Scientific pets and their historical owners

I’ve been getting to know Wilhelm Johannsen. You can see a video of his kindly face here. In so doing, I’ve noticed something interesting (or meaningless, depending upon how much time you have spare to ponder such things) about the shape of the scientific argument surrounding the biometry-Mendelism controversy and the shape of the historiographical one. I think they map onto each other fairly neatly and so lay it here before you. At my most pretentious I’m trying to say something about the importance of reflexivity for historians, at my most honest I am avoiding doing actual work on a miserable day when I can’t go and buy some biscuits. 

Scientific argument around 1900-1910 went thus; biometricians (Pearson etc.) argued that it was impossible to distinguish between different types of variation, all variations were heritable (to a greater or lesser extent). Mendelians (Bateson etc.) disagreed, and believed you could separate ‘fluctuations’ (non-heritable) from ‘mutations’ (heritable). Enter Wilhelm Johannsen. His pure lines experiments attempt to demonstrate that outside of the kinds of variations which are strongly linked to the environment, some characters can be inherited with marked regularity and (what is more) that they continue to exhibit these characters to the same extent over any number of generations. Selection within these pure lines induced no further change.

Historiographical argument stands thus; Barnes and MacKenzie (strong SSK) argue that the material world contributes nothing (or nothing definitive) to the settling of scientific controversy. Nils Roll-Hansen (anti-relativist) disagrees, and believes that in some cases attention to the material world has converted biologists to truths about the natural world i.e. Wilhelm Johannsen’s pure-line theory. Enter Kyung-Man Kim. His biographical case studies attempt to demonstrate that outside of the kinds of sociological influences highlighted by Barnes and MacKenzie, some scientists have been convinced of certain biological facts by attention to the natural world and (what is more) they are brought to acknowledge these facts even in the face of strong sociological influences that you would expect to militate against them. 

To tie up the analogy; scientific theories (plant characteristics) can be more or less influenced by the society (environment) in which they reside. On one view (Barnes and MacKenzie/Biometricians) there is no external source of authority belonging to the natural world to which we can turn when looking to settle a controversy (or when looking to differentiate between types of variation). On another view (Roll-Hansen/Mendelians) there is such a source of authority and it is located in the objects found in the natural world (there is a way to differentiate between types of variation and it is provided by Johannsen’s pure lines).  

I think this is a pretty clear (confusing) and compelling (easily forgotten) way of viewing the historical and historiographical discussion, which highlights precisely how important ones stance towards the epistemic status of Johannsen’s pure lines can simultaneously determine your historiographical position. Or, how scientific pets can begin to look like their historical owners. (BOOM! That’s how you end a blog post! GOOD NIGHT Y’ALL). 


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