Anthropologists and the ‘Depopulation’ Problem September 6, 2016Posted by Christopher Donohue in Uncategorized.
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A familiar trope in both American and European anthropology was the discussion of the ‘extinction’ of the savage tribes. It was taken as a kind of gospel that while civilized races in the modern world would increase, “savage” and “primitive” races would diminish and decline over time. Of course, there were those who believed that modernity was not beneficial to modern man, but even though who considered modern conditions to be degenerate, also underscored that “savage” tribes were quickly declining. For the emerging social sciences, the true problem in the early years of the 20th century was not the existence of the decline, but its causes.
In the early 20th century, the decline of savage peoples was bound in theories of population generally, which, as with most turn of the century anthropology, has not invited critical commentary. Everyone had a theory concerning the decline of “savages” “primitives” or “natives.” Friedrich…
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Herbert Spencer on Instinct and Intelligence: The Background of the “Cambridge Mind” January 3, 2016Posted by Christopher Donohue in Uncategorized.
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In this post for the Grote Club, I reexamine Herbert Spencer’s discussion of a fundamental dispute in early psychology and intellectual history: the degree of difference between instinct and intelligence.
Simon Cook previously described the novel account of the human mind which emerged before the First World War- the Cambridge Mind. He considers the development of this conception of brain and behavior to be a critical moment in the early history of the social sciences in Britain, informing the views of both Alfred Marshall and W.H.R. Rivers, but to very different effects. From my vantage point of American intellectual history and history of science, I find a number elements of “the Cambridge Mind” interesting.
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The Empiricist Potential: EWP at 8 January 1, 2016Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
I started Ether Wave Propaganda on New Year’s Day 2008 because I felt that historians of science and technology could benefit from more conversation about historical practice that was candid, open, and, above all, rapid.
I hope that EWP has played some role in maintaining the idea of a “loyal opposition” in a profession where objections routinely fade away in the face of a placid politesse. The history of science has for decades now avoided being riven by bitter and absurd disputes. But it has come at the cost of establishing a kind of de facto, hard-to-define orthodoxy or consensus about How Things Are Done, and throwing up barriers that prevent much interaction with disruptive outsiders.
The point of the blog has always been to assert, first, that it is legitimate to feel uncomfortable with the status quo even if that discontent cannot be precisely defined; and, second, that there may indeed be an alternative way of doing things that is as-yet difficult to imagine.
Alexander M. Carr-Saunders and the “Cambridge Mind” (Part 1) December 2, 2015Posted by Christopher Donohue in Uncategorized.
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In this post I begin to tie one of the central concerns of the Grote Club, the concept of instinct and the role of evolution in human social behavior key to Simon Cook’s “Cambridge Mind” to one of the central texts of demography and population science.
Alexander Carr-Saunders (1886 to 1966) has been the topic of numerous posts at EWP. He was Director of the London School of Economics from 1937 to 1956, initially reading zoology. Carr-Saunders studied bio-metrics under Karl Pearson, was involved in the Eugenics Education Society as its Secretary, and in 1922 published, The Population Problem (PP). PP is among the most dense of texts and does not make for easy reading, particularly for contemporary readers. Nor does it really engender feelings of worthiness among historians of the 20th century social and behavioral sciences as it is (among other things) an account of the social evolution of primitive and civil peoples (or as Simon has pointed out in many other contexts- Carr-Saunders narrates in a text on quantity and quality the historical transition from races and peoples to nations, blending many, many approaches and disciplinary tools.
In this essay, I will…
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The Benefits of Technology: Productivity as a Measure July 11, 2015Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: Alvin Hansen, David Edgerton, J. D. Bernal, Joseph Schumpeter, Karl Marx, Larry Summers, Matthew Yglesias, Paul Krugman
This post is more a meditation than a proper review of economists’ and historians’ interest in how to evaluate the benefits of technology. It is prompted mainly by recent articles by Paul Krugman (in the New York Times) and Matthew Yglesias (at vox.com) about a current state of stagnating or falling productivity in spite of new technologies being produced. The measurement of the benefits of technology in terms of productivity may seem somewhat odd, narrow, or sinister to some, so I thought it would be useful to look at some of the history of thought surrounding these issues to show why progressive economists and policy wonks regard it as a useful measure.
The benefits of medical technologies—ethical and cost-benefit quandaries in certain cases aside—are relatively easy to measure in terms of their ability to improve health and the efficacy of treatments. However, the benefits of other technologies, marvellous or disruptive as they may be, are harder to evaluate. Because technologies tend to replace other technologies and to alter prior modes of working and living, technological change tends to create both winners and losers, leaving it difficult to determine whether, on balance, the process is beneficial at all.
Scientists and the History of Science: An Alternative View April 25, 2015Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: Abraham Pais, Andy Pickering, Emilio Segrè, Helge Kragh, John Ziman, Laurie Brown, Lillian Hoddeson, Martin Rudwick, Peter Medawar, Steven Weinberg
In my last post, I took issue with the idea that when scientists write history, they are possessed of a need to idealize science, and thereby secure its intellectual and social authority. The burden of this post, therefore, is to develop a framework that accounts for the ways that scientists do write history, and the ways they can contribute to the historiography of science, without supposing they are possessed of such a need, or that they need, in general, to be disabused of their ideas.
Scientists as Historians and Critical Intellects
The first thing we might note is that the basic idea that we require more realistic portraits of science did not originate in the work of critical outsiders. In the 1960s it was commonly associated with scientists such as Peter Medawar (1915–1987) and John Ziman (1925–2005), and did not, to my knowledge, raise much pique.
Moreover, many historians of science were scientists who migrated into history. An outstanding and well-known example is Martin Rudwick, a geologist by training. His Great Devonian Controversy (1985) was widely considered a crucial document of an era of newly nuanced portraits of scientific development. Yet, in more recent years, Rudwick has written, in large part, with a scientific audience in mind, and has been more critical of historians for their neglect of the course of scientific claims and arguments. I think scientists such as Rudwick can prove, at least in certain respects, to be more sensitive historians than trained historians, provided they are well-read in existing historical research. But, of course, the more general point is that a historiography is simply well served by enrolling people with a diversity of training and experience.
Scientists and the History of Science: The Shapin View April 15, 2015Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: Bruno Latour, J. G. Crowther, Simon Schaffer, Steven Shapin, Steven Weinberg
This post incorporates some general impressions I’ve developed over the last several years, but is most immediately motivated by Steven Shapin’s negative Wall Street Journal review* of physicist Steven Weinberg’s new book To Explain the World. I’d like, though, to make clear at the outset that this post isn’t really concerned with whether or not Shapin’s review did justice to Weinberg, specifically. I’m not especially interested in Weinberg’s views, and they are not something that worries or perturbs me. Shapin’s review is of interest here because it is written in a tradition that does see in histories such as Weinberg’s the operation of larger forces that should be a cause for concern.
A much earlier work in this tradition was the 1968 book Science in Modern Society, written by the Marxist science journalist J. G. Crowther (1899–1983). In it, Crowther criticized a trend he saw in academic scholarship toward a “disembodied history of scientific ideas.” In his view, science could only be governed to serve the best benefit of society if the unvarnished history of the “social relations of science” was understood. Crowther believed that narrowly intellectualized history concealed those relations, and thus constituted “a long-range natural protective action, by dominant interests that do not wish to have the social and political implications of their scientific policy comprehensively investigated.”
Comparatively, Shapin plays down the dangers of improper history, but inherits Crowther’s perspective insofar as he regards macroscopic forces as responsible for such history. In Shapin’s view, the shortcomings of Weinberg’s specific history, as well as Weinberg’s concentration on what he regards as powerful about science, are, depressingly, simply what is to be expected when a scientist—any scientist—attempts to write the history of science.
Rational Action: The Blog March 7, 2015Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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We’re about a month away from the debut of my book, Rational Action: The Sciences of Policy in Britain and America, 1940–1960. Anyone who has written an academic book knows that this is a very exciting thing for the author, because publishing the book can be almost as long and arduous a process as researching and writing the thing. So, I’m going to be talking about the twentieth century a lot more here.
However, I’ve also created a new Rational Action blog, which will both expand on things found in my book, as well as develop the discussion well beyond the history of the specific fields I concentrate on in the book. My hope is that, by focusing on the historical problem of rationality, as manifested in both theory and practice, I can attract a cross-disciplinary audience interested in everything from optimization algorithms to philosophy of mind. The object will be to create a space where we can do free-form explorations of the affinities between such topics without conflating them into a single “contested history of rationality,” as seems to be the historiographical fashion these days.
I think it will be more useful to create a separate blog, rather than a new post series here, because I don’t want the historiographical excursions that I favor here to alienate readers interested solely in the new blog’s focus. I anticipate there will be some cross-posting, or possibly even two different versions of the same post appearing in each location. In fact, there are a number of archived posts here that I already want to adapt to the new forum.
So, please check out the new blog, and follow me on Twitter to know when I put up a new post either there or here. Also, for American customers, Amazon is offering a discount on pre-orders of my reasonably-priced-but-not-altogether-inexpensive book, and the size of the discount appears to be diminishing as we get closer to release—just saying.
Tags: D. C. Coleman, Derek de Solla Price, Franklin Mendels, Hans Medick, Jürgen Schlumbohm, John Desaguliers, John Smeaton, Margaret Jacob, Peter Kriedte, Simon Schaffer
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Margaret Jacob’s emphasis on “scientific education” as an essential element of industrialization is best understood in view of her ongoing effort to stem the tide of portraits of industrialization that she characterizes as “mechanistic.” Such portraits, she claims, rely exclusively on “economic and social history” to identify certain “factors” as prerequisites of industrialization, which was a process that then developed more or less spontaneously.
Many of the factors comprising the portraits she opposes will be familiar to those who have taken a Western Civ course: regional population pressures, falling family income, labor availability, resource availability (notably coal), the commercialization of agriculture, access to remote markets, and innovations in socio-economic organization (notably the “putting-out system”). In such contexts, the important machines were mainly scientifically unsophisticated devices devised by artisan “tinkerers,” including such famous inventions as the flying shuttle and spinning jenny.
While such historiography of industrialization was venerable, it flourished within an influential theoretical framework provided by Franklin Mendels (1943–1988) in his article, “Proto-industrialization: The First Phase of the Industrialization Process,” Journal of Economic History 32 (1972): 241–261. In The Cultural Meaning of the Scientific Revolution (1988), Jacob points us to “Proto-Industrialization: A Concept Too Many,” Economic History Review 36 (1983): 435–448, an oft-cited polemical review by D. C. Coleman (1920–1995), covering the concept’s quick proliferation [ngram].
Graham Wallas on Dispositions, the Great Society, the Failures of Experimental Psychology, and Some Novel Connections (Part 2) February 17, 2015Posted by Christopher Donohue in Uncategorized.
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Here I discuss Wallas more mature thought (c. 1914) and detail his account of dispositions, the discussion of which underscores his consistent commitment to a critique of the hedonic calculus. Wallas also used his understanding of human nature to position his social psychology as well as belittle (perhaps too strong a word) experimental psychology. It has not been sufficiently pointed out, and his discussion of the work of Charles Myers uncovers this, that social psychology of Wallas’ stripe was a move away from introspection and the study of consciousness as well as the laboratory. The results of the laboratory and the testing of individual subjects could be read as contrary to a inquiry which sought to explain past history and present politics through reference to pugnacity.
Wallas, I think, understood this as a real danger. In his “Great Society” of 1914, he also comes upon a fundamental realization brought about through his understanding of evolution and the instincts: if mankind had stopped evolving biologically long ago, if he was adapted to the savanna and the very small village, was society a benefit for good or for ill? The idea of human beings as adapted or maladjusted for society is essential to discussions of social selection. Furthermore, the conception of social life being in disequilibrium with the biological adaptation of the human race is one of the mainstays of bio-social anthropology.
It is thus worth positing: can the Cambridge Mind and turn of the century psychology in Britain give us an insight into contemporary debates about universals, particulars and biological reductionism in anthropology and psychology? Perhaps.
Through an attention to social psychology have we uncovered a debate over methods in early psychology? Perhaps too this is the case.
Wallas understood the Great Society as the form of social organization brought about in large part by what economists then referred to as “The Great Industry”, the technological transformation of life and its social dislocations has resulted in a “general change of social scale” “without precedent in the history of the world (The Great Society, 1914, pg. 3).” The question for him, as for many others, was whether such a change in the state of affairs, leaving behind the Malthusian England of old, was for the better or worse. That progress would indeed be the reality was the “deeper anxiety of our times”, overshadowing even the worries of the ever-present commercial or industrial crisis (ibid, 6) The idea of progress was easier to entertain in Herbert Spencer’s time, when England and America was under the sway of Lamarkianism. That time had passed and the biologists have come to the conclusion…
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