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

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:

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.

Reply to a tweeted link

Clay Shirky tweeted a link to this essay on the future of journalism, from Dan of Xark!. It isn’t accepting my comment, so I’m posting it here:

This is an interesting vision of the future, but I don’t see how it could possibly be the future of journalism.

For the sake of argument, I’ll assume that collecting news data and maintaining a usefully-organized database of it is a viable business model. I agree that it would not be newspapers who led this, but more likely a web-only company.

But newspapers (and to a much lesser extent, television) are the organizations that have an institutional commitment to investigative journalism (the kind that isn’t database-friendly and that is the main thing people fret about losing). Why would a news informatics company, which would lack that institutional commitment, use its profit to subsidize investigative journalism that isn’t itself profitable?

For newspapers, there have been two jobs that only meet economically at the broadest levels: to sell ads, and to create compelling content for readers. Economics didn’t figure in directly in the choice of whether to send a reporter to the court house or fire; rather, that choice was made within the editorial sphere. For news informatics, every choice of coverage has economic implications: which kind of data will people be paying to access? In that environment, in what is sure to be a tough market to establish, would news informatics companies fund investigative journalism out of sheer civic responsibility?

Stanley Fish’s take on science vs. religion

Stanley Fish has a really eloquent column, “God Talk, Part 2“. Nominally about “science vs. religion”, it also speaks to why Wikipedia works and why even for partisans (in politics, in fighting popular pseudoscience or religionism, etc.), really embracing neutral point of view is more effective as a rhetorical strategy than shutting out the views one opposes.

One good bit:

So to sum up, the epistemological critique of religion — it is an inferior way of knowing — is the flip side of a naïve and untenable positivism. And the critique of religion’s content — it’s cotton-candy fluff — is the product of incredible ignorance.

As Fish’s own worldview should make clear, none of this should be taken as a defense of (any particular) religion or a rejection of science. But theological, philosophical and historical arguments have done far more to erode religious authority than scientific ones ever did. The ‘rally the faithful’ approach of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins does more harm than good.

[thanks @jayrosen_nyu on Twitter for the link]

The Two Cultures, 50 years later

7 May was the 50th anniversary of C. P. Snow‘s famous lecture The Two Cultures. Snow, a novelist who had studied science and held technology related government positions, decried the cultural rift between scientists and literary intellectuals. Snow’s argument, and his sociopolitical agenda, were complex (read the published version if you want the sense of it; educational reform was the biggie), but, especially post-“Science Wars”, the idea of two cultures resonates beyond its original context. The current version of the Wikipedia article says:

The term two cultures has entered the general lexicon as a shorthand for differences between two attitudes. These are

  • The increasingly constructivist world view suffusing the humanities, in which the scientific method is seen as embedded within language and culture; and
  • The scientific viewpoint, in which the observer can still objectively make unbiased and non-culturally embedded observations about nature.

That’s a distinctly 1990s and 2000s perspective.

Snow’s original idea bears only scant resemblance to the scientism vs. constructivism meaning. As he explained, literary intellectuals (not entirely the same thing as humanities scholars) didn’t understand basic science or the technology-based socioeconomic foundations of modern life, and they didn’t care to. Novelists, poets and playwrights, he complained, didn’t know the second law of thermodynamics or what a machine-tool was, and the few that did certainly couldn’t expect their readers to know.

Humanistic studies of science (constructivist worldview and all) would have undermined Snow’s argument, but humanists were only just beginning to turn to science as a subject for analysis. (Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions was not until 1962. Structure did mark the acceleration of sociological and humanistic studies of science, but was actually taken up more enthusiastically by scientists than humanists. Widespread constructivism in the humanities only became common by the 1980s, I’d guess, and the main thrust of constructivism, when described without jargon, is actually broadly consistent with the way most scientists today understand the nature of science. It’s not nearly so radical as the popular caricature presented in Higher Superstition and similar polemics.) Rather than humanists understanding the scientific method or scientists viewing their work through a sociological or anthropological lens, Snow’s main complaint was that scientific progress had left the slow-changing world of literature and its Luddite inhabitants behind (and hence, scientists found little use for modern literature).

Snow wrote that “naturally [scientists] had the future in their bones.” That was the core of the scientific culture, and the great failing of literary culture.

Looking back from 2009, I think history–and the point in it when Snow was making his argument–seems very different than it did to Snow. Who, besides scientists, had the future in their bones in 1959? In the 1950s academic world, literature was the pinnacle of ivory tower high culture. Not film, not television, certainly not paraliterary genres like science fiction or comic books. History of science was a minor field that had closer connections to science than to mainstream history.

Today, in addition to scientists, a whole range of others are seen as having “the future in their bones”: purveyors of speculative fiction in every medium; web entrepreneurs and social media gurus; geeks of all sorts; venture capitalists; kids who increasingly demand a role in constructing their (our) own cultural world. The modern humanities are turning their attention to these groups and their historical predecessors. As Shakespeare (we are now quick to note) was the popular entertainment of his day, we now look beyond traditional “literary fiction” to find the important cultural works of more recent decades. And in the popular culture of 1950s through to today, we can see, perhaps, that science was already seeping out much further from the social world of scientsts themselves than Snow and other promoters of the two cultures thesis could recognize–blinded, as they were, by the strict focus on what passed for high literature.

Science permeated much of anglophone culture, but rather than spreading from high culture outward (as Snow hoped it might), it first took hold in culturally marginal niches and only gradually filtered to insulated spheres of high culture. Science fiction historians point to the 1950s as the height of the so-called “Golden Age of [hard] Science Fiction”, and SF authors could count on their audience to understand basic science. Modern geek culture–and its significance across modern entertainment–we now recognize, draws in part from the hacker culture of 1960s computer research. Feminists and the development of the pill; environmentalists; the list of possible examples of science-related futuremaking goes on and on, but Snow had us looking in the wrong places.

Certainly, cultural gaps remain between the sciences and the humanities (although, in terms of scholarly literature, there is a remarkable degree of overlap and interchange, forming one big network with a number of fuzzy division). But C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures seems less and less relevant for modern society; looking back, it even seems less relevant to its original context.

Rethinking Wikinews

Digital opinion-makers across the blogosphere and the twitterscape been increasingly preoccupied with the rapid decline of the print news industry. Revenues from print circulation and print advertising have both shrunk dramatically, and internet advertising revenues have so far been able to replace only a fraction of that. Newspapers throughout the U.S. are downsizing, some are switching to online-only, and some are simply being shuttered. The question is, what, if anything, will pick up the journalistic slack. (Clay Shirky’s essay, “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable“, is the best thing I’ve seen in this vein, although I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some contrasting viewpoints, such as Dave Winer’s “If you don’t like the news…” and Jason Pontin’s response to Shirky and Winer, “How to Save Media“.)

On its face, Wikinews seems an ideal project to pick up some of that slack. Collaborative software + citizen journalism + brand and community links to Wikipedia…it seems like a formula for success, and yet Wikinews remains a minor project. There are typically only 10 -20 stories per day, most of which are simply summaries of newspaper journalism. Stories with first-hand reporting are published about once every other day, and even many of these rely primarily on the work of professional journalists and have only minor original elements.

Why doesn’t Wikinews have a large, active community? What might a successful Wikinews look like? I have a few ideas.

One reason I write and report for Wikipedia regularly, but only every once in a while for Wikinews, is that writing Wikipedia articles (and writing for the Wikipedia Signpost) feels like being part of something bigger. Everything connects to work that others are doing. I know I’m part of a community working for common goals (more or less). Even if I’m the only contributor to an article, I know there are incoming links to it, that it fits into a broader network. On Wikinews, I can write a story, but it is likely to be one of maybe 20 stories for the day, none of which have much of anything to do with each other.

I went to the Tax Day Tea Party in Hartford, Connecticut with my camera and a notepad. (I put a set of 108 photos on Commons and on Flickr.) Similar protests reportedly took place in about 750 other cities. If there was ever an opportunity for collaborative citizen journalism, this seemed like it. But there was nothing happening on Wikinews, and I didn’t see the point writing a story about one out of hundreds of protests, which wouldn’t even be a legitimate target for a Wikinews callout in the related Wikipedia article.

What I take from this is the importance of organization. Wikinews needs a system for identifying events worth covering before (or while) they happen and recruiting users for specific tasks (e.g., “find out the official police estimate of attendance, photograph and/or record the messages of as many protest signs as possible, and gather some quotes from attendees about why they are protesting”).

My most rewarding experience with Wikinews was a story on the photographic origins of the Obama HOPE poster. It grew out of a comment on the talk page of the poster’s Wikipedia article; the comment appeared while it was on the Main Page as a “Did you know” hook. The lesson here is, in the (alleged) words of Clay Shirky, “go where people are convening online, rather than starting a new place to conveve”. (I think it was unfortunate that Wikinews started as a separate project rather than a “News:” namespace on Wikipedia, but what’s done is done.) There are many places online people gather to discuss and produce news, in addition to Wikipedia; one path to success might be to extend the social boundaries to Wikinews to reach out to existing communities. Although other citizen journalism and special interest communities don’t share the institutional agenda of Wikinews (name, NPOV as a core principle), some members of other communities will be willing to create or adapt their work to be compatible with Wikinews’ requirements. And certain communities actually do share a commitment to neutrality, which raises the possibility of syndication arrangements (in which, e.g., original news reports from a library news automatically get added to the Wikinews database as well).

Shirky and others have argued that some kinds of journalism (in particular, investigative journalism) are not possible without assigning or permitting reporters to develop a story in depth over a long period of time–and these may be the most important kinds of journalism for maintaining a healthy democracy. To some extent, alternative finance models (with public donations like National Public Radio or with endowments like The Huffington Post ) may be filling some of the void left by shrinking newpaper staffs, but it seems unlikely that these models will support anything close to the number of journalists that newspapers do/did.

Wikinews could contribute to investigative journalism in a couple of ways. The simplest is something similar to what Talking Points Memo does–crowdsourcing the analysis of voluminous public documents to identify interesting potential stories. However, as Aaron Swartz recently argued, there are serious limits to what can be gleaned from public documents; as he says, “Transparency is Bunk“.

Another way would be to either fund a core of professionals or collaborate with investigative journalists who work for other non-profits. These professional journalists would–to the extent that it is possible–recruit and manage volunteer Wikinewsies to pursue big stories where the investigative work required is modular enough that part-time amateurs can fruitfully contribute.

In the same vein a professional editor working for Wikinews could be in charge of identifying self-contained reporting opportunities based on geography (e.g., significant political and cultural events) and running an alert system (maybe integrated with the Wikipedia Geonotice system for users who opt in) to let users know what’s happening near them that they could report on. One of the hardest things for a would-be Wikinewsie original reporter is just figuring out what needs covering.

I’m sure there there are a lot of different models for Wikinews that could make it into a successful project. But it’s clear that the current one isn’t working very well.