Conference – Cherry-Picking or Consilience? Human Actors, Invisible Microbes, and (Non-)collaboration in Disease History – Monica H. Green – AHA conference

Session : Historians and Geneticists in Collaborative Research

AHA Session 254
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Mile High Ballroom 3A (Colorado Convention Center, Ballroom Level) Denver.
John R. McNeill, Georgetown University

Session Abstract:

An editorial in Nature (25 May 2016) notes that historians have been critical of recent interpretations of European migrations by geneticists, but from their armchairs. Princeton Medieval historian Patrick Geary is quoted as urging historians to be more proactive and take part in genetic research: “If historians do not get involved and engage with this technology seriously, we’re going to see more and more studies that are done by geneticists with very little input from historians, or from frankly second-rate historians.” This session includes presentations by two historians and one geneticist, to show how collaborative study linking historians and geneticists can advance the quality of historical studies relying on genetic information. The session is intended to encourage discussion among historians, especially early-career historians, on how involvement in research and study of the genetic-historical literature can lead to rewarding careers that substantially advance knowledge of the human past from this new angle.

Cherry-Picking or Consilience? Human Actors, Invisible Microbes, and (Non-)collaboration in Disease History

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 3:50 PM, Mile High Ballroom 3A (Colorado Convention Center)

Monica H. Green, Arizona State University

Every pre-modern historian knows how rarely we have all the evidence we want. We know that something happened in history’s silences because we know that human societies persisted. So, too, the palaeogeneticist must assume the continuity of life between the few random molecular fossils uncovered from the past, for that is the basic premise of evolutionary theory. But in all fields that deal with gap-ridden evidence, the question remains: what are legitimate methods for construing what happened in those gaps?Although climate scientists and historians now work toward consilience of written and physical data, that happy détente has yet to be achieved in biological history. Yes, the call to resist “cherry picking those milestones in human history that are best recorded” should be heeded. But what happens when this new kind of bioarchaeology treads into territory historians consider theirs, where there are written records? Who cedes to whom?

This paper will focus not on human genetics but on the molecular histories of the pathogens that kill and maim us. I will use the example of the Second Plague Pandemic (14th-19th centuries) to assert that consilience with History, with a capital ‘H’, is urgently needed for one simple reason: because the most disruptive biological actors in epidemic circumstances are humans themselves.

More information on the AHA program !

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