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The history of animals

Fudge, Erica (2006) The history of animals. H-Net.

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Abstract

In a recent article in the journal Critical Quarterly Francis Gooding challenges the traditional separation of the realm of the human from the realm of nature in the writing of history. In conventional work, he argues, the human, a creature with what he terms “thoughtful agency” (33), is perceived to exist in “historical” time, whereas the natural world has no such thoughtful agency and therefore exists in unhistorical time (a caterpillar does not will its transformation into a butterfly nor a cliff its own erosion). Gooding uses the story of the extinction of the Dodo as illustration. He repeats the accepted narrative, in which Dodos lived peaceful lives on Mauritius, until the sixteenth-century arrival of human predators, and were decimated by these new arrivals against whom they had no form of protection. He argues that this version of the story seems to reproduce the distinction of historical from unhistorical time: “human history is actually opposed to nature as if the non-human world was a passive background” (41). However, Gooding continues, “a model of events which makes ‘history’ and ‘nature’ ontologically exclusive categories is wrong, because formally—physically—speaking there is no special distinction, there are simply events” (43). The “epistemological division is found inside events.” The historical and the unhistorical, the human and the natural, are “coterminous within any human action; we can see the sense in which a man killing a Dodo is both a Dutchman of the sixteenth century taking an unpalatable and apparently extremely stupid and ugly bird for purposes of replenishing ship’s supplies during the ongoing voyage to Batavia, and also simply one particular moment during the contact events between one animal species and another, and nothing more” (44).