Evolutionary History: How Biology Can Help Us Understand History

AHA Session 75
Friday, January 4, 2013: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Gallier Room (Sheraton New Orleans)
Samuel White, Oberlin College
The Audience

Session Abstract

Evolutionary History: How Biology Can Help Us Understand History

Evolutionary history is a new field (or research program) that studies the ways in which populations of human beings and other species have shaped each other’s traits over time and the significance of those changes for all those populations.  The field acknowledges that we as a species have shaped the evolution of populations of other species (intentionally or otherwise) for countless millennia, and that this human-induced evolution has, in turn, transformed human history.  In a very real sense, human and nonhuman populations have coevolved with one another.  This revelation can stimulate surprising new hypotheses for historians and evolutionary biologists.

The papers on this panel explore several aspects of evolutionary history.  The first is by Edmund Russell, who first articulated the field’s boundaries in an article (2003) and published a recent book (Evolutionary History, 2011).  His paper will describe traits in wine—body (alcohol), sweetness, tannins, and acidity—and summarize the evolutionary advantages of these traits from the perspective of grapes and yeast.  It will show how people manipulated these traits by developing and spreading grape varieties.  The importance of the case study is in showing that plants we consume developed their traits not just because people and plants coevolved, but because people capitalized on the coevolution of plants and fungi with non-human species, such as bacteria, fungi, insects, and other mammals. 

            The second paper is from Joshua Kercsmar, whose research examines canine evolution and the ‘improvement’ of nature in British North America during the colonial period.  Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the dogs that British colonists brought to the New World tended to be much bigger and stronger than their smaller, lupine, long-muzzled American cousins.  While the differences between these creatures reflected anthropogenic influences, colonists and Native Americans also interpreted each other’s dogs as reflecting the moral character of their masters.  As this attempt to historicize one species suggests, Russell’s evolutionary approach clarifies how the confluence of biology and culture shaped encounters between colonists and Native Americans. 

            The third paper is from Abraham Gibson, whose research examines the historical and biological significance of feral animals in the southeastern United States.  All feral animals (or their ancestors) endured the transition from a life in domestication to one in the wild, though what qualifies as evolutionary success thereafter is not always intuitive.  These creatures cannot be fully understood without reference to the anthropogenic factors (culture, science, economics, and ethics) that have influenced their genetic composition and distribution over the years, providing scholars with a unique opportunity to link the past with the present, to connect history with biology. 

The panel is diverse in career stages (graduate students, assistant professor, professor), institutions (four), type of institutions (research universities and liberal arts college), geographic focus (America and Eurasia), and periods of study (thousands of years).  We tried to recruit five women for the panel, but all had other obligations.

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