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Fourteenth Ischia Summer School - 27 June – 3 July 2015
Geographies of Life

Introduction to the theme

Life’s diversity is today an integral part of the various climates and locales our planet has to offer. Herodotus wrote of the stations of the earth’s life forms, and since Aristotle the sea has also attracted naturalists as a source of wonders that confound land-based classifications. Yet understandings of the spatial distribution of life have changed radically over time. In the ancient world, land and sea formed separate spheres in a structured cosmos of “natural places,” each of which possessed its properly adapted inhabitants. For Aristotle, seals were “monsters,” because they show all the main features of land animals, but live in the wrong place. Living beings could be in the right place or out of place, they could inhabit temperate and marginal (hot or cold) zones, but the patterns were not understood in terms of geographic distribution on a grid of latitude and longitude.

Early modern voyages of exploration added this geographical dimension. Sea and land collapsed into one “terraqueous globe,” and naturalists began to realize that identical climes could harbour very different fauna and flora. At the same time, the concept of species acquired temporal and spatial dimensionality, with species now understood as physical and physiological systems in their own right, rather than forms that matter could take on. Only in the nineteenth century, however, did the spatial distribution of organisms become the subject of a dedicated field of research, biogeography. Alexander von Humboldt’s attempt to derive quantitative biogeographic “laws” led to the realization that the distribution of species did not simply follow the physical environment as it varied with latitude, altitude, and geological conditions, but was the contingent result of migrations, displacements, and hybridisations. Evolutionism, that is, depended not only on the discovery of “deep time” (itself a spatial metaphor), but also on the temporalisation and dynamisation of spatial relations. The consolidation of nation states, as well as colonial and imperial projects, was the political correlate of this development, which was equally visible in the human sciences, with medical topographies feeding into epidemiology, and racial typologies into anthropology and demography.

From the late nineteenth century, when the sea also acquired layers of depth and a detailed topography, an international network of field stations were dedicated, for example, to marine biological and high-altitude research. These institutions facilitated in situ investigations of living organisms and the study of human bodies under extreme conditions. Colonial and imperial surveys, the promotion of agriculture and fisheries by nation states, epidemiology and population genetics, the integration of meteorology and hydrology into climatology, and finally, the use of radioactive isotopes and satellite data in tracking life on a global scale, have turned geographic space into an integral and essential component of contemporary understandings of life on earth. Thus, if the nineteenth century saw the dynamisation of geographic space, the twentieth century saw its experimentalisation, the turning of landscapes into ‘labscapes’, as Robert Kohler called them.

Historians have studied the geographic dimension of the life sciences from a diversity of perspectives, though usually with a focus on particular fields: natural history in the context of exploration and empire, biogeography, oceanography, ecology, epidemiology, demography and medical geography. This summer school adds perspectives from the spatial turn in the history of science, medicine and technology, including studies of transregional and global exchange networks, which have often taken inspiration from imperial studies, oceanic histories, and world history. It also takes account of spatially organized inscription devices, including the lists, catalogues, maps, statistical records, and databases that can synoptically present data gathered from various places.

It was timely to explore the changing relationship between humans and the spatially organized environment also because, confronted by problems of disease control, food security, conservation biology, and climate change, the biosciences themselves increasingly study life as a complex, spatially distributed phenomenon, be it on the micro-scale of biofilms and gut floras, or the macro-scale of the biosphere. This may represent a reawakening after a period when molecular biology dominated, or developments of research programmes that were always alternatives to the molecular paradigm, or the opening up of new spaces for research by the very molecularization of life. At the same time, human geographers had turned their attention to the life sciences as a phenomenon to be addressed with their own tools. Though such concepts as Friedrich Ratzel’s Lebensraum have a long (and problematic) history, geographers had recently begun to study the production of biological knowledge in its own right. Often taking spatial metaphors in the life sciences as a starting point – “boundary,” with its prominent place in immunology, is a telling example – they were exploring the co-production of spatial relations through interactions between humans, both experts and laypeople, and other organisms. The summer school on “Geographies of Life” thus addressed a subject of urgent relevance to the evolving relations of humans with our natural and social environments, and added historical depth to attempts to understand the roles of the life sciences in changing those relations.

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