Marianne Sommer

Marianne Sommer is full professor at the Dept. for Cultural and Science Studies at the University of Lucerne. Prior to her current position, she has been at the University of Zurich, ETH Zurich, the Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science, Pennsylvania State University, and Stanford University among other institutions. She has published widely on the history of the life, earth, and human origins sciences with a focus on processes of narration, visualization, and exhibition. Her most recent monograph, History Within (Chicago University Press 2016), engages with the science, politics, and culture related to bones, organisms, and molecules; it traces the production, mediatization and circulation of paleoanthropological, evolutionary, and genetic knowledge about human history and kinship from the late 19th century to the present.



"The diagrammatics of the human family tree"

 In the talk, I focus on the tree diagram as a tool to visualize the evolutionary history and kinship of humans. Since Ernst Haeckel’s figurative tree that has been inscribed into our cultural memory, the tree structure has conveyed human descent and diversity in a great variety of forms. In the second half of the 20th century, genetic, molecular, mathematical and computational tools have been developed to objectively analyze blood samples collected from (indigenous) groups all over the world and to visualize the resulting human population history and kinship. But what does it mean to convey modern human evolution and diversity with iconography used to model the relations of higher taxa such as species? In how far does it carry remains from its beginnings and history in racial and colonial anthropology?



"Julian Huxley and humankind as the sole trustee of the future of life"

The talk focuses on aspects of the work and politics of Julian Huxley, particularly on his notion that with the arrival of modern humans in the course of evolution, a process that had hitherto been based on contingency could now be brought under rational control. Throughout his career, Huxley saw this grand aim endangered by two World Wars, fascism, racism, laissez-faire capitalism, and finally the destruction of natural resources not only necessary for physical survival but for the aesthetic and moral development of humans. His striving for that goal culminated during his position as first Director-General of UNESCO. Huxley and others promoted the integration of the ‘S’ for Science, and they pushed for an understanding of heritage that encompassed the natural as well as cultural aspects of world ecology.

  • Friday 25 May 2018, 14:00-16:00 - Centre Alexandre-Koyré, (5th floor), 27 rue Damesme, 75013 Paris


"Animal sounds against the noise of modernity and war: Julian Huxley and the preservation of the sonic world heritage"

Focusing on the science and politics of Julian Huxley, I engage with the role of animal sounds in various media. Beginning with the phonograph recordings for soundbooks during his directorship of the London zoos (1935-42), I follow Huxley’s engagement for animal preservation as first Director-General of UNESCO to its culmination in the foundation of the WWF. At the center of my interest stands the question of animal voice: Who speaks for whom and to what purpose? How does sound work on disc, in animal and animated film, and in conservation comic?

  • Tuesday 5 June 2018, 14:00-17:00 - Centre Alexandre-Koyré, (5th floor), 27 rue Damesme, 75013 Paris


« L’identité humaine est-elle génétique ? »
Débat autour de l'ouvrage de Marianne Sommer History Within: The Science, Culture, and Politics of Bones, Organisms, and Molecules (Chicago University Press, 2016)

Focusing on the work of Henry Fairfield Osborn, Julian Sorell Huxley, and Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza in paleoanthropology, evolutionary biology, and human population genetics, History Within asks how the sciences of human origins, whether through the museum, the zoo, or the genetics lab, have shaped our idea of what it means to be human. How have these biologically based histories influenced our ideas about and our institutions of nature, society, and culture? Today, personal genomics services such as 23andMe and offer what once was science fiction: the ability to sequence and analyze an individual’s entire genetic code—promising, in some cases, facts about that individual’s ancestry that may have remained otherwise lost. Is it true, though, that who we are and where we come from is written into the sequence of our genomes?

  • Wednesday 6 June 2018, 10:00-12:00 - Centre Alexandre-Koyré, (5th floor), 27 rue Damesme, 75013 Paris