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Robin Fox: Biosocial Anthropology as Philosophical Anthropology (Slightly Updated) November 8, 2014

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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UPDATE: It has occurred to me that my two part argument—leveling a criticism of the philosophers’ portrayal of biosocial anthropology as censure-worthy at the expense of an understanding of the complexity of its ideas and normalizing biosocial anthropology in post-war ideas by re-categorizing it as philosophical anthropology—that I focused less on ideas and their genealogies (especially the Gellner bits) than was satisfactory. Thus, quite soon, I will analyze in depth Robin Fox and Lionel Tiger’s The Imperial Animal (1971) as both philosophical anthropology AND as an outgrowth of the re-configuration of the social sciences in the US and the UK after the Second World War. Hopefully, by the time of my review of Joel Isaac’s Working Knowledge: Making the Human Sciences from Parsons to Kuhn (2013) my views on post-war, Cold War American and UK social sciences will be reasonably apparent.  

In a previous post, I attempted a taxonomy of post-war inquiries which interrogated the connections between the biological and social sciences in various post-war intellectual communities. Bio-social anthropology, biosocial anthropology, sociobiology and social biology were loosely defined. Part of the challenge of discussing these (mostly) post-war inquiries is in going beyond the fraught discussions over the extent that any or all of these inquiries engage in biological reductionism and biological determinism.

What is needed more is a discussion of the ideas themselves and their genealogies and, by extension, their connections to broader themes in post-war and Cold War sciences. The ideas themselves are quite complicated, and many philosophers of science, such as Mario Bunge (though much of his work is among my favorites in philosophy of science), reduce them to caricatures (intelligent distortions—but reductions which worry about their societal implications and evil intent). On a philosophical and ethical level, these ideas are troublesome and distortions—but they are with us and have been with us for some time.  One can talk about the ideational content of (say) public choice theory, without the merits of its practical application.  It seems impossible to talk about Hayek or Keynes outside of their virtues as policy, but this must change as well.


Biosocial anthropology, as noted in the last post, is, especially in the works of Robin Fox, part of a philosophical and social science critique against relativism in the social sciences as well as in epistemology. Such a critique draws strength from the methodological writings of Karl Popper (previously mentioned), but even more so from Ernest Gellner. Gellner is the subject of a remarkable biography by John A. Hall (that is not without its problems, and will be reviewed here shortly). Fox’s appropriation of Gellner’s ideas also points to a rather bifurcated legacy on the part of this diverse social thinker: as a philosophical critic and anthropologist and as a theorist of nationalism. Mary Douglas, whose diverse works have never been much understood by anthropologists, but whose ideas have been appropriated by diverse other fields, was deeply scornful of Gellner’s books on nationalism (as evidenced by her oral history with Alan Macfarlane). Fox seems to prefer Gellner the philosopher to Gellner the theorist of nationalism.  Hall, valiantly tries to unify them. Such an account is incredibly useful, but at odds with my understanding of Gellner.


On the Cybersyn Article Controversy: We Need Best Practices October 11, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.

Medina, Cybernetic RevolutionariesEvgeny Morozov recently wrote an article for the New Yorker about management cybernetician Stafford Beer (1926-2002) and Project Cybersyn, an ambitious early-1970s attempt to use information-handling technologies to manage the Chilean economy under Salvador Allende.  

Eden Medina published a fine book on the subject in 2011.  Morozov mentioned Medina’s book in his article, but only in an off-hand manner.  Historians, writing on Twitter and the SIGCIS message board, were incensed — the article, they believed, was, in effect, intellectual theft.  Morozov’s reply was a post on his tumblr describing his original research process, while acknowledging the importance of Medina’s work.

I’ll offer my own take up front: as a courtesy, Morozov should have acknowledged Medina’s book much earlier in the essay, and should have signalled to readers that it is an authoritative source on the subject. I reach this conclusion regardless of whether the essay was a proper book review or not (which has been a subject of some confusion, given that the essay was a “Critic at Large” piece, which appears in the book review section).  

My conclusion is drawn from my belief that Medina’s book constitutes a canonical source.  I will, however, refrain from joining my historian colleagues in their visceral disgust at Morozov’s essay, because this principle of the canonical source (as opposed to an originating source) does not actually exist.  I have just made it up now, and it would not be charitable to expect people to be bound to either a principle or a canonical status that nobody has ever agreed upon or even discussed.

My proposition: if there exists a large (i.e., book-length), thorough, deeply researched treatment of a topic — even if one disagrees with aspects of it or goes beyond it, and especially if it is recent (say, the last 15 years) — one is obligated, regardless of publishing genre or venue, and regardless of whatever replication and supplementation of research one has done, to acknowledge that canonical status clearly.

Now, for an examination of some particular issues in the case at hand…


Schaffer on Machine Philosophy, Pt. 5a: Automata and the Proto-Industrial Ideology of the Enlightenment — History September 18, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This post continues my look at Simon Schaffer, “Enlightened Automata” in The Sciences in Enlightened Europe, edited by William Clark, Jan Golinski, and Schaffer (Chicago University Press, 1999).

Pin manufacturing, detail of a plate from the Encyclopédie

The division of labor in pin manufacturing.  From the Encyclopédie.

Pt. 4 examined Schaffer’s characterization of an ideology associated with the Enlightenment, reflected in the era’s fascination with automata. This ideology revolved around the belief that physiology, labor, cognition, and social relations could be comprehended in mechanical terms, and governed according to philosophically derived managerial regimens. Pt. 4 also explored Schaffer’s situation of his arguments within a large, diverse, and venerable historiography of the mechanistic aspirations of the Enlightenment.

Pt. 5 turns to look at the historical events that Schaffer marshaled into his history of this ideology.


Derek Price on Automata, Simulacra, and the Rise of “Mechanicism” August 28, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Price. Click for original at Yale University Manuscripts and Archives

Derek J. de Solla Price (1922-1983). Click for the full-size photo at Yale University Manuscripts and Archives

Before we proceed further with our discussion of Simon Schaffer’s “Enlightened Automata” (1999), I’d like to go back a further 35 years to take a look at Derek J. de Solla Price, “Automata and the Origins of Mechanism and Mechanistic Philosophy,” Technology and Culture 5 (1964): 9-23. This should give us some sense of how much and how little the literature had changed by the time Schaffer wrote.

Price’s article was written in a period when historians were interested in defining and tracing the shifts in thought that they took to be crucial to the development of modern science. The tradition of scholarship is closely associated with figures such as Alexandre Koyré (1892-1964) and Rupert Hall (1920-2009), whose touchstone work, The Scientific Revolution: The Formation of the Modern Scientific Attitude, appeared in 1954.

Probably the most important shift these authors attended to was the rise of “mechanistic” modes of explaining natural phenomena, punctuated by the philosophy of René Descartes (1596-1650) and the achievements of Isaac Newton (1643-1727). Price’s aim was to investigate the intellectual relationship between mechanistic philosophy (“or mechanicism to use the appropriate term coined by Dijksterhuis,” 10*) and the creation of sophisticated mechanisms.


Schaffer on Machine Philosophy, Pt. 4: Automata and the Proto-Industrial Ideology of the Enlightenment — Historiography August 13, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Simon Schaffer, “Enlightened Automata” in The Sciences in Enlightened Europe, edited by William Clark, Jan Golinski, and Schaffer (Chicago University Press, 1999)

Maelzel Turk

“Enlightened Automata” is one of Schaffer’s few pieces that is especially forthright about the overarching scholarly project of which it is a part. It is certainly the centerpiece — and his clearest exposition — of his work on what he occasionally referred to as “machine philosophy,” a concept that interrelates several historical developments:

  1. The rising use of mechanisms in philosophical experiments, which have the virtue of preventing human fallibility and prejudice from influencing their outcomes.
  2. The use of mechanisms as explanatory metaphors in natural, moral, and political philosophy.
  3. The replication of natural phenomena and human behavior in mechanisms, i.e. automata.
  4. Industrialization, i.e., the replacement of craft processes with machinery, and the concomitant regulation and control of human action, especially manual labor, through managerial regimes.

Schaffer takes these four developments (but especially 2 and 4) to characterize the ideological ambitions of the Enlightenment.  In “Enlightened Automata,” he leverages the history of the construction and display of automata (3), and commentary on such automata, as a means of probing these ambitions.


A Historical Primer on WAIS Collapse, Pt. 2: Recent History August 4, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track.
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This post continues my post from May, which was written to lend some historical background to the recently released news that the large marine glaciers emptying into the Amundsen Sea seem to have passed a point of no return, and will continue to collapse until they are gone, whereupon the rest of the West Antarctic Ice Sheeet (WAIS) may well follow. Total sea level rises should be 2–3m within a few centuries, though the exact timescales could be faster or slower.  The above video from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory features Eric Rignot, one of the leaders of the two teams who have reached this conclusion.  (The other team is led by the University of Washington’s Ian Joughin, on whom more below.)

The history in Pt. 1 concluded circa 1980, when geologist John Mercer (1922-1987) connected the prospect of WAIS collapsing to global warming.  Shortly thereafter the University of Maine’s Terry Hughes—who had previously linked future WAIS collapse to an ongoing global retreat from the Last Glacial Maximum (18,000 years ago)—identified (pdf) the Amundsen Sea glaciers as WAIS’s “weak underbelly,” which would be the “mechanism for disintegration of [WAIS] during a proposed Super Interglaciation triggered by CO2-induced climatic warming.” This post addresses what occurred in the intervening decades to convince the glaciological community of the assertion.


From Biosocial Anthropology to Social Biology: Some Thoughts on Intellectual Communities in the Post-war Sciences July 26, 2014

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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This particular post focuses on biosocial anthropology, sociobiology, social biology and bio-social science. Biosocial anthropology is a very specific intellectual community which has self-ordered around the theoretical and evidentiary contributions of Napoleon Chagnon, William Irons, Lee Cronk, and my personal favorite for heterogeneity and provocation, Robin Fox. This community has always traveled in different circles than those of sociobiologists like E.O. Wilson. Biosocial anthropology is also distinct in emphasis from social biology.

I will also detail the bio-social perspective of Kingsley Davis, which in many ways anticipated the conceptual innovations of biosocial anthropology, but whose bio-social science is unknown. His work is an exercise in “anti-reductionism” (my term)—arguing instead for the distinctiveness of human social evolution as opposed to the development of beings in nature.


Warren Weaver, Planned Science, and the Lessons of World War II, Pt. 2 June 1, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science.
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The real roadmap for postwar science?

The real roadmap for postwar science?

In August 1945, the sense that the war held important lessons for how peacetime science should be organized was dramatically augmented by the atomic bombing of Japan, and the release of the Smyth report, detailing the massive collective scientific and engineering effort that went into producing the bomb.

In an editorial entitled “The Lesson of the Bomb,” published August 19, 1945—a week after the Smyth report’s release—the New York Times immediately spelled out the ramifications.  It observed, “The Western democracies at least have been rudely awakened to what the ‘social impact’ of science means. Books enough have been written on the subject, but it took the bomb to make us realize that the discussions were not just academic.”

The Times noted that scientists had always organized scientific conventions to share their work, This time they were organized to solve an urgent problem. They solved it not in the fifty years expected before the war but in three, and they solved it so rapidly because they were organized and competently directed. Why,” the editorial asked, “should not the same principle be followed in peace?”

The era of demanding a “Manhattan Project” to solve this or that problem had begun.


Warren Weaver, Planned Science, and the Lessons of World War II, Pt. 1 May 31, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
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Warren Weaver

Warren Weaver

Via Twitter, Audra Wolfe has called my attention to a passage in intellectual historian David Hollinger’s Science, Jews, and Secular Culture: Studies in Mid-Twentieth Century Intellectual History (1998), in which he discusses the debate over federal policy for the funding of scientific research in the immediate postwar period.

The specific issue at hand is a letter from the Director of Natural Sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation, Warren Weaver (1894-1978), to the New York Times, written at the end of August 1945, in which he argues against proponents of the strategic planning of scientific research who had criticized Vannever Bush’s Science: The Endless Frontier report.  

According to Hollinger, Weaver argued in his letter that, during the war, (in Hollinger’s words):

the sciences had not been advanced by government coordination at all.  The recently exploded atomic bomb was not a product of government science. Contrary to popular belief, the Organization for [sic, "Office of"] Scientific Research and Development was not a model for doing scientific research; what his office had done during the war was merely to coordinate the “practical application of basic scientific knowledge.”

The statement—particularly the bit about the atomic bomb—is extraordinary, in that it appears to reveal Weaver to be an ideologue for scientific freedom, willing to badly distort the record of activities of the OSRD and the Manhattan Project in order to advance his views.  Hollinger’s claim has been repeated by Jon Agar in his Science in the 20th Century and Beyond (2012).  However, the passage neither accurately reflects Weaver’s actual words, nor, more broadly, the terms of the postwar debate over the planning of science, the reality of “basic” or “pure” science, and the need for scientific freedom.


A Historical Primer on WAIS Collapse, Part 1: Early History May 22, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track.
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Two new papers, in Science, and in Geophysical Research Letters, demonstrate that Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica has reached a point of instability, which, at some point in the future, will lead to the collapse of that part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS), and, eventually, the rest of it as well.  Over a period of some centuries, sea level rises will be catastrophic.  The video above is by NASA, discussing some of the key points.

Various reports on this subject have traced work on this question back to geologist John Mercer (1922-1987), either to a well-known paper he published in Nature in 1978 linking WAIS collapse to anthropogenic global warming, or to a more obscure paper he published in 1968, in which he posited that WAIS was the source of higher sea levels during the Sangamon interglacial 120,000 years ago.  That earlier paper also mentioned possible future danger from “industrial pollution,” but only tangentially within a larger focus on Antarctica’s glacial history.

Having published on the history of this subject, I’d like to develop the available narrative somewhat, both to expand on its roots, but also to discuss some of the twists and turns that have led us from an initial suspicion that WAIS could rapidly collapse to the disquieting conclusion at which glaciologists have now arrived. (more…)


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