Summer School: Geographies of Life

Fourteenth Ischia Summer School on the History of the Life Sciences

Call for applications — Ischia 2015: Geographies of Life, 27 June – 3 July 2015

Applications are invited for this week-long summer school, which provides advanced training in history of the life sciences through lectures and seminars in a historically rich and naturally beautiful setting. The theme for 2015 is “Geographies of Life”. Confirmed faculty are Raf de Bont (Maastricht University), Joe Cain (University College London), Angela Creager (Princeton University) , Nils Güttler (ETH Zürich), Lynn Nyhart (University of Wisconsin), Juan Pimentel (CSIC, Madrid), Helen Rozwadowski (University of Connecticut), and Sujit Sivasundaram (University of Cambridge).

Course directors: Janet Browne (Harvard University), Christiane Groeben (University of Naples), Nick Hopwood (University of Cambridge), and Staffan Müller-Wille (University of Exeter).

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 is 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 have 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 have 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 are 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 addresses a subject of urgent relevance to the evolving relations of humans with our natural and social environments, and will add historical depth to attempts to understand the roles of the life sciences in changing those relations.

Funding: The 2015 School is financially supported by grants from the Wellcome Trust, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, and logistically by the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn.

Cost: There is a charge for students of 300 Euros each. This will cover hotel accommodation and all meals, but students will need to pay for their own travel to Ischia.

The directors will consider requests to waive the fee from qualified students, especially from developing countries, who are unable to raise the money themselves and whose institutions cannot provide it. These must be supported by a detailed financial statement and a letter from the applicant’s head of institution.

Applications should include:

  • a statement specifying academic experience and interest in the course topic (max. 300 words),
  • a brief cv,
  • a letter of recommendation.

Applications timetable:
28 February 2015 – Deadline for applications – applications must have been received by Midnight CET
15 March 2015 – Students to be notified of application outcome
31 May 2015 – Registration fees and/or registration forms due.

Applications are to be sent by e-mail to the following e-mail address:

The body of the email should start with the applicant’s full name (surname, first name, and middle names or initials if desired).  The 300-word application, the CV and the recommendation letter should be attached as files (preferably PDF format), named with your surname+firstname and indicating whether it’s your application (‘app’), CV (‘cv’), or recommendation (‘rec’).

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