The Colonial History of Geology in the United States, Part One

We brought together two experts on the history of geology to talk about the origins of the discipline and its relationship to settler colonialism. This conversation has been edited for clarity.

Gustave Lester is a PhD candidate in the History of Science at Harvard University and a current dissertation fellow at the Science History Institute.

Tamara Pico is an assistant professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences and affiliated with the Science & Justice Research Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz.


Insurrect!: Thank you both for joining us today. Can we start by sharing how you got interested in geology?

Gustave Lester: I think like a lot of graduate students, it was a bit of a winding road for me before I landed on my current dissertation topic. I began very much interested in the history of evolutionary thought, the origins of the fossil record, and intellectual history. And as I was working on my general examinations, one of which was in history the earth sciences, something that came up a few times in conversations with my examiners was the relationship between the earth sciences, including paleontology, to their historical forms of patronage, and, in particular, their relationship to either states or industries that were focused primarily on extraction. The relationship between the development of geology and industry seemed like a huge question mark, and I wasn’t finding a lot of satisfying answers in the existing historiography, at least as I understood it at the time. That was the big starting point for me and led me into all sorts of other questions, like where that relationship intersects with the imperial state or colonialism. That’s the short answer, I would say.

Tamara Pico: I got into the earth sciences after my undergraduate, which was in chemistry and material science, and I switched into earth science my first year of graduate school. I think what gets a lot of people into earth science is this idea that you could understand what we see on the surface of the earth today by looking at processes that happened in really deep time—you know, millions and billions of years ago—and that superposition of timescales is fascinating. I study ice ages, and during my PhD, I think as many of us do, I became more and more aware of practices of exclusion in my discipline. I was noticing the ways that earth science brought me in and excluded me. I was really involved in a Women in Science group at Harvard, and through that I started to try to find more literature about what the people in my group were experiencing. That eventually led me to connect with a professor in feminist studies and history of science, Sarah Richardson, who kind of recruited me into feminist studies. I started taking classes, and I think that brought me to the research questions I ask now about the origins of the cultures in geology as a discipline and trying to trace back where these cultural norms in geology come from. It’s asking: what is deciding the research questions that scientists ask in my discipline? What values are controlling those questions and the way that those questions are asked, and also the way that the research is done? Who is seen as legitimate? Who’s not seen as legitimate? How can I understand what’s happening in the discipline today as a product of norms that were established in the past?

I!: Can you both talk a little bit about how knowledge is and has historically been produced in the field of geology?

GL: There are definitely lots of different ways to answer this question, I think. One is to focus on those individuals who, by about the early 19th century, were calling themselves geologists, as well as their professional organizations, their institutions, their forms of patronage, their distinctive epistemic traditions. Another way of answering this question might be to focus on certain kinds of practices or objects of inquiry, questions that get asked but also the literal objects that are being studied. That would include lots of different ways of thinking about or engaging with, for example, fossils, or earth history, or metallurgy, or prospecting, or mineral objects of different sorts. Either way, you would want to situate these things into their respective social, political, and economic contexts. And an example from my own area—I focus on early U.S. history, mostly—would be thinking about patronage.

So, in the 19th century, geologists, in many places—not just in North America—received extensive and growing government support because of the economic and strategic or political value of geology and the earth sciences. I’m going to borrow from others here: a few years ago, this great article came out, and I love this term they use. They put geology into a broader category of sciences that they called the “sciences of territoriality.” This included natural history and agricultural chemistry, as well as geology and some other things. All these different kinds of practices and modes of inquiry were in many ways focused on the acquisition and commodification of territory, and include as their products geological maps, consulting reports, and so on. They were appearing at a time when there was a lot of enthusiasm and also a market for these things, both within and beyond the ever-shifting political boundaries of the United States. And getting back to that question of patronage—these scientists were working in a context in which their fields were valuable because of the preexisting and evolving political and economic  values of their patrons.

TP: To me that really resonates. In geology today, especially field geology, knowledge is created through methods very similar to in the past. By definition field geology connects to that idea of a science of territoriality—being on land, and making measurements on land, and taking samples from land. In the nineteenth century it would be, you know, governments are paying us to explore these territories that the United States has acquired, and we’re going to describe them. That’s a big part of geology, describing land, describing rocks. Mapping is a big part of field geology, too. That’s the first thing students are taught to do in a field geology class—literally draw a map of where the rocks are.  And then, you’ll look at rocks and describe the detail. Processes like mapping and sampling, when you think about it, are just so evocative of those same practices that 19th century geologists were using to take over and colonize land, and that was really politically motivated.

I!: You both have worked on and written about the connections between the history of geology and settler colonialism, the imperial state, and extractive industry. Could you tell our readers what those connections look like?

TP: I’ll continue that line of thought a little bit. The work that I’ve done has tried to make that connection between past and present, especially thinking about the way that historical figures—like what Gustave said when he mentioned individuals that are self-identified as geologists in the 19th century—how those figures are talked about or seen today. What do we remember about their legacies today? What part of their legacies are carried forward in repeating their accomplishments, and what parts get left out? I’m really interested in is showing the parts that have been left out, and what their broader motivations were.

It’s pretty easy to see that there’s a unifying motivation for these scientists that’s strongly related to colonial and imperial efforts. Motivation to prove racial hierarchy drives a lot of 19th century geologists to study the earth, because they think the superiority or inferiority of humans is tied to the landscapes that they developed on, and understanding the earth is going to help us understand this big question: where do humans stand in relationship to one another? That’s something I’ve been really interested in, showing how so many 19th century geologists did work studying the earth, but they also did work that now would be seen more in anthropology or different fields. These people saw themselves as naturalists. A lot of times we look back and say, “They were so talented and in so many different disciplines,” but to them, that was the same discipline and all of their studies were motivated by similar things.

So for example, I wrote about John Wesley Powell, who is really one of the more famous nineteenth century geologists that are talked about today. He led an expedition, which was sponsored by the U.S. government, to travel down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. He is really famous for this expedition, and he came up with a lot of ideas about how landscapes evolved, how rivers erode, even ideas about how the crust sits on the mantle. These ideas have been further refined in geology, but actually most of his research could be seen as anthropology today. He studied the Ute people during his expedition down the Colorado River. It inspired him to go back many times and conduct interviews and study the Ute languages. Most of what he wrote about were how these languages supposedly prove that these people were inferior to Anglo-Saxon Americans. He said the language itself, the structure of the language, wouldn’t allow Native Americans to reach a high level of civilization. And that’s research that doesn’t get talked about in geology, because it’s not considered geology today, but it was a clear part of the work he was doing. It was all tied together by a similar motivation. I’m interested in showing how these nineteenth century geologists held research agendas that were motivated by colonial endeavors, and were very much connected to scientific racism, proving categories of race, and codifying them through science.

GL: I love that you emphasized that Powell’s motivation and his broader project wasn’t unique, necessarily, but was rather part of a larger pattern that can be explained and has historical roots. I think that’s crucial and overlaps with some of the stuff that I’m interested in with regard to this question about the relationship between geology and colonialism, settler colonialism, and extraction. At the heart of my project is a question about the origins of the U.S. mining sector in the late nineteenth century, which is  famously the foundation upon which the United States became a leading global manufacturer by World War One. There’s of course lots and lots of excellent scholarship on that subject, but something that sort of bothered me—and I’m going to speak a little bit generally—is that for scholars who are really interested in explaining the origins of U.S. industrialization and industrial capitalism, there’s sometimes an emphasis on scientific innovation, including geological discovery of natural resources. There is a lot of emphasis on the rise of certain institutions that allow geologists to make mineral discoveries across North America that subsequently led to the rise of the mining sector. I’m pushing against this a little bit because I’m interested in tracing back where these resources came from and shifting the emphasis away from moments or claims of resource discovery. Going back to our conversation about field geology, whose “field” is it? How did these individuals leading these expeditions deploy their power? And how did they get access to these spaces? I’m trying to bring the history of geology into conversation with the rich scholarship on U.S. empire and settler colonialism. I think it’s crucial for interrogating some of these preexisting narratives about the significance of these individuals or scientific and technological innovation to the origins of U.S. industrial power.

Part Two of this generative conversation can be found here.

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