Our Amphibians, Ourselves: An Interview with Emily Wanderer

The November 2018 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “The Axolotl in Global Circuits of Knowledge Production: Producing Multispecies Potentiality,” by Emily Wanderer, who is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editors Ashley Elizabeth Drake and Lachlan Summers conducted with Wanderer about her article’s arguments and their relationship to her broader research agenda.

Ashley Elizabeth Drake and Lachlan Summers: Axolotls are, as you note, exceptionally charismatic creatures that have captured the attention of restoration ecologists and regenerative biologists alike. What initially motivated you to explore the lived experiences of these unusual, yet precarious salamanders? 

Emily Wanderer: I was in Mexico doing fieldwork when my curiosity about the axolotl was initially sparked. I was drawn to their precarity, the sense that they would soon be extinct, and I wanted to know how people were responding to this possibility. I had been talking with scientists who were working on issues related to biosecurity; for my interlocutors, this meant improving and protecting the health of human and nonhuman organisms from a wide variety of threats.

While in the United States, biosecurity commonly refers to protection against disease, in Mexico bioseguridad refers not only to disease but also to threats to life more generally, including those posed by invasive species and biotechnology (like genetically modified organisms). I had been doing fieldwork with conservation biologists who were eradicating invasive species and restoring ecosystems on islands with little or no human habitation, and I was intrigued by Luis Zambrano’s work to protect a species in an urban environment. What would protection look like in this context? How might the axolotl’s charisma be enlisted to change human behavior?

AED and LS: We were struck by your description of Zambrano, the director of the Laboratorio de Restauracion Ecologica at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, and his conservation efforts in Xochimilco. Rather than trying to restrict access to the axolotl refuge, Zambrano hoped to restore axolotl populations by reintroducing historic agricultural practices—a position that, for all its sense of hybridity and entanglement, seems at odds with standard conservation practices. How have his efforts been received by the local community in Xochimilco and by the scientific community, more broadly?

EW: One of the things that most interested me about Zambrano’s project was the way that it refused divides between human and nonhuman, between culture and nature. It’s important to note that while in the United States nature or wilderness has been defined as a place apart, untouched by human activity, in Mexico nature has never been conceptualized as pristine or separate from human life.

The divergent histories of conservation in the two countries exemplify these differences. In the United States, rhetoric about national parks going back to John Muir has justified conservation in terms of preserving pristine nature from destruction at the hands of an industrializing society. In contrast, as the historian Emily Wakild (2012) has documented, Mexican parks tended to be located on land that was perceived as already damaged or altered by human activity. Parks were intended to repair degraded lands for people’s use and enjoyment. Nature was not seen as a sublime or alien force, nor was it treated as separate from or in opposition to urban areas.

Zambrano’s project, which deals with a nature deeply tied to human activity, emerged out of this history and I think it provides a model for conservation in the Anthropocene. In the context of a world where there is no longer any place unaffected by human activity, we need to reconsider philosophies that focus on conserving only supposedly pristine settings and consider anthropogenic environments and human-disturbed landscapes as places worth protecting. The axolotl refuge, which involves a nature that is changed by human activities and produces a population that can only be maintained through continued, long-term human intervention, exemplifies this approach. The goal of Zambrano’s work, as well as other restoration ecologists, is thus not necessarily sustainability, naturalness, or wilderness, but rather ongoing human stewardship. 

AED and LS: Throughout the article, you describe how various “genealogies connecting axolotl and scientist families” circulate among laboratory colonies in the United States, producing a kind of kinship as scientists translate their findings across species boundaries. Is making kin a unilateral process? Or are there ways in which axolotls also participate in making kin (see Haraway 2016)? 

EW: As I was doing this research, I was struck by how scientists tracked the movement of axolotls and identified with the animals. Working with axolotls as a model organism shaped the kind of research questions that scientists asked, the kind of work that they did, and the way their laboratories functioned. As Rachel Ankeny and Sabina Leonelli (2011) have pointed out, work on model organisms relies on the construction of communities of researchers that share knowledge and materials; these social structures are essential to the production of knowledge.

Tracking the movements of axolotls and naming the laboratories where specific populations could be found thus helped to produce and draw boundaries around a community. But that community was predicated on the recognition of connections between humans and nonhumans. I wouldn’t describe this process as unilateral, because it requires biological materiality to be shared on both sides. Both humans and axolotls contribute. That said, I’m not sure that the recognition of shared substance implied by research with model organisms always engenders a sense of responsibility, or that when people feel a responsibility to axolotls it is because of such a connection.

For example, I don’t think the axolotl refuge relies on a recognition of sameness or connection. Rather, it proceeds despite the unlikeness of axolotl and human ways of being. Donna Haraway (2016, 192) suggests that “one way to live and die well as mortal critters in the Chthulucene is to join forces to reconstitute refuges,” which is how I interpret Zambrano’s work, and in that sense I would say that both humans and axolotls contribute to making the refuge. It wouldn’t be possible to resurrect historical forms of agriculture without the axolotl, and those axolotl lives wouldn’t be possible without the refuge. 

AED and LS: Drawing on the anthropology of potentiality (Taussig, Hoeyer, and Helmreich 2013), you argue that caring for axolotls in the lab is a potentializing practice, one in which the “potential generated is human potential rather than axolotl potential.” By contrast, caring for axolotls in the refuge at Xochimilco creates space for the salamanders to function and thrive as mutually adapted partners with conservation biologists. In addition to the larger goals of both sets of scientists, how do the day-to-day practices of working with wild and cultivated axolotls help constitute the imagined futures that go along with these goals? 

EW: One of the things I found fascinating is that the day-to-day practices do not necessarily map precisely onto those imagined futures. While the larger goals of research in regenerative biology are around new human futures and potentials, with relatively little thought given to axolotl futures (although scientists working at places like the Ambystoma Genetic Stock Center are concerned about the fate of wild axolotls), in another sense the axolotl’s health and potential are essential for the lab. It would not be possible for scientists to do their work without attending carefully to axolotl needs and ensuring that the lab is a space in which they can live. Hence the careful attention to axolotl needs and moods, and the work to prepare habitats and foods that satisfy axolotls. Even though this research is ultimately meant to speak to human bodies and biologies, it can only get there through the axolotls, through carefully tending to them.  

AED and LS: Mexico City is, famously, a city that is sinking due to the overexploitation of the aquifer beneath it. As the city sinks, lakes that were drained in the nineteenth and twentieth Centuries—like Lago Chalco, once a habitat of the axolotl—have reappeared. So, on the one hand, urban development is radically changing the environment, but on the other hand, older landscape patterns seem to be reemerging. What are your thoughts on the future of axolotls as the world, in Cary Wolfe (2011)’s phrase, “kicks back”?

EW: It’s interesting to imagine what might happen as environmental patterns change. Because the challenges facing the axolotl are significant and include not just loss of habitat but also declining water quality and the arrival of invasive species, I think it’s unlikely that resurgent lakes would be hospitable to axolotls. It seems more likely that the species that currently outcompete the axolotls in Xochimilco would also dominate in these new (old) lakes.

I think Wolfe’s point about the complexity of interspecies relationships might also be extended to the work of regenerative biology. These projects assume the possibility of a certain degree of control that would make it possible to harness axolotl biology for human ends. But Wolfe reminds us of the long history of the independence of humans and nonhumans, as well as the unpredictability of relations and enmeshments. 

AED and LS: Research for this article also forms part of your book project, which you describe as an exploration of how scientists in Mexico have shifted “biopolitics and biosecurity beyond a concern with human life to include animal, plant, and microbial worlds.” Can you say more about how this article complements your broader research agenda? And can you give us a sense of where your future scholarship is headed?

EW: My first book, Multispecies Mexico, tracks the work practices of scientists in labs, fields, and offices, arguing that through the study and management of other life forms biologists moved biopolitics and biosecurity beyond a concern with human life to include animal, plant, and microbial worlds. Biology became the focus of security practices and, as a result, scientists took on a new role in Mexican life. Along the way, they incorporated nonhuman life forms into social categories like nationality and ethnicity, reworking the significance of those classifications. 

The article on axolotls draws on the research that I did for my book, and it also connects with my planned next project on developmental and regenerative biology. Scientists in these fields are exploring new possibilities for the plasticity of human biology. While most anthropological writing about regenerative biology has focused on controversies like the ones around the use of human stem cells, I am interested in the use of nonhuman organisms in these fields. The work of regenerative biologists is inherently multispecies. Scientists use cross-species comparisons and refer to model (nonhuman) organisms that are capable of regenerating limbs, organs, nerves, and other parts—with radically different patterns of aging and recovery—to argue that regeneration and plasticity are fundamental biological processes that should be considered potential attributes of human bodies as well. I’m interested in the new connections that are being developed across species lines in regenerative biology, as well as how the field is reconfiguring relations between human and nonhuman life. 

References

Ankeny, Rachel A., and Sabina Leonelli. 2011. “What’s So Special about Model Organisms?” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, Part A 42, no. 2: 313–23.  

Haraway, Donna J. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.  

Taussig, Karen-Sue, Klaus Hoeyer, and Stefan Helmreich. 2013. “The Anthropology of Potentiality in Biomedicine.” Current Anthropology 54, S7: S3–14.  

Wakild, Emily. 2012. “National Parks, Transnational Exchanges, and the Construction of Modern Mexico.” In Civilizing Nature: National Parks in Global Historical Perspective, edited by Bernhard Gissibl, Sabine Höhler, and Patrick Kupper, 191–205. New York: Berghahn.  

Wolfe, Cary. 2011. “Moving Forward, Kicking Back: The Animal Turn.” postmedieval 2, no. 1.