What are historians good for? Part II

In my first post to Revise and Dissent, I lamented that historians don’t have good answers to the question: “Why does your work matter to anyone who is not an historian?” I heard two very engaging talks over the last 8 days, from two historians of science and medicine with very different takes on the issue.

Last week, Alice Dreger gave probably the most provocative colloquium talk I’ve heard at Yale. Dreger is an intersex rights activist and “medical humanist” who has worked to change the barbaric practices of genital surgery for children with disorders of sex development (or whatever you want to call the conditions; terminology is a charged issue here), often without even informing the parents. She also became involved in recent controversies over transsexualism and the book The Man Who Would Be Queen, and she’s written social/medical histories of hermaphrodites and “unusual anatomies”.

In a great talk that simultaneously made her seem brazenly self-promoting and bracingly altruistic, Dreger explained how she has been doing what she calls “onion-peeling”: private histories about individuals (shared only with the subject) that place people’s lives, or specific traumatic events in their lives, into historical context. She described how powerful these short (4-6 pages, usually) self-contained histories were to their subjects. For many, reading their own history in someone else’s words was a cathartic experience that let them understand and accept their pasts (e.g., why a doctor had performed an infant clitoridectomy, and why their family had never discussed the issue during childhood).

These personal histories are nearly useless for doing academic history, since they are performed on the explicit condition of privacy and the subject-driven interview-and-revision procedure introduces grave reliability problems by normal oral history standards. As Dreger explained it, the main benefit of doing these “onion-peelings” is the personal satisfaction of seeing your work have a direct and substantial positive impact on someone’s life. She hinted that she sees normal history as a powerful force for social good as well, but with effects that are harder to see (and so harder to feel good about). The end-game of the talk was that Dreger is considering starting a non-profit to help other historians do “onion-peeling” (client-centered histories), and maybe even provide funding for them to do so.

Topics of discussion after the presentation included: the line between onion-peel history and psychoanalysis; legal and emotional liability; the permissibility of glossing over historical ambiguity for the benefit of an audience of one; and how such pro bono work could fit into the expectations of modern academia. I, for one, find the idea of client-centered histories compelling, but not something I would actually consider doing. It’s a better answer to the blog title question than nothing, but I think there are more efficient (though maybe not as personally rewarding) ways for historians to serve the public, if they are actually willing to do something outside the professional norms.

Today, William Newman gave a talk on why Newton (and many other smart people in the 17th and 18th centuries) practiced alchemy, and how there was a smooth transition from alchemy to chymistry to chemistry. Even Lavoisier, says Newman, was doing basically the same kinds of things Newton had been doing a century before–just with more sophisticated and precise apparatus (and a clever theory of combustion). Despite substantial treatments of Newton’s alchemy by earlier historians such as Richard Westfall, Newman thinks that most work on the Scientific Revolution is badly flawed because early historians of alchemy didn’t understand the technical aspects of alchemy (and so overemphasized the metaphorical and occult aspects).

Newman and others have been working out what Newton was actually doing in his workshop. (He described a Newton not so different from the character in The Baroque Cycle.) Newman did a live alchemy demonstration, showing how certain minerals would show signs of life (substances that form fast-growing crystals when put in a chemical solution, e.g., a “silica garden“), and how nitric acid could be (and was) used supposedly to transmute silver into gold (by depletion gilding). Newman explained why transmutation was part of the agenda of the legitimate, “scientific” alchemists like Newton: in the 17th century there was no NSF; the promise of transmutation was a sort of “grant application” of sorts, which he compared to modern justifications for research funding that promise a cure for cancer (which the young field of molecular biology used to great effect in the 1950s and ever since, but with a cure still seeming as far off as ever.) Transmutation wasn’t inconceivable, but the alchemists had more practical, immediate goals for their work and would use the lure of unlimited alchemical wealth for their patrons to their own ends.

With NSF funding, Newman is building a complete online collection of Newton’s alchemy manuscripts (which are scattered about the globe, since many were auctioned off in the early 20th century): The Chymistry of Isaac Newton. The site has seen considerable popular interest; there is a lot of enthusiasm about Newton among non-historians. But when I asked Newman “Why does your work matter to anyone who is not an historian?”, he stumbled. (This after his eloquent, obviously well-practiced explanation of why it matters to other historians of science). Answering that question, he said, is like “tilting at windmills”; historical myths like Columbus discovering that the Earth is round persist, even though historians have known them to be false for several generations. The misinformed “army of middle-school teachers” create a closed loop of misinformation that propagates from generation to generation, a seemingly insoluble problem.

Myths about alchemy (and the flat earth, and the conflict between science and religion, and Ptolemaic astronomy, and many others) are doubly pernicious and recalcitrant because they serve as a purpose, as foil for their modern counterparts. Newman is pessimistic that any significant changes in public (mis)perceptions of the history of science are possible, since these myths acquire their own momentum.

I think Wikipedia is changing that, and changing the whole way the public uses and understands history–e.g., see Flat Earth and Flat Earth mythology–but that’s a topic for another post (and for the article for the History of Science Society Newsletter that I’m working on). If you got this far, thanks, and sorry for the blogorrhoea.

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent]

Craig Venter is making history

…or at least trying to.

Venter’s J. Craig Venter Institute, the successor of TIGR and TCAG, has been working on what they characterize as the first man-made organism: Mycoplasma laboratorium. The ongoing project centers on “Synthia”, a slimmed-down synthetic chromosome that they are calling (and patenting as) a “minimal bacterial genome”. It consists of 381 of the ca. 470 genes of the tiny parasitic bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium. (The name “Synthia” comes not from Venter, et. al., but from the critical ETC Group; it seems to have stuck.) Add Synthia to an empty cell, and viola! Life!

The project builds on earlier work in which Venter’s team (led by restriction enzyme pioneer and Nobel laureate Hamilton O. Smith, Clyde A. Hutchinson, III and Cynthia Pfannkoch) recreated the genome of the bacteriophage phi X-174 from scratch and stuck it into an empty coat to create a viable phage; they generated the 5,386 base pair sequence in 14 days. In the 2003 PNAS report, they described a plan to use similarly-sized chunks of synthetic DNA to assemble whole genomes. Since the phi X-174 project, they have been developing and improving DNA cloning methods that can deal with ever larger target sequences without high levels of error–a boon for DNA sequencing as well as chromosome synthesis. (Synthetic phi X-174 could be selected for infectivity to week out high-error sequences, but that’s not an option with arbitrary 5,000 bp “gene cassettes”.)

Since 2003, they’ve gotten to the point of putting together a whole genome (if a very small one). They quietly started filing patents for “Synthia” in 2006, and in June 2007 announced that man-made life in the form of M. laboratorium was right around the corner. Proving that the synthetic genome is viable by sticking it into a genome-less cell and making it live will be a powerful proof-of-concept for new and more drastic kinds of genetic engineering.

“Man-made life” makes a great headline, but it’s worth picking apart. At the fundamental level, even Venter’s team is quick to note that M. laboratorium won’t be a wholesale synthetic organism, as it will rely on the molecular machinery and cellular environment taken from natural cells. (At least, as natural as a laboratory organism with its genome carefully removed can be.) The conflation of genes with life has been the constant complaint of all the biologists except the molecular ones since the rise of molecular biology. It was one of the chief complaints of those who thought the Human Genome Project was (all funding levels being equal) a bad idea. In a recent article in I forget which history of science journal, (atheist) Emile Zuckerkandl accuses HGP leader (Christian-turned-atheist-turned-Christian) Francis Collins of exploiting the genes=life fallacy in his best-selling quasi-intelligent design book The Language of God. (The language of God, of course, is the genome.) The all-powerful gene is a potent political and rhetorical force (and has been a great basis for securing grants, at least since the 1940s), even if biological reality is considerably more complex.

But even looking past the conflation of a genome with life itself, M. laboratorium has a dubious claim as synthetic life. As the ETC Group points out, “Synthia” only distinguishes itself from a natural chromosome by what is missing (i.e., a fifth of its genes). This organism would have a shakier claim at being man-made life even than the 1972 oil-eating bacterium of Diamond v. Chakrabarty (the landmark patent case that established the legitimacy of patenting genetically-engineering lifeforms); at least Chakrabarty’s bug had a combination of characteristics that no natural organism had. Does putting together most of the DNA of an organism (which happens to be synthesized artificially) together with everything but the DNA of that organism mean scientists have created artificial life? It’s hard not to invoke Frankenstein.

Venter has been very successful at framing his science in ways that grab headlines, generate public interest, and seem self-evidently of central historical importance (whatever the later historical verdict). I haven’t decided whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. He’s certainly earning his place in history, one headline and Discovery channel documentary at a time.

BibliOdyssey on Commons

Peacay of the amazing BibliOdyssey blog has joined Wikimedia Commons (after a bit of encouragement from me). BibliOdyssey, which focuses on scans of printed art, is quite an amazing blog; it serves as a continual reminder of just how big the web is, and how little of it the typical person ever sees. Hundreds of libraries and archives are digitizing thousands of fantastic images, and Peacay trawls through the wide web and finds the best of them.

Unfortunately (as I understand it), although most of the original versions of what Peacay showcases are public domain, the copyright status of most of the images are in that murky space between free and unfree. The United States is fortunate (or maybe unfortunate if you are a world class library) to have Bridgeman v. Corel (for now, at least), but in most countries, a “sweat of the brow” doctrine means that whoever scans the pages of a rare book can claim copyright on the scans, even if the original is public domain. Even in the United States, it is typical for libraries to assert copyright control over scans of public domain material they own (e.g., as the University of Oklahoma does on its wonderful, growing collection of history of science images). Of course, no one on the web pays much attention to such claims (whether they have legal force or not), but for many of the images on Commons, a re-user trying to publish nominally free images in the traditional publishing world will still have to go through the usual trials and tribulations to secure permissions.

Anyhow, check out the great image sets Peacay has uploaded so far, and hopefully we’ll see more in the future.