Susan M. Squier’s book, Epigenetic Landscapes: Drawings as Metaphor (Duke University Press, 2017) is about development— biological and ecological. It explores how the media (paintings, films, graphics) that experts have created to understand development and to communicate without verbal language has shaped—and continues to affect—the worlds in which we live.
Squier’s book takes its title from a set of images from the embryologist C.H. Waddington, all meant to demonstrate his theory of how life developed—as a dynamic process emerging within multiple scales of time and space. The first Epigenetic Landscape was, literally, a landscape painting—thick and confounding—that Waddington commissioned from the artist John Piper. Over the next twenty years, Waddington created two additional images that suggested a less contextual, more individually focused conception of development.
In her creative and persuasive book, Susan Squier follows iterations of the Epigenetic Landscape to spotlight moments of contingency in the new field of epigenetics in the 1960s and 1970s, when scientists had opportunities to follow interdisciplinary approaches, to emphasize multiple scales of time and space, and to take seriously process-oriented knowledge that defied orthodoxies of molecular genetics. Squier argues that attending to visual rhetoric of scientific fields, especially development, is an inroad both to understanding the history of those fields, and to imagining possible, more feminist, futures. In doing so, Squier shows that ways of knowing that have been separated as either “art” or “science” interact more often than is appreciated, and those lines of connection serve as important creative resources. Heeding her own call for transdisciplinary approaches, three chapters document how the Epigenetic Landscape has been used not only into embryology but also landscape design and bioArt.
Squier is Brill Professor Emeritus of English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Penn State University. Her previous books include Liminal Lives and The Graphic Medicine Manifesto.
This interview was a collaborative effort among participants in the Vanderbilt graduate seminar, Social Studies of Science & Medicine. For information about using NBN interviews as part of pedagogical practice, please email Laura Stark or see the essay “Can New Media Save the Book?” in Contexts (2015).
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