About A. Nelson

I am a historian of Russia with expertise in cultural history and emerging interests in animal studies and environmental history. My current research projects include studies of the Soviet space dogs, the significance of the Belyaev fox domestication project, and the cultural implications of domestication, particularly in Eurasia.

Comment on Natural Selection & Variability by A. Nelson

I agree that a discussion of the social construction of “natural” would be good! Just thinking about the binaries — besides “natural-supernatural” there’s “natural-artificial,” as well as “natural-cultural.” IIn “Keywords,” Raymond Williams says that “Nature is perhaps the most complex word in the language.” (p. 219) I will bring the book to class.

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Comment on Darwin is a cool dude. by A. Nelson

I agree, Darwin is indeed a “cool dude.” Among the many reasons he remains so “readable” is his place in a scientific community that was still very much in the “gentleman naturalist” mode and still in quite close dialogue with “normal” people. Your explanation of the interplay between natural and artificial selection in the domesticated species should help us during class today. (I’m thinking in particular about posts by Bill and Chris.) And there’s definitely another semester’s worth of reading about domestication, zoos, etc. out there!

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Comment on Gold to Grass by A. Nelson

Wonderfully interesting post! Anderson does a fabulous job of showing how the colonists’ domesticated animals shaped and usurped the native Americans’ land. Thinking about how native Americans responded to the arrival of cattle, sheep, etc., and the ways in which these animals became agents of empire adds considerable insight to a story we think we already know.

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Comment on Darwin: A Forward Dude by A. Nelson

It’s interesting that on the one hand, recent scientific advances have allowed us to think seriously about the possibilities of “creating” and modifying life forms without any apparent limit. At the same time, the variability and diversity of “wild” species is infinitely greater than among domesticates. And most importantly, as Erica so wisely reminds us, escalating extinctions in the wild are a huge but under-appreciated problem.

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Comment on Dog Sweaters and the Bee by A. Nelson

I love the linkage between dressing up dogs and thinking about what makes bees a domesticate! Clothing dogs in sweaters further commodifies them, of course. The Paris Hilton-(speaking of commercial spaces)-petite-bejeweled-dog-as-accessory could just be a contemporary example of the trend toward using dogs as status symbols and commodities that Brantz noted in the nineteenth-century. Or clothes could make the dog — lots of working dogs wear “clothing” such as protective booties (for sled dogs), bullet-proof vests (for police and military dogs), or winter “coats” (for greyhounds, dobermans, and other thin-skinned breeds). Horses have been “blanketed” and adorned for thousands of years. Could clothing also be a side effect or marker of domestication for some species?
And how dogs feel about the clothing we offer them and sometimes inflict on them is an entirely separate matter….
We’ll definitely be talking more / still about what domestication means. I think Darwin’s reference to the bee reflected his focus on artificial selection. When we think about cultural relationships and the connections between bees and humans, it seems pretty clear that both parties are domesticated.

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Comment on Food Fundamentals by A. Nelson

The food / calorie issue is certainly important, and you raise some interesting questions about how Anthony’s approach might enhance Diamond’s basic framework. I’m wondering how the physical and material relationships (and energy equations) raised here relate to Bulliet’s discussion of the donkey?

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Comment on Terrestrial and Celestial by A. Nelson

There is so much here to keep us busy in class tomorrow! Of course desiderata of human uniqueness will (always) be a chicken / egg debate, but it’s safe to assume that we will hang on to it, as it is so central to our identity as humans. We do need to remember, however, that the “mastering nature” framework and the rational man, abstract reasoning obsession are very much rooted in the narrative of Western Civilization — which is important, but it certainly isn’t the only flavor of human culture around, either in the past or the present. Think of the Eveny, for example…

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Comment on Horses and Donkeys: Past to Present by A. Nelson

I know what you mean about the elusiveness of ever having certainty about “what happened” in the distant past. I thought about specializing in Ancient History or Classics, but shifted my focus forward considerably (to the 19th and 20th centuries), in part because I wanted more certainty about what I knew and what I could say about what had happened in the past. I assumed (as do many historians) that we have better records and more kinds of evidence for the recent past than for distant centuries, and in some ways that will always be true. But one of the (many) exciting things about the new convergence of history and the sciences is that we now have access to all kinds of information that previously was unavailable – even about things that seem beyond recovery, like the early moments of domestication. At the same time, eco-ethnographers such as Natasha Fijn (whose book, Living with Herds I have praised in class many times) have helped us see domestication as an ongoing social relationship embedded in cultural practices rather than as an biological moment that happened long ago. I think the research that Anthony developed marries the best of both worlds.

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