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Primer: Georges Cuvier October 8, 2008

Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Primer.
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Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) was born on 23 August 1769.After an education at Stuttgart, he accepted a position as a tutor with the family of the Comte d’Hericy.During his time as a tutor, he became friends with the well-regarded agriculturalist Tessier. Cuvier became the protégé of Tessier, and through his correspondence with Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, managed in 1795 to secure an appointment as an assistant professor of comparative anatomy at Museum d’Histoire Naturelle.In 1796, he began a series of lectures at the Ecole Centrale du Pantheon.In that same year, he read his first paper, entitled Memoires sur les especes d’elephants vivants et fossils, which was published in 1800.For Cuvier, 1789 was a pivotal year as it saw the completion of his first systematic work of natural history, entitled Tableau elementaire de l’histoire naturelle des animaux.The period after the publication of this work saw Cuvier devote himself to three broad lines of inquiry: the structure and classification of mollusks, the classification and natural history of fish, and finally, the natural history of fossil mammals and reptiles. (more…)

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

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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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

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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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.