Balancing Value Systems

A short book review:

Stephen Bocking, Ecologists and Environmental Politics: A History of Contemporary Ecology (Yale University Press, 1997)

In this  book, Stephen Bocking (Trent University) presents the history of ecology and its role in society by looking at the discipline’s respective emergence in Britain, United States, and Canada. Although at times Bocking’s writing style becomes tedious, his arguments nevertheless are consistent, and he does a thorough job raising key issues regarding the relationship between the role of science (ecology) and political demands (environmental politics) by analyzing how institutions can steer the direction of scientific research. Through his case studies—the Nature Conservancy, Oak Ridge Laboratory, the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study, and the Ontario Fisheries Research Laboratory—Bocking provides not only a history of the growth of an institution, but also the way in which ecology itself was transformed with the institutions’ growth. Research agendas, funding sources, and political issues all played a central role in developing the field of ecology.

One key theme that emerges is the idea that scientific agendas are established for social and economical priorities. Throughout our history, this claim is apparent: from Nazi holocaust, to the Manhattan Project, and even to cancer research. Developing on these notions, Bocking invokes a central political question: should ecology contribute to environmental politics? Through his examples, Bocking argues that historically, specific environmental concerns has affected ecology’s place in society and its status as a discipline—such as Britain’s need to preserve its historic countryside after devastating ruins following WWII; the iron triangle of the Joint Commission of Atomic Energy, the Atomic Energy Commission and the nuclear industry that governed available research projects for ecologists; and the decline of the Great Lakes fisheries. However, if science is under the control—or at least governed by—political and social institutions, where does the autonomy of science lie, if at all? Does science always need to be planned in order to be of maximum benefit to society? Is there any freedom in science?

Bocking subtly answers these questions, glazing over them as he invokes his argument for the growth of ecology as reflective of social and political agendas. His arguments are presented within the context of the Science Wars, as science and society are often viewed as antithetical, especially on epistemological grounds. The source of the battle resides on the role of value systems in science, since an absence from values is required in order to maintain a pure epistemological stance; for science to require an absence, if not complete disregard from values, it needs to live beyond the borders of society, an approach that is riddled with hostile criticism, especially towards a secularized, authoritative nature of science. Through ecology’s history, there were instances of conflict that centered on competing value systems. I was particularly astounded and amused by Bocking’s brief review of the Hudson River dispute, a conflict between environmentalists and utilities: “The clash of values and interests—between those wishing to preserve fish populations and those aiming to minimize the cost of power generation facilities—became redefined as a technical dispute” (111). This dispute while demonstrating the demand for environmental research, also demonstrates how scientific values can so easily be shifted and manipulated for political goals.

Max Weber once declared that all science—even the social sciences—needs to be “value-free,” a notion apparently lost in the blurring of boundary lines between science and society since Weber’s heyday. Ideological applications of science or at least the extreme exploitation of scientific claims for social agendas—especially in biology—have apparently raised nothing more than perversions of science: Social Darwinism, crainometery, the hereditary principle of IQ, Sociobiology, and other intellectual disasters. If scientific values are framed for social and political goals, can science be “value-free” in order to maintain its pure Baconian pursuits of knowledge? The militarized, institutionalized approach of post-WWII eras traditionally supported the grand scale funding for what is perceived as “mission-based” science, a contrary shift from the rationalization and noble pursuit of science, and a long way from what Derek de Solla Price calls Little Science as the image of “the lone long-haired genius, mouldering in an attic or basement workshop, despised by society as a nonconformist, existing in a state of near poverty, motivated by the flame burning within him” (Price, 1963). Bocking’s book is an excellent addition for providing a balance between science, society, and values.

Sunday Readings: Early Modern Carnivalesque

Sharon Howard over at Early Modern Notes just posted the latest Carnivalesque for a fantastic Sunday reading. Go over there and check it out!

Article Review: M. Fissell’s “Hairy Women and Naked Truths” (2003)

Oh, I apologize, Dear Reader! I realize it’s been a couple of days since I last posted. September has overwhelmed me already (seriously–I’m counting down the days until I go on vacation). I’m running tutorials for the first time (for a course on the history of evolutionary biology) and I underestimated the amount of prep work required. What this means is that all dissertation-related work has taken a backseat to all other projects and responsibilities: tutorials, working and organizing for two (!) conferences, writing an article, and reading for two reading groups. BUSY.

However, I’ve been thinking a lot about representations how it relates to bodies of knowledge. I recently read Mary E. Fissell’s (John Hopkins) “Hairy Women and Naked Truths: Gender and Politics of Knowledge in Aristotle’s Masterpiece” (William and Mary Quarterly LX (2003): 43-74) and was marveled on her notion of “vernacular epistemology”—or, how ordinary people understood knowledge and knowledge claims.

Fissell’s article focuses on the idea of knowledge being represented, preserved for interpretations by an audience. She looks at the frontispiece of various editions and reprints of Aristotle’s Masterpiece, which was first published in 1684 and was neither a masterpiece nor written by Aristotle. Rather, the treatises were guides for pregnancy arnd childbirth and were bestsellers during their times. The Masterpiece spanned numerous reprints and editions throughout the eighteenth century, and it was a grand competitor in a “crowded market” on the topic of childbirth and reproduction, and Masterpiece I was actually composed of two earlier works: Lemnius’ Secret Miracles of Nature, and the anonymous Complete Midwives Practice Enlarged. Masterpiece II (1697) included a (unauthorized) reprint of John Sadler’s A Sick Womans Private Looking Glass. Masterpiece III (1710) as well, included parts from earlier texts, including those in previous printings of the Masterpiece.

Fissell’s focus on the text derives from its questioning frontispiece, which illustrates two “monstrous” individuals: a hairy woman, and a black baby (born to white parents), and she analyzes the various shifts in representation that is produced with each edition and reprint of the Masterpiece. The original edition contains the hairy woman and black baby, both the result of the maternal imagination, and Fissell questions the paradoxical nature of the illustration: why would a book intended for pregnant women contain such an image of monstrosity on its front cover? She argues that it actually served to represent arguments about knowledge and secrecy, or “vernacular epistemology.” Thus, for Fissell, revealing the meaning of the image(s) would provide clues to histories of gender relations and natural knowledge.

As theories on gender relations shifted through the eighteenth century (from paternity towards maternity), as did the politics of popular knowledge, the images on the Masterpiece was cut to represent the shift. Masterpiece I was a standard account of conception, pregnancy, labour, delivery and newborn care, and also contained Lemnius’ prints and discussions on monstrosity, which tried to provide a naturalistic account for such malformations. Masterpiece II includes an image of a medical consultant, with a doctor, as Fissell notes the aim was to provide women information to discuss with their doctor, instead of having the book replace the doctor (which it actually was done). Masterpiece III, was different that the first two, its representations a combined attempt of both I and II, as it places the hair woman and the black baby in the learned man’s study, “poised at the threshold between nature and culture.” The elements portrayed in III reflect the philosopher “Aristotle” as a figure of learned culture, the hair woman an element of Nature, animality, savageness and lust – all measured in excess. The black baby also embodies elements of comparison: against “whiteness” or “fairness,” reflections on tensions of “race,” and even notions of heredity, as popular texts emphasized the “two-seeded model,” where both parents shaped the appearance of the offspring.

Fissell also notes that the relationship between “seeing” and “knowing” was well-represented in the text, and the binary relationships which recapitulates the vernacular epistemology of the book, as knowledge was sexualized, placed in political terms (paternity crisis), though nowhere in the text are the symbols of the images explained. She also notes that later editions of the Masterpiece replaced the hairy woman with a naked or half-clad one, who was to represent truth, beauty or nature, reflecting a transformation of society towards politeness, especially with a shift in gender relations and views on women’s sexuality in the eighteenth century. The philosopher as well, becomes subordinate to the nude woman, and as a reflection of politeness, the black child becomes white. The book’s representations, therefore, are used as a mirror-image of society and its cultural beliefs and values.

Fissell also published her book, Vernacular Bodies: The  Politics of Reproduction in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2007).

I haven’t had a chance to read it, but it’s nicely sitting on my bookshelf and waiting for me to go through my reading list.

Reading List

Recently, a friend of mine asked me for some suggestions for scholarly literature on medical pluralism, the medical marketplace, and the “world of goods” of early modern Europe. I’m always a fan of reading lists, so I thought I’d share with you the list I provided. By no means is this a complete list (i.e. it only contains books, not scholarly articles) and I’m sure there are other wonderful sources I’ve omitted…but feel free to drop a suggestion or two in the comments section!

John Brewer & Roy Porter (ed.), Consumption and the World of Goods (1993)

Laurence Brockliss & Colin Jones , The Medical World of Early Modern France (1997)

Robert Bud, Bernard Finn & Helmuth Trischler (eds.), Manifesting Medicine: Bodies and Machines (1996)

W.F. Bynum, Science and the Practice of Medicine in the Nineteenth Century (2004)

Lisa Cartwright, Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine’s Visual Culture (1995)

Harold J. Cook, Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age (2007)

Audrey B. Davis, Medicine and its Technology: an Introduction to the history of Medical Instrumentation (1981)

Anne Digby, Making a Medical Living: Doctors and Patients in the English Market for Medicine, 1720-1911 (1994)

David Gentilcore, Medical Charlatanism in Early Modern Italy (2006)

Mark S. Jenner & Patrick Wallis, Medicine and the Market in England and its Colonies, c.1450-c.1850 (2007)

John Kirkup, The Evolution of Surgical Instruments: An Illustrated History from Ancient Times to the Twentieth Century (2006)

Christopher J. Lawrence (ed.), Medical Theory, Surgical Practice: Studies in The History of Surgery (1992)

Neil McKendrick, John Brewer & John H. Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England (1982)

Margaret Pelling, Medical Conflicts in Early Modern London: Patronage, Physicians, and Irregular Practitioners, 1550-1640 (2003)

Jeanne. M. Peterson, The Medical Profession in Mid-Victorian London (1978)

John V. Pickstone (ed.), Medical Innovations in Historical Perspective (1992)

John V. Pickstone, Ways of Knowing: A New history of Science, Technology, and Medicine (2001)

Roy Porter, Quacks: Fakers and Charlatans in English Medicine (2001)

Gianna Pomata, Contracting a Cure: Patients, Healers, and the Law in Early Modern Bologna (1998)

Stanley Joel Reiser, Medicine and the Reign of Technology (1978)

Pamela H. Smith & Paula Findlen (eds.), Merchants and Marvels: Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe (2002)

Carsten Timmermann & Julie Anderson (eds.), Devices and Designs: Medical Technologies in Historical Perspective (2006)