Jefferson B, Fourth Floor 02 Nov 2018 Organized Session
Life Sciences 09:00 - 11:45

Expeditions play a formative role in natural science research. Data – in the guise of key specimens or crucial experiments – are collected on expeditions. Expeditionary science has long served to bolster the collections of natural history museums. The specimens collected, as well as the publications that derive from those specimens, bring increased prestige to the sponsoring institutions. The success for a museum of a scientific collecting expedition can be judged in the short term by the sheer size of the collection gathered. Museums of many types tout the size of their collections as a proxy for their importance amongst comparable institutions. Larger collections are often interpreted as better than smaller collections, and in this context quantity takes on a quality all its own. Long term success of an expedition and a collection can be judged on factors such as the number of new species described, or the theoretical breakthroughs made – or not made – by studying, analyzing, and interpreting specimens and data acquired. In this session, we present five views of expeditionary natural science and the results of those expeditions in terms of biological evolution and extinction.

Organized by Paul D Brinkman (North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences)

"Theory, Observation, and Discipline: The Funafuti Expeditions as Crucial Experiments?"
09:00 - 09:33

From 1896 to 1898 three Anglo-Australian expeditions were made to the Pacific atoll of Funafuti to test competing theories of coral reef formation, one published by Charles Darwin more than fifty years earlier and the other proposed by John Murray as a consequence of his research on the 1872-1876 voyage of H.M.S. Challenger. Darwin himself had died in 1882, but advocates of both theories favored a crucial test that he had suggested. The idea was to drill as deeply as possible into an atoll in an effort to determine, by bringing up cores, whether these formations were built up by shallow water corals that had accumulated atop a subsiding basement foundation of volcanic rock (as Darwin argued) or if atolls were formed by growth of corals atop accumulating banks of sediment. But the expeditions were framed as something bigger, as tests of Darwin’s broader geological perspective as it bore on his theory of evolution. As “crucial experiments” the expeditions were failures: no consensus emerged that the boring had settled the theoretical dispute(s) in question. In this paper, I examine the premise that boring a single atoll could conceivably resolve an interdisciplinary theoretical dispute, and argue that the “failure” of the Funafuti expeditions lay in incompatible ideas of parsimony between zoologists and geologists in the face of an absence of evidence to contradict Darwin’s reef theory.

"Now is the Time to Collect: Museums and Salvage Zoology at the Turn of the Twentieth Century"
09:33 - 10:06

In the last half of the nineteenth century, Western scientists expected the global extinction of large game animals as a consequence of encroaching human activities, especially land-intensive practices like farming and ranching. Extinction was seen as the inevitable, if lamentable, byproduct of humanity’s steady advance. In other words, the permanent demise of some species was a pity, but the loss was a small price to pay to maintain the pace of progress. Animals that went extinct were simply outcompeted in the struggle for survival. Museum zoologists of this era practiced salvage zoology. Their role was to secure the remnants of these threatened animals – skins, skeletons, eggs, nests and whole animals – while they could still be acquired, and preserving them as museum specimens for all time. The rationale behind salvage zoology was clear: certain animals were doomed to extinction by the unrelenting spread of Western civilization. Zoologists, therefore, were obligated to harvest their specimens and keep them in museum collections. Museum zoologists in the 1890s were motivated more by the potential loss of scientific information than they were by the loss of species. Museums would have to act quickly, for the pace of extinction was quickening and many believed that the window of opportunity for collecting specimens would not remain open for long. An additional impetus for the fervent collecting ethos was a burgeoning movement to protect endangered animals in the late nineteenth century, which was seen by museum zoologists as an unfortunate impediment to collections-building.

"Collecting Evolution in the Galapagos and Rebuilding the California Academy of Sciences"
10:06 - 10:39

From June 1905 through November 1906, a full 17 months, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco sent out a group of eight sailor-scientists and three crew members on the schooner Academy to the Galapagos Islands to collect more and better specimens than Charles Darwin, or any other expedition, had collected in the past. While gone, the April 18, 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed their museum. The Academy collectors were unconstrained either logistically by their Ecuadorian hosts, or conceptually in terms of conservation. They believed, with some clear evidence, that time was running out and it would be a “damnable shame” if the emblematic giant land tortoises of the archipelago were to become extinct due to human and feral animal depredation. With the 78,000 specimens they collected, they brought the Galapagos back to San Francisco. Although they engaged in salvage zoology with the tortoises, they also collected, through the taxonomic specialties of the eight young collectors, a broad spectrum of the terrestrial biota. They caused no species to go extinct, with arguably one exception. With both vertebrates and invertebrates studied by taxonomists after the expedition, the biological material they collected has vindicated Charles Darwin.

"Sailing for Science: The Voyage of the Blossom"
10:39 - 11:12

In 1923, just three years after becoming a museum, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History sent 16 men on an expedition to collect scientific specimens. The Blossom Expedition, named after Elizabeth Bingham Blossom who sponsored the voyage, set out from New London, Connecticut, to explore the islands in the South Atlantic Ocean, including the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa, and Ascension, St. Helena, and Fernando de Noronha off the coast of Brazil. After traveling 20,000 miles in nearly three years, the ship docked in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 1926 with 13,000 specimens that, in the words of the expedition leader, provided evidence to support Darwin's theory of evolution.

"Fossil Tug of War: Evolution and Controversy at Liang Bua"
11:12 - 11:45

In 2003, the fossilized skeleton of a new member of the human evolutionary family was unearthed on a remote island in Southeast Asia. This small skeleton surprised the discovery team of international scientists, causing them to fiercely disagree over the significance of creature’s tiny brain, primitive features, and implications for human evolution. The skeleton raised many challenging questions about the human past—including an alarming possibility that the tiny creature had suffered extinction by the hands of humans. The debate was not limited to the skeleton’s intellectual substance, however, but also became intertwined with the culturally and politically loaded problem of who would analyze the bones.

This paper examines the entangled intellectual and physical struggle over the bones of Homo floresiensis from 2004–2010, the years the conflict received international attention and became labeled a fossil “tug of war.” I explore how the question of ‘what does it mean to be human?’ became conflated with the question of ‘who decides?’ I argue that examining the skeleton’s discovery location, Indonesia, in a post-colonial context is crucial to understanding the conflict. This paper contributes to scholarship that explores the circulation of knowledge in the form of objects. I argue that hominid fossils provide a unique dimension to the discussion, as their delicate status often prohibits them from circulating. The bones are therefore tied to particular geographic, cultural contexts that shape the debates and ultimately the knowledge generated regarding our origins and ourselves.

Arizona State University
Sonoma State University
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
Cleveland Museum of Natural History
Arizona State University


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