post-Natural History

March 2012, a wonderful new institution officially opens its doors in Pittsburgh: the Center for PostNatural History. The center is dedicated to the advancement of knowledge relating the complex interplay between culture, nature and biotechnology. The ‘postnatural’ in its title refers to living organisms that have been altered through processes such as selective breeding or genetic engineering to meet human desires, and the center collects and provides access to a series of living, preserved and documented organisms of postnatural origin.

The Sterile Male Screwworm, for instance, was released in the late 1950s to eradicate the live-flesh-eating fly populations that plagued cattle ranches in the American south. Male screwworms were industrially bred, after which they were treated radioactively to end their reproductive capacities. The mature adult flies were then released above the region, where the impotent males would be unable to impregnate the monogamous female fly. The BioSteel goat, on the other hand, had been engineered to produce spider silk in its milk for use in manufacturing bullet-proof armor and fishing line. 40 such goats were produced by the Canadian Nexia Corporation, which sold some of them to the US Defense Department, according to the CPNC currently housed in a decommissioned Air Force Base in New York.

The Belgian institute for art and contemporary design Z33 recently featured an interesting exhibition and symposium on the topic of ‘Alter(ed) Nature’, with 20 international artists on display. The exhibition focused on different ways in which people displaced, manipulated or designed nature: “from small gardens to private islands, carrots, bonsai trees to acoustic plants and orange pheasants”. Check here for the exhibition catalogue and essays.

Book review in ‘Academische Boekengids’

The Dutch Academische Boekengids (‘Academic Book Review’) published a short review by Koen Beumer and myself in its November issue on the recent ‘Bats Sing, Mice Giggle. The Surprising Science of Animals’ Lives’ by Shanor and Kanwal with the title ‘Achter het spiegelraam van de biologie’ (‘behind the reflective window of biology’). The magazine is circulated among Dutch academic staff and readers of Vrij Nederland and readers of Dutch can find it here. We used the metaphor of the reflective window to expose a paradoxical relation between animals and humans that is reflected in these authors’ discourse. Ostensibly, they stress correspondences between human and animal lives, which not only should bring them closer together but also prove useful for man’s survival in nature. Yet at the same time, the authors refrain from drawing ethical conclusions from such correspondence. Instead, animals feature very much as objects of research, surprisingly similar yet distanced by a scientific and technical gaze – in effect setting man apart from these natural origins.