Project (2018)

Vital Histories: A Reassessment of the Modern Life Sciences

We need a new storyline for the rise of modern biology, and Lynn Nyhart and I are planning to generate one. Both of us are dissatisfied with the conventional synoptic histories, for a few reasons. First, authors usually offer a narrative arc that follows either evolution or genetics, if not both, culminating in the neo-Darwinian synthesis of the 1940s. Second, important fields of biology and biomedicine (as judged in their time, such as nineteenth-century physiology and twentieth-century biochemistry or ecology), are either omitted or marginalized from these accounts. Third, the problem of understanding the singularity of life, which was central to Naturphilosophie, cell theory as well as studies of metabolism remains strangely absent. As Michel Morange has noted, this eclipse of life itself as a research subject is not a result of historiography so much as it is of science. In response to the rise of molecular biology, with its splendid resources for explaining processes mechanistically, scientists relegated questions about life and its distinctiveness to the periphery.1 Yet these older scientific questions began percolating through biology again in the late twentieth century, with new representations of life in terms of its “emergent” properties. By reassessing heredity and evolution alongside research areas that were equally pressing to biologists—such as cell theory, growth, communication, and metabolism—we aim to recover a panoply of motivations and conceptions in the history of life science that are absent in the current picture.

[1] Michel Morange, Life Explained, trans. Matthew Cobb (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).