Contributed Papers

Transmitting Knowledge

Presenter 1

Nuance Lost in Translation: Interpretations of J. F. Blumenbach's Anthropology in the English Speaking World.

John S. Michael

Independent Scholar


Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) has been called "The Father of Physical Anthropology" because of his pioneering publications relating to human polytypic variation (or "human biodiversity"), commonly known as "race." He proposed a racial typology consisting of five "major varieties/races" of humanity. Since the 1990s, Londa Schiebinger and other Anglophone scholars have argued that Blumenbach's writings on race show evidence that he was significantly influenced by nineteenth-century race supremacist beliefs which held Europeans/Caucasians to be the highest ranked and most beautiful race. However, these modern authors relied largely relied on poorly translated English renditions of Blumenbach's major Latin and German writings as published in 1865 by Thomas Bendyshe (1827-1886). I have documented that Bendyshe's 1865 publication includes numerous translation errors which form a pattern indicating that he employed two translators. The first translator was consistent with five earlier English translations. The second translator was not consistent with the earlier translators. This second translator also used English terms that denigrated extra-Europeans while adulating Europeans. Furthermore, Bendyshe's 1865 translation regularly used the term "beauty" to translate different Latin words that Blumenbach used to express his nuanced view of aesthetics and structural symmetry. In my paper, I trace how Blumenbach's once stellar reputation as a venerated scholar has become tarnished in the eyes of many modern authors. I also examine how these errors appear to have influenced modern Anglophone scholars into reaching conclusions about Blumenbach views on racial equality that warrant being revised or rejected, given the nature of Bendyshe's errors.


Presenter 2

Knowledge Transposition in the Construction of Narratives for Indian Megaliths in the Nineteenth Century

Charlotte Coull

The University of Manchester


This paper explores how the Indian megalith in the nineteenth century prompted a transcontinental movement of knowledge between Britain and India. It focuses on the small group of British scholars and colonial officials who attempted to rationalise and explain the presence of megalithic architecture in India, having previously encountered it in the British context. It examines how similarities in the form, structure and construction of megalithic sites in both countries prompted the transfer of theories surrounding their origin and purpose over geographical and cultural boundaries. Among the most striking of these theories was the idea that Druids migrated either out of or into India, their followers erecting megaliths in the process.
British megalithic remains gave individuals including Captain H. Congreve of the Madras Artillery and administrator Philip Meadows Taylor a context in which to view Indian sites; comparisons were made between measurements of capstones on dolmens, finds of human remains and between the cup and ring marks found in a subsection of locations. This not only provided an interpretative framework but meant that the articles produced on Indian megaliths were published in British journals, including the 'Journal of the Ethnological Society of London'. The Indian megalith, as something familiar in a foreign land, without inscriptions or a textual context to guide interpretation, was in effect a blank canvas on which were projected contemporary notions of prehistory even if those notions came from thousands of miles away.


Presenter 3

The Production of Knowledge: A Path Not Taken

Ohad Reiss Sorokin

Princeton University


In 1980, Fritz Machlup, a (Viennese-born) Princeton economist, published the first volume of his encyclopedic study, "Knowledge: Its Creation, Distribution, and Economics Significance". This book (1 volume out of 10 planned) summarized a life-time project of describing the mechanisms of knowledge production. This work, seen from the perspective of a historian of science, looks surprisingly similar to the "Practice Turn" in STS and HOS, that took its first steps at the same time period. Both lines of research ask similar questions about the details of the processes of production and propose to look on scientific knowledge as an imminent part of larger economic, cultural, and social processes. How come well-established economists, such as Machlup, and a group of subversive historians and social scientists stumbled upon a similar set of questions around the same time? In a first glance, it can seem like a coincidence. But by tracing down the genealogies of both Machlup's project and STS/HOS we can find points of conjunction. In my paper, I combine archival and published sources to show that back in Vienna, Machlup was a member of an interdisciplinary intellectual circle (the "Geistkreis") together with thinkers such as: Hayek, Schütz, and Morgenstern. This group was contemporaneous to the Vienna Circle (as well as Zilsel and Mannheim). Both groups studied "scientific knowledge" as a historical, sociological, and philosophical object. The Geistkreis, however, was anti positivist and opposed the Vienna Circle ideas, particularly the notion of the "unity of science". After the emigration to the USA, the Vienna Circle ideas took purchase in HPS. At the same time, the Geistkreis' approach, was kept alive in Economics departments. In my paper, I describe Machlup's project, and trace it back to its Viennese days. I argue that the interwar anxiety about the nature of knowledge fueled both projects, which followed similar paths in Postwar USA until the 1980s collision.


Presenter 4

Visualizing Scientific Equity: Oral History Interviews with African Scientists on Video

Abena Dove Osseo-Asare

University of Texas Austin


Who is a scientist? In this public-facing research, I am collecting interviews with African scientific leaders to understand their life choices and career contributions. Interviews so far conducted include physicists and biologists in Ghana, South Africa, and Madagascar. The goal of this project is to engage students at US universities and students in African universities in documenting the life stories of scientists to broaden global perceptions of scientific enterprise. The project builds on my concern with a concept I have termed "scientific equity" - the urge for all countries to have a stake in scientific research. In my presentation, I will show clips of interviews with African scientists including those interviewed for my recent book, Atomic Junction: Nuclear Power in Africa after Independence (Cambridge 2019), discuss human subjects approvals, video clearances, editing strategies, and student participation as well as future plans. I also explore theoretical concerns like ethics and collaboration in the documentation of ongoing scientific investigations. My interest is in eventually visually documenting the life and research experiences of not only African scientists but also minority and female scientists in the United States. The project also explores the life history of scientists who may no longer be alive. My hope is to get early feedback from the history of science and history of technology community on a key tool for implementing broader understandings of scientific life. In a larger initiative, I am building content for teachers to use in instruction, taking cues from the new journal JoVE which uses science visualization for both peer-reviewed video articles and science educational content on laboratory procedures for universities. The project explores ways for academics to both make their research data more widely accessible to fellow investigators, and also to code their materials in ways that are useable for the general public.