Darwin Demystified

Darwin Demystified: Two Constructivist Analyses of the “Revolutionary” Evolutionist

            Peter J. Bowler’s biography of Charles Darwin betrays its relatively unique approach in its physical appearance before the reader ever opens it. The book itself is small, an irregularity anyone familiar with the Darwin industry would find immediately anomalistic. The cover shows a picture of young Charles, before he had acquired his iconic, wizardly white beard. Who is this awkward twenty-something-year-old Victorian? Certainly not the grandfatherly and wise-looking Charles Darwin perpetuated by most biographers.

The general editor’s preface elucidates what exactly will be different about this evidently atypical biography. Part of the Cambridge Science Biographies series, Bowler’s work will concentrate on placing Charles Darwin in his context. Instead of focusing on Darwin the man — which is admittedly part of every biography and will not be completely eliminated — the book will pay special attention to those before him and his influence immediately after The Origin’s publication on into the modern world. It will thus attempt to take Darwin the legend, the exceptional genius who single-handedly revolutionized biology and provided the base for an entire scholarly industry, and place him in his time, surrounded by his influences. It will show that Darwin is not who we have been told he is; he is not the godlike, bearded messiah of biological enlightenment. He, like all of us, was a product of his time, and his ideas were not entirely his own, but built off of a complex network of cultural, social, economic, and scholarly influences. Both as an intellectual being before The Origin and afterward by those that told his story, Darwin was created. Charles Darwin was constructed like science was and is constructed — and both are undeniably human. Peter Bowler will deconstruct Darwin and reveal his humanity.

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The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

In his heavily influential work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, author Thomas S. Kuhn challenges the then traditional view of scientific progress by outlining his own schematic for the way in which science is practiced and moves forward. The concept of science as a progression from lesser theories toward the ultimate goal of understanding the natural world, Kuhn argues, is a construction primarily articulated and perpetuated through the way in which science is taught — through textbooks that focus on the prevailing “paradigm” and glorify those scientists who led to its formation and acceptance. The reality of the way that science is carried out, however, is far different.

Science is practiced haphazardly and independently until, united under an agreed upon framework composed of theory, methodology, and instrumentation (what Kuhn calls a paradigm) leads to the pursuance of problem-solving in the realm of “normal science.” Following the unspoken rules implied by the paradigm, scientists attempt to articulate it and solve problems they know to be within its power to solve. When enough anomalies, or inconsistencies, accumulate, a crisis results in which extraordinary research is conducted in an attempt to either “fix” the existing paradigm so that it will include or explain the anomalous data or construct a new paradigm. When shifts in paradigm occur, a scientific revolution has occurred.

Kuhn’s book was at least mentioned in almost all of the reading this week. It clearly had a very important impact on the field; it was the inspiration for the sociology of scientific knowledge movement, which had huge implications for the direction the field went in redefining what science is. By pointing out that science is far from a linear process, getting more “right” as time passes, Kuhn called into question the very basis on which the history of science situated itself.

Reading this book helped me understand the huge implications of the constructivist movement in the practice of the history of science. Kuhn addresses in several statements the prevailing view of science as an accumulation of data and theory that has ultimately led to the superior practice of it today. As someone who grew up reading history that acknowledges the flawed, disjointed, and far from objective characteristics of science, it has been difficult for me to imagine a time in which these adjectives were not used to describe scientific progress (or even science itself). The clear schematic presented as an elucidation of scientific development leaves out many factors that today we know are quite important — institutional authority, cultural predispositions, economic motivations, etc. — but tearing down the goal-oriented idea of scientific endeavor was, I now understand, an important and monumental step in understanding how science is actually carried out.


“Laboratory Design and the Aim of Science: Andreas Libavius versus Tycho Brahe,” Owen Hannaway

            After stressing the significance of the development of the laboratory, author Owen Hannaway structures his article around the disparate plans for two scientists’ places of work: those of Andreas Libavius, a chemist, and Tycho Brahe, the famed astronomer. The two men had very different ideas of what their duties as scientists were, and the layout of their labs suggested this. Brahe, who preferred to work in isolation, not sharing his ideas with many others, housed his laboratory in the basement of the structure he had built to observe the heavens. Libavius, on the other hand, believed that scientists also had humanistic civic and paternal duties, and he placed his lab on the main floor of his design, directly attached to and accessible from the more public areas of the home. Both laboratory designs give the historian unique insight into “the intellectual and ideological roots of a new mode of scientific life.”[1]

“The House of Experiment in Seventeenth Century England,” Steven Shapin

            The space in which scientific queries take place, coupled with who is allowed in that space and how knowledge from that space is disseminated to society as a whole, have major implications for the way in which historians analyze scientific knowledge. This idea is the impetus for Steven Shapin’s microhistorical account of the development of such spaces in seventeenth century England. He discusses how the culture of the period shaped the evolution of scientific space; the obligation of “gentlemen” to open their private residences to men of equal position provided the basis for how early experimental science was performed and discussed. Gentlemen were free to come and investigate one another’s labs and bear witness to the kinds of work being done. Once these experiments were refined, they were welcomed into a space where the implications of the phenomena illuminated could be discussed between men of social standing (and thus worth trusting, since being a gentleman bound men to a certain standard of behavior). Thus, the culture and society these early men of science were a part of had a major impact on how they conducted science.

“Pavlov’s Physiology Factor,” Daniel P. Todes

            In his article on Pavlov’s laboratory between 1891 and 1904, Daniel Todes elucidates the particular kind (and volume) of knowledge, product, and technologies the Russian physiologist was able to produce due to the structure and methods employed in his lab. Pavlov’s authority in conjunction with the freedom his assistants had in conducting and recording the results of their own experiments created a unique dynamic in which individual observations, under the direction of Pavlov’s own methods, were discussed and analyzed by the entire lab — and the entire lab was responsible for the creation of overarching theories and ideas. His methods granted Pavlov authority on many levels: his many coworkers could offer testimonies, theories were constructed based on the experimental and to some extent intellectual contributions of many scientists, and new technologies gave credence to the data gathered. The products of the lab — gastric juices, publications, and alumni — extended Pavlov’s influence and importance. Due to its singular characteristics, which included a plethora of incoming and outgoing fledgling lab technicians with different skill sets, the relationships between coworkers and those between coworkers and master, and the cohesiveness of the lab as a whole, Pavlov’s laboratory was able to sustain a mechanism that generated unique and important products.

“Industrial Versailles: Eero Saarinen’s Corporate Campuses for GM, IBM, and AT&T,” Scott G. Knowles and Stuart W. Leslie

            In “Industrial Versailles,” authors Scott Knowles and Stuart Leslie tell the story of the post-war “corporate campuses” built by GM, IBM and AT&T by the renowned architect Eero Saarinen. Saarinen’s work created spaces in which “basic science” could be performed, and yet these spaces were designed not with the scientists’ vision in mind, but their corporate patrons. As such they were very much focused on a fabricated image of scientific modernity; instead of promoting collaboration between different departments, they tended to isolate scientists in peaceful and serene offices. Research facilities that promoted collaboration, on the other hand, produced some of the most important advances of the period. As the 50s transitioned into the much more competitive 80s, these spaces designed for “basic science” increasingly became liabilities to companies that were not focusing more of their money on the practical applications of basic scientific discoveries. These “corporate campuses” thus fell short of their intended purposes, representing more of a corporate ideal of scientific discovery.

Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics, Peter Galison

            Peter Galison attempts to tell a history of physics through an alternative method that he claims traces the changing meanings of “experiment” through time; he recounts the history of machines, or technology, that physicists (and the copious other individuals involved in the experimental process) have used to garner scientific knowledge. Machines have changed the nature of experimentation fundamentally, a phenomenon Galison argues was not unique to any period in history, but continues to take place today. What does and does not count as valid experimental knowledge is in a constant state of debate, and these arguments are more fundamentally about what constitutes an “experiment.” Who and what are involved, and what sorts of constraints affect the type and function of the results? How do members of vastly different “subcultures” communicate, and how does this affect the experimental methods they use? Galison attempts to explore these questions through a history of the machines of the laboratory.

Authors with an obvious constructivist outlook, as elucidated in Jan Golinski’s Making Natural Knowledge, wrote the readings for this week. They emphasize the importance of places and materials involved in the research process, and they place scientists in the social and cultural context in which they were working. Galison’s piece on the machine in the modern physics lab was certainly of the same methodological approach as Bruno Latour’s chapter on “Visualization and Cognition.” Both ascribed importance to the inanimate participators in scientific investigation. Pavlov’s laboratory, and the products it was able to generate, were clearly possible in no small part due to the many Russian doctors who wanted to obtain an easy PhD; the recognition of these social factors as important pieces in the puzzle of what influences scientific research is a clear indicator that Todes shared the beliefs of the Strong Program. This week, I have seen how the revolution in the history of science initiated by Thomas Kuhn has manifested itself in the works written by more recent historians.

Something interesting (and something I will probably bring up in class) that I noticed is that, when constructivist historians look at the different locales, instruments, and cultural influences involved in the production of scientific knowledge, their conversations typically concern how these factors have affected the way in which scientists communicate. Galison talks about how different machines changed the way that scientists talked to one another and other classes of individuals involved in the research process; Knowles and Leslie discuss how different layouts for corporate laboratories either promoted or stifled communication between scientists; Shapin is concerned in his article about how the concept of the unspoken gentlemen’s code promoted scientific exchange. It appears that what lies at the heart of all of these moving pieces involved in the experimental process is how effectively machines, social conventions, economic motivations, etc., promote or depress scientists’ ability to collaborate with one another. Could it be that this is what the constructivists are getting at?

[1] Owen Hannaway, “Laboratory Design and the Aim of Science: Andreas Libavius versus Tycho Brahe,” The History of Science Society 77, no. 4 (1986): 587.



Both Prefaces & Introduction to Making Natural Knowledge, Jan Golinski

            In her prefaces and introductory chapter, author Jan Golinski states her goals in writing Making Natural Knowledge and gives an outline of the development of the “constructivist” outlook and its implications for the practice of the history of science. She defines constructivism as an approach that emphasizes the importance of the role humans play in the creation and distribution of scientific knowledge, and she tells the story of how these views came to be important and influential in history through the works of Thomas Kuhn through Bruno Latour (including many members of the field of sociology). Constructivism has encouraged a departure from the traditional view of science as a goal-oriented progressive process, instead pointing the study of the history of science in directions that address the roles of language, motivation, instruments, networks, laboratories, and other social factors in the construction of scientific knowledge.


“Visualization and Cognition: Thinking with Eyes and Hands,” Bruno Latour

            Bruno Latour suggests a new method for investigating the history of science in his article on visualization and cognition. He posits that the increasing power of science is due not to the modern age’s development of “more rational” scientists, or even to the institutional and social influences emphasized by the sociologists of science, but to the tools, particularly inscribed or visual ones, at their disposal. Articulating knowledge in a way that conforms to what Latour terms “optical consistency” allows it to be mobile without risking alteration; anyone (or institution) can then superimpose or reanalyze the flattened data to form cascades of knowledge, each more influential than the last. In this way, theories garner empirical and human support and become increasingly difficult to contest and as a result become more powerful (in both predictability and practicality).


“De-Centring the ‘Big Picture’: “The Origins of Modern Science” and the Modern Origins of Science,” Andrew Cunningham and Perry Williams

            Authors Andrew Cunningham and Perry Williams make a convincing case for restructuring the “big picture” of the history of science in a very big way. They first argue that it is worth doing; grand narratives have pedagogic value that outweighs their problematic implications. The authors find certain aspects that constitute the traditional narrative of the history of science, namely the idea of the “scientific revolution,” out of date and misleading, part of a past narrative whose constructors’ motivations are no longer those of the field. Their proposed novel narrative would, instead of telling the story of the development of something in the present, inform students of the history of many things, placed in context. In order that future students of the history of science be made aware of the contingent place our culture holds in the grand scheme of things, the authors suggest three forms of a process they call “de-centring” – recognizing egocentrisms and biases and opening up minds to the reality that many things are peculiar to a nation, ethnicity, class, culture, etc.


“Continental Philosophy and the History of Science,” Garry Gutting

            Garry Gutting begins his outline of Continental developments in the history and philosophy of science by juxtaposing them against the Anglo-American positivist approach; that is, he claims, assuming that scientific knowledge is the only true source of knowledge. He outlines three fields’ contributions, beginning with those of the Phenomenologists and the Existentialists. They emphasize that science is derivative of the “life-world,” and assert that the tendency of scientists is to lost sight of this and view the knowledge they garner from their abstractions as absolute; this, they claim, leads to crises (moral and scientific) when scientific theories cease to explain the world. The second philosophical tradition outlined, the Marxists, identify themselves as directly opposed to positivists. They allege that the problem with the traditional construction of scientific theory is that it is objective, and instead propose critical theory, which gives human interests (rooted in what is essential for human survival, namely communication) the decisive role in what problems science will attempt to solve. Lastly, Gutting summarizes the French network of philosophers; they looked to history to discover the nature of reason, and their analyses lead to their acknowledgement of scientific progress but not continuity.


“Cosmologies Materialized: History of Science and History of Ideas,” John Tresch

            “Cosmologies Materialized” begins with a recapitulation of the historical relationship between the history of science and intellectual history. They shared similar ideas when the history of science concerned itself primarily with establishing the “big picture” narrative that categorized science as a single idea, but with the launch of the sociology of scientific knowledge, historians of science rejected the history of ideas as an impediment to analyses that were newly based on political, institutional, technological, and social factors, to name a few. Author John Tresch then gives an account of the state of the history of science today — quite fragmented and without a narrative at all — and suggests that it return to its earlier place in line with the history of ideas. He proposes that the history of science once again embrace the idea of a “cosmological” view of science as an idea, and he insists that this can be done while still thinking about all of the gaps and inconsistencies within the concept of “science.” Tresch believes that this reorientation of the field will enable it to answer modern pressing questions more ably.

The reading this week has primarily stimulated thought on grand narratives, their reason for being, and the changes that have rendered them scarce in recent scholarship. I understand on a deeper level now why McClellan and Dorn’s Science and Technology in World History, with all of its problems, is still in common use in introductory courses to the history of science; there simply are not many options available due to the destabilization of the field. The reaction, a reaction almost every reading attributes (at least as an instigator) to Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, to the grand narrative that was perpetuated for so long, was (and is) extremely severe. That being said, there are historians who are attempting to pick up the pieces and resume the field’s duty of establishing a general narrative — Bowler and Morus’s Making Modern Science, if it can be judged on its introduction, seems to be a good example of a valid attempt — and they are trying to be as inclusive as possible.

My biggest question after this week’s reading is this — what does deconstructing science to the point that it is unrecognizable do, realistically, to improve the methodology employed by historians of science? The reaction against the admittedly unjust portrayal of science as a linear progression has been extremely severe, but it has produced little in regards to constructing a narrative that represents science as it is — a framework for understanding the world that, like all others, is human, flawed, unobjective, and not deterministic. While historians and philosophers squabble over the minutia of what constitutes and creates “science” and “scientific knowledge,” the public is left with the goal-oriented “big picture” that everyone was so discontent and horrified with half a century ago.