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History of Science

Biological Sciences

Just as Newton endures as a primary biographical subject for the history of the scientific revolution, Charles Darwin endures in the history of biology. As a biography, Adrian Desmond and James Moore's Darwin stands in stark contrast to Westfall's study of Newton. Desmond and Moore consider Darwin's life and science almost solely on their own terms. The book is about how Darwin comes to be Darwin and not about how Darwin's work comes to influence science. Throughout, the emphasis is on creating a narrative from primary sources, not on evaluating these sources through the lens of a century's worth of historiography. Desmond and Moore do explain the economic, political, and social factors that shaped Darwin, and they discuss the role of Thomas Malthus's (1766–1834) An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) and other contemporary ideas. The leitmotif that binds this biography together is Darwin's frequent illnesses, but even this is treated strictly in terms of how the illnesses were understood by Darwin and his contemporaries with no allusion to the various later historical explanations for it.

As if to demonstrate the importance of Darwin to the history of biology and the attraction of such major figures for historians, Janet Browne's two-volume biography may prove to be the definitive work on Darwin. Both volumes, Charles Darwin: A Biography: Voyaging (volume 1, 1995) and Power of Peace (volume 2, 2002), successfully integrate the wealth of primary and secondary sources. Browne is especially adept at explaining the social context of Victorian England, where Darwin lived a privileged life as a member of the leisured class. The pivotal member within a network of actors including friends and family, Darwin was both taken care of by others and in a position to manipulate them. Browne's biography is by no means a one-dimensional sociological study, but also explains Darwin's involvement with and interest in the natural world.

Two other works are important for an understanding of Darwin's role in the history of biology: Ernst Mayr's The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance (1982) for the significance of Darwin's work to later science, and Stephen Jan Gould's Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977) for the clash of ideas (and their political significance) in Darwinian biology. The history of twentieth-century biology is of special interest because the discipline has been largely defined by historians who actively participated as scientists in the synthesis of fields such as cytology, genetics, and embryology. Ernst Mayr is a biologist who participated in the evolutionary synthesis and became a well-respected historian, and his 1982 book is a central text for understanding twentieth-century biology.

Like other historians who have written about the evolutionary synthesis, Mayr explains how diverse scientific streams converged to form the river of contemporary biology. He focuses mainly on the streams of taxonomy, evolution, and genetics and traces their origins to sources as diverse as Aristotle's classification, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's (1744–1829) theory of adaptation, and the cell theory of Theodor Schwann (1810–1882) and Matthias Schleiden (1804–1881). Although Mayr's work is anything but social history, he does emphasize the cultural environment surrounding biologists and their ideas. And the emphasis on the role of individual biologists is so strong that one reviewer called Mayr's book "an intellectual biography in disguise."

Mayr is inclusive in considering the sources of modern evolutionary theory, but he also occasionally plays the role of historical judge in assessing the value of certain ideas to the history of biology. He is especially harsh regarding the "straight jacket of Plato's essentialism," which Mayr believes held back the development of biology for more than two thousand years. Mayr's disdain for Platonism helps explain his appreciation for the Enlightenment-era naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon (1707–1788), who argued that there are no species but only individuals. Mayr also judged more contemporary aspects of history, as with his criticism of Gould's work regarding punctuated equilibrium as a driving force in evolution and as an alternative to the gradual adaptation favored by Mayr.

Like Mayr, Stephen Jay Gould, in Ontogeny and Phylogeny, combines history with arguments regarding contemporary evolutionary theory. Instead of a historiography that looks for the synthesis of diverse ideas through time, Gould focuses more on history of science as a battle of ideas. Gould's scientific roots were in paleontology as contrasted with Mayr's roots in the systematics of extant species. Paleontologists must confront the enigma of sudden widespread extinctions and the dramatic rise of newly dominant taxa. Gould's historiographic and scientific interests led him to examine different sources than those studied by Mayr and to interpret sources in alternate ways. Thus, Gould uses history to argue that an overemphasis on gradualism and "the evolutionary synthesis" unfairly obscured other historical developments such as the alteration of regulatory genes and the role of stochastic cataclysmic events. Moreover, as he did in numerous other publications, Gould critically examines science as a problem when it is taken as an "objective" frame for politics. For Gould, moral and humanistic concerns outweigh any easy tendency to reduce complex social problems to easy scientific solutions.

Historically, Gould's fears regarding the political misuse of biological science were well founded. Although historians such as Robert Young have pointed out the implicit class prejudice inherent in Darwin's science, it was not until after Darwin's death that Darwinian biology began to shape politics in this way. Daniel J. Kevles in his In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (1985) explains the origins of this desire to breed better humans. Starting with the work of Darwin's cousin Francis Galton in the late nineteenth century, Kevles tracks this program through the twentieth century, explaining the success of eugenics legislation in the United States versus its failure in Britain. In Britain, legislation failed because of a deeper appreciation by politicians of the scientific complexity or heredity, resistance from the Labour party, and arguments for individual reproductive rights. Before World War II, the American genetics program sought to prevent inferior people from reproducing. After the war and the dark image created by the Nazis for human selective breeding, American scientists shifted their program to a "reform eugenics" based on genetic testing and counseling to screen out inherited disabilities. In Kevles's historiography, science as a process for creating and developing ideas is replaced by a science that shapes law, feeds powerful political coalitions, gets tested in the courts, and becomes an economic commodity.

The American obsession with understanding and controlling genetics through inheritance has, in recent years, turned toward manipulating the genes themselves. Sheldon Krimsky was original in looking at an episode of contemporary history as a narrative about the politics of science and science policy. America's war on cancer began in the late 1960s and helped generate interest in and funding for research on the viral causes of cancer. This led to the discovery of SV40, a monkey virus that transformed healthy cells into tumor cells and could also be used to insert new genes into cells. As scientists learned more about synthesizing and manipulating SV40, some of them—such as David Baltimore at MIT—raised ethical concerns over the creation of human health hazards. Although scientists tried to control such biohazards through voluntary agreements, their meetings and public communication attracted public scrutiny and political attention. When federal legislation threatened commercial prospects for recombinant DNA, scientists made every effort in their public communications to black box the issue and to emphasize its potential health benefits. As a black box, scientists could sell the public on the attractive applications of recombinant DNA applications without educating the public to understand either the scientific aspects or the potential disbenefits. This rhetorical strategy was largely successful, both in the 1970s and in more recent politics of genetic engineering.

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