When Scientists Make History

Timothy Lenoir

The question "Can the history of science be of any practical value to the practicing scientist?" has exercised some thoughtful historians of science since the field first acquired institutional recognition as a discipline back in the 1950s. The question can be formulated in a number of ways. I interpret it to mean the following: can the scientist at the bench, on the computer, or in the field gain insights from history useful to his or her work? can the history of science turn up facts or discoveries somehow forgotten but now relevant to research? and can the scientist derive some methodological insights, perhaps of suggestive heuristic value, by contemplating the manner in which past scientists have pursued their work?

George Sarton, the scholar most often referred to as the American father of the discipline of the history of science, was clear in rejecting the research agenda implied by these questions. Sarton wrote in the preface to his major survey work that "One cannot teach science and the history of science at the same time."[1] James B. Conant, himself a major contributor to Sarton's enterprise both in terms of institutional support and as the organizer of the Harvard Case Studies in Experimental Science, felt that while knowledge of the history of science might help a scientist function outside the laboratory, it has nothing to teach him about the methods of research he will need in order to make new contributions.[2] Current historians of science would probably agree with the view of Sarton and Conant that history of science is not useful to practicing scientists, though their reasons would differ. Consider the following assumptions in current historiography of science. First, scientific practice itself is not regarded as something fixed or stable over long stretches of time, or even as a well-demarcated and unified category within a given time period; indeed many feel science is currently undergoing a cognitive reorientation, so that even the history of its immediate past may no longer be relevant except as a base for comparison. Secondly, the entire history of post-positivist philosophy, Kuhnian history of science, and the subsequent debates surrounding realism and relativism have rendered problematic the assumption of a nature independent of theory somehow capable of yielding lost "facts" that can be re-"discovered," recovered and reinserted into contemporary scientific practice. Still scientists themselves do engage in writing history of science. We need to understand why they do this, and whether it is indeed of any practical benefit to their work.

We might deem the history of science of value to the practicing scientist if we consider its role in representing the activity of science to wider publics in order to guarantee support for scientific work. Indeed writing about the relationship of science to society has been one of the major directions of the history of science and one of the rationales for its support as a discipline. For most of its life as an academic discipline the history of science has been valued as a conveyor of scientific knowledge, principles, and world view to educated and lay publics: a mediator in the two cultures debate. Promoted as a field cultivated ideally by students or practitioners of science, the mission of the history of science--at least in much of its early career--was to describe the history of scientific ideas and theories, the path of scientific discovery, the growth of scientific knowledge, and the progress of rationality as embodied in and guaranteed by the methods, practices and institutions of scientific inquiry. From a larger civilizational perspective the history of science has frequently been advocated as part of the history of the triumph of reason over superstition, of enlightened humanity's progress toward truth, a crucial chapter in the struggle for freedom and autonomy of inquiry, indeed the single aspect of thought and social practice that defines the Western outlook and accounts for its special position in the world.

This tradition has been rendered controversial by the emergence of perspectives which have scarcely been welcomed by scientists and those sympathetic to scientists' accounts: namely a host of approaches often lumped together under the rubric of "postmodernism": social construction accounts of science and technology, ethnographic studies of science, feminist critique of science, recent concern with cultural studies. The main problem with these approaches for scholars sympathetic to scientist's accounts and the older historiographic tradition is that in adopting an alien perspective, the perspective of "other" in the ethnographer's approach, or a highly critical perspective in some cultural studies and gender critiques, they have made scientists feel themselves under attack by hostile critics who neither understand the content of science or what scientists do. In light of concerns about the stagnation in funding for science, indeed the severe cutback in areas of traditional support such as was evident in the cancellation of the supercollider, enmity between scientists and some recent historians of science has escalated, and postmodernism has recently been charged with fomenting an environment damaging to science.[3] In light of these issues, the practical role of the history of science takes on a particularly charged significance.

Before suggesting my own views on the uses scientists make of history when they engage in writing the history of science, I'd like to review the results of one previous attempt to evaluate the role of history of science for the practicing scientist. In 1978 a symposium on the history of biochemistry was held at the New York Academy of Sciences; the proceedings volume consisted of retrospectives on biochemistry by a number of noted scientists who contributed to the development of the field. At this conference, Frederic L. Holmes, himself a noted historian of biochemistry, organized and chaired a dialogue between scientists and historians of science on the value of history for the practicing scientist. The discussion is revealing; time constraints force me simply to summarize the main currents in the participants' views. The scientists repeatedly dismissed the notion that the history of science could be useful to their working scientific practice. The explicit rationale for this insistence was that for their practical work, scientists require a logical rather than a chronological, narrative presentation of their subject. However, they did acknowledge the value of history of science for other purposes:

These conclusions suggest that scientists regard history as useful for achieving disciplinary goals, including establishing proper morale and attitudes among initiates to the discipline and for purposes of representation to larger publics.

This conclusion fits well with Thomas Kuhn's view of the reason scientists might embark on a history of their discipline. In Kuhn's account a scientific revolution is completed and the transition to normal science is assisted with the construction of a truncated disciplinary history. Kuhn notes that it is characteristic of textbooks of science to contain just a bit of history, either in introductory chapters or more often in scattered references to great heroes of an earlier age. The aim of these histories and heroic references is to give scientists a sense of participation in a tradition.[5] In addition to making the history of science seem cumulative, Kuhn observes that scientists's history of their disciplines as portrayed in textbooks smooths out details that would make the subject seem dependent on historical context:

While contemporary historians of science have departed from many of Kuhn's views, I find his discussion of the crucial role of disciplinary narratives for the practicing scientist extremely fruitful. A lot of extremely valuable history of science has been written with such practical needs in mind, both in textbooks and other formats. Another conference held roughly the same time as the retrospective on biochemistry illustrates this point nicely. In 1974 Ernst Mayr organized a conference to celebrate the evolutionary synthesis, the papers from which were published in 1980 in a volume edited by Mayr and Will Provine.[7] The historical work represented in this volume, and indeed much of the work of Mayr, Ghiselin, Gould, and other scientists who have contributed to the history of evolutionary biology, provides a useful extension of and corrective to Kuhn's views of disciplinary narratives. For much of the work in the history of evolutionary biology has been sensitive to historical context--far from the radical contextualist approach in some accounts such as the recent Desmond and Moore biography of Darwin, but sensitive to history nonetheless. Indeed, given that its proponents, Mayr in particular, proclaim evolutionary biology as the historical discipline par excellence, it could hardly be otherwise. Viewed as disciplinary narratives, the interesting feature of these accounts is that they frequently debate the cognitive foundations of biological practice. The aim is to understand the historical development of current biological ideas, and the focus of such work is explicitly and unabashedly presentist.[8] Ernst Mayr is clear on this point in the preface to his monumental work, The Growth of Biological Thought: Here and in the introduction to his book, Mayr advocates what he terms "problem history" as an important complement to biology. The aim of this type of history of science is to assist in concept analysis and concept clarification[10] --in other words to utilize the materials of some historical development or scientific controversy to stake out claims about what is good science and good practice. In light of this objective Mayr's aim in his work on Darwin, for instance, is to document the shift in his thought away from essentialism and typological thinking toward what Mayr regards as perhaps the single most important idea in biology, the population concept of species. Similarly Michael Ghiselin demonstrates how the scientific method, careful formulation of hypotheses, and serious effort to refute them empirically, provides a unitary thread for understanding the amazing breadth of Darwin's researches and the interconnections among them.[11]

The serious concern with historical research for the purposes of constructing a disciplinary narrative is evident in the volume papers on the evolutionary synthesis, particularly in Ernst Mayr's paper. This paper is almost a template for the construction of a disciplinary narrative.[12] Cautioning his colleagues that chauvinism and Whig history, while unavoidable, should at least be mitigated, Mayr sets out a five-part conference agenda with the goal of explaining how the evolutionary synthesis came about between 1936 and 1947. The participants should, Mayr notes:

The story is well-known to the members of this morning's panel: among the most salient barriers preventing biologists from accepting the full implications of Darwinian evolution were the dogged persistence of typological thinking, a belief in some form of saltationism or mutational discontinuity versus Darwinian gradualism, an unbelievably resilient Lamarckian model of soft inheritance, and an unrecognized talking at cross purposes among geneticists and naturalists due to the failure to perceive that the naturalists were talking about ultimate causes (origins of genotypes) while the geneticists were pursuing proximate causes (interaction between the translation of the genetic program and the environment).[14] Overcoming these barriers to synthesis required: 1) clarification that the biological species concept emphasizes the species as a community of populations, and the major attribute characterizing a species is the set of isolating mechanisms keeping it distinct from other species, notions originally present in Darwin's early writings but lost from view by subsequent generations of biologists; and 2) bridge-builders with sufficient intellectual breadth to demonstrate that the findings of the geneticists could be united with the work of systematists and paleontologists to dissolve the concern that Darwinian theory could not account for macroevolution.

Among the twelve individuals Mayr identifies as most important for the synthesis, Theodosius Dobzhansky and George Gaylord Simpson were major contributors to this last objective, but Mayr was equally important, and I want to linger a bit on his contribution, because it is crucial for other aspects of the construction of disciplinary narratives I want to explore. In discussing his contribution to the synthesis of populational approaches and macroevolution Mayr notes that in chapter 10 of his 1942 book[15], he treated the problem directly in terms of the notion of small founder populations on the periphery of large, widespread, parental populations. Mayr later introduced the notion of a genetic revolution in these founder populations to account for rapid speciation.[16] In this recounting of the disciplinary narrative, Mayr was keen to point out who the "bad guys" were, the recalcitrant individuals unable to make the "paradigm switch" to use the Kuhnian language Mayr himself was contemplating at the time he wrote the essay. Foremost among these was Richard Goldschmidt. Goldschmidt had been one of the major proponents of non-Darwinian mechanisms for macroevolution, indeed, the very worst of all, namely, discontinuous, systemic mutations, which came to be dubbed "hopeful monsters" by some critics. Mayr labels Goldschmidt an essentialist and typologist. [17] Mayr notes that he was so angered by Goldschmidt's efforts to rain on the parade of the neo-Darwinian synthesis in his lectures leading up to the publication of The Material Basis of Evolution in 1940, precisely at the moment when the synthesis was coalescing around Dobzhansky's Genetics and the Origin of Species (1937), that "even though personally I [Mayr] got along very well with Goldschmidt, I was thoroughly furious at his book, and much of the first draft of Systematics and the Origin of Species was written in angry reaction to Goldschmidt's total neglect of such overwhelming and convincing evidence."[18]

Reference to Goldschmidt functions in two ways in Mayr's disciplinary narrative of evolutionary biology. On the one hand Goldschmidt's emphatic denial of one of the main tenets of classical Darwinism provides Mayr the opportunity of discussing the cognitive foundations of the field. Moreover, like creationists of old, Goldschmidt represents the constant threat of undoing the synthesis around which the unity of biology had been proclaimed in the late 1940s, and which had been the field's main claim to growth in the 1950s and 60s. I cannot be sure how much Goldschmidt's hopeful monsters and their resurrection in punctuated evolutionary theory was regarded as a threat to the discipline in 1974 when Mayr wrote this paper--perhaps other participants in today's meeting can say something definitive about this--but the timing is interesting and illustrates the importance of history for practical aims of science. I simply note that Eldredge and Gould's early papers on punctuated equilibrium date from 1971 and 1972,[19] and that when Mayr and Provine were busy completing the proofs for the celebratory synthesis volume Gould was completing his own proofs for a paper entitled, "Is a New and General Theory of Evolution Emerging?"[20]

Switching to Gould's contributions, we see once again the fruitful role of history for the practicing scientist--fruitful in providing not facts, but occasions to contemplate first principles and clarify the cognitive foundations of the field. Given that he was participating in a move to reorganize the boundaries of evolutionary theory drawn to a considerable degree by Ernst Mayr, it is unsurprising that Gould chose to integrate a historical treatment of considerations of heterochrony and developmental timing into his ongoing theoretical efforts. Let me remind you of what Gould says in Ontogeny and Phylogeny about the need for retrieving the subject from the dustbin of history:

The conclusion of this section is potentially alarming to disciplinary historians of the scientist stripe: Gould insists on thinking contemporary biological issues in terms of historical efforts to theorize the same problem. Deeply intertwined with this effort of rethinking is a strategic intent of historical demystification: since, according to Gould's epistemological assumptions, facts don't resolve the issue, crucial to the sort of theorizing he wants to engage in is a revisitation and possible rewriting of the history. One might say--using a Latourism--that an obligatory passage point to the space for theorizing Gould desires to reach is blocked by the neo-Darwinian synthesis, particularly the version of it promoted by Ernst Mayr. Let's turn for a moment to some of Gould's own reflections on the synthesis to catch the flavor of the practical value of history for the practicing scientist.

A central example of Gould's effort to challenge the central disciplinary narrative of evolutionary biology is his paper "The Hardening of the Modern Synthesis." Gould states that in re-examining this sacred ground he is not just a disinterested observer:

This interesting study argues that a great deal of pluralism existed in the writings of evolutionists in the 1930s. While the principal theories of this period insisted that explanations at all levels be based upon known genetic causes operating with populations and laboratory stocks, there continued to be a variety of theories, Darwinian and otherwise, compatible with this goal. Gould focuses on the commitment to various forms of nonadaptationist argument, such as genetic drift and quantum evolution, in the writings of the early fathers of the synthesis to illustrate that even they admitted possibilities of nonadaptive change as crucial in speciation. Through careful examination of successive editions of the work of Dobzhansky and Simpson in the 1940s, Gould argues that the pluralistic version of the synthesis was altered to accommodate cumulative natural selection leading to adaptation as the mechanism of evoutionary change. "The synthesis hardened," Gould writes, "by elevating one theory to prominence among the several that supported the primary methodological claim of the original version--and by insisting to the point of dogma and ridicule that selection and adaption were just about everything."[23] Gould and Eldredge have persistently argued for the need to widen the scope of current theorizing in evolution; that the synthesis, while important, is not broad enough to encompass the scope of current activity in the sciences relevant to evolution. Eldredge writes, "In a nutshell, the synthesis limits attention to only a few of the biological entities that seem to me to exist in the world and to be involved in the evolutionary process. Genes (in a premolecular phase of understanding of course,) organisms, demes (to some degree), and species are explicitly addressed in the writings of the synthesis; monophyletic taxa are but dimly perceived: and ecological entities (populations, communities, and regional biotas) are not even addressed."[24] For Eldredge at stake in addressing these concerns is literally the construction of a new biology and the recognition of a new ontology--one with more entities than genes for instance. For Eldredge as for Gould, history, by reopening once closed options, is a useful tool in the enterprise of theorizing.

I have been concentrating on the practical value of history of science for scientists in their efforts to carve out disciplinary space for their theoretical work. In this context, the history is written more or less for other practitioners and is a narrativized form of philosophical dialogue about foundations and boundaries. As noted earlier, however, the history of science can also be of practical use to scientists in conveying a sense of what they do to nonspecialist publics, with the aim of constituting a supportive environment for their work. Gould's work for popular audiences is an excellent guide to this genre. In works like Time's Arrow,Time's Cycle, for example, Gould has attempted to debunk the myth that science operates via simple induction from facts to theories; he insists that scientists are not robotic inference machines, but human beings immersed in culture. By exploring the role of a deep structuring principle in the Western cultural tradition, the dichotomy between narrative history (what he calls time's arrow) and immanent laws (time's cycle), Gould aims to demonstrate the role cultural presuppositions have performed as enabling resources in articulating the notion of deep time in geology. "It is important," Gould writes, "that we, as working scientists, combat these myths of our profession as something superior and apart. The myths may serve us well in the short and narrow as rationale for a lobbying strategy--give us the funding and leave us alone, for we know what we're doing and you don't understand anyway. But science can only be harmed in the long run by its self-proclaimed separation as a priesthood guarding a sacred rite called the scientific method. ...The understanding of science--one need hardly repeat the litany--becomes ever more crucial in a world of biotechnology, computers, and bombs."[25] To make a place for his science it is not only necessary to transform the internal landscape of his discipline. It is crucial as well to find the deep channels of resonance for his science in the cultural environment. Thus, in a similar vein Gould's book, Wonderful Life, uses the amazing fauna of the Burgess Shale to combat deeply held stereotypes, such as the determinate march of progress and life as a single-origined, continuously progressive and diversifying tree or cone; Gould intends to replace the binarism of determinism and randomness--the very metaphors with which the synthesis built its own authority--with new metaphors and imagery suited to appreciate contingency and history. If, as Gould suggests in many studies, science is a cultural construction deeply dependent upon metaphors and narrative structures, it may well be that to gain acceptance for the new ontology and view of life implicit in the theory of punctuated equilibria, more will be required than amassing empirical evidence. The following passage by Eldredge is suggestive:

As these examples from Gould and Eldredge suggest, some scientists are quite self-conscious about using history to create a space for their work. The traditional language of scientific autonomy and objectivity masks an awareness--an awareness that some scientists are willing to acknowledge--that science is both a culture unto itself and also culturally embedded. To establish their disciplines vis-a-vis other practitioners and larger audiences, scientists need history.


[1] George Sarton, A History of Science, 2 vols. (New York; W.W. Norton, 1970, reprint of 1952 original), vol. 1, p. viii.

[2] James B.. Conant, American Scientist, Vol. 48 , 1960, p. 528.

[3] Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (Baltimore; Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Gerald Holton, Science and Anti-Science (Cambridge, Mass.; Harvard University Press, 1993.

[4] See "Dialogue: A Discussion Among Historians of Science and Scientists," in The Origins of Modern Biochemistry: A Retrospect on Proteins, P. R. Srinivasan, Joseph S. Fruton, and John T. Edsall, eds, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 325, 1979, pp. 149-169.

[5] Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 138.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ernst Mayr and William B. Provine, eds., The Evolutionary Synthesis: Perspectives on the Unification of Biology (Cambridge, Mass.; Harvard University Press, 1980). Although I am concentrating here on Mayr's efforts as a historian and philosopher, it should be noted that he has engaged in historical reconstructions of the sort described by Kuhn above in his famous biological work, Principles of Systematic Zoology. For the revised edition of the 1969, Mayr added a chapter on the history and philosophy of biology (ch. 4) absent in the editions of 1942 and 1953.

[8] For a discussion of this point, see Ernst Mayr, "When is Historiography Whiggish?" Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 51, 1990, pp. 301-309.

[9] Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Inheritance, Evolution (Cambridge, Mass.; Harvard University Press, 1982), p. vii.

[10] See Phillip R. Sloan, "Essay review of The Growth of Biological Thought, " Journal of the History of Biology, Vol. 18, 1985, pp. 145-153.

[11] Michael Ghiselin, The Triumph of the Darwinian Method (Berkeley; University of California Press, 1969)

[12] Mayr explicitly points to the importance of the history of science for biologists in this paper. He writes:

More attention to the History of Science is needed, as much by scientists as by historians, and especially by biologists, and this should mean a deliberate attempt to understand the thouhts of the great masters of the past, to see in what circumstances or intellectual milieu their ideas were formed, where they took the wrong turning or stopped short on the right track.

Ernst Mayr, "Prologue: Some Thoughts on the History of the Evolutionary Synthesis," in Ernst Mayr and William B. Provine, eds., The Evolutionary Synthesis: Perspectives on the Unification of Biology (Cambridge, Mass.; Harvard University Press, 1980), p. 28.

[13] Ibid., p. 2

[14] Ibid., p. 9.

[15] Ernst Mayr, Systematics and the Origin of Species (New York; Columbia University Press, 1942).

[16] Ernst Mayr, "Change of Genetic Environment and Evolution, in J. Huxley, ed., Evolution as a Process (London; Allen & Unwin, 1954), pp. 157-180.

[17] Ernst Mayr, "Prologue: Some Thoughts on the History of the Evolutionary Synthesis," in Ernst Mayr and William B. Provine, eds., The Evolutionary Synthesis: Perspectives on the Unification of Biology (Cambridge, Mass.; Harvard University Press, 1980), pp. 29-30, p. 33, p. 38.

[18] Ernst Mayr, "Epilogue," Ibid., p. 420.

[19] Niles Eldredge, "The Allopatric Model and Phylogeny ion Paleozoic Invertebrates," Evolution, Vol. 25, 1971, pp. 156-167.

Niles Eldredge and Stephen J. Gould, "Punctuated Equilibria: An Alternative to Phyletic Gradualism," in T.J.M. Schopf, ed., Models in Paleobiology (San Francisco; Freeman, Cooper, 1972), pp. 82-115.

[20] Stephen J. Gould, Is a New and General Theory of Evolution Emerging?" Paleobiology, Vol. 6, 1980, pp119-130.

[21] Stephen J. Gould, Ontogeny and Phylogeny (Cambridge, Mass.; Harvard University Press, 1977), pp. 5-7.

[22] Stephen J. Gould, "The Hardening of the Modern Synthesis," in Marjorie Grene, ed., Dimensions of Darwinism: Themes and Counterthemes in Twentieth-Century Evolutinary Theory (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 75-76.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Niles Eldredge, Unfinished Synthesis: Biological Hierarchies and Modern Evolutionary Thought (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 7.

[25] Stephen J. Gould, Time's Arrow. Time's Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time (Cambridge, Mass; Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 7.

[26] Niles Eldredge, Time Frames: The Evolution of Punctuated Equilibria (Princeton; Princeton University Press, 1985), p. 16.