Robles, Whitney Barlow

A compelling and innovative exploration of how animals shaped the field of natural history and its ecological afterlives.

Can corals build worlds? Do rattlesnakes enchant? What is a raccoon, and what might it know? Animals and the questions they raised thwarted human efforts to master nature during the so-called Enlightenment – a historical moment when rigid classification pervaded the study of natural history, people traded in people, and imperial avarice wrapped its tentacles around the globe. Whitney Barlow Robles makes animals the unruly protagonists of eighteenth-century science through journeys to four spaces and ecological zones: the ocean, the underground, the curiosity cabinet, and the field. In doing so, she reveals a forgotten lineage of empirical inquiry, one that forced researchers to embrace uncertainty. This tumultuous era in the history of human-animal encounters haunts modern biologists and ecologists, who struggle to understand animals today.

In an eclectic fusion of history and nature writing, Robles alternates between careful historical investigations and lively first-person narratives. These excavations of the past and present of distinctly different nonhuman creatures reveal the animal foundations of human knowledge and show why tackling our current environmental crisis first requires looking back in time.

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Yale University Press, March 2024.  328 pages, hardcover, 14 colour and  65 black and white illustrations