Toxic legacies, global pollutants
Anthropological and historical perspectives on the chemical Anthropocene

 Keynote speaker: Professor David Arnold, University of Warwick

Location: Durham University

Dates: 29th – 30th June 2017

 The Toxic Legacies, Global Pollutants symposium marks the end of a three-year research project into agrochemicals and global health, funded by the Wellcome Trust.  Contributions are invited from anthropology and/or history that draw from Eurasian and other toxicologies to reflect on the continuing polyvalence of poison in the chemical Anthropocene. In addition to the themes hinted at above, paper proposals may wish to consider,

·       The relationship between chemical poisons and pollutants and historical change across time, running up to, and into, the Anthropocene;

·       The relationship between chemical poisons and pollutants and social relationships in different times and places, especially as they might be illuminated by Eurasian toxicological theories;

·       The emergence of medical, legal, environmental, and political toxicologies in response to wider economic and political conditions, and the role of toxicology in producing such conditions;

·       The development of ‘post-Paracelsian’ toxicologies in response to newly identified chemical threats such as endocrine disruptors;

·       The appearance and practice of body burden monitoring and environmental biomonitoring as both a professional concern and individual consumption choice. 

Please send a 300 word abstract to Tom Widger ([email protected]) no later than 30th April 2017 Successful applicants will produce a full paper to share with discussants and other speakers around two weeks before the event.  A selection of presenters will be invited to contribute their papers to an edited collection.  Thanks to the Wellcome Trust, accommodation will be provided and (economy class) travel costs will be reimbursed for all invited speakers.  

Project Summary

Environmentalists have recognised the impact of synthetic chemicals on world ecosystems since the 1960s1 – though to date chemicals have not featured prominently in discussions of the Anthropocene.  New research suggests, however, that synthetic chemicals have had greater impacts on anthropogenic global change than CO2 emissions, nutrient pollution, habitat destruction, and biodiversity loss.2  How can anthropology and history contribute local perspectives to understandings of our ‘chemical’ age?  Taking up Chris Hann’s3 call for a scholarly engagement with the Anthropocene that goes beyond ‘speculative imagining,’ the symposium aims for an ethnographically and historically grounded exploration of the modern chemicals and toxic pollutants contributing to global change and the toxicological traditions used to understand them.

‘Poison,’ ‘toxin,’ and ‘pollution’ are polyvalent terms, opening up different registers of ‘chemical’ contamination.4,5  Since at least the 5th Century BCE, the development of what might be called the Eurasian toxicologies – approaches to studying, classifying, and treating poisoning that emerged through a constant circulation of ideas between India, Arabia, and Greece – has lent a remarkable uniformity to scientific, medical, moral, and political approaches to chemical toxins.6 Although a multitude of different traditions of course did emerge, the long recognition of the remedy-poison, what the Greeks called the pharmakon, is one example of a widely shared knowledge that many substances simultaneously contain the potential to heal and harm.7 ‘All things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not a poison’ argued Paracelsus, a Reformation philosopher, physician, and alchemist, whose ideas still mobilise chemistry and its politics today.8  Andrew Weeks9 argues that ‘Paracelsus as well as Luther saw ubiquitous strife in the world: a mixture of the good with the poisonous in nature; or the struggle of the warring kingdoms of Satan and Christ.’  If ‘moderation’ became the end of protestant virtue, then Paracelsus’ chemical philosophy, which focused on the management of dose as a means to corporeal, social, and spiritual salvation, meant that toxicology offered the scientific tools by which moderation could be measured, tested, and expressed.10 As David Arnold has shown,4 far in addition to being a basic principle of medicine, the pharmakon became a guiding principle of power, and the exercise of colonial conquest, morality, politics, and law.

Beyond the zone of Eurasian influence, anthropologists have recorded societies where no knowledge of ‘natural chemistry’ per se exists.  Evans-Pritchard’s11 discussion of the Azande ‘poison’ oracle, for example, showed how for Azande the toxic properties of benge – a substance fed to fowl to test truth claims – only gained its potency following the proper preparation of its constitutive elements, and the strict observation of taboo.  Evans-Pritchard argued that the English translation of benge as ‘poison’ was thus entirely misleading, as benge for Azande was not poisonous as such. It made no sense for Azande to use benge as a murder weapon, as it would kill only when deployed during the consultation ritual.  In its everyday use, the poison oracle was used to judge often-mundane domestic matters; it was also pivotal to Azande legal and political decision-making.  Azande aristocracy ruled through the poison oracle, a fact that imbued Azande ‘toxicology’ with further ritual and regal significance.  In this, we find correspondence with the Eurasian toxicologies, their close proximity to power, politics, and courtly intrigue across millennia, and the long history of poison as a weapon deployed at the most intimate level.4,6,12–14  From the early Indian Sushrutasamhita (c. 600 BCE) and Ibn Washshiya’s medieval Arabic Book on Poisons (c.950 CE), through Renaissance Italy and Victorian Britain, to contemporary debates around chemical pollutants and endocrine disruptors, poisons, toxins, and contaminants have always played a central role in corporeal, social, political, and ethical life.15–17

The arrival of the chemical Anthropocene invites re-theorisation of classic problems in the anthropological and historical study of poison.  If poison was a substance that mattered both for the justification of colonial expansion and made possible the motors of capitalist development and modernity their critique,4,18 what does it mean to be living in a time when the unfolding of biological and social life is taking place within environments increasingly contaminated by immunotoxins, neurotoxins, and endocrine toxins? Does the sheer scale of its implications for life on Earth justify a reconsideration of the value of chemistry for our understanding of society and social change?  To what extent do the legacies of Eurasian toxicology inform and inspire local toxicological thinking around the world, including the work of professional medical and eco-toxicologists, allopathic and homeopathic health professionals, ‘traditional’ poison healers, policy, regulatory, and political decision-making, and everyday consumer choices?  Approached from the other side, can we discern, ethnographically and historically, a fundamental difference in the effects of modern chemical synthetics on human social life and our relationships with non-human beings and things?  What do modern poisons do for experiences of intimacy and inter-subjectivity, our location within communities and environments, and our perspectives on local and global ecological, political, and ethical processes?


1.            Carson, R. L. Silent Spring. (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1962).

2.            Bernhardt, E. S., Rosi, E. J. & Gessner, M. O. Synthetic chemicals as agents of global change. Front. Ecol. Environ. (2017). doi:10.1002/fee.1450

3.            Hann, C. The Anthropocene and anthropology. Eur. J. Soc. Theory 20, 183–196 (2017).

4.            Arnold, D. Toxic Histories: Poison and Pollution in Modern India. (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

5.            Buell, L. Toxic Discourse. Crit. Inq. 24, 639–665 (1998).

6.            Levey, M. Medieval Arabic Toxicology: The Book on Poisons of ibn Wahshiya and Its Relation to Early Indian and Greek Texts. Trans. Am. Philos. Soc. 56, 1 (1966).

7.            Rinella, M. A. Pharmakon: Plato, drug culture, and identity in ancient Athens. (Lexington Books, 2010).

8.            Rozman, K. K. & Doull, J. Paracelsus, Haber and Arndt. Toxicology 160, 191–196 (2001).

9.            Weeks, A. Paracelsus: Speculative Theory and the Crisis of the Early Reformation. (State University of New York Press, 1997).

10.         Debus, A. G. The Chemical Philosophy. (David & Charles, 1977).

11.         Evans-Pritchard, E. E. Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande. (Clarendon Press, 1976).

12.         Burney, I. Poison, detection, and the Victorian imagination. (Manchester University Press, 2006).

13.         da Col, G. The poisoner and the parasite: Cosmoeconomics, fear, and hospitality among Dechen Tibetans. J. R. Anthropol. Inst. 18, 175–195 (2012).

14.         Wujastyk, D. The Roots of Ayurveda: Selections from Sanskrit Medical Writings. (Penguin, 2001).

15.         Douglas, M. & Wildavsky, A. Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technological and Environmental Dangers. (University of California Press, 1982).

16.         Murphy, M. Chemical regimes of living. Environ. Hist. Durh. N. C. 13, 695–703 (2008).

17.         Shapiro, N. Attuning to the Chemosphere: Domestic Formaldehyde, Bodily Reasoning, and the Chemical Sublime. Cult. Anthropol. 30, 368–393 (2015).

18.         Beck, U. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. (Sage Publications, 1992).

Dr Matthew Daniel Eddy
Reader in the History and Philosophy of Science, Durham University, Department of Philosophy, 50/51 Old Elvet, Durham, DH1 3HN, United Kingdom.