WHITE RAT: Interview w/ Rich Pell

CPNH Founder Rich Pell in conversation with Etienne Turpin

Since hosting the launch of K. Verlag’s Land, Animal, and Nonanimal in 2015, the Center for PostNatural History in Pittsburgh, and its Director, Richard W. Pell, have been in a sprawling conversation with K.’s team about the depth and breadth of intentional changes that various technoscientific endeavors are creating in and among living things. In anticipation of the Spring 2023 publication of Pell’s first monograph, This Is Not An Artifact: Selections from the Center for PostNatural History, K.’s general editor Etienne Turpin initiated a correspondence with Pell to situate the book, its creatures, and its critique of the current state of natural history museums, collections, and their attendant practices and publics; what follows has been edited for length and clarity.
ETIENNE TURPIN Let’s start with the raccoon skull. In the book, you quote an exhibition text from a show at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History: “This is not an artifact. It is a real raccoon skull. It was not made by a person.” In your estimation, this hard line that the natural history museum insists on between living things and artifacts doesn’t work?

RICH PELL This exhibit felt like an answer to a question that had been troubling me. The question is: How does a museum of natural history decide what is nature and what is culture? It is, understandably, not a question most people would devote much time to thinking about. It sounds like an academic edge-case scenario. But I think it actually cuts to the heart of why institutions such as natural history museums have been so slow to address concepts like the Anthropocene—the idea that human beings shape the planet in ways that have long-term consequences. This one little exhibit was an attempt at clarifying the border between “man-made” artifacts, from the “specimens” of nature. The raccoon skull was not an artifact. But what about the skull of an English Bulldog? Or any other domesticated dog? They look nothing like the skulls of their wild wolf ancestors, which has everything to do with their relationship to people.  What I call PostNatural History falls directly into, or on top of, this false dichotomy—that an increasing amount of the living world needs to be regarded as both “man-made” and natural; that is, living beings are increasingly both “artifacts” and “specimens.”

ET Can you say a little more about how we got here, so to speak? How did the natural history museum come to have such a bias toward PostNatural History and intentionally- anthropogenically-modified organisms?

RP The earliest museums in the US were more of a one-stop-shop than they are today. Art, science, and history all lived under the same roof. There was no practical need to distinguish between nature and culture as they were all housed in the same room. The presumed mandate of the museum was to show everything, including the common and the uncommon. The wild and the domesticated, while understood to be different, were all considered important enough to have a place. By the early twentieth century, this was no longer the case. Now we’ve got separate art museums and natural history museums, and somehow in the divorce nobody took full custody of domestication, not to mention all the new changes in biotechnology that happened during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. There’s no one reason or moment that this occurs. Rather, it is the result of an accumulation of decisions, biases, and shifting cultural norms. They are practical: In the twentieth century, domesticated animals were no longer big ticket sellers. They are conceptual: Scientific storytellers began to privilege concepts of evolution and ecology that thrived on an idea of nature that is pre-human, or at least sans-human. Even though Darwin relied heavily on domestication to help explain his theory of natural selection, exhibitors increasingly treated domestication as the exception that proves the rule, a late-edition to the story, or even “bad data” with respect to the overarching story of life on Earth. Things were moved to the basement, where they often still reside.

ET You have described the taxonomy of PostNatural History as “emerging from the bottom up, from the collection.” Can you say more about why you are “continually discovering the PostNatural to be larger and more complicated than we anticipated,” and how this complicates your emergent taxonomy?

RP When I first started down this path, I was trying to wrap my head around how genetically engineered organisms (GMOs) should be considered from the perspective of natural history. The normal Linnean taxonomy of genus and species was completely insufficient. At that level, there was no distinction at all between a GMO and a domesticated (or even a wild) member of the same species. So I had to start my research from the level of the individual. I needed to learn about all of the factors that went into classification: this specific mouse was born to a population in that specific lab; that population all descended from a specific pairing of mice; this piece of foreign DNA was added to its genome by this lab; that DNA came from another unique species, and was synthesized by this company, and is owned by that company. I began plotting out a kind of geography of genes. For each organism, I found a tangled web of evolutionary and cultural relationships that could not be separated from one another. It took longer than I had expected, but eventually I realized that each GMO was also a domesticated organism, and that the history of that domestication typically had its origins somewhere among the labor and culture of uncredited Indigenous peoples. All of that history is resident in every domesticated organism, and every GMO. They are both the products of new technology, as well as a long-term relationship to people. It’s too big for any one taxonomy. Rather, it needs to be in a continuous additive expansion, with room for contradiction and constant renegotiation.

ET Can you say more about the collection itself? How do you get these things? How do you decide what to pursue? Is there a criteria or is it more of an art than a science, as they say?

RP Acquisitions are a function of storytelling more than anything else. I’m first and foremost looking for specimens that help me tell a story that I’m not already telling. Each one should illuminate a new corner of postnatural history that we haven’t looked at before. I get them through one of two ways. First, by direct acquisitions, when I contact a researcher, or breeder, and open a discussion about the preservation of their work, preferably following the natural death of the organism. In this case, the specimens are donated. The second way to acquire them is on the open market. Historic taxidermy is regularly sold on Ebay, although only a very small portion of it is of interest to postnatural history. This is, for instance, how we acquired our two fighting cocks (chickens) mounted in battle. They were preserved by a very skilled taxidermist, but most people who want a scene like that, want it mounted on their wall rather than the more natural scene that we have.

ET In This Is Not An Artifact, you say that some objects presented in the book are “on loan” from natural history museums. Is this a suggestion that, given the specialization of the Center for PostNatural History, that some traditional museums should transfer you their own postnatural specimens?

RP Since starting the museum, I’ve been fortunate to be invited into various natural history museum collections. Most museums have specimens they acquired long ago that are certainly postnatural, they just don’t exhibit them, so they languish in basement storage. Whenever I am invited to exhibit within a natural history context, I use that opportunity to borrow specimens from these collections and bring them out to be seen. Sometimes this gives them a new lease on life and they start to travel to other museums. For instance, the Berlin Museum für Naturkunde invited me to curate a large exhibition called Postnatural Nature. For the show, I used their unique collection of skulls and taxidermy mounts of domesticated dogs that had not seen the light of day for nearly a century. I had them arranged according to size within a huge fifteen meter long glass display case and had the museum make stands that held each of the dog skulls at the average height for that species. The following year, the dogs were sent to the Deutsches Museum in Munich for a show called Welcome to the Anthropocene, which is considered to be the first exhibition on the concept of the Anthropocene to be shown in a natural history museum.

ET Coming around to our title, you make the claim: “If all the albino white laboratory rats in the world could speak and share the story of their common ancestry, it is very likely they would describe an ancestor who lived in a bucket somewhere in New York City or London during the eighteenth or nineteenth century.” Can you explain why, and tell us a bit more about the history of so-called “fancy rats”?

RP There’s a fun postnatural thought experiment you can always do: for any population of domesticated animals, what’s the common ancestor? Who is it? When is it? Where is it? It will inevitably be living among humans, either as a companion species or as a pest. We share our food with companion animals like dogs and cats, whether intentionally or via the garbage pile. With pests, the relationship is more regarded as one of competition over food or other resources. Cats have benefited greatly from being a proxy in this endless war with wild rodents. However, rats and mice took different paths to domestication. Unlike house mice who arrived in the West from Asia as captive domesticated pets, rats arrive in the west as true “pests,” stowaways on ships and trucks. They live among us whether we like it or not. 

Rats had a particularly bad—and likely undeserved—reputation of being the spreaders of the Black Plague that killed as much as 50 percent of the population of Europe. More than likely the real culprit was humans and the menagerie of fleas and mites we carry with us on our hairy bodies. Rat populations soon exploded in the early western megacities of London, Paris, and later, New York. This inspired a particularly cruel rat control strategy: Rat Baiting. The blood sport took place in the basements of taverns where men would drink and smoke around a central pen area. They would release into this pen 100 rats, and then one dog. The men would bet on how long it would take the dog to kill all 100 rats. The success of these events created a cottage industry in rat catching, which eventually became so successful that rat catchers simply could not catch enough rats, and instead began to breed their own captive populations of rats in order to keep up with demand. This is quite possibly the first time that rats were intentionally bred in captivity. 

When animals are raised in captivity, they will sometimes randomly develop genetic traits that would endanger them in the wild, but are inconsequential, or even a benefit, in captivity. For example, albinism for a ground animal in the wild is usually a quick path to becoming food; whereas in captivity, white fur is novel and unique, and perhaps most importantly, it plays into western notions of white purity in contrast to the “dirty” non-white rats. I hypothesize that a population of these white rats, which were saved from rat baiting, are ancestral to the white laboratory rats of today. In the wild, these “cleaner” white rats are quite rare. When they do appear, they are at the center of human attention. They might make more money being shown as oddities rather than being dog food. Some of these white rats eventually made it into aristocratic homes as pets. Here they found new companions, Victorian women, who noticed that patterns in the fur were hereditary and would breed and share these “fancy rats,” right alongside the already established practice of breeding “fancy mice.” It is from these populations that the ancestors of the in-bred laboratory rat were taken by researchers in the early twentieth century.

ET This makes the white rat a kind of index of the postnatural, does it not? Is this also why albinism in “wild” animals is also understood as a kind of sign of human presence?
RP White animals, outside of the arctic, are pretty rare, and so that rarity may take on additional meaning for some people. There are prophecies among some Indigenous people in North America that involve a white buffalo. In wild animals, albinism may be an indicator that an animal is benefitting from a relatively predator-free life, which sometimes comes from living near people. For example, colleges in the northeast US will often have an albino squirrel living on the campus. There is also an American air force base outside of Buffalo that has an albino deer living within its fenced perimeter, where it is protected from hunters. Zoos tend to have more albino animals than you’d expect to find in the wild. So, this can be a visible sign that something in that animal’s environment is different, and this can often be the presence of humans.

ET Another well-known animal, the so-called “broiler chicken,” is also presented as a rather unlikely accident of a clerical error. 

RP I’m from Delaware, so this one hits close to home. Lower Delaware is today covered in chicken farms. These are long windowless structures with huge fans attached at either end. Inside, they are home to tens of thousands of “broiler” chickens who are raised for their meat. Their origin story is illuminating. 100 years ago there were no such chickens in Delaware. The very idea of raising chickens primarily for meat had not yet caught on. A woman named Cecelia Steele decided to take a stab at it and ordered 50 chicks to raise—the first broiler chickens in the state. Apparently, a clerical error resulted in a delivery of 500 chickens. Cecilia decided to raise them all and managed to sell them to restaurants as fair north as New York City. The next year she ordered more. In the 1970s, the US began subsidizing grain production in a new way, which resulted in animal feed becoming extremely cheap. This, in part, led to chicken meat in all of its strangely shaped forms populating school lunch menus and grocery freezers.

ET And, this brings us to the dinosaur-shaped chicken nugget, which is, for you, a kind of totem animal of postnatural history.

RP I’m not sure how global this phenomenon is, but in the US it is pretty normal for kids to eat chicken nuggets that have been molded into the shapes of dinosaurs. They’ve been around for at least thirty years. For us, they have become the emblem of an ongoing collection that we have, called “The Domestication of the Dinosaur.” The title refers to the well-established theory that all living birds are descended from a population of feathered dinosaurs that survived the asteroid cataclysm 63 million years ago. The exhibit is an opportunity to consider that any domesticated bird, be it a chicken, pigeon, ostrich, or canary, is in fact an actual literal living dinosaur. The oddest thing about those dino-nuggets, however, is the fact that in thirty years of marketing these things to kids, nobody has advertised that the dino-shaped nuggets are, in fact, made from actual dinosaur meat. Perhaps the FDA is not hip to this fact, but it seems like a missed opportunity for the ad execs.

ET Now we wait to see them use it! I want to come back to one of the main ideas in the introduction, where you write, “I present a case for considering together two conventionally separate ideas: the deep, 10,000 plus year history of domestication and selective breeding involving animals, plants, fungi, and single-celled organisms, with the much more recent, and no-less culturally specific, practices of genetic engineering and synthetic biology that act upon these same organisms. Domestication and genetic engineering are not the same thing but, as I hope to show, their stories are increasingly difficult to separate.” Can you say a bit more about what you think is at stake in, first, keeping these processes separate, but, second, why you also want to connect them (as separate)?

RP Part of it is attribution. For all the controversies surrounding genetically modified foods, the changes imposed on the plants by genetic engineering are, in some ways, minor in comparison to the changes made to the plant by people over the course of its domestication. In many cases, the plants are visibly unrecognizable from their wild ancestors. However, in other ways they are categorically different, especially because these changes radically alter where and when crops may be planted and by whom. The terms and conditions of purchasing patented seed are often in direct conflict with the historic practices of farming that gave rise to the qualities that a crop is known for. They may require the crop be tethered to a privately controlled herbicide, and that subsequent generations of the seed, if planted, may result in the farmer being fined or prosecuted. GMO crops grown at industrial scale may cross-fertilize with non-GMO, heirloom varieties, and erase meaningful differences in favor of a single mono-culture. That’s a big difference! When people say, “there’s nothing new about GMOs,” they are obscuring the significance and responsibility that comes with these changes. Similarly, when traditional breeds and GMOs are treated as something completely separate, this ignores that their histories and biology are entangled, whether we like it or not. Our history with respect to domesticated plants and animals, and their GMO descendants, is more complex, consequential, and stranger than we think.

ET What about the ones who escape? Can you explain why you include Going Feral in your four-part taxonomy for the catalog? 

RP I break up PostNatural History into four modes. Captivity, Breeding, and Engineering—the first three categories—are clear enough. Captivity is where things get started. Think collars, fences, and cages—anything simple that serves to isolate a population from reproducing with their wilder counterparts. Breeding is when people choose favorites among a captive population and begin to select for traits that they like. These are both well understood components of domestication. Engineering refers to all of the contemporary technologies that break the rules of traditional breeding. These are things you couldn’t do the old fashioned way, like taking a gene from an orb spider and expressing it in the mammary gland of a goat. The fourth and last category I call “Going Feral.” This refers to any organism whose population has been existing in one of the three previous categories for some number of generations, and then makes it back to the wild. These are postnatural organisms that have been altered by people, but are now renegotiating their purposes. Our cities are filled with the descendants of escaped or released pet pigeons. Sure, the architecture of tall buildings resembles the rock cliffs their ancestors enjoyed, but a steady diet of human food scraps is hard to turn down. They don’t just go back to being wild Rock Doves; they still fall within this framework of enculturated nature that I call PostNatural. This should remind us that postnatural history is not necessarily one-way, or even linear. It is a constant renegotiation between species. It is not predictable, and is rarely stable on a long enough timeline. 

ET Returning to the image of the white lab rat, which seems to maintain a multistability in that it represents both nature and the PostNatural simultaneously, I was thinking of an important essay from the late 1980s, where Shiv Visvanathan claims that over 100 million animals are used for research every year in the United States, including 45 million rodents. (I can’t imagine this number decreasing by any great margin since then.) Can you explain how essential so-called “model organisms” have become for all types of scientific research?

RP “Model organisms” is a collective title for all of the plants and animals that have been systematically inbred for use in laboratory research. These include the aforementioned white rat and mouse, but also the zebrafish, fruit fly, African clawed frog, brewer’s yeast, E coli bacteria, tobacco plant, and many, many others. There is a huge amount of resources that are dedicated simply to keeping these populations and subpopulations going. Inbred populations with mutations that resemble or cause known diseases—this population can be called a “model” for that disease. When the white lab rat and the white mouse became essential parts of laboratory research in the early part of the twentieth century, science had only recently re-discovered the laws of inheritance. Inbred organisms provide the genetic uniformity that science needs for experiments to be repeatable. 

ET There is so much more to say, but I will just point folks toward their own copy of This Is Not An Artifact. Besides K. Verlag’s regular distribution and online shop at k-verlag.org, can people get the book directly from you at the Center for PostNatural History in Pittsburgh? 

RP We are so psyched for people to get their hands on this book! It’s been a long time coming. People ordering the book from within North or South America can order the book directly from the Center for PostNatural History, but you can also get it directly from the museum if you are in Pittsburgh.