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

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WEDNESDAY, JULY 8  /  15:30 - 17:00  /  DS-M440
Individual papers
Making Biology Public and Making Public Biology

Speaking on "large subjects": Philosophy, democracy, and the American biologist as public intellectual in the early 20th century

Judy Johns Schloegel (Independent Scholar, United States)

This paper examines the historical circumstances contributing to the emergence of American biologists William Emerson Ritter (1856-1944) and Herbert Spencer Jennings (1868-1947) as public intellectuals in the early decades of the twentieth century. While Ritter’s career at the University of California was significantly shaped by his close relationship with the wealthy newspaper publisher, E. W. Scripps, and his sister, Ellen Browning Scripps, Jennings’ east-coast laboratory career was largely informed by more conventional academic contacts, including early philosophical study with John Dewey and considerable subsequent contact with pragmatists and pragmatism. Receiving their PhDs under E. L. Mark at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology in 1893 and 1896, respectively, Ritter and Jennings were associated by an extensive network of Mark’s students who collectively had far-reaching impact on the development of biological research in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Like many in Mark’s network, Jennings and Ritter were close colleagues: Jennings served as an advisor to Ritter in plans to expand his newly established Scripps Institution; and while they were among each other’s sharpest critics, they encouraged each other in their respective philosophical and public discourse. At the same time, both developed their philosophical postures and public persona from notably different institutional and professional environments. This paper examines the institutional, professional, political, and cultural conditions that promoted Ritter’s and Jennings' philosophical and public discourse on biology and society during the first three decades of the twentieth century. Both leveraged the capaciousness of philosophical and public discourse in a common effort to defend and promulgate democratic principles against countervailing movements in biological science and the public sphere.

François Magendie: From dogmatic empiricism to the practice of experimental reasoning

José Luis González Recio (Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain); Ruth García (Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain)

The historiographical studies focused on French nineteenth-century physiology have eventually enshrined the thesis that the need to resort to hypotheses was assumed and proclaimed for the first time within the works and scientific practice of Claude Bernard (1813-1888). His teacher, François Magendie (1783-1855), is presented as a figure that fights against vitalism and that, devoted to an absolute empiricism, only admits the bare facts as constitutive elements of science. For the mature physiology he wanted to build, he discarded -it is often said- any support based on the formulation of hypotheses. According to Bernard, while he worked with him, he heard every day his mentor’s impassioned justification of a militant and radical empiricism. Magendie -Bernard claims- advocated and practiced an uncompromising empiricism, opposed to any theoretical systematization whether it was the prompter or the result of observation. He admitted generalizations -as long as they were not premature- from what he called materials collected within experience, but rejected that ideas or hypotheses could lead the scientific path. The facts should speak for themselves, without being associated to any preconceived notion, as the truth would eventually show itself in them. Although this image of Magendie is widely shared -and was even prompted by some of his statements- this paper aims to show precisely that it is an image that does not correspond to reality. Magendie did know the crucial role of hypotheses within physiological research. Not only that: he used them extensively in his scientific work and in his activity as a researcher committed to the implementation of experimental physiology. And what is more, he did this using those hypotheses with the same goals that Bernard later reserved for them: to guide observation, to serve as a basis for the explanation of the facts and to be susceptible of verification. As we shall see, you only need to read Magendie’s texts and to examine his scientific activity to confirm this beyond any doubt. Experimental physiology, equipped with all the necessary methodological resources, began its journey in nineteenth century France through the works carried out by François Magendie.

Hatching standards of Gallus gallus: Creating pathogen-free birds for research

Miguel Lopez-Paleta (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico)

Gallus gallus (domestic fowl), a well-known character in biological research, is not standardized in the same way than other model organisms used in experimental biology. Instead of being part of a standardized strain created by researchers, and distributed by centralized institutions, chickens used in experimental biology are commonly obtained from different sources: from local farms to Specific-Pathogen Free birds (SPF) specialized companies. In this paper, I claim Gallus gallus standardization has been developed by diverse groups of people which were not specifically interested in biomedical research and which had different aims when they standardized chicken. I highlight a particular context where this standardization had occurred: immunology (particularly that related to avian diseases). This field gave rise to a particular standardized group of birds (SPF) which became commercialized by companies established by agricultural researchers/entrepreneurs. Although these birds became frequently used in fields such as developmental biology, this was not the only context where chicken was standardized. SPF birds were developed using a previously developed chicken breed (i.e. White Leghorn) as a basis. This breed was established by fanciers and commercial breeders at the beginning of the 20th century, and it was later employed for conducting experiments in biology laboratories. Consequently, the chickens nowadays used in experimental biology were standardized diversely and they have different characteristics insofar as they belong to different breeds and varieties. The Gallus gallus model provides, thus, a door to discuss scientific and model organisms’ standardization from a historical, highly contextual perspective.