Thursday, April 21, 2011

JAS-BIO, Evolving

A few weeks ago, Henry, Lukas, and I all traveled to New Haven for the 46th meeting of the Joint Atlantic Seminar for the History of Biology. Many of today’s leading scholars in the field gave their first papers at the conference and it continues to be a welcoming forum for junior scholars to share works-in-progress.

It has become a tradition to include a citation on the back of the program to a short essay on the history of the meeting by Mary P. Winsor, published in Isis in 1999. In that piece Winsor points out that the spirit upon which the conference was founded and perpetuated in the early years was not, in fact, professionalization. It was to provide a “stimulating day of friendly intellectual exchange.” What makes the JAS-BIO an important gathering is that it serves as a space where people from many generations can think together about why and how we do what we do. In my own experience, it has been a particularly important opportunity for me to learn from my peers.

The event began Friday night with a talk by medical anthropologist Marcia Inhorn, who spoke about her research on assisted reproductive technologies in Muslim countries. Her ethnographic research, and the lively discussion that followed her presentation, appropriately foreshadowed a conference in which it became impossible to ignore the evolution of history of biology. By this I mean that the participants at this year’s meetings unabashedly pushed the conceptual and methodological boundaries of the field, seeking to engage with history of technology, industrialization, philosophy, etc.

On Saturday, three quick sessions took us from 19th century collecting to Cold War psychological research, to philosophical, religious, and social legacies of Darwinism.

Lukas Rieppel and Courtney Thompson each articulated novel commercial aspects of 19th century natural historical collections. Rieppel presented work from his dissertation, which (forgive me if I’m overstating the case) situates museum-based vertebrate paleontology as a site for reinterpreting broader processes of industrialization. By focusing on the assembly of museum collections he encouraged us to consider the interrelationship of railroads, robber barons, and philanthropy as fundamental to American cultures of capitalism. At a different register, Thompson’s paper oriented us towards the home, where children were instructed, through books on natural history, to establish their own collections. Many of us who do history of biology index early such experiences as influential (for me, it was visiting the American Museum of Natural History). Thompson’s research also raised questions about the material legacies of the books themselves – they have become collectors’ items in their own right.

Nellwyn Thomas and Brian Casey explored the ways in which psychological research during mid-20th century reflected shifting notions of human potential and pathology. Thomas took us to the ocean floor in her account of the interplay between marine biological and psychological research at the underwater Tektite experiment station. Beyond giving us insight into practices of standardization that enabled the rich, otherworldy experiences of aquanauts (those marine biologists who lived in the aquatic environment for weeks on end) to be rendered statistically, Thomas’ paper tracked the mutating status of the human at mid-century. Casey, in his account of psycho-surgical research during the Cold War also pointed to the question of what it means to be human. Casey's project, part of a collaborative endeavor, emphasized the role of technology in psychological research. The history of 20th century biology has much to gain from a deeper engagement with technology. We have only just begun to pay attention to the consequences of technological intervention at the register of the biological.

As a panel, David Crawford, Stephen Dilley, and Myrna Perez offered us a kaleidoscopic portrait of the legacy of evolutionary thought. Their respective talks considered the material cultures of scientific publication as well as issues of theology and contemporary public intellectuals. Crawford, a philosopher, demonstrated the productive intersections of the history of ideas with attention to practice and material culture. His talk focused on the discrepancies between Lamarck’s printed work and his intellectual intentions. Dilley, also a philosopher, trained his attention on the religious content of Darwin’s work. By putting theological concerns on a par with ‘scientific’ content, Dilley’s paper was an implicit (and perhaps ironic?) reminder of the merits of a symmetrical SSK-style approach. Working in the 20th century, Perez described her efforts to view debates about evolution through the life and career of Stephen Jay Gould. This is a bold effort to consider the role of evolutionary biologist as public intellectual during a tumultuous period in American history. Commentator Janet Browne rightly commented of the three papers in the last session that the study of Darwin and his influence continue to generate explanations of how we order our world.

The day ended with a rather sobering conversation about the state of the field and prospects for jobs (see here). Much ink has been and will continue to be spilled over these problems. However, for today, I want to conclude this particular post with an unambiguously positive sentiment. JAS-BIO has always been a place to enact the life of the mind and I left this year’s meeting in awe of how much we – as junior scholars – have to learn from each other. Thank you…

2 comments:

  1. These are fascinating projects, all. Thanks to Joanna for letting the rest of us in on the meeting, and thanks especially for the little sum-ups.

    Regarding the first papers, I don't have a great museum experience to point to in my early life. But in high school, two institutions turned me on to the field sciences. First, I became the "wildlife expert" for my Boy Scout patrol---I boned up on skulls, tracks, and scats. Then I joined my school's "Envirothon" team and spent four years studying more wildlife, along with a smattering of soils, forestry, aquatics, and special environmental issues.

    Thinking about the second set of papers, I'm intrigued by your implicit historiographical call for work on the "consequences of technological intervention at the register of the biological." I'm trying to wrap my head around that. Can you offer another example of some work that does this well?

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  2. Hi Dan, with that phrase I was referencing Hannah Landecker's _Culturing Life: How Cells Became Technology_. In the book, she makes a compelling case for thinking about biology as technology. She describes her approach as 'very specific work on the general.' By this she means looking at how attention to particular practices (like tissue culture) can newly illuminate major concepts like autonomy and immortality. Now, I recognize that this isn't necessarily the focus of Casey's collaborative project, but I have given a lot of thought lately to the exciting possibilities of a more explicit focus of the manifold ways in which technology figures in biological/biomedical knowledge production (beyond hist of molecular biology -- probably the only other sub-field to take it seriously). Casey was very general about what he meant by a focus on 'technology', so I also look forward to seeing how that project actually takes shape. Thanks for this question -- I think I see an entire blog post on it in our future . . .

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