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

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FRIDAY, JULY 10  /  09:00 - 10:30  /  DS-R510
Organized session / diverse format
Situating Organisms: Perspectives on 20th Century Biology

Sabina Leonelli (University of Exeter, United Kingdom); Rachel Ankeny (University of Adelaide, Australia)


Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther (University of California, Santa Cruz, United States)
Edmund Ramsden (Queen Mary University of London, United Kingdom)
Robert Kirk (University of Manchester, United Kingdom)
Nathan Crowe (University of North Carolina at Wilmington, United States)
Sabina Leonelli (University of Exeter, United Kingdom)
Rachel Ankeny (University of Adelaide, Australia)

The organisms that biologists study can be situated in at least three distinct ways: (1) concretely, either as living beings that need to survive and develop in laboratory environments or as unpredictable objects of study that need to be tracked in the field as they interact and change; (2) conceptually, as complex entities that need to be modeled and idealized in order to investigate specific questions; and (3) institutionally within the complex infrastructures (whether in the lab or in the field) in which they are used, which include material resources, labor and support which in turn shape the direction and outcomes of the research. This session brings together four papers that analyze these situated aspects of organismal research from philosophical, historical and sociological perspectives, both in terms of specific case studies and in terms of macroscopic trends in 20th century research.

Life on a behavior farm: Howard S. Liddell and the study of experimental neurosis
Edmund Ramsden and Rob Kirk
Inspired by the work of Ivan Pavlov, and seeking a scientific approach to human psychopathology, from the 1920s, American psychiatrists, physiologists and psychologists turned to the animal laboratory. The field of “experimental neurosis” united a diverse array of actors, methods and ideas. This paper will focus on one of the most important and successful of its interdisciplinary research centers, the Cornell Behavior Farm Laboratory, directed by the psychobiologist Howard Liddell from 1923 to 1962. By focusing on the development of the farm through time, we shall examine how a research community evolved and continuously redefined itself, combining an array of psychoanalytic, Pavlovian and ethological theories and methods. Critical was the role of the animal, the farm employing pigs, goats, sheep and dogs. Not only did the choice of animal reflect specific research purposes, but their idiosyncrasies as individuals, their relationship to specific physical environments, and even their personal and emotional relations with each other and those who worked with them, became the subject of analysis. Through this intense focus on the life histories of the animals and the environments in which they lived, the Behavior Farm was able to procure relevance to clinical methods of diagnosis and treatment while producing more generalizable psychophysiological knowledge.

The pragmatic cartography of population biology: Army ants, flour beetles, and the lab-field border
Rasmus G. Winther
Maps and cartographic reasoning play important roles in biological practice (e.g., Hall 1992; Gannett and Griesemer 2004; Turnbull 1993, 2004; Winther under contract). While significant attention has been paid to mapping in population genetics and genomics (e.g., Haraway 1997; Gaudillère and Rheinberger 2004, 2011), the importance of mapping to population biology in general has been underappreciated. I track mapping practices—actual and analogical—in two influential moments of ecology and animal behavior. (1) T.C. Schneirla’s laboratory (American Museum of Natural History, NYC) and field work (Barro Colorado Island, Panama) on army ants (genus Eciton) from the 1930s to the 1960s. Maps played a critical role in Schneirla’s theorizing, laboratory, and field practices. In his published work, they were often combined with other visual and pictorial representations/performances to produce integrated knowledge (e.g., Figure 1 from Schneirla 1957 Theoretical Consideration of Cyclic Processes in Doryline Ants). (2) Thomas Park’s contemporaneous work at the University of Chicago on the “population physiology” of flour beetles (genus Tribolium). Park used maps to a lesser extent. Yet, representing and analyzing the structured spatialization of his laboratory populations involved implicit mapping practices. Map tracking is useful in that “maps can provide valuable markers of changing theoretical interests, goals, commitments, and values” (Gannett and Griesemer 2004, 84); maps are also a central metaphor for the pragmatic production of scientific knowledge (e.g., Peter Galison; Ronald Giere; Thomas Gieryn; Thomas Kuhn; Bruno Latour; Helen Longino; Stephen Toulmin). I nestle my concrete map tracking analysis in the broader philosophical contexts of (i) the activities and nature of the lab-field border (Kohler 2002), (ii) the trichotomy of theoretical, laboratory, and natural populations (Winther, Giordano, Edge, and Nielsen forthcoming), and (iii) the sustained impact of pragmatic map analogy discourse across the sciences and humanities (Winther under contract).

Patterns of development: Trends in model organism use by embryologists (1949-1963)
Nathan Crowe
Over the past 30 years, historians, philosophers, and sociologists of biology have articulated how particular laboratories, problems, and communities have been important to the creation and adoption of prominent experimental organisms. Using case studies, scholars have been particularly good at identifying how relationships between advisors, students, and visiting researchers can create lasting traditions of experimental organism use. This paper describes a project which focuses on analyzing a large and international data set (containing several thousand data points) of developmental biologists in the 1950s and 1960s using the General Embryological Information Service, a periodical that tracked biologists, their fields of research, and the organisms they used, for several decades. Using this data set, the paper explores whether there were larger trends of organism use that can seen beyond the intellectual genealogies that are often used to track experimental organisms adoption. These trends may include larger patterns beyond the scale of laboratories to include institutions, regions, or nations as well as how closely organism use is related to research areas such as descriptive, comparative, and experimental embryology.

How simple organisms grew into model organism communities: The role of repertoires
Rachel A. Ankeny and Sabina Leonelli
How effectively communities of scientists come together and co-operate is crucial both to the quality of research outputs and to the extent to which such outputs integrate insights, data and methods from a variety of fields, laboratories and locations around the globe. This paper focuses on the ensemble of material and social conditions within which organismal research is situated that makes it possible for a short-term collaboration, set up to accomplish a specific task, to give rise to relatively stable communities of researchers. We refer to these distinctive features as repertoires, and investigate their development and implementation in a key case study in contemporary biological sciences, namely how research on individual organisms evolved into model organism communities. We conclude that whether a particular project ends up fostering the emergence of a resilient research community is partly determined by the degree of attention and care devoted by researchers to material and social elements beyond the specific research questions under consideration.