Cornell. He is an historian of science, and studies medicine, race, and colonialism (and dabbles as well in quantum theory). In his new book, Difference and Disease: Medicine, Race, and the Eighteenth-Century British Empire, Seth takes on a fascinating subject that all of us who have worked in tropical regions but with a western (or northern) perspective have thought about, one way or another.
As Europeans, and Seth is concerned mainly with the British, explored and conquered, colonizing and creating the empire on which the sun could never set no matter how hard it tried, they got sick. They also observed other people getting sick. And, they encountered a wide range of physiological or biosocial phenomena that were unfamiliar and often linked (in real or in the head) to disease. A key cultural imperative of British Colonials as to racialize their explanations for things, including disease. The science available through the 18th and 19th century was inadequate to address questions that kept rising. Like, why did a Brit get sick on his first visit to a plantation in Jamaica, but on return a few years later, did not get as sick? If you have a model where people of different races have specific diseases and immunities in their very nature, how do you explain that sort of phenomenon? How might the widely held, or at least somewhat widely held, concept of polygenism, have explained things? This is an early version of the multi-regional hypothesis, but more extreme, in which god created each type of human independently where we find them, and we are all different species. (Agassiz, with his advanced but highly imperfect geological understanding, thought the earth was totally frozen over with each ice age, and repopulated with these polygenetic populations of not just humans, but all the organisms, after each thaw).
Seth weaves together considerations of slavery and abolition, colonialism, race, geography, gender, and illness. This is an academic book, but at the same time, something of a page turner. Anyone interested in disease, colonial history, and race, will want to re-excavate the British colonial world, looking at disease, illness, and racial thinking, with Suman Seth as your guide. I highly recommend this book.
Quotes by Charles Darwin are not just the stuff of memes. Even the fake quotes. They can be the center of long arguments, or at least, they can significantly augment the arguments. For example, did you know that while Darwin never used the term “missing link” he did talk about missing links quite a bit, missing links are central to his thinking about evolution, and all those writers of today who claim that we must never speak of missing links are misguided? Continue reading Darwin Quotes, Assembled→
In 1817, Karl August Weinhold had a go at a real-life Frankenstein’s monster — only in his version he uses a cat. The German scooped out the brain and spinal cord of a recently dead cat. He then pured a molten mixture of zinc and silver into the skull and spinal cavity. He was attempting to make the two metals work like an electric pile, or battery, inside the unfortunate cate, replacing the electrical of the nerves. Weinhold reported that the cat was revived momentarily by the currents and stood up and stretched in a rather robotic fashion!
Weinhold’s reanimated cat was just the tip of the iceberg. In those days, the same days during which Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, the forerunners of modern neuroscience were reanimating all sorts of animals (it started, of course, with frogs) including humans, with suitably horrifying results, using primitive electricity generating machines and ingeniously placed probes.
I know something about neuroscience and brain evolution, and even a bit about the history of this research, and I found most of the entries to be reasonable, well researched, and accurate. There is sufficient debunking of some of the bad ideas (about race, IQ, etc.), though I would like to have seen Jackson’s treatment of lateralization to have been a bit more probing and nuanced, since that is one of the areas where pop culture has overstayed its welcome. Still, the book is scientifically accurate, not to deep yet not a gloss.
One of the neat features of the book is a giant pull out unfoldable wall poster that is a timeline of the history of neuroscience. I’ll probably give that to my wife for her to hang in her biology classroom, especially since she teaches a fair amount about brains and intends to expand on that teaching over the next couple of years.
The other side of the foldout timeline is a set of optical illusions, including the blind spot test, the arrows affecting the apparent length of the line test, and a lot of the other usual illusions, all very well done with quality presentation and printing.
There are bits at the beginning and end of the book (including item 101, mentioned above) that serve as reference material. There is an index, though it is not dense (for example, having noted the cat story I use above, I tried to look it up in the Index but couldn’t find it). Also as an appendix is a explication of several key open questions in neurobiology (the “Imponderables”). Also, references are supplied.
The illustrations are excellent throughout.
This book is for anyone interested in science, especially neuro. If you cover this topic in your High School or Middle School classes, it is a good book to have in your library. It would make an excellent gift for the science-oriented person you know, especially since it is just out and they won’t have it yet.
This is part of the Ponderables series of illustrated books published by Shelter Harbor Press.
Other books by Tom Jackson:
<li><a rel="nofollow" href="http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0985323043/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0985323043&linkCode=as2&tag=grlasbl0a-20&linkId=WAJHFL4LOZ2AB3YD">Mathematics An Illustrated History of Numbers (100 Ponderables)</a><img src="https://ir-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/ir?t=grlasbl0a-20&l=as2&o=1&a=0985323043" width="1" height="1" border="0" alt="" style="border:none !important; margin:0px !important;" /></li>
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The Road to Paris is a web site created by the ICSU, “…a non-governmental organization representing a global membership that includes both national scientific bodies (121 National Members representing 141 countries) and International Scientific Unions (30 Members),” founded in 1931. If the ICSU had not existed when the UN was formed, the UN would have formed it. Think of the ICSU as the UN of Science. More or less.
Anyway, Road to Paris refers to the 2015 international meetings on climate change, and the purpose of the web site is to provide excellent information about climate change, up to date, so those engaged in that process, either as direct participants or as onlookers, will be well informed.
“Fishing in pink waters: How scientists unraveled the El Niño mystery” is an amazing piece of work written by Daniel Gross (I made minuscule contributions), looking at the history of the science of the El Nino Southern Oscillation, which is one of the most important climate or weather related things on this planet. This is timely, because we are expecting an El Niño to form over the winter. Maybe. Well, eventually we will have an El Niño. (It has been an unusually long time since the last strong one.)
Perhaps we are all subject to falling into the trap of what I call the Hydraulic Theory of Everything. If you eat more you will be bigger, if you eat less you will be smaller. Emotional states are the continuously varying outcome of different levels of a set of hormones, forming “happy” or “stressy” or “angry” cocktails. Your brain is a vessel into which life pours various elixirs. Too much of one thing, and there will not be enough room for something else. Even political arguments are hydraulic. The ‘balanced’ middle view between two arguments is like the mixture of contrasting primary colors on a pallet. Continue reading Why didn’t Darwin discover Mendel’s laws?→
Mark Pagel, evolutionary theorist extraordinaire, has published an Insight piece in Nature on Natural selection 150 years on. Pagel, well known for myriad projects in natural selecition theory and adaptation, and for developing with Harvey the widely used statistical phylogenetic method (and for being a reader of my thesis) wishes Charles Darwin a happy 200th birthday, and assesses this question:
How has Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection fared over the last 150 years, and what needs to be done to bring this theoretical approach to bear as we increasingly examine complex systems, including human society? Continue reading Pagel on Darwin→
In 1833, Darwin spent a fair amount of time on the East Coast of South America, including in the Pampas, where he had access to abundant fossil material. Here I’d like to examine his writings about some of the megafauna, including Toxodon, Mastodon, and horses, and his further considerations of biogeography and evolution.
Everyone knows about Darwin’s Finches, of the Galapagos Islands. But of course, Darwin made observations of birds throughout his travels on The Beagle. Here, I present a number of passages from The Voyage that include some of these observations.
Charles Darwin wrote a book called Geological Observations on South America. Since Fitzroy needed to carry out intensive and extensive coastal mapping in South America, and Darwin was, at heart, a geologist more than anything else (at least during the Beagle’s voyage), this meant that Darwin would become the world’s expert on South American geology. Much of The Voyage is about his expeditions and observations. Part of this, of course, was figuring out the paleontology of the region. Continue reading Fossil Quadrupeds→