#7CheapThings: What Is Cheap Money?

Welcome to the second post in our #7CheapThings blog series! Raj Patel & Jason W. Moore’s A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things focuses on seven areas that are the foundation of modern commerce: nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. How has the cheapening of these things made the world safe for capitalism? Follow along to find out.

If we want to understand the idea of cheap money, we have to first go beyond money and zoom out to take a look at the larger picture. At the core of capitalism is a cycle that expands beyond just money and encompasses commodities as well. Money flows into commodities which then flow back into money. It is here that the authors note:

A peculiar and very modern magic lies here. States wanted the loot of war, but needed money to pay the military. Without war, they couldn’t acquire riches which they needed, in part, to pay for the previous war. War, money, war. Bankers needed governments to repay them, and governments needed bankers to fund them. What’s new about capitalism and its ecology isn’t the pursuit of profit, but the relations between the pursuit, its financing, and governments. The planet was to be remade through these relations, and they are the subject of this chapter.

This cycle is fueled by the cheap money in question, specifically “a secure denomination of exchange that can be relied upon to facilitate commerce, controlled in a way that meets the needs of the ruling bloc at the same time.” Said cheapness includes two major characteristics: the appropriation of a primary commodity such as gold or oil and its regulation that allows interest to remain low and control over the wider cash economy which only states can provide.

In the end, however:

Cheap money means one thing above all – low interest. Even in today’s world of fast-moving container ships and high frequency stock trades, credit is the lifeblood of capitalism. If cheap work, food, energy, and raw materials are the necessary conditions for capitalist booms, cheap credit makes it all possible. Historically, there’s been a virtuous circle of cheap money and new frontiers. When opportunities for profit making contracted in established regions of production and extraction, capitalists took their profits and put it into money-dealing. That’s one reason why, after each great boom in world capitalism – the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth century, the British in the mid-nineteenth century, and the American postwar golden age – there’s been a curious process that scholars call financialization. We’re living in such a time at the moment, and history doesn’t reassure – such cycles of accumulation usually end in war, with the rise of new financial powers, as we’ll see below.

Two movements make financialization attractive and even useful for capitalism. One is that, as we’ve seen, when the world’s economic pie stops growing, leading powers tend to go to war, or at a minimum build up their warmaking capacity. As we will see modern states rarely self-finance their wars. They have to borrow money just like anyone else. The other thing that happens is that capital in the heartlands of the system begin to flow towards the frontiers. In the late nineteenth century, for example, gigantic sums of British capital, in the form of loans, flowed out of London and towards the rest of world, especially to build railroads. Thus the significance of financialization – relatively cheap British capital flowed out to make possible a global railway network, which in turn was central to the next century’s extraordinary food and resource extraction. This worked so long as there were bountiful frontiers, where humans and other natures could be put to work – or otherwise extracted – for cheap. When the boom made possible – in part – by the global railway network went bust, in the 1970s, a new era of financialization began. And though the neoliberal era owed it existence to precisely the inverse of cheap money – the 1979 Volcker Shock – a long era of cheap money followed. As Anwar Shaikh explains, the neoliberal “boom” — such as it was – that began in the 1980s was “spurred by a sharp drop in interest rates… Falling interest rates also lubricated the spread of capital across the globe, promoted a huge rise in consumer debt, and fuelled international bubbles in finance and real estate.” What’s different today is that, where once finance was a bridge to a renewed era of profitability, because of how finance, science, and empire cooperated to make new frontiers of cheap nature, there are no such frontiers today. In the twenty-first, money masks the underlying problems of socio-ecological crisis, magnifying the contradictions in the process.

Raj Patel is an award-winning writer, activist and academic. He is a Research Professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin and a Senior Research Associate at the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and The Value of Nothing.

Jason W. Moore teaches world history and world-ecology at Binghamton University, and is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. He is the author of several books, including Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, and numerous award-winning essays in environmental history, political economy, and social theory.

#7CheapThings: Cheap Nature

Welcome to the first post in our #7CheapThings blog series! Raj Patel & Jason W. Moore’s A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things focuses on seven areas that are the foundation of modern commerce: nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. How has the cheapening of these things made the world safe for capitalism? Follow along to find out.


Raj & Jason, in their book, argue that humans in a capitalist system abuse the ecosystems that they are a part of, with the demand for profit outweighing detrimental effects on the environment. In this shift towards profit governing life, a split between the ideas of “Nature” and “Society” needed to occur. What exactly is meant by that is outlined in the excerpt below.

In the English language, the words nature and society assumed their familiar meanings only after 1550, over the arc of the “long” sixteenth century (c. 1450–1640). This was, as we shall see, a decisive period in England’s capitalist and colonial history. It marked the rise of the Spanish and Portuguese empires and their construction of massive New World production systems, worked by coerced Indigenous and African labor. These transformations were key elements of a planetary shift in the global center of power and production from Asia to the North Atlantic. That shift did not come fast. Europe was technologically and economically impoverished compared to civilizations on the other side of Asia, and only after 1800 did that change. China, recall, already had the printing press, a potent navy, gunpowder, and vibrant cities, and it was marked by both wealth and environmental crisis. Where European capitalism thrived was in its capacity to turn Nature into something productive and to transform that productivity into wealth. This capacity depended on a peculiar blend of force, commerce, and technology, but also something else—an intellectual revolution underwritten by a new idea: Nature as the opposite of Society. This idea gripped far more than philosophical minds. It became the common sense of conquest and plunder as a way of life. Nature’s bloody contradictions found their greatest expression on capitalism’s frontiers, forged in violence and rebellion—as the witch killing demonstrates.

We take for granted that some parts of the world are social and others are natural. Racialized violence, mass unemployment and incarceration, consumer cultures—these are the stuff of social problems and social injustice. Climate, biodiversity, resource depletion—these are the stuff of natural problems, of ecological crisis. But it’s not just that we think about the world in this way. It’s also that we make it so, acting as if the Social and the Natural were autonomous domains, as if relations of human power were somehow untouched by the web of life.

This means that we’re using these words—Nature and Society—in a way that’s different from their everyday use. We’re capitalizing them as a sign that they are concepts that don’t merely describe the world but help us organize it and ourselves. Scholars call concepts like these “real abstractions.” These abstractions make statements about ontology—What is?—and about epistemology: How do we know what is? Real abstractions both describe the world and make it. That’s why real abstractions are often invisible, and why we use ideas like world-ecology to challenge our readers into seeing Nature and Society as hidden forms of violence. These are undetonated words. Real abstractions aren’t innocent: they reflect the interests of the powerful and license them to organize the world.

That’s why we begin our discussion of cheap things with Nature. Nature is not a thing but a way of organizing—and cheapening—life. It is only through real abstractions—cultural, political, and economic all at once—that nature’s activity becomes a set of things. The web of life is no more inherently cheap than it is wicked or good or downloadable. These are attributes assigned to some of its relationships by capitalism. But it has been cheapened, yanked into processes of exchange and profit, denominated and controlled. We made the case in the introduction that capitalism couldn’t have emerged without the cheapening of nature; in this chapter we explore the mechanics and effects of this strategy.

Click here to win an Advance Reader’s Copy of A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things on Goodreads. Giveaway ends on September 15th.

Raj Patel is an award-winning writer, activist and academic. He is a Research Professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin and a Senior Research Associate at the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and The Value of Nothing.

Jason W. Moore teaches world history and world-ecology at Binghamton University, and is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. He is the author of several books, including Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, and numerous award-winning essays in environmental history, political economy, and social theory.

Win an Advance Reader’s Copy of A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things

We have a few extra advance reader’s copies of A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, and one of them could be yours! Entries are free, and all Goodreads members residing in the United States are eligible to win. Just click the link below to enter!

A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet by Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore

(click for Goodreads giveaway)

Nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives: these are the seven things that have made our world and will shape its future. In making these things cheap, modern commerce has transformed, governed, and devastated Earth. In A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore present a new approach to analyzing today’s planetary emergencies. Bringing the latest ecological research together with histories of colonialism, indigenous struggles, slave revolts, and other rebellions and uprisings, Patel and Moore demonstrate that throughout history, crises have always prompted fresh strategies to make the world cheap and safe for capitalism. At a time of crisis in all seven cheap things, innovative and systemic thinking is urgently required. This book proposes a radical new way of understanding—and reclaiming—the planet in the turbulent twenty-first century.

(Giveaway ends on September 15th.)

Learn more about the book with author Jason W. Moore on the Center for Energy and Environment in the Human Sciences @ Rice podcast. Click here to listen.

A Yosemite National Park Reading List

On this day in 1864 President Lincoln signed a law leading to the protection of what we know today as Yosemite National Park. Dive deeper into the history of this iconic landscape with these books.

Yosemite: Art of an American Icon edited by Amy Scott

This lavishly illustrated volume offers a stunning new view of Yosemite’s visual history by presenting two hundred works of art together with provocative essays that explore the rich intersections between art and nature in this incomparable Sierra Nevada wilderness. Integrating the work of Native peoples, it provides the first inclusive view of the artists who helped create an icon of the American wilderness by featuring painting, photography, basketry, and other artworks from both well-known and little-studied artists from the nineteenth century to the present.


Glaciers of California: Modern Glaciers, Ice Age Glaciers, the Origen of Yosemite Valley, and a Glacier Tour in the Sierra Nevada by Bill Guyton

Bill Guyton summarizes the history of the discovery of Ice Age glaciation and modern-day glaciers in California, as well as the development of modern ideas about the state’s glacial history. He describes the controversy about the origin of Yosemite Valley and quotes from the colorful accounts of early mountain explorers such as John Muir, Josiah Whitney, and François Matthes.


Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Hidden Wars of the American West by Rebecca Solnit

In this foundational book of landscape theory and environmental thinking, Rebecca Solnit explores our national Eden and Armageddon and offers a pathbreaking history of the west, focusing on the relationship between culture and its implementation as politics. In a new preface, she considers the continuities and changes of these invisible wars in the context of our current climate change crisis, and reveals how the long arm of these histories continue to inspire her writing and hope.

The Mountains That Remade America: How Sierra Nevada Geology Impacts Modern Life by Craig H. Jones

This book combines geology with history to show how the particular forces and conditions that created the Sierra Nevada have effected broad outcomes and influenced daily life in the United States in the past and how they continue to do so today. Drawing connections between events in historical geology and contemporary society, Craig H. Jones makes geological science accessible and shows the vast impact this mountain range has had on the American West.


Uncertain Path: A Search for the Future of National Parks by William C. Tweed

Tweed, who worked among the Sierra Nevada’s big peaks and big trees for more than thirty years, has now hiked more than 200 miles along California’s John Muir Trail in a personal search for answers: How do we address the climate change we are seeing even now—in melting glaciers in Glacier National Park, changing rainy seasons on Mt Rainer, and more fire in the West’s iconic parks. Should we intervene where we can to preserve biodiversity? Should the parks merely become ecosystem museums that exhibit famous landscapes and species? Asking how we can make these magnificent parks relevant for the next generation, Tweed, through his journey, ultimately shows why we must do just that.

Learning to See from Thoreau

by Richard Higgins, author of Thoreau and the Language of Trees

I once sat in an old barn to soak up the quiet before heading in the woods. A rusty iron hay rake hung from the rafters, and light poured through warped boards. One minute turned into three, then five. As I sat motionless, the swallows that scattered when I entered slowly returned. Soon dozens of them were pecking ever closer to my feet, oblivious to me. I was enjoying my sudden intimacy with nature when the devil whispered in my ear, “Hey Saint Francis, what about a photo?” My camera was next to me. I thought if I could just slide my hand out and drag it to me ever so slowly, the birds would be none the wiser. I moved a finger to start—and every single bird flew off as if I had yelled “OK everybody, say cheese!”

For much the same reason, I used to wonder if carrying a camera in the woods ruined the purpose of a walk. Was I out to experience the beauty of trees or to shoot them? Thoreau helped me shed that ambivalence.

We only truly see, he said, when we look. “The scarlet oak must, in a sense, be in your eye when you go forth,” he wrote in “Autumnal Tints.” “We cannot see anything until we are possessed with the idea of it, take it into our heads.” Even the hunter “must take very particular aim, and know what he is aiming at….So it is with him that shoots at beauty.” He may wait all day but won’t bag it “if he does not already know its seasons and haunts, and the color of its wing—if he has not dreamed of it.” When he has, “he flushes it at every step.”

Thoreau knew what he was aiming at and was always ready to see it. His eye was sharp, but, more important, his soul was able to appreciate beauty. That was the inner “film” that let him receive its impression. “There is just as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate—not a grain more.” Seeing a beautiful tree isn’t about capturing anything, but about wanting to see it and letting it in. Ansell Adams, who saw the world much like Thoreau did, agreed. You don’t take a photo of nature, he said. You make one with it.

I think that, over the years, taking a camera into the woods has actually increased my desire to see the miraculous things nature presents and made me more inclined to notice the expressions, character and beauty of trees.

One tree that I see might remind me of others I have known or photographed for this book—Big Guy, Doubletree, Hutchins Oak, Soldier Pine, Davis Elm or Shadow Tree. Or it might call to mind other trees I have seen in a certain light or in a certain stance, and make me hope to see something similar. I go off trails, down ravines and up hills because I never know what I will see—but I want to find out. In the woods right after a snow storm, I am sometimes so excited that I fairly race from one favorite haunt to another.

Seeing the possibility of a photograph in a particular tree or thinking about where to stand or how to frame it can now produce a second reaction in me. I pause and really look at it, take in its wonder. On those occasions, the camera in hand is telling my eye to be ready to see. If I’m lucky, I’ll carry that image in my mind.

Richard Higgins is a former longtime staff writer for the Boston Globe, the coauthor of Portfolio Life: The New Path to Work, Purpose, and Passion after 50, and the coeditor of Taking Faith Seriously. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, Christian Century, and Smithsonian. He lives in Concord, Massachusetts.

White People Like Hiking? Some Implications of NPS Narratives of Relevance and Diversity

By Laura Schiavo, contributing author featured in The Public Historian 38.4 

This guest post is published in advance of a forthcoming special issue on the National Park Service published by The Public Historian. The full article will appear in TPH 38.4 (November 2016). Sign up here for an email alert when the special issue becomes available.

Photo Courtesy of Ranger Doug's Enterprises
Illustration Courtesy Ranger Doug’s Enterprises

Last summer, an opinion piece in The New York Times asked, “Why Are Our Parks So White?” The lede introduced readers to a 58-year-old African American woman living in Seattle, in view of Mt. Rainier, who steers clear of the associated park for fear of what she knows she will find: “mosquitoes, which she hates, and bears, cougars and wolves, which she fears.” This is, of course, far from the first time the title question has been asked. For decades now, external critics, and the Park Service itself, have expressed repeated, and repetitive, concerns about the lack of diversity among visitors to Park Service units. This statistic, first noted in a 1962 congressional report about Americans’ engagement with outdoor recreation, has experienced a resurgence of attention in the media fueled by Park Service surveys conducted in 2000 and then again in 2009. The more recent survey found that those US residents who could name a unit of the National Park Service they had visited in the two years prior to the survey, “were disproportionately white and non-Hispanic.” As the National Park Service (NPS) approached its 2016 Centennial, articles lamented the failure of the Park Service to engage a diverse public, even given the outreach to communities of color associated with the anniversary. (See here.) This failure to connect with “nonwhite communities” is figured, in a similar article, as a threat to the Park Service’s “own long-term sustainability.”

My article, forthcoming in the November issue of The Public Historian (38.4), explores this prevailing narrative – that people of color do not visit parks “enough”– and argues that it is both reductive in its implications about what it means to visit the parks, and in its construction of race, including whiteness. The desire for a visiting population that better reflects the nation’s racial demographics is surely driven in large part by the admirable value that everyone benefit equally the “scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein” conserved by the directives of the Organic Act of 1916 that established the National Park Service. However, there are consequences to this logic that have not been carefully scrutinized. My paper looks at the argument’s embedded narratives, including the reduction of an appreciation for nature with park visitation and the implication that people of color do not share a concern for the environment. It analyzes the presumed link between park visitation and national belonging, and thus a threatened democracy in the face of unequal attendance. “A democracy can’t flourish without the participation of all of our citizens, yet some people from diverse backgrounds may not feel welcome in the parks,” according to a July 2015 Houston Chronicle article.

Illustration Courtesy Library of Congress
Illustration Courtesy Library of Congress

Such a logic harkens back to Frederick Jackson Turner’s attribution of the “vital forces” that fed the American character to an engagement with the “wilderness.”   Indeed, in 1916, when the Park Service was founded, it had been less than twenty-five years since Turner had delivered his frontier thesis. The Park Service retroactively incorporated national parks and monuments (including Yellowstone, Sequoia, Yosemite, and Mount Rainier) already cherished for their majesty and beauty and already integrated into the national imaginary. Certainly, the conventional understanding of the relationship between landscape and the forging of an American identity was foremost in the minds of the men who created a model for setting aside the most pristine places not only for protection but for communion and rejuvenation. In many ways, then, the cultural logic that defined the National Park Service a century ago was a product of its historical moment, when white men became Americans at civilization’s edge.

One hundred years later, our understanding of the relationship between nature, history, and nation is arguably more complicated. Decades of scholarship have documented the variety of encounters and events significant to the nation’s history. The environmental movement of the twenty first century includes a significant global (expanded from a purely national) orientation. Demographically, we are less homogenous and more urban, and scientists and social scientists are more engaged with the urban landscape and with a widened scope of environmental protection and sustainable practices (that might not include a cross-country car ride to Yosemite!) And yet to hear some who speak for the National Park Service tell it, Turner’s thesis is alive and well: “we” are all inherently products of a “frontier experience,” and the park provides “an opportunity to go home.” My paper suggests that we look more carefully at arguments about race, inclusion, and diversity in the park system, so that rather than relying on the tropes of a century past we might engage with an altered landscape and a new century in ways more attune to all we know about race, identity, access, history, land, and national belonging.

Laura Schiavo teaches museum history and theory and collections management in the Museum Studies Program at The George Washington University. Her two current research projects look at the historic roots of U.S. museums and civic engagement, and the concept of inclusivity and diversity in the National Park Service. Schiavo has years of experience as a curator at the National Building Museum, City Museum of Washington, DC, and the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.

Jon Christensen Interviewed in BayNature

I tell all of our writers that what we want to do in the pages of the magazine is, once a quarter, host one of the most lively, interesting, fun, and provocative dinner party conversations in California. It’s as if you’d invited a dozen of your friends, from all walks of life, over for dinner, and you’re having a super passionate conversation about the things you all care about. That’s the voice of Boom.

Boom: A Journal of California editor Jon Christensen talks to BayNature about his editorial vision for the quarterly journal, why he loves both Los Angeles and the Bay Area, and what intrigues him about people’s connection to the environment. Read the full interview here, then head over to Boom to browse the new Fall 2014 issue.

Guest post: What’s The Anole Genome Good For?

(Editor’s note: This post is written by Jonathan Losos, author of the title Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree: Ecology and Adaptive Radiation of Anoles. The post originally appeared in the blog Anole Annals (try saying that 3 times fast). The journal Nature has just published his paper on the Anole genome. Also, Jonathan has written a piece in National Geographic talking about his paper and it’s importance. Not a bad showing.)

Rose Lincoln/Harvard News Office

When the genome of Anolis carolinensis is finally published, most attention will focus on how this genome, the first reptile to be sequenced (not including birds), differs from other vertebrate genomes, and what these differences may tell us about genome evolution. No doubt this will be interesting, but the real value of this genome–in my unbiased opinion–resides in the questions we finally will be able to address about the evolutionary process, particularly in one model system of evolutionary study, Anolis lizards. Chris Schneider published a perceptive article, “Exploiting genomic resources in studies of speciation and adaptive radiation of lizards in the genus Anolis,” on this topic three years ago, and I will briefly expand on his points here.

An anole genome will be useful for evolutionary studies in two ways. First, a long-standing question in evolutionary biology concerns the genetic basis of convergent evolution (i.e., when two or more evolutionary lineages independently evolve similar features). Do convergent phenotypes arise by convergent evolution of the same genetic changes, or do different lineages utilize different mutations to produce the same phenotype? In other words, does convergence at the phenotypic level result from convergent change at the genetic level, or can different genetic changes produce the same phenotypic response? In the last few years, molecular evolutionary biologists have produced a wealth of studies investigating whether convergent changes in coat color in rodents, eye and spine loss in fish, bristle loss in fruit flies and many other changes are the result of changes in the same gene, even some times by the very same genetic mutation. Underlying these questions are more fundamental questions about constraints and the predictability of evolution (these topics have been reviewed a number of times in the last couple of years, most recently in a paper by me, in a paper which refers to other recent reviews).

The anole ecomorphs, habitat specialists behaviorally and morphologically adapted to use different parts of the environment. The same set of ecomorphs (with several exceptions) have evolved independently on each island in the Greater Antilles. Figure from “Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree,” based on earlier figures in Ernest Williams’ work.

Anolis lizards are, of course, the poster child for evolutionary studies of convergent evolution. Indeed, convergence has run rampant in this clade. AA has prattled on endlessly about the famous anole ecomorphs, a set of habitat specialist types that have evolved repeatedly on each island in the Greater Antilles to occupy different habitat niches. This convergence is usually studied in terms of limb length, tail length, and toepad dimensions: arboreal species have big toepads, twig species short legs, grass species long tails, and so on, with these traits independently evolving many times. But the ecomorphs are convergent in many other traits that have received less attention: head and pelvis dimensions, sexual dimorphism in both size and shape, territorial and foraging behavior, to name a few, and the more closely we look, the more convergent traits we find. And, further, anole convergence is not entirely an ecomorph phenomenon; some traits vary within an ecomorph class, but are convergent among species in different ecomorph classes, for example, thermal physiology and dewlap color.

In other words, there’s more convergence in Anolis than you can shake a stick at, and the availability of the anole genome sequence will provide the tools to investigate its underlying genetic basis. Anolis is already a textbook example of replicated adaptive radiation; getting at the genetics of this phenomenon will provide great insight on how adaptive radiation occurs and perhaps will help explain why anoles experience such identical adaptive radiations so readily, whereas most evolutionary lineages do not. In addition, given the well understood ecological and selective context for this convergence, genomic tools may make anoles are an ideal group in which to study the interplay between selection and developmental processes in evolutionary diversification. See Thom Sanger’s recent post on the developmental basis of limb convergence for one potential example.

The anole genome will be useful for evolutionary studies in a second way. In recent years, a number of researchers have used anoles to study the process of natural selection and how it produces adaptation. Such studies have been conducted by comparing populations of the same species that live in different environments, by following populations through time to see how they change, and by measuring the action of natural selection directly by following individuals and seeing how long they live. Some of these studies have even been experimental, altering selective conditions such as the presence of predators and seeing how natural selection changes and how, from one generation to the next, the population evolves.

The anole genome now gives us powerful tools to study natural selection and evolutionary change at the genetic level. For many evolutionists, the holy grail is to identify the actual genes under selection, and watch them change in response to selection. Though still not easy, this now is practical. In addition, the genome will provide a wealth of material for other related purposes, such as establishing maternity and paternity to quantify reproductive success–a key component of evolutionary fitness–and thus determine whether some individuals produce more descendants than others.

One could argue that in terms of breadth and depth of knowledge, Anolis is the best-studied species-rich adaptive radiation. Other radiations are well known in some respects, but for few do we know so much about so many aspects of the ecology, behavior, functional morphology, and physiology for so many species, not to mention having a good understanding of phylogenetic relationships and evolutionary processes. The genetic basis of trait variation has always been the one hole in our knowledge of anole evolutionary biology. The anole genome plugs this hole in a major way, and will make anoles an even more important evolutionary case study, allowing us to learn much not only about evolution in anoles, but the evolutionary process in general.

Nature and Art in the Renaissance: A Counter-Narrative

Guest Post by Mary D. Garrard

Brunelleschi’s Egg cover imageRenaissance art is a much-celebrated subject and its heroes loom large, as the numerous biographies and histories of the ‘masters’ Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Titian attest.  Art history textbooks continue to venerate the achievements of the major artists, whose ranks have been only slightly expanded to include a few women, such as Sofonisba Anguissola and Artemisia Gentileschi.  Yet the feminine gender played a much larger creative role in Renaissance imaginations, in the female personification of the entity that artists both depicted and challenged – Nature.

In my new UC Press book, Brunelleschi’s Egg: Nature, Art, and Gender in Renaissance Italy, I examine the competition with Nature that was staged by male Renaissance artists, who loudly proclaimed that their own creative powers were greater than “hers.”  The artists’ challenge to the goddess Natura and her Renaissance avatars, Venus, Diana of Ephesus, and the Virgin Mary, was posed in both word and image, and formed a recognizable subtext in such artworks as Brunelleschi’s Florentine dome, Botticelli’s Primavera, Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling, Giorgione’s Tempest, and Cellini’s Perseus Slaying Medusa. From the fresh perspective of art’s competition with nature, these and other familiar monuments of Renaissance art can yield new dimensions of meaning.

In just this period, Nature’s philosophical status was undergoing downward revision; she descended from a divine creative and generative power into a lowly aggregate of rocks, twigs and clouds.  The incipient scientific revolution would demote natura naturans to natura naturata, from active creative agent to the inert product of creation, and it is part of my argument that Renaissance art assisted this transition by visually modeling nature’s demise, in advance of science itself.

What did gender have to do with it?  Everything.  Renaissance male artists variously imagined nature as mother, bride, or mistress, positioning themselves as sons, husbands, and masters; they claimed to revere her, or to have defeated her.  Artists’ competition with nature fed on gender roles in the social world, and would make little sense without that underpinning.  The notion of art as something distinct from and superior to craft was born in this period, and art’s status was elevated in part on the grounds of male artists’ hegemony over an imagined feminine Other.  The idea that art and culture are masculine spheres, which was the dominant view from the Renaissance to the 20th century, depended on the feminizing of nearly everything else.

This book is a history of Italian Renaissance art told from the viewpoint of the allegedly vanquished Other, a counter-narrative that challenges an art history that has tended to repeat the masculinist biases of the period under study.

Mary D. Garrard is Professor Emerita of Art History at American University, Washington, DC, and a specialist in Italian Renaissance art. Her landmark works of feminist scholarship include Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art (1989) and Artemisia Gentileschi around 1622: The Shaping and Reshaping of an Artistic Identity (UC Press, 2001). With Norma Broude, she edited Reclaiming Female Agency: Feminist Art History after Postmodernism (UC Press, 2005), the fourth of their influential collaborative texts on feminist art history.