Iconoclasts, both visionary and misguided, have advanced modern biology
By OREN HARMAN and MICHAEL R. DIETRICH
The history of science is invariably told through the prism of its heroes, and modern biology is no exception. Through those heroes, historians have analyzed the growth of the life sciences, the rise of their institutions and subfields, and the evolution of biologists' understanding of nature. But these histories are not the whole story.
The story of biology can also be told through the gaze of its rebels: those men and women who challenged the prevailing pictures of life. Some of these rebels have been called cranks, others gadflies, still others prophetic. Some of them were in fact wrong; others, though lambasted for their views at the time, will be found — or have already been found — to deserve more-just treatment. The value of studying those who disagreed does not lie in the vindication of previously maligned concepts, theories, or findings. Rather, scientific mavericks have much to teach the challenged about themselves, about the value of "fruitful errors," and about the many paths to discovery and innovation in science.
In the just-published book Rebels, Mavericks, and Heretics in Biology, we commissioned essays on 19 of the most notable iconoclasts in the last 150 years of biological research. Our goal was to understand the dynamics of dissent as we studied how those biologists sought to topple scientific icons ... .
One of the first generalizations that emerges from these historical cases of rebellion and innovation is how often iconoclasm results when scientists transgress disciplinary boundaries.
Carl Woese's discovery in the late 1970s of new kingdoms of microbial life was a product of his synthesis of microbiology and molecular evolutionary biology. Woese sought to solve a problem that more-conservative microbiologists believed didn't even exist (they assumed bacteria constituted a single kingdom). The historian Jan Sapp's reflection on Woese and his work captures the transdisciplinary effect, when he writes about the "saltational effects of the lateral transfer of concepts and techniques between fields": "Small changes, refinements, occur within disciplines; large-scale changes may result from the sharing of innovations between them."
At first glance, iconoclasm conjures images of research that is novel, pathbreaking, disruptive, and forward-looking. Indeed, we found several biologists who fit that description well. Barbara McClintock's work on transposable genetic elements and Roger Sperry's research on the split brain were initially considered too novel, were actively resisted, and eventually earned McClintock and Sperry Nobel Prizes.
Between the two extremes of reaction and innovation, an interesting designation emerges. For many of the "rebels" in biology, there is a sense that they are both simultaneously behind and ahead of their times. Darlington harked back to a theory-based outlook exemplified by 19th-century giants such as Weismann, and which, although considered "unscientific" by peers, would be picked up again in the future by theoreticians and experimentalists trying to understand the role of dynamic genetic systems in evolution. McClintock and Goldschmidt, too, tied development and heredity to evolution in the 19th-century tradition, and, though they were frowned at by contemporaries, actually pointed to problems that would be dealt with only decades into the future.
With respect to the scientific rebel, then, a Tolstoyan thesis emerges: While all conventional practitioners in the life sciences may be said to be conventional in the same way, all rebels seem to rebel in their own particular fashion. ... Singling out the rebel helps us understand how and why we come to our beliefs and practices, and how and why we struggle to hold on to them.
Raymond Arthur Dart, the man who discovered Australopithecus africanus in 1924, is a good example. While the evidence he unearthed seemed to strongly suggest an African origin of mankind, it took almost two generations to adopt that revolution in our understanding of human evolution. As Dart's student Phillip Tobias shows in our book, that lag had more to do with the political resistance to such an admission than with scientific evidence.
Barbara McClintock, the famed geneticist, may have helped create her own image as a rebellious personality fighting against the odds of a marginalizing scientific community not quite able to appreciate the brilliance of her own, bucking scientific claims.
If one single quality unites all the scientists we feature in our book, it is stubbornness, their steadfastness in their challenges to orthodox thought. George Bernard Shaw wrote: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man." That may or may not be true in science; it would be a stretch to call all iconoclastic biologists "unreasonable," and it is unclear how some iconoclasms have benefited mankind.
The issue of scientific legitimacy cannot rest on the simple dichotomy between what ends up being "right" versus what ends up being "wrong."[snip]
Telling the stories of biology's rebels, mavericks, and heretics is an exercise in neither vindication nor rehabilitation. These stories reveal that the history of biology is also a history of dissent.[snip] Focusing on the moments of dissent, however, provides a valuable contrast to those ideas and biologists currently considered to be correct. Instead of a seamless narrative of progress or even of heroic struggle to find the truth, we get a history marked by innovation, resistance, and defiant theories and personalities. [snip]
Oren Harman is an assistant professor in the graduate program for science, technology, and society at Bar-Ilan University (Israel), and Michael R. Die-trich is an associate professor of the history and philosophy of biology at Dartmouth College. This essay is adapted from a book they edited, Rebels, Mavericks, and Heretics in Biology, just published by Yale University
The Chronicle Review / Volume 54 / Issue 44 / Page B7 /
Rebels, Mavericks, and Heretics in Biology / Edited and with an Introduction by Oren Harman and Michael R. Dietrich and with an Epilogue by R.C. Lewonti /May 19, 2008 / 416 p. / ISBN: 9780300116397 ; ISBN-10: 030011639X /
Scientists featured in this volume:
Alfred Russel Wallace
Raymond Arthur Dart
C. D. Darlington
Oswald T. Avery
Vero Copner Wynne-Edwards
William D. Hamilton
Stephen Jay Gould
Daniel S. Simberloff