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.