Biology Today, the ’70s textbook that would have made me a biologist

Biology Today cover

A few weeks ago, thanks to the blog A Journey Round My Skull (via Crooked Timber), I discovered Biology Today, an amazing college biology textbook from 1972. You can get the basics from the Wikipedia article I put together: [[Biology Today]]. But there’s a lot more to it than what I could put into a Wikipedia article without running afoul of the “no original research” policy–and a lot more than I can fit into a blog post. The reviewer of a bowdlerized later edition got it right: “The true story of the development of Biology Today would make an interesting book in itself.”

The text of Biology Today was apparently assembled from the work of a long list of “contributing consultants”. The list is star-studded, including James D. Watson and six other Nobel laureates (as well as Michael Crichton). The list–and the text–is dominated by molecular biology, which was reaching perhaps its cultural acme in the early 1970s.

A Journey Round My Skull has collected on Flickr many (but far from all) of the interesting and unusual “artist’s interpretations” and other images that make Biology Today such a magnificent artifact. Many of the diagrams are outstanding both aesthetically and conceptually.

The most lavish interleaf illustration is supposed to depict the “central dogma” of molecular biology with a three-panel view into the holy of holies, the DNA-filled nucleus, and a two-panel view of nucleic acids making their way into the cytoplasm and translating genetic information into proteins:

Biology Today nucleus

Biology Today cell interior

Molecular biologists, by the 1970s, thought of themselves not only as the future of science, but of culture more generally. Many adopted the scientific humanism that had been championed by the previous generation of public biologists like Julian Huxley, although the mechanistic and cybernetic worldview of molecular biology, rather than the neo-Darwinism of Huxley and his allies, was their gospel. For intellectually- and sexually liberated biologists (like Watson), anthropology and sexology displaced parochial religious ideas, and science had nothing to offer religionists but contempt or pity. Behold Noah’s Ark, from the chapter on “Human Sexual Behavior”:

Biology Today Noah's Ark

Evolution’s role in this textook is a curious one. The only well-known figure who can be considered primarily an evolutionary biologist is Richard Lewontin, a pioneer of molecular evolution and a frequent critic of adaptationism, sociobiology, and much of mainstream evolutionary theory in the 1960s and 1970s. The chapter on population genetics, which introduces the mechanisms of evolution (and doesn’t come until page 672!) looks like it was written by Lewontin; it treats, in turn, “genetic equilibrium”, “genetic drift”, “mutation”, “selection”, and “multiple factors”, with no particular emphasis on natural selection. Of course, whether one was a follower of the selection-centric modern evolutionary synthesis or not, Darwin was (and still is) the patron saint of biology:
Biology Today Michaelangelo's Darwin

But in Biology Today, veneration of nature, of the scientific life, and of humanity trumped veneration of Darwin. In the lyrical ten-page illustrated preface from biochemist Albert Szent-Györgyi, there is a passage (one of many) that could never be found in a mainstream biology textbook today, when creationists have turned their energies (in the form of Intelligent Design) to molecular biology, rather than the organismal evolutionary biology that earlier generations of creationists (and evolutionists) focused on. Working his way up through the levels of biological complexity, Szent-Györgyi makes his way to the mind:

“I do not think that the extremely complex speech center of the human brain, involving a network formed by thousands of nerve cells and fibers, was created by random mutations that happened to improve the chances of survival of individuals. I must believe that man built a speech center when he had something to say, and he developed the structure of this center to higher complexity as he had more to say. I cannot accept the notion that this capacity arose through random alterations, relying on the survival of the fittest. I believe that some principle must have guided the development toward the kind of speech center that was needed.”

For both cultural and scientific reasons, that’s not something you would catch many biologists saying today.

The scientist in TV dramas

This is a widely-acknowledged Golden Age of American television drama (led, of course, by cable shows, but with network fare that also has its high points). (I’m two discs in to Deadwood right now, which is the one show that is usually mentioned in the same sentence as The Wire in terms of really great shows.) One remarkable thing that’s happened recently, especially this season, is the flood of scientists as main characters. Several established shows have main characters who derive much of their identity, and personality, from being scientists: House, Bones, and (to some extent) Mohinder Suresh from Heroes. More than earlier shows in the same genres (medical dramas, forensic science dramas, superhero dramas), these shows and their characters explore the meanings of what it is to be a scientist in modern society.

But two new shows this season, Fringe and Eleventh Hour, are about science to an unprecedented extent (even including The X-Files and Star Trek: The Next Generation, but excluding CBC’s ReGenesis and the four-episode British version of Eleventh Hour, neither of which I’ve yet seen).

Fringe, and its main scientist character, showcase science-as-threat; Walter Bishop is Dr. Frankenstein for the era of Big Science. In his previous scientific life, Bishop had worked for the government and others on an endless array of “fringe science” research projects, mostly aimed in various ways at controlling the minds and bodies of people living and dead. Institutionalized for years, Bishop is now out and, working out of his old lab at Harvard, is helping the FBI investigate “The Pattern”, a big-business-linked series of weird and deadly happenings that are often the scientific monsters Bishop had helped to create. In Fringe, science is not just a threat to society, it is (inherently?) a threat to the moral fiber and mental health of the scientist. Bishop is an otherwise kindly old man whose broken personality is centered on a self-centeredness that is presented as, at least partly, a mental health issue, and alternately child-like naivety and (in the course of performing science) shocking callousness. Fringe is by no means a serious show, but it does articulate an interesting, and I think significant, interpretation of what it means in American culture to be a scientist.

If Fringe is in part inspired by the works of Michael Crichton, as creator J. J. Abrams claims, then Eleventh Hour is inspired by the other part of Michael Crichton’s works–that is, the part that deals with the moral and ethical dimensions of science as it is actually practiced, rather than the outlandish threats of science gone wild. The compelling main character, biophysicist Jacob Hood, also works for the FBI investigating science-related crimes and mysteries. But where Walter Bishop is pulled, out of dire necessity, from an asylum, Hood was recruited because (in addition to his brilliance) he was friends with someone who ended up in a position of power in the FBI. Most of the crimes involve acute threats to one or a few people, but there is no overarching conspiracy, no Pattern of misused science. Rather, the criminals are usually scientists doing realistic but scientifically/ethically/morally questionable research (often in commercial contexts), or the people who oppose what they do. Hood treads the line of genuine scientific enthusiasm (often accompanied by patronizing bemusement at his female FBI handler’s scientific ignorance), and ironic detachment and quiet disapproval of less-than-pure but not egregiously bad ways of doing science.

What does recent prominence of science and scientists tell us about American culture and the place of science in society? I don’t know, but I feel that it’s my scholarly responsibility to keep watching until I figure it out.

The Paranoid Style in American Science

Slate has a very interesting three-part article by Daniel Engber: The Paranoid Style in American Science. Engber begins with a discussion of agnostic and sometime intelligent design proponent David Berlinski’s new book critiquing the “New Atheists”; Berlinski, explains Engber, is a archetypical embodiment of a recent trend in American culture of turning the scientific virtue of skepticism against science itself. Engber argues that the same approach, exploiting the limits the scientific knowledge and the evidentiary shortcomings that often accompany even the most complete scientific consensuses, is part of an unhealthy trend, what the defenders of science on Wikipedia call “pseudoskepticism”.

Pseudoskeptics — many of them with clear political, commercial or ideological agendas — sow doubt about human-caused climate change and suspected carcinogens, focus on the unproven safety of nonorganic food and GMO crops, and of course, point to gaps in evolutionary explanations to make room for religious ideas.

As Engber concludes, “Immoderate doubt is paranoia.” He sees the trend of immoderate doubt as a parallel to what historian Richard Hofstadter famously called “the paranoid style in American politics” in his 1964 essay by that title. (Famously, at least, among Americanist graduate students.)

I agree with Engber’s final conclusion, that “Immoderate doubt is paranoia.” However, I don’t think the trend of increasing skepticism about scientific matters indicates the rise of a “paranoid style”, where society as a whole is moving toward immoderate doubt. Rather, it seems that people in general (and scientists themselves no less than nonscientists) are increasingly skeptical because they have a better understanding of the way science works and the social limitations of science on the large scale of modern research.

If the distribution skepticism in society is some sort of bell curve (not an unreasonable assumption), then the center of the distribution is moving closer to a point of healthy moderate skepticism, away from an overly credulous point (when it comes to science, among other things) where it has been in the past. The result of this is a dramatic increase in the number of people at the “immoderate doubt” end of the distribution, but the reduction of the other extreme more than makes up for it.

As an argument to retreat from the cliffs of untempered skepticism, Engber points to Simon and Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump to the effect that despite the Royal Society’s motto of Nullius in verba (on no man’s word), “the first society members were just as dedicated to the notion that organized science engenders trust, and that it requires the acceptance of some degree of doubt.” But Simon and Schaffer famously conclude that “Hobbes was right”, that “Knowledge, as much as the state, is the product of human actions.” (Famously, at least, among history of science graduate students.) As that matter of fact about the way knowledge is generated increasingly becomes ingrained in American culture, it’s only natural that the political and scientific discourse will increasingly overlap. We can’t take the politics out of science, so the only way to overcome the problem of “paranoid style” science is to fix American politics.