Tag Archives: history of science

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): How the Silver Fox Became a DogHow to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): How the Silver Fox Became a Dog by Lee Alan Dugatkin

To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world . . . One only understands the things that one tames, said the fox. Men have no more time to understand anything.

— The Little Prince

One of the obvious and forgotten wonders of the human experience is our domestication of other species. “One only understands the things that one tames,” the fox explains in De Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince. “Men have no more time to understand anything.”

Domestication transformed both domesticator and domesticated, and indeed some scientists believe homo sapiens should itself be considered a self-domesticated variety of primate. Yet the mechanisms, history, and genetic implications of domestication are poorly understood. Why is it possible to domesticate some animals (horses), while close relatives (zebras) remain untamable? Why were so few species domesticated in our history, and how was this accomplished?

For the past sixty years, a remarkable experiment has been underway in Siberia to understand this process by recreating it with foxes. In just over a half a century—the blink of an evolutionary eye—Russian scientists have succeeded in domesticating foxes to the point where they live with humans and behave remarkably like dogs. Along the way, this has illuminated genetic changes unlocked when animals are unnaturally selected for calmness and tameness.

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) is the story of this experiment, documenting its history from its inception under the reign of Lenin to today. It is a popular treatment co-authored by an American evolutionary biologist and the Russian scientist who currently heads the project. The authors use the work to examine a variety of scientific issues, including evolutionary genetics, the role of hormone production in wild versus tame species, genetic coding, and primate evolution. Along the way there is also plenty historical context revealing what it was like to navigate a large, enduring experiment through the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Yet there are flaws with the book as well, specifically related to its awkwardly hagiographic tone regarding the founder of the experiment, the Soviet geneticist Dmitri Belyaev, as well as an un-self-conscious neglect of the ambivalent ethical background of the experiment carried out against the background of the Soviet fur industry and entailing generations of thousands of foxes raised in cages to be euthanized for their fur. The authors gloss over these implications for their research, focusing instead on the innate appeal of the idea of being able to take a fox home for a pet.

The Dancing Bees

Dancing Bees: Karl Von Frisch and the Discovery of the Honeybee LanguageDancing Bees: Karl Von Frisch and the Discovery of the Honeybee Language by Tania Munz

In his retirement, my father has begun keeping bees. Last year he had four or five hives, and if you let him he will talk to you for hours about the structure of the hive and the division of labor and the life cycle of the bees as he worked to naturally control the pests that threatened them. This year he is trying to go even more natural. He is not purchasing the domestic hives that seem less resilient to colony collapse disorder but instead is catching wild, native swarms. Learning along with him, I’ve come to realize how much of our agricultural system depends on the work these millions of bees do. I joke with my dad that he has a hundred thousand pets, though of course there is no way to keep them all straight as they fly in and out of the hives.

Yet that’s exactly what Karl von Frisch did in his studies to discover and understand how bees communicate with one another. Tania Munz’s study of the life and work of this Austrian naturalist is a surprisingly effective combination of my father’s hobby with my field of the history of science. Munz offers an accessible and somehow universalizing account of an individual who may not be well known to the wider public. Through an exploration of his career and influence, Munz explores not only the skill of a naturalist and the theoretical questions of communication among animals but also what life as a scientist was like in Germany during the Second World War.

Karl von Frisch discovered the “dance” of bees at their hive to communicate food finds with other bees. This might seem like an esoteric and rather minor discovery, but it had huge implications for the study of animal communication and the debate as to whether animals could actually think or simply acted on impulse and instinct. But Munz’s work and his directorship of a laboratory in Munich were threatened with the rise of the Nazis when it became known that he had Jewish great-grandparents on his mother’s side. One of the most fascinating aspect of Munz’s story is the narrative of von Frisch and his allies navigating the dangerous and complex Nazi bureaucracy to try to save his work and career. Ultimately, Frisch’s work was declared vital to the Reich, and Frisch began studying a parasite that was decimating bee colonies and threatening German agriculture.

Munz has done a fantastic job of interweaving the personal and political with the scientific. In the midst of her narrative she provides a series of “Bee Vignettes” illustrating different aspects of life in the hive and the history of apiary science. Just as fascinating as the portrayal of the rise of Nazi power and the war’s effect on working scientists like Frisch, Munz outlines the careful experiments Frisch performed to discover and then confirm the bee’s form of communication and how Frisch communicated this proof to other observers. The work is a powerful account of how field work is done, made even more compelling by not ignoring the things that were happening in the background. After the war, Munz explores how Frisch’s unique position (as a one-quarter Jew persecuted by the Nazis though still allowed to continue his work) helped him repair scientific relationships between Germany and other countries, particularly the United States.

For me though, Munz’s work was less important for the story it told than as an example of how to tell the story. The work balanced careful treatment of the science with understanding of the context in which it was done and returned a figure who might otherwise be obscure to a primary role in the development of theories of animal intelligence. My only regret was that while it did all this with an eye to Frisch’s personality and life, it was less biographical than one might have hoped. We learn about the beginning of Frisch’s career and his childhood, but we’re left with only a sketch of his final days, and though we’re told his wife struggled with depression we never get a complete domestic view. Though the world outside his lab affected his work and is handled deftly in Munz’s treatment, the domestic sphere was certainly just as important and was treated much more superficially.

A Brief History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly EverythingA Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bill Bryson tries to do everything, and it totally pisses me off. It wouldn’t bother me so much if I could dismiss him, if what he did didn’t really matter very much or if he did it badly. But he does it with a certain curmudgeonly panache that makes it all the more irritating when he succeeds. He gets to travel to interesting places and write about how they make him cranky, which is pretty much the height of achievement for a writer. But when he takes on something like the entirety of the physical world itself in A Brief History of Nearly Everything and comes across even more genuine and reflective, I want to either give him a huge high-five or push him off a cliff.

The thing about this book, Bryson’s first work of natural history, is that it retains most of the best parts of his writing style and drops the most irritating aspects. That is, in Bryson’s travel writings I’m always annoyed at the way his cranky “get off my lawn” disposition stands in tension with a clear-eyed excitement and wonder about the places he’s going and the things he learns there. Much of this, at least in his UK work, is because he’s seen these places before, has spent much of his career trying to preserve them, and is embittered about the way they’re changing. In A Brief History, the subject matter precludes some of this personal irritation but retains his wonder about the nature of reality itself and the story of man’s investigation of it, and this to great effect.

Bryson is a writer who can pretty much—it seems—do whatever he wants. So when he came to the realization that he didn’t know much about the natural history of the planet he’s spend a career traveling around on, no one told him that he didn’t have the training or the background to write a compelling treatment. He just started reading books and talking to specialists, and A Brief History is what we got. Despite my expectations returning to the book after nearly a decade and a PhD later, I think he largely succeeds.

Now, of course there are errors and misrepresentations. Any specialist reading a book in which Bryson tries to cover so much ground is going to find one or two. At one point, for instance, Bryson causally mentions a distance to Betelgeuse that I think is off by an order of magnitude. But in general terms, he does a remarkably good job of taking a non-specialist on a tour of the physical world, through space and time but focusing primarily on our own planet and our own (sometimes misguided) attempts to understand it, highlighting all the while just how amazing it all is. And, of course, because it’s Bryson, all the weirdness and randomness and strange stories involved in the (largely male) folks who figured this stuff out figure prominently.

Of course, that approach lends itself to certain pitfalls in writing historical treatments of science, and Bryson doesn’t avoid these. The entire work is suffused with Whiggism. That is, Bryson is interested in explaining how we “got to” our (assumedly correct) modern understanding of things. In fairness, he recognizes how much uncertainty and conjecture there is in discussion of, for instance, our early history and origins as a species. But largely, his story is a narrative of how different scientists “got it right” or “almost got it right.” What they did is interpreted with the final modern synthesis in sight. He’s not interested in understanding the context in which someone like Isaac Newton was working or evaluating his theories by their own terms and historical context; he holds them up as a modernist looking through interesting oddities, pulling old things from a drawer and laughing at how quaint certain aspects appear.

But I can forgive a lot in this work, because there are so many interesting things to bring to light and Bryson still does such a great job of unearthing them. He admits that his work is in no way a standardized, authoritative, or comprehensive treatment. It’s not a textbook, and a different writer would have pulled out different interesting bits. Rather, as with Bryson’s other books, it’s a meander. But here we don’t get vignettes of Bryson falling asleep on a bus only to wake and berate the fate of a random seaside village; here we get instead a lot of genuine wonder and accessible prose leading us along into this big wide world and our long and tangled explorations of it.

Wittgenstein’s Vienna

Wittgenstein's ViennaWittgenstein’s Vienna by Allan Janik

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Wittgenstein is a name that looms large on the landscape of twentieth-century philosophy, and one day I’ll get around to actually reading his work. For now though, I’m still dancing around the edges. I’ve written about Logicomix before as a creative introduction to the mathematical and philosophical scene in which Wittgenstein appeared, and about a year ago that led me to an excellent biography on Wittgenstein. This latest book on the philosopher, which had come up several times before in references to Wittgenstein, I found at a university library used book sale. I grabbed it immediately, possibly uttering a small shriek of excitement.

Wittgenstein’s Vienna is a cultural and social contextualization of Wittgenstein’s work. The authors are self-consciously unapologetic that their study is interdisciplinary and not well-suited to the lens of professional philosophy that would view Wittgenstein’s work in terms of the development of analytical philosophy alone. Rather, they say it’s important—essential—in understanding Wittgenstein’s major work to first understand the context in which Wittgenstein wrote, the final days of the Habsburg Empire and its capital Vienna just before the Great War.

By examining the culture of the period—the aesthetic revolts against insincerity and ostentation in music, literature, and architecture centered on the writings of the social critic Karl Kraus—they claim Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus as a similar cultural artifact, a philosophical response to this environment. Instead of being intended (as it was perceived by the Logical Positivists) as a groundwork for analytical philosophy, Wittgenstein meant the Tractatus to rigorously define the boundary between facts and values. Critically though this was not to exclude values from the realm of importance (as the Logical Positivists took his famous closing phrase, “of what we cannot speak we must pass over in silence”) but rather to protect ethics and all that was truly important (and unspeakable) in the human experience from the encroachment of logic.

For the authors, Wittgenstein’s work is primarily a cultural, philosophical, and even artistic response to his social environment similar to that of Adolf Loos in architecture and will be (and has been) misunderstood without this broader context. As an example of an interdisciplinary study—and in itself a strong critique of philosophy divorced from context—Wittgenstein’s Vienna is wonderful. It takes a real problem—the interpretation of a famously eccentric man and his undeniably influential work—and it offers an answer grounded in full-bodied exploration of that man’s time and context.

My complaint is that though the arguments are compelling and even a pleasure to read, and though the authors make Habsburg Vienna come to life and illuminate things from the origins of modernism to the perils of political stagnation and the linguistic relations between subject peoples at the dawn of Eastern European nationalism, they tend to let a general zeitgeist form the mode of connection between all this and Wittgenstein. That is, a stronger argument would have connected the dots more firmly, including perhaps more of Wittgenstein’s correspondence and biographical links between Wittgenstein and the key cultural players, Kraus in particular. The authors argue that Kraus was central to creating and fostering the cultural critique in which they’re placing the Tractates—going so far as to call the Tractates a Krausian work—but I still was left with questions about the contacts and connections between the two men.

The work is multifaceted and branched off into lots of interesting side-trails along the way of contextualizing Wittgenstein and his work. There were, for instance, arguments related to the birth of modernism, particularly modern architecture. The authors claim, for instance, that the architecture of Loos was a revolt against ostentation and ornament for it’s own sake, that Loos thought use should dictate design. But they say once this mode was established, its minimalism became itself a new orthodoxy: modernism for its own sake, which gave rise to the Cartesian office buildings and apartments of today in which function is completely masked by uniformity, exactly the opposite of what early modernists like Loos had intended.

This work is compelling because it mixes together so many disciplines. Whether or not you’ve heard of Wittgenstein, if you’re interested in the history of philosophy and in particular the philosophy of language, Habsburg Europe, cultural history, art history, or even social criticism, there’s something in here that you can latch onto. Good books have lots of doors that open outward; this one is full of them.

Visions of Science

Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian AgeVisions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age by James A. Secord

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Most people believe history is made up of people and their ideas. Maybe also the things they do. But I tend to think of history as being made up much more of books. The majority of people live and die and leave no record, no imprint, on history. You’ll never know what they thought; you’ll never have any contact with them. Great historians can get around this to some extend; I know social historians who can tease a wealth of information about the past from statistics, censuses, documents, and other clues. If you’re lucky you might find a trove of letters or journals related to particular individuals as well. But these are the fringes and margins of intellectual history, and such evidences only go back a couple hundred years at the most.

Books are a different story. Books are like the shelled organisms in the fossil record. By their very nature they leave a mark on intellectual history. They’re ideas given form, preserved, read, and interpreted. And yet they’re not static. A person’s ideas are in some way solidified in a text, but that person’s thoughts change over time, and there’s always also the question of how good a reflection of a person’s true views or ideas a book truly is. But books like the Origin of Species, for instance, or the works of Newton, leave an impact: they’re read, and their ideas spread. They’re the bones we build our intellectual histories upon.

But this isn’t enough. If we simply try to read the classical texts of the past without regard for the context in which they were written or without understanding the ways contemporary readers would have interpreted them then we’re only getting a portion of the picture. It’s this context that the historian of science James Secord brings to a cluster of pivotal texts in his new work, Visions of Science.

The subtitle of the work is “Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age.” The first half of the 1800s happens to be a period in which I’m quite comfortable, having written my dissertation on one of the authors whose work Secord examines. But it’s not an arbitrary choice of period, as Secord makes clear. The dawn of the Victorian Age was in many ways the dawn of modern science as we know it. Society was changing, particularly in Great Britain, where there was a growing middle class population, technological innovations were making texts more cheap and accessible, and scientific progress was seen as the panacea for solving social ills. The early 1800s saw the beginning of the devotion to science as a means of progress that we continue (though a bit more jaded, disillusioned, and hopefully wiser) to live within today. This is the world on the cusp of Darwin and the professionalization of science, steeped in the early enthusiasm of the industrial revolution.

Secord examines seven texts from this period: Humphrey Davy’s Consolations in Travel, published near the end of the chemist’s life as a retrospective on the progress of humanity to date; Charles Babbage’s Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, his tract against the perceived stagnation of science in England compared to the Continent, which Secord uses as a segue into the politics and personalities of practicing science during this period; John Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, often seen as the first modern text on the philosophy of science; Mary Somerville’s popularization of science, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences; the geologists Charles Lyell’s Principle of Geology, which set the groundwork for thinking of deep time and Darwin’s revolution; George Combe’s immensely popular work on phrenology, Constitution of Man; and finally Thomas Carlyle’s weird and wonderful critique of the science of his day, Sartor Resartus.

Secord has previously published a book-length treatment of another important book during this period that should be included in this list, the anonymously-written Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, which created a “Victorian sensation.” In that earlier work Secord does in greater depth for the Vestiges, a text that brought ideas of naturalistic evolution to a widespread audience decades before Darwin, what he does for each of the texts listed above. His treatments in Visions of Science are brief synopses, almost vignettes, about each book, and it would have been nice to have an abbreviated version of his examination of the Vestiges among them as well for completeness; I don’t think any readers would have minded repetition with his previous study.

For each of these works, Secord is interested in showing how these primary sources– many of which students of the history of science in modern Britain would know well– was initially perceived. More than that, he dives into the structure of the physical books themselves: who published them, how they were printed, and what this meant about potential audience and cost. Secord also provides biographical sketches of the authors, but these are complete only in as far as needed to show how the writing of the particular book fit in the context of their lives. Who were these authors, what was their role in the nascent community of modern science, and why did they write? Secord’s exploration gives a clearer picture of the transitional world of early Victorian science and its rise to cultural prominence.

Visions of Science would be ideal for a course focusing on the history of science and culture in this period. Such a course would likely involve the assignment of large portions of the primary texts for reading, with the chapters of Secord’s work as supplementary material so today’s readers could do more than simply filter these works through their own interpretive frameworks. The studies in Secord’s work are a primer for a much more difficult task: seeing the works as they appeared in their own time. In this Visions of Science succeeds in making these foundational texts more three-dimensional, helping them come alive as we approach them as a Victorian reader would and seeing in a new way how foundational they were in shaping society and thought into molds we largely take for granted today.

Science and Eastern Orthodoxy

Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of GlobalizationScience and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of Globalization by Efthymios Nicolaidis

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The complete history of science in the Christian East remains to be told. But it is certainly a narrative the broad strokes of which need to be outlined, if only because Orthodoxy remains a lacuna in most generalized histories of scientific thought. There are a lot of writings about Greek science, about its transmission, appropriation, and development in Arabic and Islamic contexts, and about its reintroduction to Western Europe. Yet about the Eastern Roman Empire, which endured more or less until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, very little has been said, even less in popular surveys for a non-specialized audience. (One popularization treating the topic, though not focusing specifically on science, is Colin Wells’ Sailing from Byzantium.)

The essential difference between science in the Greek East as opposed to the Latin West is that whereas Europe lost linguist links to the corpus of classical Greek texts, these works were never lost to the eastern, Greek portions of the Roman Empire. The interplay between this knowledge and the rapidly Christianized culture of Byzantium has often been portrayed negatively with the assumption that Greek learning was neglected because it was seen as inconsequential or hostile to Christian theology. Greek culture, so the narrative goes, was decadent, and the scientific knowledge soon flourishing in the Arabic world was stagnant or forgotten in the empire of Constantinople.

As with anything else in history, the closer one looks the more complicated the true picture becomes. Even the high-altitude overview provided by Nicolaidis’s Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of Globalization has plenty of room for the wide range of reactions and reassessments of science taking place during this period. Indeed, the relationship between the state, Christianity, and science is the true theme of Nicolaidis’s survey. In this he is consciously following the footsteps of Numbers and Lindberg, and in some respects this volume could even be considered a companion to the two volumes that Lindberg and Numbers have co-edited outlining the relationship between science and Christianity in the West. However, whereas those are collections of essays treating the topic from a broad range of chronological and thematic angles, Nicolaidis’s work is a chronological survey.

The extent of this survey is quite impressive. Nicolaidis begins with the hexaemerons– commentaries on the six days of creation– by the early Christian fathers Basil and Gregory. He hits the familiar points of Byzantine history: the impact of the iconoclastic controversy, hesychasm, and the Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204. This final event, Nicolaidis argues, actually had a positive effect on Orthodox science, illustrating the possibility of radical social and cultural change and ushering in the first Byzantine humanist revival as rulers in the new capital of Nicea built a cosmopolitan group of administrators who valued classical learning. The narrative continues all the way into the modern period, chronicling the Orthodox Church’s largely conservative stance toward modern science (Darwinism usually equated with materialism), primarily because it and the modern ideas accompanying were seen as potential threats to the privileged status Christian enjoyed in the Ottoman empire.

In some respects though, this detailed account simply proves the initial assumption that there wasn’t such a thing as Byzantine or Orthodox science. Instead there was a tradition of commentary and preservation of the classical body of Greek learning, at times appreciated and shared and at times viewed with suspicion, depending on the vicissitudes of church and state policy. Nicolaidis’s account is full of Greek scholars from all periods, explaining who they are and what they taught and how in many cases they were essential for transferring texts and knowledge to the West. But true “scientists” or natural philosophers are distinctly lacking. This doesn’t mean that they are not necessarily there, and this account gives lots of potential leads to pursue in a body of work that is remains largely unexplored. Unlike a popular account of Chinese or Arabic science though, which would be rife with examples of breakthroughs or technological developments, the story of science and Eastern Orthodoxy is largely that of continuity, preservation, and tension (albeit not always a negative tension) with the Church.

As an overview, Science and Eastern Orthodoxy is an invaluable introduction to the topic of Greek learning in Byzantium, the Christian communities of the Ottoman Empire, and its successor Balkan states (with the focus on Greece) and the interaction between natural philosophy and Christian thought in these contexts. There are dozens of useful references and sources if one wants to dig deeper into any of the various topics, time periods, or individuals surveyed. For an English-language introduction to the history of science in the Christian East, this is the place to begin.

Technopoly

Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to TechnologyTechnopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology by Neil Postman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Being a social critic must be a lonely job. No one wants to hear what he says, I imagine, besides those already disillusioned with the system. For those though who have a vague sense that something somewhere has gone wrong but lack the words to articular exactly what, the social critic serves an essential function. He helps diagnose the problem. Neil Postman did this in his work Amusing Ourselves to Death, which I read years ago, when he talked about the way that television has shaped public dialogue. One of the main themes in that book is that the medium is never neutral– it shapes the message and the type of dialogue that can be conducted. Whereas print allows a certain level of dialogue and reflection, the medium of television news– depending as it does on sensationalism and catering to the limited attention span of viewers, upon which their marketing model is sustained– cannot. In this book, Technopoly, Postman takes his idea of the impossibility of a neutral medium deeper with his critique of the assumptions that underlie our technological world.

Postman believes that the United States has become the world’s first “Technopoly.” In the first few chapters of the work, which was written in the 1990s, he sets out what this means with an overview of the history of technology that, though problematic in some respects, draws widely on many well-known historians of technology. (Indeed, the primary reason I read this book was because I wanted to get a sense for whether it would work for a history of technology unit in a history of science course I’ll be teaching in the spring, and these chapters indeed fit the bill for a general student reader.) Postman wants to chart the transition from societies in which tools are used by humans (a tool-using society) to a society in which those tools bring about radical social changes (what Postman calls a technocracy) and ultimately to the society we have today, one in which we no longer shape tools for ourselves but in which we shape ourselves for our tools (a Technopoly).

There are a lot of generalizations at play here, as one would expect in a three-chapter survey of the history of technology. Postman shows how the technology of writing transformed society and created an abundance of information that required institutions to manage. Schools and universities, for instance, arose in large part to help sort, organize, evaluate, and manage the new information created by the technology of printing. In the past century, Postman argues, technologies increasing the amount and immediacy of information– the telegraph, telephone, television, and finally computer– have proliferated much faster than the capacity of the institutions that exist to manage that information. The result in today’s Technopoly is a flood of information that exists without content, context, or relevancy; the assumption that information is good and valuable for its own sake; and the belief that society’s ills arise from a lack of information that only more information-generating technology can solve. One of the main threads in Postman’s argument is against these last two flawed (but overwhelmingly accepted) assumptions in today’s society.

Another complaint of Postman’s regarding technology’s role in society is the way humans become subordinate to technology. Postman’s claim is not simply that technology creates problems in today’s world; it’s deeper and more subtle than that. Postman wants to show the unperceived and unquestioned ways technology shapes thought. Against those who believe technological progress is always desired and inevitable, Postman argues technology is not value-neutral. It carries with it a host of assumptions that fundamentally change the way humans interact with each other and their environment and conceive of the natural and social world.

He provides specific examples from the field of medical and computer technology. The primary problem, he says, is the familiar adage that to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail. Machines depend for their functioning upon the reduction of things to uniformity, automated processes, and problems of efficiency. The usurpation of culture by technology, Postman argues, takes place when this becomes the lens through which all human interactions are viewed. Machines predispose us to see social interactions in these reductionist, efficiency-driven terms. In these cases, Postman says, we are no longer simply using our machines; they are shaping the way that we view the world.

Postman takes this argument further by discussing “invisible” technologies– that is, technologies we use every day but that we don’t normally think of as technologies. His big examples here are the practices of standardized testing, questionnaires, polling, and the tools of social scientists– basically the perceived ability to objectively quantify specific traits. A standardized test is a technology, and again it’s a technology that has shaped the way we perceive the world. It allows us to believe that nebulous traits like empathy, beauty, and intelligence can be reduced to a number, and it causes us to reify things like “intelligence” that don’t really exist. Intelligence, empathy, beauty– they’re not things; they’re complex qualities that exists in different ways in different people in different circumstances.

The results of all this, Postman says, is that our culture places an inordinate faith in applying the methods of natural science– quantification, empirical observation, testing– to places where they never belonged in the first place, the realm of human interaction and society. Postman has a long screed against social scientists, who he believes misuse the tools of scientific practice and have contributed nothing to the actual understanding of the human mind or human interactions. I find this generalization to be a bit dangerous, especially the division he makes between studying the processes of nature (allowable via the scientific method) and human practices (not allowable, because humans are too complex). What would Postman make of the burgeoning field of neuroscience, for instance, which combines aspects of the social sciences with biology and psychology? The divisions here are, I think, more tenuous than Postman allows.

As a critique of a society that unquestioningly embraces technology and all the reductionist assumptions it entails, this book– published over twenty years ago– still seems incredibly relevant. No technology is value-neutral– for good or ill, using it has radical effects on human relationships (and this is where one can’t help but wonder what Postman would make of the internet today and the efflorescence of social media). Deeper than that though, Postman believes technology shapes the way we view the world. Computers, for instance, don’t simply process data for us; they give us an entirely new language. They cause us to re-conceptualize our problems in mechanistic terms, even when this is inappropriate. In some cases we start treating computers like people, and in many cases we start treating people like computers.

His conclusion– the “what can we do about it”– chapter of the book warms the heart of a historian of science. Postman says that the only place the problems of Technolopy can be address are in the schools (which are themselves a form of technology). The key, Postman claims, to helping people see the problematic assumptions of Technopoly is teaching the history of every discipline, especially the history and philosophy of science. It’s only by seeing the way in which what we know– or think we know– has changed over time that we can teach students to see and question the assumptions that today’s culture rests upon. As much as I agree with the call to historicizing knowledge (and Postman is right– this is the only way for knowledge to become more than a consumer product), the grand narrative of human progress that Postman thinks teaching should be structured around smacks of the very technological determinism that he is trying to avoid.

Most of society focuses on what we gain with technology; Postman wants to make us consider what we lose, but more than that he wants to warn against the standards of Technopoly– efficiency, information, standardization, immediacy– becoming the standards of culture. This is a warning that is just as poignant now, if not more so, than it was when the book was first written.

Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius

Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of GeniusLudwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius by Ray Monk

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ludwig Wittgenstein is widely regarded to be the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century. I’ve never read his first and most well-known work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, but I know something of its influence through a course on the Vienna Circle, the inter-war group of European philosophers who left their indelible mark on modern theorizing regarding science and language. Wittgenstein also shows up as a peripheral character in Logicomix, a wonderful graphic novel on the intersection between mathematics and philosophy in the first half of the twentieth century, which I reviewed here. It was my recent re-reading of Logicomix that spurred me to learn more about Wittgenstein himself. Monk’s authoritative biography seemed the place to begin.

I was not disappointed. Monk paints a vivid portrait of Wittgenstein as an individual and as a philosopher. This is the challenge of any biography, I suppose: to balance the cultural and historical background of a person’s age with the personal and emotional foreground of the individual’s own psyche and link this to an understanding of how a person creates or does whatever it is that makes her or him worthy of having a biography written. Monk does this expertly– no small accomplishment, because for Wittgenstein all three of these aspects are so complex.

Wittgenstein was born in 1889 to a large Viennese family. His father was a wealthy industrialist, and the Wittgenstein fortune (in which Ludwig ultimately disowned his portion of the inheritance) provides his initial and immediate background. Two of his older brothers committed suicide, and Wittgenstein himself struggled with emotional turmoil throughout his life. To be wealthy in Vienna before the Great War (as well as after, due to his father’s expert handling of money) carried with it a certain cultural heritage: Wittgenstein was very much a child of the twilight of the Romantic era.

But “the duty of genius,” as Monk very appropriately subtitles his work, is very clear in Wittgenstein’s life from the beginning. He was constantly pushing beyond the comfortable life that he could easily have had with his background. Throughout the book (and thus throughout Wittgenstein’s life) Monk represents him as possessing a painful intellectual honesty. This drove Wittgenstein to study the foundations of mathematics in Cambridge with Bertrand Russell, but it ultimately drove him to try to experience life fully. Pure philosophizing was never enough. When the Great War broke out, Wittgenstein enlisted as a common soldier in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was here, in the milieu of true existential crisis– both for him personally, posted alone on night duty in combat operations and for Europe writ large as the empire in which his home was the capital crumbled– that he composed his Tractatus.

Though I haven’t yet read it, Monk plays deftly enough with the second important thread of his narrative– what Wittgenstein was actually doing in philosophy– that even the general reader can get some glimpses of why this was significant. Theorizing was not enough for Wittgenstein. Experience and language were central to the philosophizing endeavor. The true meaning of the world, Wittgenstein wrote, would never be expressed in the world itself. The meaning of the system was somehow beyond the system; this was what philosophy alone could never touch, and Monk shows how the background of Wittgenstein’s religious beliefs played out against this as well. Ironically, it was this realization, that there were things on which we must pass over in silence, things that philosophy could never address, that was interpreted exactly backward by the Vienna Circle.

Immediately after the War, Wittgenstein trained to be a primary school teacher and attempted to live out his philosophy by teaching students in the rural Austrian Alps. This was unsuccessful, and after this he traveled between his home in Vienna, a cabin in Norway, and Cambridge, ultimately returning there to lecture in philosophy, though he was never comfortable in the academic setting. Monk here takes what could be rather tedious narrative and keeps the character of Wittgenstein alive: the wandering, tortured, emotionally isolated and yet intensely emotional philosopher who teaches philosophy eccentrically, damning the philosophical establishment the entire time. After Germany absorbs Austria and the Second World War broke out, he was quite literally a man without a homeland (and here Monk offers insightful comments on Wittgenstein’s Jewish ancestry and how this played out for Wittgenstein personally). Wittgenstein passed the remainder of his life boarding with various friends, admirers, and former students, writing, editing, and rewriting (but never publishing) his later philosophical works.

An easy response to a biography like this is to ask, so after all, what did Wittgenstein do exactly? What happened to him? Why is he worth over 500 pages? And in some ways the answer is simply: he did not do much. He thought and wrote. He lived and tried to love. He wrote angst-filled letters, which provide Monk much of his source material, complemented by interviews with many of the surviving characters in this story. And yet Wittgenstein changed the climate of philosophical thought itself. He trained philosophers to ask questions honestly, to try to understand what they were doing, and then he encouraged them to go get useful employment as doctors or laborers. He tried to do this himself but always came back to writing.

He was sure he would be misunderstood. He often was.

I don’t know enough about Wittgenstein to know whether Monk has misunderstood him. I feel like– as with Hankins’ excellent biography of William Rowan Hamilton– Monk has explained– or rather, has held up for examination– what it is that most of us can only hope for: the fertile combination of a life lived with thoughts thought. Wittgenstein is remembered for his thoughts, for what he wrote about the nature of philosophy, truth, language, and perception. But as Monk has very expertly shown, these thoughts arose from a life lived in a great deal of pain, loneliness, discouragement, frustration, and (perhaps contributing to much of the things just listed) a relentless drive to be intellectually honest. To think and to speak clearly, as Wittgenstein attempted, is often the most difficult task of all. To write the account of someone who tried to live doing just that is also intensely difficult, but Monk has succeeded here with care and with a great deal of pathos.

A Crooked Line

A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of SocietyA Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society by Geoff Eley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What does it mean to be a professional historian today? What does the landscape of the profession look like? What are the big ideas or transformations over the past half-century or so that have shaped how historians work and think? In A Crooked Line, Geoff Eley, a European historian at the University of Michigan, provides a personal answer to these questions from the perspective of a historian who has lived and worked through the shaping of the profession during this period. A Crooked Line is not quite a memoir, not quite a historiography, and not quite a manifesto for political and social engagement among historians. It is a little bit of all of these things, blending and transcending them to become something quite unique: a historian’s reflective survey of what the field looked like from the vantage point of a young historian just beginning a career in the sixties to what the field looks like today.

As a historian of science—and one who came to the field from outside history—I sometimes feel cut off or at least rather uninformed about the broader debates and transformations that have shaped the historical profession as a whole. I felt a bit out of my depth—or at least out of my fit—at a recent workshop at Bielefeld University rubbing shoulders with historians pursuing a very theory-laden sociological approach to history while I presented a talk on John Herschel’s stellar spectroscopy (or lack thereof). I had only a dim inkling of the importance of the Bielefeld School in the history of history. (On the other hand, the history students I interacted with there only asked whether Herschel’s hesitation toward spectroscopy was evidence of his resistance to a Kuhnian paradigm shift.) Clearly, we did not share a great deal of historiographical ground. I asked my roommate, a Latin American historian, for a good book that would give me a broad overview of historical theory and provide some touch-points for connecting that theory with practice. He recommended Eley’s book.

I’m sure A Crooked Line didn’t go all the way toward addressing my ignorance, but it certainly helped. Eley tells the story from his own perspective as a historian coming of age at the eve of history’s first large shift from building traditional narratives to using the tools of sociology to address large-scale questions of the development of society and class relations. This is the portion of the book he titles “Optimism,” chronicling his own excitement as a historian realizing the possibilities of the social sciences to help answer big questions in history, primarily from a Marxist, materialist perspective. Here, the work that he cites as indicative and exemplary of this approach is Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963). British Marxist historians led the way with utilizing the empirical tools of social science to provide an explanatory framework for the evolution and the conflicts in society at large. For a historian, this held the promise of understanding, engaging, and perhaps even shaping social change.

In the second portion of the book, Eley focuses on the particular challenges of German historiography and the ways in which it illustrated the limits of a materialist approach. In particular—and here the section of the book is called “Disappointment”—the historiographical puzzle of Nazi Germany, the failure to explain the atrocities of World War II using the materialist, structuralist tool bag of social history, tempered early optimism regarding this approach. Tim Mason’s studies of Nazism in the 1970s, according to Eley, illustrated the difficulty of building up a complete history of the Third Reich from the foundation of class relations.

In “Reflectiveness,” the third portion of the work, Eley discusses the “linguistic” or “cultural turn” in history that took place in the 1980s as the field of history became influenced (or infiltrated, depending on your point of view) by anthropology, literary and art studies, oral histories, and the prioritizing of the unique, local, or small-scale, resulting in a historical approach much more open to cultural studies. This was tied to the realization that categories such as gender, race, and colonialism could be used in new and important ways for understanding history. Eley touches on the culture wars that resulted, as traditional historians cleaved to more social historical approaches and resisted what they saw as a “dissent into discourse.” Here the keystone text is Carolyn Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman (1987). Eley takes a bright view of the efflorescence of such cultural approaches, asking why such tools and methods should not be used to compliment the historian’s work. Cultural studies, he convincingly argues, bring new questions and methods to the table and moreover make heard historic voices that have been silenced in the past.

Throughout the book, in his survey of the two great turns in history of the course of the second half of the twentieth century—first the turn toward the social sciences and then toward cultural studies—Eley wants to map these changes to outside influences, particularly political. One of his primary claims is that history should be politically engaged. Perhaps though because of my own hazy grasp on the political history of the 1960s-80s it wasn’t always clear to me how this was the case, either proscriptively or descriptively. History as an explanatory tool for society, a critical self-remembrance, and as a counterpoint to flawed and potentially destructive global narratives, yes, but Eley seems to claim that the influence was often the other way—the political situation influenced the sorts of questions and methods the historical field itself pursued. I needed these dots connected more clearly for me.

The big omission (for me) in this historiography was the history of science. Where does Eley see the history of science as playing a role (if any) in the turns he’s outlined? Historians of science certainly played a role in the culture wars, and cultural studies of science abound today, as in an earlier generation did social studies of scientists and their research schools. I would love to find a similar survey of the field written from the perspective of a historian of science. The closest thing I know of is Helge Kragh’s An Introduction to the Historiography of Science, which, while helpful, lacks the personal flavor and the evident passion that made Eley’s book such a pleasure.