HIDDEN HISTORIES OF SCIENCE

Robert B. Silvers, ed.

New York Review of Books, USA, 1995; Granta, UK, 1997 .


This is a collection of articles originally published in the New York Review of Books, and concerns ways in which the history of science is far from being a simple accumulation of knowledge. Theories and findings may be suppressed or fall out of favour or be otherwise forgotten, leading to deviations and distortions in the lines of development of all kinds of science, from astronomy to zoology.

In "Going Unconscious", Jonathan Miller argues that there was an overlooked strand of thought in psychology which, from Mesmer's fashionable demonstrations of hypnosis, took an alternative direction from the Freudian school. This strand was displaced during the Behaviourist antithesis to talk of unobservables like the unconscious. As a result, the significance of reflexes and other autonomous processes was not fully appreciated until the reaction to Behaviourism set in with what has become cognitive psychology.

In "Ladders and Cones: Constraining Evolution by Canonical Icons", Stephen Jay Gould writes that,

"[the] false equation of evolution with progress... is strongly abetted by... the march or ladder of evolutionary progress".

This icon pervades culture at many levels and even in rival ideologies, such as communism and Christianity.

The cone icon represents increasing biodiversity through the ages. Gould argues that this is an implicit restraint on our thinking in this matter, since the pattern of variety and extinction is itself much more variable than the icon suggests. He concludes that,

"our canonical icons are based upon the... notion of progress and predictability, and therefore preclude proper consideration of contingency as the major force affecting the directions of life."

Daniel J. Kevles documents a story of great concern to scientists and non-scientists alike in "Pursuing the Unpopular: a History of Courage, Viruses and Cancer". He writes that,

"it is difficult to think of another case of scientific advance where almost every one of the key pioneers encountered pointed resistance from his community of peers."

Skepticism dogged those pioneers, yet "the tolerance and pluralism of the basic biomedical research system" provided niches for the ideas to develop nonetheless. A key point Kevles makes in conclusion is that what led to the discoveries he recounts is the post-Darwinian assumption of the unity of life, as borne out by research in physiology, biochemistry and molecular biology.

R. C. Lewontin's essay, "Genes, Environment and Organisms", insists that,

"development is not simply the realization of an internal program; it is not an unfolding. The outside matters."

He cites a classic experiment on the Achillea plant, whereby shoots from seven individual specimens were planted at different altitudes, and showed startling variety in size.

Instead of concentrating on internal processes and assuming that the external world is straightforwardly the environment, he argues that,

"just as there is no organism without an environment, there is no environment without an organism."

The notion of adaptation should be replaced by that of construction, in the sense that the organism and the environment co-evolve.

Lewontin suggests that we should drop the romantic notion of the harmony of nature, a state of balance disturbed only by human destructiveness:

"Every organism deprives its fellows of space, and when it feeds and digests, excretes toxic waste products into its own neighbourhood."

Clearly this is not a licence to pollute, but neither are we dealing with "all things bright and beautiful".

Oliver Sacks applies a neurological concept to the history of science in "Scotoma: Forgetting and Neglect in Science". The term denotes,

"a disconnection or hiatus in perception, essentially a gap in consciousness produced by a neurological lesion... There is a historical or cultural scotoma, a 'memory hole', as Orwell would say."

Tourette's syndrome was first described in 1880. When Sacks was treating his encephalitis lethargica patients (the subject of his classic book "Awakenings"), he found that, in the literature,

"between 1903 and 1970, the syndrome itself seemed to have disappeared."

The early descriptive accounts have been superseded after this lengthy scotoma by studies which delve into molecular biology and genetics, and thus, Sacks suggests, lose sight of the syndrome as a whole.

Similarly, acquired cerebral achromatopsia (colour-blindness following brain injury) "disappeared" for 75 years, due to theoretical assumptions about vision. In astronomy, Eddington's lamentable hostility to Chandrasekar's 1930s theory about black holes retarded the science for 30 years.

Sacks closes his essay with discussion of recent trends of integrative theorizing in science, which hold out the prospect of redressing the neglect of previous work.

The book as a whole is a chastening experience for those who still think that science as practised is all reason and objectivity, but will provide little comfort for those who simplistically prefer to dismiss the whole endeavour.



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Paul Taylor 2001