Organized Session

Enlightenment Sciences and Rational Assertions of Otherness

Organizer

David I. Spanagel

Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Chair

Emily Pawley

Dickinson College

Metadata

Session Abstract

Scholars of the Enlightenment have recognized how the universal appeal to nature to resolve human and social problems, as well as accompanying modes of thought and action (observation, experimentation, and systematic analysis) that were modeled on the natural sciences, ultimately yielded new knowledge. But new puzzles and contradictions also emerged from the Enlightenment approach, often with a greater likelihood of complicating the original problems than providing the highly desired solutions. The three papers in this session will explore these distinct examples of rational attempts to either construct or comprehend "otherness" in various places (from a North American standpoint) while employing a variety of disciplinary perspectives. From physiology to mathematical geography to applied astronomy, Enlightenment scientific investigations and applications of knowledge aimed at gaining a clearer appreciation for the "wholeness" of nature tended to inspire deeper and deeper investments in defining and delimiting otherness.

Presenter 1

Physiology Is Theology: Benjamin Vaughan (1751-1835) and Mr. Merrick's Hermaphrodite Cow

Jose R. Torre

SUNY Brockport

Abstract

Struggling to understand the purpose of "Mr. Merrick's freemartin," Benjamin Vaughan (1751-1835), an English political radical and religious dissenter retired at his estate in Maine, turned to teratology, or the science of "monsters." Then known as freemartins, hermaphrodite cows are a regularly occurring byproduct of mixed-sex twin births in cattle, with 92% of the female twins born intersex and without functioning reproductive organs. As such, for Vaughan, freemartins were a regularly occurring "unnatural exception" to the purpose built natural world Vaughan had first glimpsed in Joseph Priestley's dissenter academy at Warrington. Seeing "NO CHANCE" in God's creation and understanding "physiology as theology," Vaughan turned to the seventeenth century monster debate on the nature and purpose of conjoined twins and other humans born with serious congenital abnormalities. Following a path well worn by a host of largely French anatomists, Vaughan speculated broadly as to the deity's purpose in creating human beings and bovines that differed from his providential design.
Vaughan filled 47 pages with his ideas on Mr. Merrick's hermaphrodite cow, editing and re-editing the document as if for publication. Located in the Benjamin Vaughan Papers at the American Philosophical Society, this manuscript wanders far from the anatomy of its stated subject to reflect on what Vaughan understood as God's purpose for his creations, human and bovine -monster and hermaphrodite. This paper examines how Vaughan's theological beliefs shaped his ideas on hermaphrodite cattle, the so-called monster debate, and on nature more broadly.

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Presenter 2

How to Think about Human Difference: Mathematical Geography, the "Use of the Globes," and the Antipodes in the Early North American Spatial Imagination

Tamara Plakins Thornton

SUNY Buffalo

Abstract

In the eighteenth century, the term "antipodes" was used metaphorically, to denote diametrical opposites, but it had a concrete referent: "people who live on the opposite side of the globe, and have their feet opposite to ours," to quote a dictionary published in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1788. To think about the antipodes was therefore to think about human difference. This paper examines the impact of a now archaic discipline, mathematical geography, and its long-vanished pedagogical tool of choice, the so-called "use of the globes," in conceptualizing the antipodes and geographical "others" more generally.
Vernacular sources presented the antipodes as a fanciful vision of a topsy-turvy world. Learned texts commonly interpreted the antipodes through the lens of racial and cultural hierarchy. World maps obscured any spatial relationship whatsoever between opposite locations. Mathematical geography and globes, anchored in concepts of the earth as an astronomical body and cosmic space as mathematically homogeneous, offered different perspectives. They encouraged relativistic views; there is no absolute "above" and "below," globe manuals pointed out. Globes in particular, three-dimensional calculating instruments on which space-time problems were solved, could support a sense of connection and even identification with geographical "others," who after all, were linked in spatial equipoise, fellow inhabitants of mathematically identical points on a sphere. Because globes remained rare and costly imports well into the nineteenth century, such perspectives were likely limited to learned, mercantile, and polite audiences. Drawing on periodical literature, almanacs, mathematical geographical texts, globe manuals, and globes themselves, this paper explores the cognitive and cultural influence of a little-studied discipline, technology, and practice.

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Presenter 3

Technical Collaboration after the War: Applied Sciences and the Quest to Invent a Peaceful Mexico/U.S. Boundary in the 1850s

David I. Spanagel

Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Abstract

Between April 1846 and January 1847, American forces won a series of military victories that gave them control over Mexico's northernmost provinces, virtually all the land eventually annexed by the United States. The fighting did not end, however. By the fall of 1847, invaders occupied considerably more of Mexico, including the capital Mexico City, but atrocities performed by undertrained US army volunteers, and violent reprisals by guerrilla resisters, threatened to spawn an endless struggle. Leaders in both countries were faced with perplexing choices about exactly how to end the war. Meanwhile, untethered negotiators had little help or support in designing a stable new international boundary line. Though the Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo was signed in February 1848, hard peacemaking work remained.
This paper examines the involvement of natural scientists (astronomers, botanists, mineralogists, and surveyors) who were enlisted in the Boundary Commission work that was assigned the task of implementing the peace treaty's provisions. Jointly led by Pedro Garcia Condé and John Russell Bartlett, teams of scientists and military men labored across the arid region in the years from 1850 to 1853. Consistent with previous experiences Americans had acquired in settling some boundary disputes with British Canada, the commission nurtured a spirit of collaboration among its members, in the hopes of establishing and then elaborately celebrating the fruits of shared technical achievements. Instead of walls and fortifications, Mexico and the United States would be separated by visible natural obstacles and occasional obelisks denoting jointly determined scientific findings.

Metadata

Commentator

Emily Pawley

Dickinson College