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Holmes, Part 4: Teleology? Why not! May 2, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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In the epilogue to Frederic Holmes’ “Between Biology and Medicine” lectures, he addresses some of the general criticisms he received after his lectures. Two of them had to do with whether he was being “teleological” which seems to be used here as a synonym for “Whiggish”. By conceptualizing his lectures as what “led up to” intermediary metabolism, was he not being teleological and attributing motivations to his actors that they did not hold? Holmes therapeutically observes that we must “guard vigilantly” against this kind of reading of history, but defends himself in a couple of ways.

First “the unrecognized biases of hindsight inevitably shadow all historical narrative.” This is an uncomfortable point; we are always led in our investigations of the past by the concerns of how something came to be. I think I agree. It is only once we are immersed in the concerns of the past that we can look around and say, “Well, actually, they seem to be a lot more concerned with these other things…” But, this doesn’t change the fact that Holmes is reading a precursor history of “intermediary metabolism” stretching back to the 1850s, while it wouldn’t really congeal as a field until the 1930s–why is this legit?

So, second, Holmes is interested in the development of “fields” and “disciplines” and “investigative pathways” and “streams”. I think it’s true that none of his actors ever really take up a directed line of research in physiological chemistry; rather they pass through it. So, is it the author’s imagination that such a stream even exists? I think Holmes makes a convincing point to say “no”; the actors recognized the issue, but, for various reasons of discipline and specific investigative problems (e.g., difficulties in making progress on the problem of lactic acid formation in tissues) they pursued other paths.

I think this issue can best be resolved through some hypothetical situations. If the 1850s chemists and physiologists had seen the work of the 1930s, would they have recognized it as a contribution to their field, or would they have looked at it in bafflement and incomprehension–as incommensurable with their paradigm, or, alternatively, as irrelevant to the discourses that they engaged in? Holmes, I think, would argue that they would have seen it as significant–and here is where we must distinguish teleology from Whiggishness.

Teleology suggests a purposeful process; and people are purposeful creatures. It is when we read purpose onto nature that we commit teleological fallacies. While there have been some notions that science represents a blind process, I don’t think there are many who would deny that there is some envisioning of the potential results of future research programs. While they would certainly not have envisioned “intermediary metabolism” in all its details, they did have concerns about the chemical processes of cells, which they only marginally addressed for reasons that are explainable in terms of scientists’ choice not to pursue the program more rigorously.

So, in taking a teleological view, is Holmes being Whiggish? Maybe a little insofar as he chose to pursue this topic rather than another that would have been more significant at the time, but not insofar as he is addressing concerns that would have been foreign to the historical actors. Thus the emphasis on disciplinary formation–disciplinary formation represents a choice of what problems should be solved; and he shows that even though they could have addressed the problems of metabolism (roughly what the Germans were calling “Stoffwechsel” at the time), they chose not to.

So, at any rate, the product is an informative history of 19th century laboratory physiology and chemistry. Maybe there are better, more informative narratives to follow that will tell us about these traditions, but looking at it through the lens of the relatively minor field of physiological chemistry, while Whiggish in its choice, still represents a legitimate perspective on past events. Until I stumble across something better on this topic, this is my go-to, canonical source. If any experts in the area can recommend a better, more informative go-to source, I’m very much open.

But it’s a tough area to represent, so I’m not sure there are better sources. As Holmes closes the book: “These criticisms… reinforce my belief that a deeper historical examination of how the fields and disciplines of science have arisen and are sustained is crucial to our understanding of the nature of science [I’d rephrase that to “history of scientific knowledge”]. They also make it all too clear that the magnitude of the undertaking is greater than historians of science have so far attempted.”

So, here’s my question: have we since attempted this in the area of 19th/early 20th-century laboratory physiology and chemistry, or have we fallen back on easier, more localized questions (which, incidentally, Galison asks about in his “10 questions”)?

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