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A New History of Fishes. A long-term approach to fishes in science and culture, 1550-1880

Leiden University – NWO project

Project leader: Prof. dr. Paul Smith

Researchers: Dr. Florike Egmond, Dr. Marlise Rijks, Prof. dr. Karl Enenkel, Prof. dr. Eric Jorink, Prof. dr. Menno Schilthuizen, Dr. Martien van Ooijen

PhD candidates: Sophia Hendrikx MA, Didi van Trijp MA, Robbert Striekwold MA

This project proposes a new history of European ichthyological knowledge over three centuries (1550-1880). It is a new history because no long-term history of expert fish knowledge has been written since the early 19th century (Cuvier). Moreover, we argue for long-term continuities rather than Foucauldian epistemological breaks. It is new, furthermore, because our project is aligned with the New History of Science: we look at “science” in context – and, therefore, for the early modern period at expert fish knowledge (manifested in collecting practices and information exchange via texts, objects and images) before it became a scientific discipline. We combine this contextual approach with analysis of the important fish books of the 16th-19th centuries, focusing on four aspects that continue to play a key part in ichthyology throughout the period: autopsy (dissection), classification, illustration/description, and rhetorics of description.

Following this approach we hope to answer our central questions: How and where did ichthyology develop as a scientific discipline; how did it take shape as a field of expert knowledge in the cultural context of early-modern and modern Europe. This should throw light on how and why ichthyology formed the scientific avant-garde in zoology from c.1550 until at least the 18th century.

We envisage close interdisciplinary cooperation between specialists in the humanities and experts in the life sciences (ichthyologists). The resulting database of fish species based on largely unexplored historical sources will be made generally available and may eventually help to throw new light on issues of long-term European biodiversity.

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