JAS-Bio 2021

Upcoming Meetings

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There are no currently scheduled upcoming events.

Past Meetings

  • April 10, 2021

    Brigid Prial, History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania
    An Ape Psychologist? Sarah the Chimpanzee and ‘Theory of Mind’ Experiments

    In 1978, cognitive psychologists tested a chimpanzee’s ability to understand what others were thinking. While critics have disparaged this work as “mind reading,” Premack and Woodruff called their findings “theory of mind” or the ability to attribute mental states different than one’s own to others. “Theory of mind” came from laboratory experiments with Sarah the chimpanzee that constructed a set of mental qualities and personal preferences seen scientifically relevant to testing Sarah’s mind and excluded other aspects of Sarah’s subjectivity from experimental importance. Experimenters sought to build problems sets for Sarah to solve that she would not have encountered before, but they presented her with a matching problem in which a key was the solution to the “problem” of a human in a cage. Sarah, an African-born chimpanzee, was deeply familiar with cages and had attempted escape many times. Here we see a paradox in the intersecting histories of comparative psychology and primatology. Sarah’s mind was considered an important object of study because of its proximity to the human mind, however, her mind was simultaneously treated as a tabula rasa unaffected by her life history of capture and captivity. This case shows the complicated cycle of psychological insights made from captive animals that at once illuminate non-human complexity and reproach the methods that allow these insights to be made.

  • April 10, 2021

    David J. Robertson, History of Science, Princeton University davidjr@princeton.edu
    ‘Thinking in Herds: Veterinarians, Epidemiologists, and the Question of Immune Populations’

    Over the last twelve months, no scientific term has been more debated than that of ‘herd immunity.’ Overlooked throughout the course of debate, however, has been a tension at the heart of the term: how can immunity, a scientific concept developed to explain the biological defenses of the individual, be used to understand disease dynamics in populations? How can collectives be conceived as ‘immune’? This presentation examines the history of the concept as an ongoing scientific effort to resolve this conundrum. First mentioned in an American veterinary journal in the late nineteenth century, the concept became a staple of research on human infectious diseases in Britain three decades later. Veterinarians, bacteriologists, epidemiologists, and other scientists drew on the concept to escape the myopic focus of laboratory immunology on individual defenses and to articulate population-level protections against disease. Resolving the tension of immunity in a population sometimes meant expanding the parameters of immunity, speaking of ‘resistance’ or ‘vitality.’ Other times it led to a deeper analysis of collectivity, accounting for differences in population density or degrees of social interaction. It always involved a recognition of the environmental determinants of disease outbreaks. Telling the long history of herd immunity, this presentation suggests that contemporary discussions have sometimes unwittingly taken place with very different formulations of ‘immunity’ and ‘population’ in mind.

  • April 10, 2021

    Gina Surita History of Science, Princeton University. gsurita@princeton.edu
    From Cancer to Carbohydrates: Metabolic Cycles, Collaboration, and Experimentation in 1920s Biochemical Physiology
    This paper analyzes the research program of Prague-born, Nobel Prize-winning, husband and-wife biochemist team Dr. Carl Cori and Dr. Gerty Cori during their tenure at the State Institute for the Study of Malignant Disease (now Roswell Park) in Buffalo, New York. After leaving post-World War I Europe for Buffalo in 1922, the Coris not only found themselves working in a new country, but also in a new kind of institution, one that prided itself on being the first laboratory dedicated exclusively to cancer studies. By analyzing the Coris’ marital scientific collaboration in the making, this paper argues that it was by navigating their way through the Buffalo institute’s expectations for cancer research that the Coris solidified their research partnership and were led to the field of investigation for which they would become best known: carbohydrate metabolism. Despite encountering resistance to their collaboration and gender discrimination, the Coris published dozens of co-authored papers during their time in Buffalo, which culminated in their 1929 elucidation of the “Cori Cycle,” one of the earliest metabolic cycles to be explained. An analysis of the Coris’ work sheds light on issues of gender, scientific collaboration, and the laboratory-clinic relationship in 1920s American biomedical science.

  • April 10, 2021

    Caitlin Kossmann, History of Science and Medicine, Yale University caitlin.kossmann@yale.edu
    Poiesis and Poetics: Self-Fashioning in Gaia and the Anthropocene
    This paper explores the various ways in which self-fashioning, both literal and metaphorical, have been integral to the perpetuation of “Gaia” as an object, a metaphor, and a scientific program across multiple groups. James Lovelock, the primary inventor of the Gaia hypothesis, was in many ways an autodidact. Refusing the path of a traditional academic, he worked primarily out of his high-tech garage, funding himself through industrial contracts. His persona as a solitary “maverick” finds various parallels in narratives of self-creation that crop up around his Gaia theory. These include the dreams of a more personal science of the New Agers in the 1970s, the projects of the impressively self-taught members of John Allen’s Synergia Ranch who formed the core of the Biosphere 2 project, Lynn Margulis’s formulation of an autopoietic Gaia, and narratives of anthropogenic climate change in “the Anthropocene.” Uniting these various people and projects is the concept of poiesis—of making, to various degrees autonomously or relationally, and of change, whether for good or ill. Both the purchase of and the controversy over the Gaia hypothesis can be partly understood, I argue, through the lens of poiesis and its closely related term poetics. Gaia’s poetics has been both its bane and its benefit, providing with many avenues for connection and regeneration, as well as leaving it open to dismissal as “just” a metaphor. This paper will illuminate the poiesis and poetics structuring Gaian thought, and indicate how these concepts are integral to understanding patterns of contemporary climate change and Anthropocene discourses.

  • April 10, 2021

    Ryan Hearty, History of Science and Technology, Johns Hopkins University.  rhearty1@jhu.edu
    Visualizing pollution: Graphic representations of how pollution affects biological diversity, 1945-1960

    This paper explores how American biologists visually represented the effects of pollution on aquatic life from 1945 to 1960. While biologists had studied pollution before, the 1950s saw an increased need to communicate biological data, such as the number and names of species collected on water quality surveys, to other scientists and engineers, managers of public health agencies, polluting industries, and the public. Biologists experimented with different graphical methods by drawing upon their institutional resources. Ruth Patrick, an ecologist at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, devised a distinctive method of graphical representation to illustrate stream health in the late 1940s and 1950s. Her approach gained attention, but also drew criticism. By comparative analysis of her graphical approach and other pictorial methods, I argue that different ways of representing biological data reveal disagreements over how best to define, measure, and address river pollution at a time when regulation seemed increasingly necessary and forthcoming.

  • April 10, 2021

    Oliver Lucier. History of Science and Medicine, Yale University.  oliver.lucier@yale.edu
    The Construction of a Normative Climate: Caribbean Commodities and Holdridge Life Zones 1940-1970

    This paper deconstructs an understudied, though increasingly influential, episode in the history of climate science—the development of climate-ecosystem models. It focuses on the creation of Holdridge Life Zones, a pioneering climate-ecosystem model, during and after World War II and imbricates this narrative into the cultural and material forces of bioprospecting, tropical field science, and American neocolonialism. Leslie Holdridge, an American forester, developed his life zone system while leading extractive American WWII scientific missions to procure Caribbean commodities. By deconstructing Holdridge’s work, this paper makes two interventions. Firstly, Holdridge’s thought reveals the conflicting, yet paradoxically reinforcing, tensions of scale at the heart of climate science. Holdridge toggled between validating Life Zones through subjective field-based regional observations in the Greater Caribbean and the “objective” globality of quantifiable climatic parameters. Secondly, for Holdridge, each Life Zone corresponded to a normal suite of vegetation associations, and thus Holdridge, like other (neo)colonial scientists, used his classification to proscribe reshaping plantation systems, thereby enrolling climate as a normative force. Subsequent ecologists, especially in Latin America, spread Holdridge’s system—but disregarded the normative component of his model—to make authoritative, though seemingly objective, knowledge claims about the effects of climate change on particular ecosystems.

  • April 10, 2021

    Jonathan Galka, History of Science, Harvard University jgalka@g.harvard.edu
    Mussels, Modernity, and the Mobilization of Invertebrate Sensation

    Biological early warning systems (BEWS) utilizing mollusks were designed and piloted in potable water and riverine systems in the Netherlands and Germany in the 1970s and 1980s, in a moment when concern was mounting around the potential of contaminated freshwater to affect human bodies, and around our ability to reliably detect aquatic toxicity. In querying how mollusks came to be seen as reliable systems designed to safeguard our drinking water, among other waters, this paper historicizes the late-20th century development of bivalve mollusk BEWS. It argues that the concepts and tools required to enroll invertebrates as highly sensitive sentinel organisms for valuable freshwaters, and thereby link mussels with humans, emerged in German lands in the second half of the 19th century through novel approaches to the study of living communities, microbial organisms, and freshwaters that advanced an ecology situating humans firmly within nature. These approaches cohered out of marine ecology, environmental public health and later, neurobiology, in response to the environmental and social exigencies of living through modernity. Bivalve BEWS and their attendant logics expand the history of freshwater ecology and also speak to collective visions of a livable future.

  • April 10, 2021

    Itamar Avneri, History of Science Department, Harvard University; and Graduate Program in Science, Technology & Society, Bar-Ilan University, Israel. itamar_avneri@fas.harvard.edu
    Reinventing Nature or Preserving It? Or Maybe Both?  Uncovering the Roots of De-Extinction in Conservation Biology

    Almost every historical account of de-extinction—the science of producing proxies of an extinct species or subspecies—associates it with biotechnology and synthetic biology. These accounts are not wrong, but they are partial. They miss the fact that de-extinction also grew out of conservation biology. De-extinction began to develop at the end of the 20th century when scientists proposed using new DNA technologies to bring back extinct species. At the same time, conservationists started to talk about ‘rewilding’ and the notion that via the restoration of ecological functions and evolutionary potential of declining or lost megafauna, it is possible to restore past ecosystems. In the following years, rewilding advocates profoundly influenced de-extinction. Gradually, rewilding ideas shaped the criteria for choosing candidate species for de-extinction, and their ecological logic ultimately became its raison d’etre.  In my presentation, I argue that this merger of ideas was made possible because—contrary to common perception—biotechnologists and synthetic biologists, on the one hand, and conservation biologists, on the other hand, shared similar perceptions of nature. From the history of de-extinction, I then suggest, we learn that productive work can be done that reflects both engineering and conservationist ideals and traditions.

  • April 9, 2021

    Social Hour

  • April 9, 2021

    Auguste Nahas, Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, University of Toronto auguste.nahas@mail.utoronto.ca
    Cui Bono? The Continental Critique of Teleonomy and its Relevance Today
    Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in the idea of biological purposiveness or natural teleology, along with a flurry of debate regarding the exact meaning of these terms. The aim of this paper is to bring some clarity to these debates by retracing them to the conceptual bifurcation which ‘teleology’ underwent during the middle of the 20th century. The origin of this split could be traced back to Rosenblueth et al.’s landmark 1943 paper, Behavior, Purpose, and Teleology , which proposed an apparently new, scientifically legitimate, ‘non-Aristotelian’ conception of teleology. This new conception of teleology was popularized by Colin Pittendrigh, who first named it ‘teleonomy’, and Ernst Mayr who connected it to the idea of the genetic ‘program’. Though little discussed, this attempt to naturalize teleology was quickly critiqued by continental philosophers such as Georges Canguilhem, Raymond Ruyer and especially Hans Jonas, who unanimously saw teleonomy as a way of eliminating teleology rather than naturalizing it. It is my contention that 1) this historical episode needs to be reconstructed in a way which emphasizes the importance of teleology as an topic of inter-disciplinary and inter-continental debate and 2) that a better understanding of this period can help us make headway in contemporary debates on the role of purposiveness as a biological concept. For what the continental critique of teleonomy reveals is a disagreement over the kind of problem which naturalization of teleology is, and the way one ought to go about it. These very same disagreements, which often remain implicit, continue to influence contemporary debates.

Group Conveners

  • Richard Shrake


60 Members