jump to navigation

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.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.


Pitirim Sorokin on Fitness and “War Waste” May 25, 2013

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
Tags: , , , , , ,
add a comment

Pitirim Sorokin

Питири́м Алекса́ндрович Соро́кин (1889-1968) was considered in many ways to be the anti-Talcott Parsons due to their notorious disagreements over the merits of Parsons’s The Structure of Social Action (1937) as well as his rather tyrannical personality.  Both Sorokin and Parsons were philosophers of history (due to Parson’s late embrace, like Karl Popper, of evolutionary models of societal growth and development) and the separation of their intellectual projects is not as pronounced as is thought.  Sorokin was an evolutionist who was also an “old-school” sociologist insofar as he considered the social scientific heritage of the latter nineteenth century to be quite valuable.  His 1928 Contemporary Sociological Theories is a compendium of the mental furniture of social theory in the long nineteenth century.  Robert Merton, who was always careful to distance himself from Sorokin, betrays Sorokin’s influence in his citation methods and in his adherence to the “spirit” of the argument of his sources, rather than the letter.  Both Merton and Sorokin were lumpers (see Merton’s 1936 paper, “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action”), but they lumped heuristically.

Sorokin’s Man and Society in Calamity: The Effects of War, Revolution, Famine, Pestilence Upon Human Mind, Behavior, Social Organization and Cultural Life (1946) immediately reminds one of R. A. Fisher’s work, or that of Alexander Carr-Saunders.  All three looked at rates of differential fertility and the impact of social forces (wars, revolution, migration) on the evolution of human civilization.  All considered human evolution to be determined by differing forces than those governing natural selection.  As importantly, Sorokin continued the “war and waste” debate, also referred to as the “military selection” debate, a controversy which marinated through much of the later nineteenth century, but which really had two great stimuli: the Boer War and the First World War. David Starr Jordan as well as Thorstein Veblen were two important interlocutors in this debate.


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.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.


History-Philosophy Relations, Pt. 3: Empirical History, Transcendental Standards, and the Unity of Science March 28, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

hsns.2012.42.issue-4.coverIn my previous post in this series, I noted that the program of “historical epistemology” rejects conceptions of science informed by traditional philosophy of science in favor of seeking portraits that are both historicized, and that follow the historical record more directly.  In general, I agree that historicity and fidelity to the historical record are both principles that must inform historians’ work.  At the same time, I am not convinced that it is either necessary or wise to abandon traditional philosophy of science to realize those principles.  To investigate this issue, I would like to turn to what I believe may be its high-water mark: the Kent Staley-Peter Galison dispute,1 which has been summarized by Allan Franklin in his 2002 book Selectivity and Discord.  To conclude the post, I will develop my own opinion on the issue, elaborating on points I made in my recent article, “Strategies of Detection: Interpretive Strategies in Experimental Particle Physics, 1930-1950”.


R. A. Fisher, Scientific Method, and the Tower of Babel, Pt. 2 February 9, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Tower of Babel (1563)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Tower of Babel (1563)

In his 1932 lecture, “The Bearing of Genetics on Theories of Evolution,” R. A. Fisher compared the fissures between different scientific techniques to God’s confounding of languages in the Biblical legend of the Tower of Babel. If the fissures in scientific method were assumed to hold the construction of an “edifice” of scientific knowledge back, much as the division of language prevented the construction of the Tower of Babel, then the obvious question was how method could be reunited. According to Fisher,

If we were to ask … what universal language could enable men of science to understand each other sufficiently well for effective co-operation, I submit that there can be only one answer. If we could select a group of men of science, completely purge their minds of all knowledge of language, and allow them time to develop the means of conveying to one another their scientific ideas, I have no doubt whatever that the only successful medium they could devise would be that ancient system of logic and deductive reasoning first perfected by the Greeks, and which we know as Mathematics.

As we saw in Part 1, the bulk of Fisher’s statistical theorization was dedicated to the problem of inductive reasoning, that is, the development of defined conclusions from well-structured observations. But it is clear that Fisher also valued deductive uses of mathematics, because it permitted different observational conclusions to be related to each other through a fully coherent language. It is just not clear what he understood the epistemological status or function of deductive knowledge to be.


R. A. Fisher, Scientific Method, and the Tower of Babel, Pt. 1 February 2, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

R. A. Fisher in 1924

For a paper Chris Donohue and I have been working on, I have been delving into the historiography on statistician and genetic theorist R. A. Fisher (1890-1962). The main thing I was trying to do was to make sense of the last third of Fisher’s touchstone book The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (1930), which is a protracted eugenic explanation for why civilizations decline.  When I first got onto this topic, I consulted Greg Radick about it, and he directed me to Stephen Jay Gould’s 1991 essay, “The Smoking Gun of Eugenics” (reprinted in Gould’s Dinosaur in a Haystack collection), in which Gould takes apart both Fisher’s civilizational theory as well as his 1950s-era arguments against claims that smoking leads to cancer.

If you’re interested in the specifics of Fisher’s arguments, do read Gould’s essay, or, better still, read the original.  Suffice it here to say that Gould claims Fisher made bogus arguments on account of his commitment to eugenics (with a similar story for smoking). This is true, as far as it goes, but I wanted to find a “higher-order” explanation for Fisher’s civilizational theory, which would account for why he thought his arguments made sense.  Fisher, after all, was a famous proponent of methodological rigor, and even prima facie his arguments about civilizational decline were, shall we say, less than rigorous.

If you’re interested in my take, you’ll have to wait until 2014 for the edited volume our essay will be in to come out (hooray for academic publishing; if you’re really interested, please do contact me for a draft copy).  But the general approach I took was to delve into Fisher’s ideas about scientific methodology.  Below the fold I take a meandering tour through these ideas, and the scattered historiography on them.


Kuhn’s Demon, or: The Iconoclastic Tradition in Science Criticism January 21, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The message that scientists are human and that science is messy is crossing the ether once again. Of late there has been a certain degree of excitement percolating among historians and science-studies scholars over the #OverlyHonestMethods hashtag on Twitter. It seems that scientists are sending out tweets about their work that happen to nicely coincide with the images of science that historians would like to present to the world. Twitter is, of course, the world hub for “trending” topics, and this particular trend is already simmering down. But, before the moment is completely gone, it might be worthwhile to reflect briefly on the history of the ideas 1) that there exists a dominant image of science as a pristine and rigidly ordered activity, and 2) that the negation of this image would be broadly beneficial to scientists and society.


Is it idol-smashing time again already?


Preliminary Survey: Literature on Agricultural Research to 1945 November 19, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Technocracy in the UK.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The importance of agricultural research in the intellectual history of science should be self-evident.  Justus Liebig (1803-1873) was a key figure in both the development of laboratory methodology and agricultural science.  Gregor Mendel’s (1822-1884) famous experiments were in plant breeding.  Louis Pasteur’s (1822-1895) most celebrated work was on the cattle disease, anthrax.  William Bateson (1861-1926), who coined the term genetics, was the first director of the John Innes Horticultural Institution in London, 1910-1926.  Statistician, geneticist, and eugenics proponent R. A. Fisher (1890-1962) was employed by the Rothamsted Experimental Station, 1919 to 1933 (and temporarily relocated there from 1939 to 1943).  Interwar and postwar virologists and molecular biologists did a great deal of work on the economically destructive tobacco mosaic virus.

In these examples, problems of agriculture form a motivating context for contributions to biology, statistics, and other fields.  The history of agricultural research itself remains somewhat difficult to discern, even though it apparently constitutes a long, sizable tradition.  We do have some enumeration of accomplishments in research and technique, written in retrospect by practitioners.  For the case of the UK, the following resources are available: