Living in History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology

In 1984 Michael Bradie, one of a series of philosophers of science who took sabbaticals at Richard Lewontin’s lab where I was working on my Ph.D. in ecology, encouraged me to attend the next meetings of what was then HPSSB. At St. Mary’s in 1985 I gave my first history of science talk (on H.T. Odum) and was excited to hang out with people who were attracted to—or, at least, comfortable with—crossing boundaries among history, philosophy, sociology, and biology. These meetings gave me confidence—and foolhardiness—to pursue a career path that has not respected disciplinary boundaries. I became a regular IS/HPSSB participant and began to organize sessions that fostered the discipline-transgressing qualities I valued. This series of blog posts provides some pre-history to this conjunction of planets and then sketches where it led.

* * *
During my undergraduate studies in ecology in Australia in the early 1970s I became interested in the theoretical question of how ecologists could account for order arising out of the complexity of situations involving heterogeneous components and ongoing change, and in which any local situation was embedded in wider dynamics, that is, what I much later labeled “unruly complexity.” As an environmental activist, however, my practical motivation for studying ecology was to go beyond responding to existing environmental problems and help in planning to prevent future problems emerging. Yet environmental planning scarcely existed when I graduated in the mid 1970s; agricultural research was where I first found employment. In my second research position I modeled the interaction of many factors affecting the economic future of an irrigation region suffering from soil salinization. To my frustration, the government sponsors of this study turned out to be interested only in a small subset of the factors and policies potentially relevant to the region’s future. This experience led me to seek opportunities for self-directed inquiry in ecology and, at the same time, to explore whether social influences could shape ecological science in less constraining ways.
My interest in science in its social context had already been stimulated by the advisor of my undergraduate thesis in ecological modeling, Alan Roberts, a physicist who also wrote about environmental politics and the need for the self-management of society (Roberts 1979). As I wrapped up the salinization study in 1979 I learned that two biologists in the United States, Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, whose theoretical work I already knew and valued, saw their scientific work as a political project (Levins and Lewontin 1985; Taylor 1986, 20qq). I sought an opportunity to work with them, which would allow me to return to questions around conceptualizing life’s complex ecological context and to begin to take up questions of conceptualizing science’s complex social context.
To be continued…

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