International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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TUESDAY, JULY 7  /  11:00 - 12:30  /  DS-R340
Organized session / standard talks
Slippery creatures: Zoophytes, animalcules, and spermatozoa in the 19th century

Lynn Nyhart (University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States)

This session focuses on scientific and literary efforts to make sense of microscopic and other “lower” forms of life in nineteenth-century Europe and Britain, focusing on the use of analogy and metaphor to bring nature’s menagerie of small, slippery creatures under linguistic and scientific control. Scott Lidgard examines scientists’ changing classifications of the “zoophytes” (literally, animal-plants)--a residual category into which a grab-bag of apparently intermediate forms were bundled, sorted and re-sorted according to diverse criteria, which remained contested. Danielle Coriale analyzes the rhetorical strategies that English and American scientists used in the 1830s and 1840s to argue that certain “animalcules” were disease agents, an idea that met with resistance and ridicule until Robert Koch legitimated it with his germ theory later in the century. Lynn Nyhart analyzes the changing analogues of spermatozoa (“sperm-animals”) offered by scientists over the course of the 1830s-50s, as they sought to create general laws of generation that might cover both animals and plants. Collectively, our papers—by a biologist, a literary scholar, and a historian, respectively—demonstrate the varied but essential function of figurative language in efforts to render tiny, unfamiliar creatures comprehensible, yet also how slippery and ambiguous were the results of these efforts. At the same time, we highlight how important these tiny creatures were to the life sciences and their surrounding culture in the nineteenth century.

Zoophytes, analogies, and classifications: A long journey through the order of nature

Scott Lidgard (Field Museum, United States)

Zoophytes, or animal-plants, raised profound questions for natural historians about how different kinds of beings should be organized into a natural system of classification. These questions extended well beyond the well-known 18th century revelations of Trembley's freshwater polyp, the preformation-epigenesis debate, and the chain of being. Continuing through much of the 19th century, the taxonomic diversity of zoophytes increased and ebbed repeatedly with new discoveries and subsequent removals from this group as different taxonomic classifications representing the order of nature grew and splintered. Until the mid-19th century, classifications looked downward from more to less complex organisms; from this perspective, the heap of miscellaneous creatures comprising the zoophytes — bacteria, protists, "polypi" and various other invertebrates, algae, lichens, and fungi — were chimera-like beings, ascribed properties linking plant and animal kingdoms. Analogy was used as both heuristic, in determining the nature of newly discovered zoophytes, and justification, in establishing criteria for erecting taxonomic boundaries at different levels of classification. I trace the journeys of different zoophytes through various classifications and their respective criteria. Even as the zoophyte concept waned, its members having been parsed into various other taxa, boundaries remained fuzzy. Strikingly, the positions of many former zoophytes in classifications remained contextual; no clear consensus was reached about which criteria were more important at which level. Analogies did not disappear entirely, at least not when justifying one's preferred order of nature.

"An animalcule in my blood": The rhetoric of early germ theory

Danielle Coriale (University of South Carolina, United States)

When Antonie van Leeuwenhoek looked at his own saliva under the microscope in 1683, he described the microbes he saw as “living animalcules, very prettily a-moving.” For the next two hundred years, European scientists would continue to use the word “animalcule” to describe all kinds of motile, microscopic organisms, grouping bacteria together with zoophytes, protozoans, and other tiny creatures. This grouping set the stage for heated disagreements about one question that would percolate over the next 200 years: could animalcules be pathogens, agents of disease? This essay studies the rhetoric that scientific writers used in England and the United States to persuade others of the legitimacy of the “animalcular theory of disease” during the 1830s and 1840s, well before Robert Koch’s provision of definitive scientific proof of germ theory. I argue that while English writers including Henry Holland and Gideon Mantell made measured arguments for the theory’s legitimacy, writers in the United States resorted to more dramatic rhetorical strategies, referring to animalcules a ‘rioters’ or ‘invaders’ overwhelming the human body. In so doing, these writers used the racial and political fears of the public to describe early germ theory. I will use moments of rhetorical excess to consider how risky rhetorical tropes can be in writing about disease, especially when the old idea of contagium animatum was gaining traction as Henle, Klencke, Virchow, and others made vigorous cases for it in Europe from the 1840s to the 1870s.

Spermatic fluidity: The analogical method in the study of generation (1830-1850)

Lynn Nyhart (University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States)

What are sperm like? To what might they legitimately be compared—parasites? cells? pollen grains? seeds? From the 1830s to the 1850s, animal and plant physiologists pondered this question of analogy, even as they sought to flesh out empirically their commitment to understanding generation as a fundamental law of life. If the process of generation unified living nature, then how was that unity constituted, and what aspects of generation could vary? Rudolf Wagner, Carl Theodor Ernst von Siebold, Albert von Koelliker, and Rudolf Leuckart came to form a powerful united front on this matter, collectively setting aside certain characteristics of spermatozoa (e.g., the motility that seemed to characterize them as animals) as less important while assigning other features—their cellular origin—as defining. This, I suggest, then conditioned how they viewed plant reproduction and the search for a yet broader analogical law that would cover both plant and animal generation. The story of the shifting nature assigned to spermatozoa thus illustrates how scientists came to consensus over two questions simultaneously: (1) to what objects a particular (often newly discovered) structure or function should be analogized, and (2) how to use analogy as a legitimate scientific method.