The Nature of Defense: Coevolutionary studies, ecological interaction, and the evolution of 'natural insecticides,' 1959-1983

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The Nature of Defense: Coevolutionary studies, ecological interaction, and the evolution of 'natural insecticides,' 1959-1983

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The field of "coevolutionary studies" became a vigorous domain of discovery in the 1960s, and its practitioners were direct inheritors of the modern evolutionary synthesis of the 1940s. They were also direct inheritors of a natural environment that seemed increasingly on the decline, thanks primarily to the destructive actions of humans. Thus, in my account, knowing--the pursuit of knowledge about the natural world--is inextricably interwoven with doing--the practical business of interacting with and altering the natural world, for better or worse. In the case of coevolutionary studies, the act of changing nature through technological intervention with chemical insecticides profoundly changed the way that biologists understood the natural world and the way that humans understood our own place in the natural world. In building this argument, I draw from the work of a variety of science studies scholars, especially environmental historians and historians of science who have examined the boundary between nature and technology, and so-called "basic" and "applied" sciences. I find that the values of control and intervention that are implicit in the applied sciences can have a direct, substantive effect on shaping the direction and form that basic science assumes. As a result, coevolutionary theory was, to a large extent, predicated on the role of humans as participants--interactors--in the very natural systems that coevolutionists strove to understand. To understand this dynamic, I analyze how methods, metaphors, and materials derived from the applied sciences of economic entomology and agronomy formed a foundation for coevolutionary studies. It is no coincidence that most of the scientists in this narrative were disciplinarily rooted in entomology or insect physiology, two fields where potent toxins aimed at destroying insects were of significant importance. These insect scientists were intimately familiar with the methods, metaphors, and materials used to intervene technologically in the operation of nature. Moreover, the model of chemical activity, of the causal agency of potent molecular tools, which dominated both insect physiology and economic entomology, shaped the model of biochemical interaction that drove early coevolutionary studies.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. December 2009. Major: History of Science and Technology. Advisor: Mark Borrello. 1 computer file (PDF); vii, 270 pages.

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Mason Dentinger, Rachel Natalie. (2009). The Nature of Defense: Coevolutionary studies, ecological interaction, and the evolution of 'natural insecticides,' 1959-1983. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

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