While my last post attracted the largest number of readers my blog has ever received in a single day (I’m not telling you the number, it’ll make you laugh) I still thought I’d throw in a post about the conference itself. There were, after all, plenty of interesting discussions begun there which it would be a shame to leave behind.
So firstly, here are the papers that stood out as highlights for me. I imagine it will look like a very different conference to the one you attended (if you did) as 6-7 parallel sessions were going on at any one time. Staffan Müller-Wille and Veronika Lipphardt both got my attention early on in their papers on Franz Boas. I know nothing about the fella, but now feel I ought to. Between them, Müller-Wille and Lipphardt showed how Boas was interested in the problem of correlation and non-correlation in humans (a problem I have thus far only considered in relation to plants thanks to Jonathan Harwood’s chapter in this edited collection) but also how important the world of plant breeding and Fisherian (agriculturally based) statistics were for anthropologists. This opens a whole new set of areas in which my work (which focusses upon agricultural plant breeding in the early C20th) may be relevant. The panel I was presenting in took place that afternoon, so I didn’t get a chance to see anyone else’s work. My co-panellists, Berris Charnley, Luca Iori and I, compared and contrasted the developments in agricultural plant breeding within Britain, New Zealand and Italy, largely within the inter-war period. The session was really brought together when Barbara Kimmelmann, who had kindly agreed to offer comments, drew out some of the links she saw between the papers, focussing upon the tensions between pure and applied science, and also government policy and scientific research (which were precisely the topics to which we all felt we were contributing). The next day a whole lot of love for agricultural science was unleashed in the session on mid-twentieth-century genetics, which was a bloody nice surprise! Joanna Radin considered the importance of livestock breeding as a place from which cryo-biology (the study of life at exceptionally low temperatures) emerged, while Helen Curry gave a fascinating presentation on the adoption of colchicine in horticulture. I didn’t get an opportunity to speak with her afterwards, but would have loved to know how much of a fight the promoters of colchicine had to get plant breeders to adopt it. From what I have read, it looks very much like a nuclear option. Luckily she will soon be moving to Cambridge, so we can all go and pester her together! This feels like a good point for a photograph of Philadelphia.
One of the best sessions I attended unfortunately also attracted one of the smallest crowds. Looking at the work of Jewish scientists in inter-war Vienna, Cheryl Logan and Veronika Hofer considered the challenges to Darwinism and Mendelism made by this community in a variety of different institutional contexts, and by people with a wide variety of motivations. For anyone interested in the development of genetics in this period it was an exceptionally valuable session, one that emphasised precisely how varied were the reactions to the Mendel-Morgan school. Julius Baur, the primary object of Veronika Hofer’s paper, deserves special mention. The idea that a scientist who was as well versed in statistics as R.A. Fisher, could reject Mendel-Morganism on the grounds that there was not enough use of/understanding of statistics, is really very striking indeed. I have tried to find if she has published on this character and failed so far. If you know of an English publication I would be very grateful. The highlight of the last day of the conference had to be the session dedicated to the remarkable career of Margaret Rossiter. The idea that when she set out to write a history of women in American science, one (male) colleague remarked “That would be a very small volume”, seems staggering, but then picture hearing that and not having the THREE massive volumes Rossiter has compiled on the subject to smack them round the head with? Hard to imagine. I was there as an agricultural fan-boy, as her book on The Emergence of Agricultural Science is continually drawn upon today, and was one of the first works that got me interested in the subject of agricultural science and its very special nature.
Finally, I’d like to discuss the plenary session on the ‘State of the Profession’ (though not for long as the whole thing was filmed and I imagine will find its way on line in the coming months). It was a strange experience. To my naive mind, the idea of some of the leading professionals in my discipline coming together to discuss contemporary and future problems (largely surrounding the nature and boundaries of HPS) should have been thrilling. Instead, sat in a large and somewhat underpopulated room, it hit home precisely how precarious the whole thing is. The struggles for funding, the infighting within the humanities and with the sciences, the need to accrue wider social recognition and so on. Every now and then the conversation drifted towards “what makes HPS special” for which I was grateful, because the second you start to answer that, most of the problems associated with ‘who’s in and who’s out’ disappear. While it was interesting to find out what we look like as a professional body (as more than one speaker reflected upon) I don’t know if this enjoyment went beyond the kind of feeling you get when you read your horoscope. It’s a moment of vanity that doesn’t really tell you how to proceed. As long as events such as the Three Societies meeting continue, and allow space for people who wish to identify as historians/philosophers of science to do so, there shouldn’t be much need to discuss ‘how to defend’ HPS, or whatever way you approach the issue. All of us have skills that will allow us to populate academic (and other) institutions, or contribute to more commercial worlds… Gonna fly now…