OOS 3-1
G. Evelyn Hutchinson’s geochronometric laboratory and the construction of ecological history

Monday, August 10, 2015: 1:30 PM
315, Baltimore Convention Center
Laura Jane Martin, Center for the Environment, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

This paper explores how emerging technologies and national concerns shaped ecologists’ efforts to reconstruct America’s ecological past. Using methodologies from Environmental History and Science and Technology Studies, it analyzes archival materials on Aldo Leopold, G. Evelyn Hutchinson, Paul B. Sears, and the Yale Geochronometric Laboratory from 1925 to 1955. 


In the 1920s, peat stratigraphy – the identification of fossil pollen in vertical samples from bogs – became the preferred method for determining the succession of plant species at a given site. Institutional support for peat stratigraphy solidified during the Dust Bowl as Americans questioned the ecological history of the Great Plains. Using peat stratigraphy, Paul B. Sears, G. Evelyn Hutchinson, Edward Deevey, and other ecologists at Yale established “Pleistocene studies,” an historical sub-discipline of ecology. By the end of WWII, the sub-discipline found itself with new technological tools at its disposal and in a different political climate. Beginning in 1946, Yale and Oberlin ecologists began collaborating with Atomic Energy Commission physicist Willard Libby to use carbon isotopes to determine the age of historical samples. Libby had hypothesized that carbon-14 could be used to determine the age of historical samples, and carbon dating ultimately increased the credibility of ecological histories, even as it revised them. Significantly, it bought the most recent ice age closer, from 40,000 to only 11,000 years in the past. This paved the way for some ecologists to hypothesize that humans had been responsible for the extinction of Pleistocene megafauna in North America, an argument that would anchor justifications of ecological restoration projects later in the century. Meanwhile, debates over whether political involvement threatened scientific objectivity led the ESA to dissolve the Committee on the Preservation of Natural Conditions for Ecological Study. The Ecologists Union, officially independent of the ESA, replaced it, though they had overlapping memberships. The Ecologists Union adopted the language of ecological history that stemmed from Sears’s, Hutchinson’s, and Deevey’s work on past ecological communities. It was in this political and technical context that ecologists began to evaluate species based on whether they were “native” or “non-native.” At its broadest level, this paper explores the relationship between reconstructing historical events and replicating them.