Endangered species are objects of intense scientific scrutiny and political conflict. This article focuses on the interplay among human-nonhuman relations, knowledge production, and the politics of endangerment. Advancing a historical ontology of endangerment, it highlights the role of transforming the nonhuman world in the coming to be of new objects of environmental knowledge. Such knowledge can provide the basis for credible claims of endangerment, facilitating mobilizations against the very human-nonhuman relations that produced it. An in-depth case study of the delta smelt, an endangered species of fish caught in the center of California’s “water wars,” shows how changes in the instrumentalization of the nonhuman environment can produce new knowledge of nature that allows actors to make claims and form coalitions that would be otherwise inconceivable. Because its sole habitat is the hub of California’s water delivery system, efforts to save the species from extinction have reduced flows to farms and cities, fomenting conflict between environmentalists and water users. This article demonstrates that the taxonomic classification of the delta smelt as a species and evidence of its decline arose directly from the reengineering of California’s rivers for extractive ends. Ironically, the knowledge on which environmental advocates relied was a product of the instrumental relation to nature that they sought to transform.
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The analysis is based on archival records, official reports and memoranda, legal documents, biographical materials, scientific articles, museum and newspaper databases, expert self-reports (ten formal expert interviews and many more informal conversations with individuals actively involved in the case), over 100 hours of non-participant observations at workshops, symposia, a facility tour, university and public lectures, and a review of the secondary literature on modern California history, biological taxonomy, and endangered species law and politics. Observations, interviews, and secondary and journalistic sources were used primarily to triangulate findings, but the bulk of the evidence used to construct the case consists in over 300 primary documents (including administrative sources, grey literature, and published scientific articles from relevant historical periods) from governmental agencies, nonprofit organizations and associations, universities, and research institutions, spanning from approximately 1900 to the present. Direct quotations from self-reports have been verified with a recording. All data were collected between 2014 and 2018. Specific sources are noted throughout.
This concern with the causes and consequences of human knowledge of nature places my position closer to purportedly antique sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) than ANT. However, the centrality of concrete, material, human-nonhuman relations in this proposal and its empirical illustration blunts the common criticism of SSK that it ignores the causally independent role of nonhumans. Rather than asserting that everything is an actant, the question is: under what conditions do nonhumans come to exert different sorts of agency?
Here I am inspired by Foucault’s (2006, p. 459) focus on the relationship between the socio-historically specific “mode[s] of ‘subjectivation’” and of objectification, the “question of determining under what conditions something can become an object for a possible knowledge.” This is consistent with Hacking’s (2002) concept of historical ontology, which was inspired by Foucault’s (1984) “historical ontology of ourselves.”
My focus is meso-level orders (Fligstein and McAdam 2012) — specifically, how scientific knowledge relates to collective interests, alliances, and mobilizations — rather than the self (Jerolmack and Tavory 2014), but the two focuses are compatible. See Epstein (2007) for an excellent example of research that reconciles the Foucauldian concern with the conditions of emergence of knowledge with an analytical focus on meso-level transformation. Similarly, I aim to demonstrate that careful attention to the role of science and the nonhuman in modern society need not come with a rejection of the insights of institutional approaches to social change and stability.
I do not claim that all human-nonhuman relations are instrumental or that non-instrumental relations are not relevant to the emergence of environmental knowledge. Angelo (2013, p. 354), for example, highlights experiential, aesthetic encounters with nature and points out that “understandings of nature are inseparable from the concrete ways in which we encounter it.”
The Index of Organic Names demonstrates the acceleration of new species classifications in the mid-twentieth century. See: http://www.organismnames.com/metrics.htm?page=graphs.
There is a vast philosophical literature about “natural kinds” (cf. Campbell et al. 2011). A comprehensive review is beyond the scope of this article, but I aim to facilitate more dialogue between philosophers and social scientists on this topic. Within STS, Dupré’s position is closest to “finitism” (cf. Sismondo 2004, pp. 43–44).
The identification of new species has become a purposive strategy for advocates of environmental protection. The snail darter controversy is one important example of this (Plater 2013). This does not go far in explaining the delta smelt case, but there is no contradiction in acknowledging the coexistence of material and social preconditions for taxonomic classifications and the strategic motives behind identifying them.
A few words are required to identify the relevant agencies. The California Board of Fish Commissioners, established in 1870, was the first wildlife conservation agency in the United States. In 1909 it became the California Fish and Game Commission. In 1927, its administrative functions were taken over by the Division of Fish and Game in the Department of Natural Resources (CDFG), with the Commission retaining regulatory powers. The Division was elevated to departmental status in 1951. The Department of Fish and Game (DFG) was renamed the Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2012. To avoid confusion I refer to “California fish and game agencies” when discussing time periods that span these name changes and changes to agency structure (Department of Fish and Wildlife 2016).
California’s fish and game agencies have published a “Fish Bulletin” (hereafter, FB) series since 1913 and a journal, California Fish and Game (hereafter, CFG), since 1915. From 1928 to 1986, FB included commercial landing report with a quantification of total commercial landings. CFG also included commercial landings reports for much of this period, although at varying intervals. During the first half of the twentieth century, these were the only systematic, comprehensive, and consistently collected data on fisheries in California, although many individual studies on particular topics of concern were commissioned and published in one or the other. A representative sample of the commercial catch reports from 1928 to 1950 shows that “smelt” simpliciter is the category used in commercial landings reports: CFG 14.1 (1928) p. 102; CFG 18.2 (1932) p. 197; CFG 24.3 (1938) p. 207; FB 30 (1929) p. 128; FB 44 (1935) p. 108; FB 58 (1942) p. 42; FB 67 (1947) p. 45; FB 80 (1951) p. 31; FB 86 (1952) p. 92.
Collection data for the California Academy of Sciences are available at: http://researcharchive.calacademy.org.
Collection data for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History are available at: http://collections.nmnh.si.edu.
Another collection of note is the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. However, most of the Hypomesus specimens deposited there prior to the 1925 revision were collected by Hubbs himself during his tenure there as the curator of fish, and not not one Hypomesus olidus specimen on record was collected in North America. Complete collection data are available at: http://fms02.lsa.umich.edu/fmi/webd/ummz_fish.
The introduction of Japanese smelt (wakasagi) to California is now considered a problem (Moyle 2002, p. 227).
In the description of the pond smelt, McAllister (1963, pp. 31–34) writes that it can be “[d]istinguished from other Hypomesus by the low number of pyloric caeca, 0 to 3; the attachment of the ductus pneumaticus behind the anterior end of the bladder (discovered by Hamanda, [sic] 1957); and the great length of its longest anal ray, 1.8 to 2.3 in head length.” Of the delta smelt, he writes that it can be “[d]istinguished by the low number of midlateral scales, 54 to 60; the ductus pneumaticus attaching to the anterior end of the gas bladder; and the high number of pyloric caeca, 4 to 5; from H. t. nipponensis by the lower number of pectoral (10–12), higher dorsal (9–10) and anal rays (15–17). One or no chromatophores between mandibles.” The McAllister revision also distinguishes between wakasagi and delta smelt at the sub-species level. Later revisions would designate them as distinct species (Moyle 2002, p. 227; Stanley et al. 1995).
As in the United States, Canadian fisheries research in the first half of the twentieth century was primarily focused on the promotion of economically important commercial and sport fisheries. However, rather than developing its own line of taxonomic research, Canadian specimens collected during this period were typically submitted to museums in the United States for identification and cataloguing (Drymond 1964). Prior to McAllister’s appointment as its first Curator of Fishes in 1958, the Canadian National Museum had no full time ichthyologists on staff, with fish collections being subsumed under herpetology. The small collection of specimens held by the museum remained mostly uncatalogued prior to McAllister’s appointment. His efforts contributed to a massive increase in the size of the specimen collection at the museum and to a pioneering attempt to computerize species distribution data, both achievements buttressed by the proliferation of specimen collections associated with the reengineering of rivers in the North American West (Cook et al. 2010).
“Holotype” is defined as “the single specimen upon which a new nominal species-group taxon is based in the original publication.” Other specimens included in same “type series” are referred to as “paratypes.” Source: International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, http://www.nhm.ac.uk/hosted-sites/iczn/code/index.jsp?nfv=true&article=73.
The author compared all the individual specimen catalogue numbers listed in McAllister’s (1963) revision with the records in the Canadian Museum of Nature to determine where, when, and by whom they were collected. Complete collection data for the Canadian Museum of Nature are available at: http://collections.nature.ca/.
Interview, Peter Moyle, 26 September 2018.
Moyle’s petition was initially only sent to the state of California because he “had some inkling the petition would be controversial” and since “the California Endangered Species Act was a much weaker law than the federal act,” he “thought there would be more flexibility in dealing with the water controversies that seemed likely to follow its listing.” While this initial petition was rejected, “the following year the American Fisheries Society slapped a new cover letter on the petition and submitted it to the US Fish and Wildlife Service and it became [ESA-]listed in 1993.” Moyle’s Plenary Lecture, Bay Delta Science Conference in Sacramento, California. 15 November 2016.
Interview, Peter Moyle, 26 September 2018. See also: Trenham et al. 1998.
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The research presented in this article was partially supported with funding from the University of California, Berkeley Center for the Study of Law & Society’s Berkeley Empirical Studies Fellowship. I am deeply indebted to Razvan Amironesei, Rebecca Elliott, Neil Fligstein, Marion Fourcade, Andrew Lakoff, and John Lie for their detailed comments. I acknowledge additional helpful comments during various stages of this project by Irene Bloemraad, Boroka Bo, Jonah Stuart Brundage, Michael Burawoy, Olivier Clain, Alex DiBranco, Cyrus Dioun, Holly Doremus, Martin Eiermann, Michel Estefan, Julian Fulton, Isabel García, Pat Hastings, Jacob Hellman, Andrew Jaeger, Xuan Jin, Sunmin Kim, Daniel N. Kluttz, Michael Kowen, Joe Labriola, Santiago Molina, Calvin Morrill, Richard Norgaard, Michelle Phillips, Alex Roehrkasse, Nina Golec Scoville, Ike Sharpless, Benjamin Shestakofsky, Mary Shi, Sameer Srivastava, Matthew J. Stimpson, Adam Storer, Ann Swidler, Byron Villacis, Richard Walker, and Uğur Yıldırım. The Editors and reviewers at Theory and Society, as well as anonymous reviewers in a previous review process, were also very helpful. All errors are my own. Earlier versions of this work were presented at the 2016 Genial and Ephemeral Meeting in Sociology, the Center for Culture, Organizations, and Politics workshop in 2017, and the 2017 conference, “The Hydraulic Society, Revisited,” all at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as the “Politics, Ethics, Ontology” seminar at the University of California, San Diego in 2016, and the 2017 meeting of the American Sociological Association in Montréal.
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Scoville, C. Hydraulic society and a “stupid little fish”: toward a historical ontology of endangerment. Theor Soc 48, 1–37 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11186-019-09339-3
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