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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.

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Otis T. Mason on Technology and the Progress of Civilization May 14, 2013

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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Otis Mason (April 10, 1838 – November 5, 1908) was at the turn of the century one of the premier theorists  of primitive evolution.  He was a curator at the Smithsonian Institution for much of his career. Anthropologists remember him chiefly for his use of the “culture area concept” and for his contribution to “diffusionist studies.”   A “culture area” is a “region of relative environmental and cultural uniformity, characterized by societies with significant similarities in mode of adaptation and social structure.”

Diffusionism, as argued by the American anthropologist Clark Wissler, contended that cultural traits (gift-giving, technology, language, etc) moved from a given center, which implied that the “center of the trait distribution is also its earliest occurrence.” Wissler contended that cultural areas and geographic traits were “broadly congruent, implying a mild environmental determinism” (Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology, ed. Alan J. Barnard, Jonathan Spencer, 61-62.)*

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Alexander M. Carr-Saunders on Social Selection, Heredity, and Tradition May 6, 2013

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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Alexander M. Carr-Saunders (14th January 1886-6th October 1966) was president of the London School of Economics from 1937 to 1956.  When his The Population Problem: A Study in Human Evolution appeared in 1922, it cemented his reputation.  According to his obituary in Population Studies this book has since been viewed as a seminal contribution to “social biology” due to its formulation of the “optimum number.”  Carr-Saunders defined the optimum number as the greatest number of individuals who could be sustained by a given environment.  For Carr-Saunders, moreover, this optimum number “involves the idea of the standard of living,” where in order to reach and to maintain this standard of living, populations, from primitive to civilized, employ practices to either “reduce fertility” or to “cause elimination,” including abortion, abstinence from sexual intercourse, and infanticide, in greater or lesser proportions (214.)

Alexander M. Carr-Saunders

Alexander M. Carr-Saunders

This was not all, however, as the maintenance of the highest standard of living possible required that the  “younger generation must become proficient in the skilled methods which makes this standard possible of attainment, and in particular it is important that young men should not marry unless they are both energetic and skillful.”  In such basic facts “we may see evidence exerted by social conditions and conventions” (224.)

Carr-Saunders has attracted some attention from Hayek scholars due to his influence on Hayek’s notion of cultural evolution.  Erik Angner in Hayek and Natural Law contends, “there is good reason to think that Hayek’s evolutionary thought was significantly inspired by Carr-Saunders and other Oxford zoologists” in particular supplying Hayek’s understanding of the mechanisms of group selection.

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Modernity, the Cold War, and New Whig Histories of Ideas, Pt. 1 September 22, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
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This post continues our examination of Cold War Social Science, edited by Mark Solovey and Hamilton Cravens.

One issue to look out for when addressing the history of the social sciences — and intellectual history more generally — is that scholars are apt to see themselves as in dialogue with the events about which they are writing.  As with scientists writing about their own disciplinary past, there is a felt need either to credit the past as prologue, or to distance oneself from the folly of one’s predecessors.  Such, of course, are the roots of whig history.

The implicit aim of a new whig history, which shapes much intellectual and social science historiography is, in broad strokes, to explain how anthropologists and their intellectual allies bested academic competitors, and can now lead society away from a myopic modernism toward a more harmonious, genuinely cosmopolitan future.

This narrative is fairly similar to the original Whig narrative diagnosed by Herbert Butterfield, which took history to progress away from authoritarianism to political, economic, and religious liberalism. However, the whiggishness of the present narrative can be difficult to acknowledge, because the phenomenon of whig history is actually incorporated within the narrative as an intellectual pathology arising from the same teleological modernism being cast as outdated.  It is counterintuitive that the narrative could be whiggish, because whiggism is a declared enemy of the narrative.

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Paul Vinogradoff, Historical Jurisprudence, and the Critique of Sociology August 19, 2012

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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Sir Paul Vinogradoff (18 (30) November 1854, Kostroma, Russia – 19 December 1925, Paris, France) is remembered primarily as an early practitioner of historical jurisprudence in Russia and Britain (as distinguished from the earlier comparative, perhaps unsystematic, studies of Henry Maine), and as a historian of medieval England, particularly of the medieval village.  He was also a keen critic of late nineteenth and early twentieth century social sciences.  Vinogradoff’s understanding of the scope and method of historical jurisprudence was intimately connected with his critical gaze of the intellectual projects of Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim, among others.  Essential to his view of the role of law in the evolution of human culture was his organicist view of society, the distinction, which he shared with J.S. Mill and Alfred Marshall, between statics and dynamics, and his adoption of Weberian ideal types.

Vinogradoff was in many ways extending enlightenment thinking about the nature of society, if we consider the enlightenment to begin with Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws and end with Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of History, and as well as the nineteenth century obsession with the empirical verification  of causal historical laws,  which reached its early perfection in Henry Buckle’s History of Civilization in England.  The second tendency was crystallized in the flood of studies describing in fine-grained detail all aspects of primeval, ancient, and medieval customs and communities. Such a level of discussion was possible not only through a revolutionary increase in the variety and quality of ethnographic, archaeological, and primitive legal accounts,  but also through the adoption of an evolutionary perspective, borrowed in equal parts from Comte, Spencer, and Karl Bucher.

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Book Club: Renwick on British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots July 2, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
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This blog has previously spotlighted one of Chris Renwick’s articles, and he has written a couple of guest posts* for us.  With those interests declared, I’m happy to say that EWP has received a review copy of his new book, British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots: A History of Futures Past (Macmillan: 2012).

A good way of thinking about this book is in terms of what Chris Donohue has referred to as the “nineteenth-century problem” in intellectual-scientific history.  The nineteenth-century problem is partly interpretive, in that it deals with the practical problem of sorting out the undisciplinary tangle of intellectual projects and issues and notions to be found in works of that era.

However, the problem is also historiographical, in that it is a struggle against a tide of scholarship fixated on a few select questions (the reception of natural selection, the intellectual validation of racial hierarchies and imperialism, the ascendancy of liberalism and social reformism, etc…), and a few seemingly key thinkers.  The scholarship also tends to divvy up the intellectual history arbitrarily, with historians of political philosophy studying certain thinkers, historians of economic thought others, and historians of science still others, even though a thorough and sensitive reading of texts — not to mention widely accepted historiographical wisdom — would indicate the folly in doing so.

By highlighting important historical relations between the projects of political economy, eugenics-biometrics, botany and zoology, Herbert Spencer’s social philosophy, social reformism and journalism, and the longstanding search for a science of sociology, Renwick’s book makes an important contribution to the interpretive aspect of the nineteenth-century problem.  It does, perhaps, get somewhat hung up in the historiographical aspect of the nineteenth-century problem.

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Neglected Connections between the Histories of Science and Economics, Pt. 1 January 17, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Although historians of science have not traditionally shown a strong interest in the history of economic thought, developing such an interest would make good professional sense, in particular because epistemological issues in economics and the natural sciences have long been intertwined in less than obvious ways.  Historians would do well to familiarize themselves with historical epistemological debates around economic thought, such as the Methodenstreit of the 1880s, because important ideas like “science”, “objectivity”, and “impersonality” have meanings that, in much of the historical commentary on them, were specifically associated with debates surrounding the validity of social scientific abstraction, and the important distinctions that were made between the goals of theorization and normative practice.

Aside from brushing up on the historical meanings of certain terms, historians of science also have an opportunity to lend additional clarity to the historical connections between thinking about science and thinking about politics, society, and economy.  Intellectual historians and philosophers of economics, and of science more generally, have studied the more explicit historical debates surrounding political economy and its connections to the methods of science, say, in the thought of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) or Karl Marx (1818-1883).  Additionally, the transfer of metaphors between domains has received good attention, particularly in the area of evolutionary theory: from the economics of Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) to Charles Darwin (1809-1882), or from evolutionary theory back into Herbert Spencer’s (1820-1903) social theory (on this blog, also see Chris Renwick’s discussion of Patrick Geddes).

There is further important work to be done in straight-up intellectual history, but additional opportunities may be found in the history of intellectual practices that provide the context in which ideas make sense. (more…)

Human Geography and Environmental Determinism: The Arguments of Ellsworth Huntington and Ellen Semple September 17, 2010

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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In the literature detailing the foundation of the discipline of human geography, it is widely argued that the opening decades of the 20th century saw this developing enterprise in the throes of “environmental determinism.”

Ellsworth Huntington

Such determinism, furthermore, developed a series of propositions which defended racial superiority through a utilization of the guise of the objective, scientific geographer.  Thus, David Livingston, in his The Geographical Tradition (1993,)concludes that Huntington, in his Character of the Races (1924) conjoined “ethnic constitution” to “climactic circumstance,” which argued that “racial character was spatially referenced and could thus be presented in cartographic form.”  This “cartographic enterprise” in which the distributions of genius, health, and civilization were conveniently tied to the percepts of “cultural imperialism,” exactly those eschewed by Franz Boas.  In Huntington’s scheme, climate influenced health and energy, which in turn influenced civilization (225-6.)  Mark Blacksell in his Political Geography (2005,) notes that, “For a time in North America, in the first half of the twentieth century, environmental determinism held greater sway, largely through the writings of Ellen Semple and Ellsworth Huntington, but its intellectual dominance there was short-lived, not least because of the racist conclusions the philosophy frequently spawned (140.)
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Primer: Patrick Geddes September 18, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History of the Human Sciences.
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About a month ago, we spotlighted University of Leeds history research student Chris Renwick’s recent Isis article on the Spencerian influence on Patrick Geddes as a piece of writing that both nicely situates itself in the literature and in historical context, and highlights the importance of the history of ideas in science history.  Word got back to Chris, and he has graciously agreed to do a couple of guest posts for us.  The first kicks off the return of our “Primer” (formerly “hump-day history”) series.

Guest post by Chris Renwick

Patrick Geddes (1854-1932)

Patrick Geddes (1854-1932)

Encompassing natural and social sciences, as well as social reform projects that left their mark on cities including Edinburgh and Bombay, Patrick Geddes’ career was wide-ranging, long, and—some might say—characterised by a failure to make the most of his ability to unify seemingly disparate fields with evolutionary theorising.

After leaving Scotland to train as a biologist under “Darwin’s Bulldog,” T. H. Huxley, in the mid-1870s, Geddes first made his name with a series of experiments, conducted in France, Italy, and England in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Like many biologists of his generation, Geddes was unconvinced by the case Darwin had made for natural selection as the prime mover in evolution.  Instead, Geddes—inspired by a range of thinkers, including the much-maligned Herbert Spencer—emphasised the importance of cooperation and mutually dependent relationships in evolutionary development.  To support these views, Geddes examined relationships in the natural world that biologists  often called parasitic. On separating “parasites” from their hosts—in particular, algae that lived in the tissue of flatworms—Geddes found that neither was able to live as effectively as they could together. He therefore (more…)

Spotlight: Renwick on Geddes (also Ideas vs Practice) August 12, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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Since we’re in the middle of a fairly polemical series of methodological posts, and since a general critique of the professional function of journals fits in with this, I thought it would be a good idea to shine a quick spotlight on a recent exception to the rule: Chris Renwick’s “The Practice of Spencerian Science: Patrick Geddes’s Biosocial Program, 1876-1889” Isis 100 (2009): 36-57.

Renwick’s piece, like Schmitt’s recent piece on Vicq d’Azyr, places itself quite nicely within a literature, as well as its subject matter within history.  Perhaps not coincidentally, the subject matter is Patrick Geddes’ relationship with the ideas of Herbert Spencer, whose work falls within the ambit of the Darwin Industry.  As I have previously noted, localized historiographies—the “industries” in particular—seem to acquire a critical scholarly mass that propels them into a more rigorous problematic.

In this case, Renwick uses his piece as part of an effort to reclaim the influence of Spencer’s ideas.  Traditionally understood as not having made positive contributions to biology, and as a proponent of social Darwinism, Renwick notes that recent literature has begun to chart a more general debt to the ideas present in Spencer’s thinking, many of which had little to do with severe competition in nature or society, and, in fact, stressed cooperation as a higher form of evolutionary development.  Renwick observes Geddes’ debt to Spencer’s thought in (more…)