Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, History and Philosophy of Science

Excerpt: Outsider Scientists


An excerpt from Outsider Scientists: Routes to Innovation in Biology, edited by Oren Harman and Michael R. Dietrich



Both intellectually and institutionally, the life sciences occupy a fascinating middle ground between the physical and exact sciences on the one hand, and the social sciences and humanities on the other. If biology were an animal, it would be a duck-billed platypus—something that appears chimeric, yet is fully rooted in its own historical lineage of accumulating adaptations, tinkering, and change.

Like that strange aquatic mammal, “half bird, half beast,” its features point to its origins and ecology. Biology as a science has come into being as a patchwork, assuming its present visage as a consequence of myriad interactions between different traditions of knowledge, method, and philosophy while maintaining an overarching quest for understanding of the natural world. Indeed, historically, many researchers have come from outside biology to ask fundamentally biological questions. These outsiders have played a crucial and defining role in the growth of modern biology; they have brought new skills and ideas to the “inside” and have thus added something new to biology. As a consequence, biology can feel sometimes as if it is a strange hybrid—with a bill, a flat tail, fur, and webbed feet. After all, biologists include among their number men and women who sit before computers crunching numbers, as well as cavers who crawl through subterranean spaces in search of lizards; and biology counts among its tools parch-clamps and test tubes and microchip arrays and bird-snares. Its worldviews range from reductionism to dualism, idealism to emergence. It can often seem confusing: is biology really just one thing? Like that “highly interesting novelty,” as the beguiling Australian bird-and-reptile-like mammal was once called, it is indeed one thing. And like the platypus, biology has been formed by adapting forces coming from outside, from the environment of other disciplines and practices. The platypus may seem like a paradox, because it appears to be chimeric. Biology likewise appears chimeric, but has attained an internal integrity and innovative potential from those external forces.

The molecular revolution of the late twentieth century, for example, was to a large degree stimulated by the influx of physicists into biology, applying as they did both a different style and approach to the problem of heredity. Ecology and population biology, too, have been determinatively shaped by the arrival of mathematicians to these fields, using tools form their own discipline to resolve biological problems with unfamiliar instruments. Linguists have applied their training and tools to investigate problems in cognition, social scientists to attack the puzzles of animal behavior, philosophers to probe conceptual foundations, writers to sharpen their pens on evolution, computer scientists and engineers to try to crack the mystery of life. As such, these “outsiders” have supplied important sources of innovation in biology, and, each in his or her way, contributed to its patchwork design. What is of interest to us here is the manner in which scientists recruited from different disciplines have helped, and continue to help, produce novel approaches, concepts, theories, experiments, practices, insights, and—ultimately—novel scientific understanding

This book seeks to provide historical descriptions and analyses for the ways in which researchers from the “outside” have been sources of significant innovation. The collection of cases assembled here critically examines these sources of innovation by considering how different researchers were able to integrate ideas, techniques, and methods across divergent scientific communities. As will become apparent, these innovations were NOT idiosyncratic accidents, but the result of the careful work of making intellectual connections, translating idioms, creating languages, and fostering new forms of collaboration that bridged training and experience in the biological sciences with a rich array of fields, disciplines, and perspectives. In the end, outsider interventions have given biology its peculiar form.



In Outsider Scientists we conceive of outsiders in terms of academic disciplines. We are interested in scholars trained or practicing in a nonbiological discipline who moved into some branch of biology. These disciplinary newcomers or outsiders bring with them perspectives, skill, and training that are often not shared by insiders—those trained within biology. The fundamental question were are considering asks how moving from a field outside of biology has served as a significant source of scientific innovation. We have asked our authors to consider what features of their subjects’ original scientific training and research experience in a nonbiological context allowed them to make innovative contributions to the field of biology that they eventually joined. But a word of caution: we do not wish to hang too much on the category of discipline, because we do not think that the question of training and innovation depends strictly on moving from one discipline to another, nor do we believe that disciplines, as such, are hard and fixed categories. Rather we are interested in considering movement between communities of scientists with divergent practices, paradigms, or habitus and the role that this intellectual movement plays in innovation within biology.

Movement between communities occurs not just between disciplines but also within them. Increasingly, recognized subdisciplines have developed almost insurmountable barriers, as specializations divide the landscape and render movement more difficult within. This is true for biology as much if not more than for physics, chemistry, and computing. For that reason, we also consider a number of examples in which researchers from one subdiscipline within biology crossed into a second subdiscipline to make contributions here. An exemplary case would be Ilya Metchnikoff moving from developmental biology to immunology, or Francois Jacob, moving from work on bacteria to mice. Such cases are similar to those of nonbiologists crossing into biology because here too, researchers bring with them completely new skills, perspectives, and training. These particular outsiders we term “insider-outsiders.”

Our definition of the outsider, then, is restricted. Excluded from it are outsiders on account of religion, ethnicity, gender, and character—though for all of these, to be sure, fascinating examples abound. The sole and guiding principle for Outsider Scientists is that the individual in question should have moved from one intellectual community, with its distinctive practices and established conceptions, into an area of biology new to that individual. Because these migrating scholars often bring with them tools, techniques, theories, and practices, we could have chosen to follow these instrumentalities into new areas, but we chose instead to follow individuals into new communities and institutions. The biographical focus of each of the following chapters is not intended to portray scientists as lone knowers, but as members of new disciplinary communities—members who significantly alter the practices of those communities.

Making judgments as to who is an outsider and who isn’t, however, necessarily remains a complicated affair. To begin with, one needs to assume that there is an “inside” outsiders must enter, and this was not always true in biology. Lamarck may have coined the term in 1802, but biology as a coherent field and well-defined community, with institutions and academic programs, particular subdisciplines, research agenda, and journals, took time to establish, and of course remains in flux. When does one mark the inception of a field: When its name is coined? When the first society of practitioners is founded? When the subject is included as a field of study in the universities? However one approaches this problem, it is clear that the trajectory and growth of biology was unique in different historical contexts, such as in the German-, French-, and English-speaking world.

Wary of the slipperiness—and to a degree the arbitrariness—of defining a hard and fast historical date for the birth of biology as a discipline, we have chosen to include in this volume a first section that will treat a number of early examples of interesting nineteenth-century practitioners whose engagement with problems of a living nature illustrates the very difficulty involved in speaking about “outsiders” with any confidence before the late nineteenth century. Gregor Mendel was a clergyman who had little or no formal training in anything called “biology.” The worlds that he uniquely united—experimental physics gleaned at the University of Vienna, the middle-European business of practical plant and animal breeding, and the local scientific society at Brünn—gave birth to a research program that would play a crucial role in the establishment of genetics and the establishment of biology as an identifiable field years later. Mendel helps us understand, both intellectually and in terms of earlier local traditions, what the creation of an “inside” for modern biology entails. Similarly, the role of Pasteur the businessman and chemist, moving into what was rapidly becoming an institutional biologie in France, helps put a finger on the process of the birth of the disciplinary divides that defined a distinct biology, as does Felix d’Herelle’s uniquely self-taught (and fascinatingly international) trajectory in microbiology. Finally, to round off the early examples, the contributions of Samuel Butler, the Victorian novelist, serve to trigger a discussion of the ways in which literary engagement with the idea of evolution challenged a number of crucial divides; the science-philosophy divide via the teleology and causality debate, and the public-private divide via the debate concerning the proper forum for negotiating scientific disputes. These four individuals play an important role in allowing us more carefully to consider the criteria for “inside” and “outside” in biology as they developed historically.

Read more about Outsider Scientists here.

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