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  • Sanemori’s Revenge:Insects, Eco-System Accidents, and Policy Decisions in Japan’s Environmental History
  • Brett L. Walker (bio)

Normally we do not think of living organisms as machines or as relays in complex, tightly coupled technological systems. Nonetheless, in recent years this is precisely the manner in which many environmental historians have come to approach the study of certain organisms and their natural or anthropogenic environments.1 Over the millennia and across the globe, humans have so manipulated certain organisms that they have come to exist solely as parts of technological systems or industrialized chains of production and consumption. Technological artifacts are, of course, only nature refashioned: nonetheless, modern industrialized societies tend to view themselves as gradually distancing themselves from, replacing, or, in some instances, even killing nature with their advanced technologies and gadgetries, when actually they are only refashioning their inseparable relationship to it.2

For the purposes of this article, two assumptions are critical to seeing organisms as technologies or as parts of technological systems. The first is that humans are capable of shaping the evolution of other creatures on this planet—in some instances our species has even caused the creation of new species, or "speciation"3 —and that meaningful evolution can occur over the course of years and not only eons. That is, as historian Edmund Russell, a major proponent of "evolutionary history," has argued, "Organisms have changed in historical time" due to intentional and unintentional human meddling with three keystone Darwinian factors: variation, inheritance, and selection. Russell continues that investigating the manner in which human histories have shaped the evolution of other [End Page 113] organisms allows us to "historicize organisms themselves," which carves out a new place for historians in generating knowledge about the current state of evolution and the natural world.4 Historicizing organisms means that historians can trace the manner in which policy decisions, whether by silkworm cultivators, pesticide producers, or government extension agencies, have influenced the evolution of certain organisms.

The second assumption is this: if humans manipulate the evolution of certain organisms, then this manipulation, whether intentional or unintentional, resembles the manipulation of metals and electronic circuitries in machines or other conventional technologies or technological systems. Russell helps us navigate this tricky theoretical terrain as well. Strictly speaking, he explains, organisms are not conventional machines but rather are "biological artifacts shaped by humans to serve human ends." This represents a merger of technology and nature, not a separation or an instance of one killing the other. Take agriculture. As Russell explains, "No one has yet figured out how to transform sunlight, carbon dioxide, and a few nutrients into grain—except by subcontracting the job to plants. The same goes for meat production and animals."

Needless to say, industrialization is an important part of this process. As Russell points out, in the case of industrialized agriculture, "Biological development was roughly as important as mechanical innovation in boosting productivity." For farmers, that is, new hybrid grains and improved chicken breeds prove just as important in boosting production as do new threshers, combines, and mechanical feather removers. Today, farms resemble factories, and consumers, when perusing supermarket aisles, shop for carefully disassembled "legs and thighs" for their specific caloric demands.5 More still, when we adopt "evolutionary history" as our analytical starting point, it allows us to think more co-evolutionarily as well.6 We begin to see "not just how humans shape organisms, but how organisms shape humans."7 Apparently, modern people, too, are products of their interaction with other organisms and, therefore, of their own co-evolutionary history.

Insects prove to be wonderful examples of organisms evolving as a result of human activities: insects such as bees and silkworms serve as biotechnologies; others develop hereditary resistances to certain pesticides. In other words, insects serve as technologies, but they also serve as targets of technologies, which causes them to evolve through developing resistances. Flying scale insects, nematode worms, and some ticks have reportedly developed resistances to such powerful toxins as buquinolate, thiabendazole, and HCH/dieldrin in only a matter of a few generations because their lifecycles are relatively short. Policy decisions play the [End Page 114] following role: federal officials, such as...


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pp. 113-144
Launched on MUSE
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