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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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Depicting Science in Context April 21, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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First: Jenny’s been away from Paris, but will be back this week, and, so far as I know, her online debate is still on. The plan is to use Google Talk Messaging, which requires either a special download, available here, or just a gmail account. If you’d like to participate or just watch, you can contact one of us on our gmail accounts: gwilliamthomas or jennifer.ferng and we’ll be sure to send you an invite. I expect it will be in the evening Paris time, so afternoon in America, on the 23rd. If you’d like to suggest possible points to discuss (really anything goes, but the idea is historiography, not even necessarily of science), leave a comment here.

Now, I wanted to discuss strategies for talking about scientific culture, which is influenced by my recent reading of Holmes, Mirowski’s More Heat Than Light (which I’m using for ideas for my lecture on economics tomorrow), and some recent emails with Paul Erickson concerning his work on game theory (which everyone interested in 20th century science should have a look at when it come out).

Here’s the historiographical problem: how do we talk about events “in their own terms”? First runs through a history tend (maybe inevitably?) to be Whiggish–how does the past presage some later understanding? The historian’s major response seems to be “to situate B within the contemporary context of X” or to show “B as a product/reflection of X”; which tends to read the history of B only inasmuch as it relates to X. Now, this in no way precludes reading B as a product of Y or Z, either, but it also doesn’t bring us any closer to understanding B “in its own terms”. This is definitively not to say that B is independent of everything else, but I do think it prevents us from taking B seriously, even as we take its cousins at the end of the alphabet entirely too seriously. Why are X, Y, and Z allowed to take on a solid meaning, and not B?

Take Mirowski–his big argument in MHTL is that 19th century economics was forged in relation to the perception of what physics was accomplishing, with neoclassical economics being a direct copy of energetics. He’s certainly right about the existence of the connections, but I rarely feel like I’m understanding the economics on its own terms, despite his valiant efforts to dispel the Whiggishness of the history of pre-neoclassical economics as striving towards some sort of obviously true neoclassical understanding. The mathematical moves the economists make might appear to mimic physics in some ways, but is there a different epistemology at work? Did the economists really think they were doing the same thing as the physicists, even if the equations are copied directly? I would tend to think not, given that their main tradition was one of political philosophy rather than mathematical physics, so I would think that the mathematics would be reinterpreted within the historically dominant tradition. A conversation for another day….

Anyway, Mirowski aside, my main trouble with “in the context of X/Y/Z” is that it presumes we have a solid understanding of X/Y/Z, when what is really meant is a simple shorthand. Take “science X in the context of the Cold War”; what is usually meant is that said science “has an aroma of paranoia about it”, “benefits the military”, and/or “is expensive”–detailed understanding of Cold War historical dynamics will typically not figure. As for science X, it’s usually implicit that the science itself is understood well enough “in its own terms” and that, therefore, additional light will be shed on it by situating it within its context. But, what strikes me is that the science is usually not well understood, either because it hasn’t ever been recapitulated in a coherent narrative, or that whatever recapitulation does exist is all within the inadequate Whiggish old school/practitioner/pop historiography, which few historians in the audience will actually read (for good reasons), thus limiting the informativeness of the exercise.

So, in my mind, it’s best to go back and retell the original story, maybe in a different way, paying attention to different things, or assigning different weights to different parts of the narrative “in light of” what we know about the context. So, we still acknowledge that the thing we are studying is actually an entity in and of itself, and is not merely an artifact bearing the marks of overlapping themes and discourses. This is why I like Holmes so well–he really tries to get back to the original material and understand its intellectual project without abandoning the context. This inevitably makes for a really convoluted history, but the attempt to unravel it is, in my experience, where the really good historical arguments take place. Next time, as promised, Holmes’ epilogue.

Holmes, Part 3: Does Nature Matter? April 18, 2008

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Comparing what I’ve (poorly) called the historical arc vs. the historical reality models of writing history, Holmes goes on to discuss some of the relevant literature. Probably his main target here is Robert Kohler’s (1982, now out of print) From Medical Chemistry to Biochemistry: The Making of a Biomedical Discipline, the first chapter of which explores how “physiological chemistry” was caught in a sort of professional limbo between physiology and organic chemistry in the German university system–hence this gap between first major calls for a cell-oriented chemistry ca. 1850, and the eventual instantiation of a full-blown biochemistry ca. 1900.

Now, things get complicated here, so all this is all too-fast, too-rough recapitulation, but, long story short, Kohler’s book focuses almost exclusively on the non-scientific politics of disciplinary formation. One of Holmes’ big points is to bring the science back into the picture. “If we are to understand scientific innovation and change comprehensively, then we need studies at all levels of organization, from the individual investigator [which he goes on to defend vigorously] and the local research school to the international field; and on time scales ranging from daily experimental operations to the several decades or even much longer that are often required for scientific problems to evolve and for major domains of scientific knowledge to be acquired.” He had previously discussed Mulkay and Edge, but he’s also clearly addressing the points made by Kohler and Latour: “A research field is more than a network of communication and ties of professional interest.”

In some sense, this boils down to the usual, “but nature matters!” argument deployed against the “spin up” interpretation of sociology. Rudwick (see the last post) certainly agrees (see the latest HSS newsletter). Kohler seems to as well, and actually, in his 1982 book, seems to lament the politics of the German university that prevented biochemistry from emerging. Although Holmes gets into it, repeatedly, with the sociologists’ “spin up” arguments throughout the lectures, I get the feeling his main concern is not with proving that nature matters, but, rather, that he has his own, very historiographical agenda. He wants to know how we get down to telling histories that reveal what mattered, and thus why his approach to history is best in this case, as opposed to an approach like that used in, say, Great Devonian Controversy or From Medical Chemistry to Biochemistry.

By embracing both long time spans (unlike a case study approach like Rudwick’s), and by embracing laboratory-level practice (unlike Kohler’s approach to a similar topic), Holmes aims to show how the formation of a field like biochemistry is not simply a matter of willing it into existence provided there are no political barriers, but that nature and the evolution of ideas about nature matter in determining what is deemed worth investigation. Most of his lectures are centered around constructing a narrative in which such points are pertinent. In other words, he shows how a more sociologist-friendly book like Kohler’s is actually more Whiggish than his approach, because it presumes that a field like biochemistry ought to exist, and that it was necessary for the emergence of biochemical knowledge (as Kohler himself seems to confirm). This could all be a big misinterpretation of the historiographical argument taking place, on both Holmes’ and Kohler’s parts–I read this stuff quickly–but it’s what I took away from it.

Next time: Holmes responds to some criticisms in his epilogue.

Holmes, Part 2: Historical Realities vs. Historical Arcs April 17, 2008

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In the previous post I pointed out that Frederic Holmes was dealing with the problem of predecessor science. At the beginning of his lectures (1990), Holmes sets up an interesting comparison, saying that one can focus on “conceptually defined problems that appear to unify the contributions of several or many scientists.” He points to Jed Buchwald’s The Rise of the Wave Theory of Light, Alan Rocke’s Chemical atomism in the nineteenth century, and, lo and behold, John Heilbron’s Electricity in the 17th and 18th centuries. They key here is “appear to unify”–even though we’re looking at scientists with diverse perspectives, they fall into a collective conversation. So, this tends to exclude arguments along the lines of “this guy in India had this same idea in the 8th century” or the perennial favorite, “this really all goes back to Descartes”. This is important for Holmes, because it demands that if he’s going to trace his topic of metabolic chemistry back to the pre-1850 era, the burden’s on him to indicate that the 1850’ers and the 1930’ers were having the same conversation in a more-or-less continuous tradition.

But what’s really interesting to me is a second trend of argumentation exemplified, according to Holmes, by Martin Rudwick’s Great Devonian Controversy. Rudwick’s book (1985) is one of the key texts in the study of resolution of scientific controversies, which shows how artificial their closure seems to be. According to Holmes, Rudwick’s work, in comparison to the others, “is a more tightly bounded, densely recounted episode that Rudwick employed in his effort to transcend ‘the individual scientist’ in order to see how ‘a specific scientific problem… brought together some group of individuals in an interacting network of exchange.”

Holmes goes on from here with little comment, but the timing of his lectures, five years after Leviathan and Rudwick, comes at a critical juncture. These works still represent fresh, productive approaches that compete with a slightly older style represented by guys like Buchwald and Heilbron. For Holmes they are two possible models that do two different kinds of work, but there’s no need to comment on their historiographical place, because they’re two accepted approaches.

Now, in my mind, Rudwick is prototypical of the case study tradition. It sets out to demonstrate by means of example, rather than to trace a history. It functions both as an illustration of a moment of “science in action”, and as an exemplar of a long-term historical reality (episteme?) (i.e., social structures in which controversies can be resolved in a gentlemanly fashion). Whereas the three works mentioned above chart out more of a medium-term historical arc. I would claim that somehow the Rudwick model came to dominate historical writing in subsequent years, but it’s not the model that Holmes chooses for his discussion of the 1840s to 1930s historical arc.

For now, I’d just like to muse about functional differences between these two models. The Rudwick model seems like sort of a one trick pony–if we don’t appreciate (and it’s debatable whether historians did) that the settlement of controversy can proceed independent of scientific arguments, Rudwick serves as a slap in the face. But, like a joke, the more you tell the story, the less illuminating each new case study becomes. Whereas, inquiries into historical arcs, while perhaps less earth-shattering, I think, ultimately gives us something to argue over, and, if we choose the right trends (or invent new narratives altogether–excitement!), this is probably the most continually productive route.

I think this choice of models is really one of these stylistic/economy-of-writing issues. It’s not a question of correctness, but how much argumentative work you can make history do for you.

Holmes’ "Between Biology and Medicine" April 16, 2008

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I just gave my 20th century biology lecture yesterday–not much to report except that I argued that a productive way to approach the subject is to figure out how biology emerges as something independent of medicine, physiology, and chemistry. I look to the emergence of a full-throttled biochemistry (a chemistry specific to life) situated around 1900: enzymes, understanding proteins, biochemical pathways, and all that. This merges with the more physiological/evolutionary genetics with DNA in the new field of molecular biology mid-century.

But, after a bit of scraping, my best guide to all this turned out to be a mightily interesting 1992 book (collecting four 1990 lectures) by Frederic Holmes called (of all titles): “Between Biology and Medicine: The Formation of Intermediary Metabolism”. It sounds very arcane, but turned out to be riveting, because it deals pretty head-on with some of the questions I’ve been thinking about here. Basically, Holmes wrote (an absurdly detailed) two-volume book on Hans Krebs, trying to tease out the origins of intermediary metabolism in the 1930s, and, as so-often happens, he had the trap-door open beneath him as he found that intermediary metabolism has “predecessors” in the first half of the 1800s.

Now, Holmes is rightly suspicious about this “predecessors” question, and ends up tackling some very deep issues about how to write history. I have a lecture coming up tomorrow on R&D (another very bloggable topic), so I’m going to leave this here, but I’m going to come back to this in the next few posts.

Also, Jenny’s long-awaited online debate thing is due to go forward on the 23rd–stay tuned! (seriously)