Descartes Centre Colloquium with Mathijs Boom (UvA) and Stephen Snelders (UU)

Mathijs Boom

Mathijs Boom - Deltaic History: Reimagining Human and Natural History in the Low Countries, 1740-1840

For centuries, the rivers and polders along the North Sea’s coast were molded and managed by humans, modulating natural forces like inundations, sedimentation and the subsidence of reclaimed lands. The interplay between human and natural forces was familiar to those living in the eighteenth-century Low Countries. Yet only in the second half of the eighteenth century did European savants develop a framework in which to study the changes in the river delta as part of Earth’s own geological history. As observers learned to read the landscape as an archive of its own history, their depictions of the region’s ancient pasts began to shift.

This paper explores the ways in which antiquaries, surveyors, hydrologists, naturalists, geographers and other savants changed the historical imagination of the ancient past in the Low Countries. Mining and the hunt for mineral riches were instrumental in the production of geological knowledge of the oldest landscapes, associated with deep time, but what engagements with nature shaped the understanding of the changeable delta? I argue that water management, utilitarian natural history and geography, and expanding state power helped redefine both the ancient human and natural history of the Low Countries between 1740 and 1840, as landscapes replaced texts as a source for historical reconstruction.

This paper draws on my dissertation, which explores the study of Earth history in the Low Countries from 1740 to 1840. I use this geographical lens to chart the ways in which particular natural and cultural landscapes gave rise to different ways of thinking about the ancient past. My research is funded by The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).

Short biography
Mathijs Boom studied history and philosophy at the University of Amsterdam and Boston College. In 2017 he started his PhD research at the University of Amsterdam. His research explores the connections between varieties of historical imagination and environmental history, mostly during the European Enlightenment.

Stephen Snelders


Stephen Snelders - Public Dialogue in the Anthropocene: The Role of History

We live in an era - referred to as the ‘Anthropocene’ (or ‘the Age of Extinction’) - in which humans have become geological and biological agents with a decisive impact on climate, living environment, and the survival of species. In 2020 the UN secretary general has urged states to declare a climate emergency. However, science-based solutions to climate problems such as the energy transition and the reduction of CO2-emissions are not accepted by everyone and have led to polarisation. New forms and contents of public dialogue seem necessary to achieve greater consensus on climate issues. In a new project at FI/HPS we explore the role history can play in developing new content. in the past decade historians have attempted to encompass new ‘transspecies’ perspectives and develop methods to take a ‘more-than-human’ perspective on their research themes. They have expanded the subject of their analysis to include biological, social, and geological aspects; to decentre human actors and give agency to non-human actors such as animals, plants, and viruses; and to attempt to locate humans as part of broader landscapes and environments. This research has made clear that the extent and forms of the human-nature dichotomy we perceive (and even the dichotomy itself) have not been a constant in human understanding but rather are historically and culturally changeable. Our sense of identity is shaped by imagination, by naming and defining, and by acts of recognition and attribution. These processes take place through the endless repetition of narratives which emphasize certain elements and repeat to us who we are. Can we adopt non-anthropocentric research methods to re-orient our cultural and historical understandings of humans and nature, producing new narratives and identities that will give new perspectives for public dialogue? And more concretely, how can we incorporate this in our histories of science and knowledge programme?

Short biography
Stephen Snelders is a Dutch historian and Research Fellow at University Utrecht, Faculty of Science, Freudenthal Institute/History and Philosophy of the Sciences, The Netherlands. He has published extensively on the history of drug and addiction, on tropical medicine and on human genetics and eugenics. His most recent book is Drug Smuggler Nation: Narcotics and the Netherlands (Manchester University Press, 2021).  Over the past year Stephen has been working on the outlines for a new research programme on transspecies history.

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Online, attendance is free

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