Contributed Papers

Concepts in 20th-Century Biology

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Presenter 1

What's New in the New Systematics? Subspecies Concepts and the Modern Synthesis

Beckett Sterner

Arizona State University

Elliott D. Millinor

Arizona State University

Abstract

Julian Huxley's introduction to The New Systematics, the 1940 volume of papers he edited, announces a major shift in taxonomic practice to integrate it with evolutionary theory and the rest of biology. Historians have noted, though, that the rest of the volume seems largely disconnected from his vision. One explanation, supported by Ernst Mayr and his disciplines, is that taxonomists outside Europe were engaged in purely descriptive projects with little influence from developments in evolutionary thinking. A major impact of the Modern Synthesis, then, was to provide systematists with a qualitatively new conceptual framework for their research and its broader scientific significance. In this paper, we trace the development of subspecies concepts between roughly 1850 to 1950 to show far greater theoretical and methodological continuity between the central texts of the Modern Synthesis and earlier research practices in the US and Britain. We focus in particular on how biologists sought to regulate the use of Linnaean trinomials in light of evolutionary principles and incorporate early insights on local adaptation from ecology. Although Mayr's work certainly created a historical bottleneck in how biologists understood their field, it does not represent a new starting point for how they studied and classified biological variation below the species rank.

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Presenter 2

The Organicist Roots of the Levels Concept, 1910-1937

Daniel S. Brooks

University of Cincinnati

Abstract

The organicist movement produced prescient ideas about the status of biology and the nature of biological phenomena as objects of scientific investigation. Yet one of its most enduring legacies, development and advocacy of the concept of 'levels of organization' as a central notion in biological science, has received little acknowledgment among its other achievements. This paper will excavate the roots of this concept in contemporary biology, tracing its beginnings to organicist efforts to articulate core tenets of their program such as the autonomy of biology from the physical sciences and, crucially, the role of organization as a central explanandum for biological practice. I will argue that in addition to functioning as a linchpin for the organicists' program, advocates such as Joseph Needham imbued 'levels' with a programmatic character that allowed the concept to infiltrate into biological thought as a means of articulating biological problems as 'biological.'

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Presenter 3

Henri Bergson's Creative Evolution and 20th-Century British Biology

Emily Herring

University of Ghent

Abstract

In 1907, French philosopher Henri Bergson published his fourth book, a metaphysical interpretation of biological evolution, Creative Evolution. The book propelled him to international fame, and he counted many biologists among his thousands of readers. However, historians of biology have generally minimised or ignored the different ways in which biologists read Bergson. Drawing on archival as well as printed sources, this talk will follow the reception and various appropriations of Bergson's philosophy of life among several 20th-century British biologists such as geneticist Arthur Darbishire, zoologist and theoretical biologist Edward Stuart Russell, Neo-Darwinian Julian Huxley, and ethologist Conwy Lloyd Morgan.
In doing so, two new points are made. First, the reason Bergson mattered to many biologists was above all because he sought to combine science and metaphysics in a grand synthesis. The biologists who read Bergson favourably believed that the questions raised by their biological research exceeded the boundaries of science. To be a Bergsonian biologist meant to be a synthesiser of knowledge, drawing upon ideas and methods external to biology. Second, the case of Bergson's reception among biologists reveals a little-studied aspect of early 20th-century biology: biologists' enthusiasm for Bergsonian metaphysics, and their calls for a closer cooperation between science and philosophy should encourage us to rethink the traditional representation of the 20th century as the era of irresistible scientific and institutional specialisation.

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Presenter 4

Biology Is Not This Way: Opening New Life Science Knowledge via the Building of Closed Environments for the Space Age

David PD Munns

City University of New York

Abstract

Biologists and their knowledge have always been in high demand at NASA from the very beginning, not least because the problems of creating a life support system for long-term space habitability remained elusive. NASA and its military industrial contractors knew that in addition to microbes, far more research was also needed on higher organismic levels encompassing nearly every feature of life, including growth, aging, longevity, embryology, genetics, physiology, and behavior. In this talk, I argue that biology not only shaped the parameters of future missions at NASA, but that mission priorities also shaped what "biology" meant within NASA. The markedly different intellectual and scientific traditions of engineering and biological disciplines became especially apparent once they were forced into joint projects, such as the creation of artificial environments. I will look at the early work in NASA, contrast it to parallel claims made by Bocking in the case of the ecologists working for the AEC, but also mention the similar (but more extensive) Soviet project to create a closed environment as also revealing as well as the Biosphere 2 project.

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