Book Review: Flower Hunters by Mary Gribbin and John Gribbin

flower-hunters

I’ve spent a fair amount of the last six months in the quiet corridors of the Manchester Museum Herbarium, helping with a lengthy transfer of packets of the General Moss collection from filing cabinet to boxes. Sifting through sheets and packets, I can trace the patterns that the personalities of the different collectors etch in the collection. I see the differences in packeting; ‘stuffers’ who see the size of the envelope as the minimum target and the ‘folders’, who encase tiny scraps in tissue-thin paper, the localities visited and the specimens selected which different personalities pick. It is inevitable that any Herbarium collection is filtered through the collectors’ passions and whims. Therefore, when I found a copy of Mary and John Gribbin’s Flower Hunters in the library, I picked it up out of a desire to learn more about the collectors whose specimens fill the shelves of herbaria throughout the world.

The book traces a history of botany up until the 20th century, when there still existed territories unaltered by human hands. There is a distinct horticultural slant, but does cover scientific and economic botany which interests me more. There is also more of a stress on Hunters than Flowers; biographic minutiae trumps botanical detail. I would have liked to have seen more on the bryophytological loves of Richard Spruce, for example, to get a feel for his mind and passions.

Across the biographical chapters of individual botanists, what piqued my interest was how class influence how these collectors could practice and were rewarded for their work. Whilst all suffered on arduous, years long journeys around the world, the gentleman (and gentlewoman) naturalist had a retinue and global connections. Their resources permitted the intellectual freedom to see global patterns in vegetation, which fueled evolutionary and ecological thinking. In contrast, working-class commercial plantsmen were sent out on their own and expected to keep their heads down, looking for the economically not intellectually fruitful, but only seeing the smallest slice of the profits their seeds and plants made.

The book is structured roughly chronologically, with each chapter on the life of a plant collector (or collaborating pair), hence showing the changing shape of science and adventure. The structure works well in the beginning, the early classification system of John Ray (1627-1705) is followed by the more familiar classification of Linnaeus (1707 – 1778). I was surprised to learn that Ray’s somewhat cumbersome classification based on essential features of the plant (such as the dicotyledon/ monocotyledon division still current) blended with Linnaeus’ user-friendly classification system based on somewhat arbitrary features (Crytogamia, anybody?) to create the bones of modern plant taxonomy. Linnaeus is not the origin of plant taxonomy, he had his own forerunners as well. We then move to Joseph Banks (1743 – 1820), the de facto first director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and friend of George III who accompanied Captain Cook on the Endeavour. Here scientific curiousity is inseparable from imperial ambition, Banks saw the land and flora of the Pacific as ripe for “improvement” and exploitation.

Then follows the plantsmen, sent as the somewhat disposable employees of private companies into unmapped territory. These include David Douglas (1799-1834) sent alone on starvation pay by the Royal Horticultural Society to discover and collect plants including his eponymous fir and the Sugar Pine in North America. Expected to live on the land and employ local guides, his health was ruined, losing most of his vision and becoming rheumatic. He died in a bizarre, tragic manner; on Hawaii, his poor eyesight caused him to fall into an animal trap where he was gored by the trapped bull.

We then move onto a pair of similarly intrepid plantsmen, William and Thomas Lobb, who also brought large trees back to their employers. But with the later plant hunter, Robert Fortune (1812-1880), the voyages become more routine. His work involved trading, officially and unofficially, with other plant breeders in China. His notable achievement was in service of the British Empire, he was the first to take viable tea seeds out of China to establish successful plantations in India, ending China’s monopoly on tea. Though economic considerations went into even Linnaeus’ botanising, consideration of profit becomes more naked and unscrupulous.

Bucking the arch of the narrative is the figure of Marianne North (1830-1890). A wealthy woman, she circled the globe without the expected chaperone, not plant hunting for profit or for a scientific institute (as none would employ a woman to do so) but for her art. She was an incredible prolific botanical artist who, unusually for the time, painted plants in situ. She worked rapidly and in oils, producing what the Gribbins describe as not highly detailed but more importantly accurate. They are not plants “murder[ed] to dissect” but alive in their habitat, an ecological not an anatomical painter. I am hesitant to criticize the inclusion of North as I admire her as an intrepid artistic woman. But she does stick out of a narrative trend of increasing commercialization of plants precisely because she was not a plant hunter, with all it’s masculine connotations. She did not bring back the plants themselves as trophies, but her own impressions of the plants and their environments captured in the paintings. If her story was in the context of a discussion of the growing ecological understanding, amongst the stories of Alexander von Humboldt and Alfred Russell Wallace for example, it would make sense. But here it feels like she was shoehorned as “the woman” in a history of a period and profession which was more or less uniformly masculine. The best way to appreciate women’s contribution to science is to place them in their intellectual context, not to include them in a place where their lives seem superfluous and dismissable.

The final story is that of Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911), who I know best for the Bentham & Hooker System of classifying seed plants which the Manchester Museum Herbarium (and many other herbaria) arrange their specimens by to this day. This is not discussed in the book, sadly, as it would make a nice narrative circle from Ray and Linnaeus to Hooker. The focus is instead upon Hooker’s botanising in the Himalayas. He was one of the earliest Europeans to explore the Tibetan Plateau, and is largely responsible for the flourishing of rhododendrons in the gardens (and countryside!) of Britain. Less destructively, his collections form integral parts of many herbaria in Britain, including Manchester’s.

A book such as this does run the threat of superficiality and glaring omission (Darwin is conspicuously but understandably absent, but aside from Linnaeus there is an absent of the non-Britons). But more important is cohesion, which it ultimately lacks. It doesn’t make any conclusions about the state of botanical science in this period, merely presenting fascinating stories.  A book which treated the hunters and their plants on the same level, giving biographical and evolutionary detail alongside each other, would have made maybe a more enjoyable, tightly structured book.

 

Book Review: How To Survive a Plague by David France

51wo3zzp4bl-_sy344_bo1204203200_

My generation are some of the first to grow up with HIV infection as a treatable condition. We only know a world where combination HAART can give those newly infected an undetectable viral load and a nearly normal lifespan, so we largely lack the fear and stigma which surrounded AIDS from its beginning. It is easy for us to think, yes, HIV/AIDS was and is tragic, but the modern treatments are as good as a cure, so it’s no real problem now. But such complacency is wrong.

David France opens How to Survive a Plague with the funeral of Spencer Cox, a member of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) who suggested that HIV researchers test  the drug Crixivan in large simple trials to produce data fast and get the drug on the market. This scene is not at the height of the plague but in 2013. The drug combinations he and many others were saved by in 1996 became ineffective, as his HIV strain mutated to snake past all available HIV drugs. What it is vital for those born after the plague years to know is that treatability does not entail dismissal. And France’s book details the struggle and stubbornness, as well as plenty of setbacks and self-aggrandizement, it took to get to where AIDS is today.

France runs a history of the science of HIV/AIDS alongside and intertwining with the history of activism. His writing is less pacy when writing on the research compared to when writing about the high drama of drug trials, but forgivable given his background. France is an AIDS activism insider. He is among the crowds of plague survivors at Cox’s funeral and is connected to the story’s main players. Though the scope and tone of the book somewhat resembles Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “Big Book of Cancer”, it does not attempt to magisterial objectivity. This means the book is How to Survive a Plague (as a gay male activist and journalist in New York, 1981-96). At the books heart is a small world of New York activists. San Francisco is a distant oasis separated by the dry sands of prejudice, to say nothing of the rest of the world. But narrowness is key to the intimacy France creates by following key figures like characters in a novel through what would otherwise be a fog of names, dates and acronymns.

Some of his stars include the musician Michael Callen, Richard Berkowitz and their physician Joseph Sonnabend, who together authored a 1982 book advising on safe sex. There is Larry Kramer, the mercurial playwright crucial in ACT UP’s founding and Peter Staley, the ex-Wall Street trader who protested against the high price of the drug AZT at the New York Stock Exchange. The book is rich in the tales of these and others fighting have AIDS taken seriously by scientists and law-makers.

What was new about the AIDS epidemic was how activists engaged with research. Theatre major and high school dropouts were reading the scientific literature on HIV/AIDS and presenting their own illnesses at conferences so they could challenge drug companies and government officials on funding and clinical trials. ACT UP’s famous mantra was “drugs into bodies”, they intended to get as many people on the best drugs quickly. This was strikingly at odds with a government and medical establishment characterized by it’s neglect, greed and indifference.

Successes finally emerged when researchers and activists worked together. AIDS activists suggested the parallel track method of clinical trials, which generated good data from a carefully controlled clinical trial, but those who aren’t the ‘perfect patient’ trials need can get the drugs. The drug Crixivan appeared promising in the early 1990s, so was rapid rushed from test tube to human trials via the substitution of animal trials for a ‘big chimp trial’, a scientist heroically took the drug themselves. But the manufacturer Merck faced was slow in producing enough of the drug for the Phase II trials, so driven by love and despair activist Tom Blout on Merck’s community advisory board was getting the drug bootlegged for lover Jim Straley, who died after his supply ran out.

Such a personal history of an emotive topic runs the risk of whiggish hagiography, but France’s acknowledgement of the failures and successes of activist groups keeps it balanced. The pitfalls of activist-driven medicine as shown in the case of AZT. Pressure from activists to value hast came at the cost of efficacy, when the good outcomes early in the Phase II clinical trial of the drug meant the trial was stopped prematurely and the drug approved in record time. But AZT was ultimately found to have no effect on lifespan, not captured in the short trial. But the scientists have plenty of flaws as well. There was a narrow focus by the NIH on trials of drugs which targeted the HIV virus, at the expense of developing treatment for the opportunistic infections which actually kill AIDS patients. But by the end of the plague, activists and scientists largely collaborated to temper each others’ faults. There is comedy in some of ACT UP’s stunts, such as the unfurling of a giant condom over the house of anti-AIDS research Senator Jesse Helms. But throughout the book runs a sense of the great, howling injustice of the willful ignorance of the AIDS crisis by those in power.

The book ends in 1996, the end of the plague years, the survivors dissipated. But the plague still shuffles on, wreaking havoc for those lacking access to treatment and bruised by previous treatments. AIDS casts a long shadow over the LGBTQ community, but the grief and anger spurred activists into becoming more vocal in demanding their own humanity be respected. The consequences of their actions reverberate in every pride march and every newly-out teenager today.

The “Deep Otherness” of Plants: On Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl

lab-girl

I’ve spent much of the time since reading Hope Jahren’s memoir Lab Girl in November pressing the book into the palms of anyone whom asks for recommendations. This is not because it is something tritely described as a science book which non-scientists can enjoy, as if this means it has been specially dumbed down. This book is not concerned with explaining scientific concepts about how the world works, which won’t attract a person not interested in thinking in causal mechanisms. Jahren is not concerned with detailed explanations of her work, instead the book starts prior to this and explores what draws us to look at the world with a curious mind, a thing we all inevitably do whatever our day job. It is more impressionist than explanatory, with the tautness and rhythm of literature, dealing with what drives a particular sort of person cram themselves into small lightless rooms with big questions and anxious hearts.

Lab Girl is Jahren’s autobiography of becoming and painfully establishing herself as a scientist. She works at the intersections of many disciplines and  could be described as a plant geochemist, one of the few scientists who spend their time sifting and sorting data extracted from rock samples to constructing landscapes millions of years gone. I enjoyed this spotlight on an under-hyped branch of science whose way of looking at the living world we all should learn from. Jahren and her colleagues see with the panorama of the palaeontologist and the eye of the environmental scientist for the interplay of living and non-living and so understand the environment as ever shifting, the present world should not be taken for granted.

Jahren structures chapters about her life and work around short vignettes about how plants live. Though she writes of the “deep otherness” of plants, plant scientists do find that the organisms so often on their mind inevitably colours their experience of their own lives. The perils and the struggles of life as a plant mirrors Jahren’s as a scientist, a woman and a person with bipolar disorder. For instance, a chapter on the curious S-shaped growth curves of corn which suggests the traumatic process of making seed is followed by a chapter detailing Jahren’s pregnancy; the emotional turbulence of going off medication in the first two trimesters and in the final trimester being formally barred from her lab as a “liability”. This juxtaposition is more than metaphor. What Lab Girl does best is to convey what it is like to think like a scientist, to have your mind percolated by your subject matter and methods until you yourself become entwined within it.

This is not to say Lab Girl is a romantic account. There are numerous horror stories about funding struggles, scrabbling enough money to pay the salary of Bill, her career long collaborator who spent much of the early days sleeping in the lab or his car. Bill is Jahren’s colleague, but they act more like siblings than two professional.They spend blissful nights in the lab constructing experiments and defrosting hamburgers, pepped up on a steady stream of dark humour. Rather pleasingly, both Bill and the many Mass Spectrometers Jahren has had in her life appear far more frequently than her husband. But Jahren does not dismiss family life, a scene towards the end of the books sees her refer to the two halves of her heart, both full when she puts her son to bed and goes off to the lab to put the half given over to science to use. She doesn’t see either side of her life as detracting from the other, they are all components of what she is.

Jahren does not make her bipolar disorder explicit for the first part of the book, no doubt mirroring its emergence in her life,though this did mean it took me a while to realise that her long hours and nocturnal lab habits are not typical, and shouldn’t be purposefully emulated. I’m cautious around first person account of bipolar disorder as they can be interpreted as glamourising mania and making it desirable for people who don’t have bipolar, which it ultimately never is. Thankful, Jahren avoids this.

On the flip side, except for her pregnancy, her bipolar or the stigma associated with it does not seem to have subtracted from her career significantly. I suspect however that Jahren was of the first generation to do so in significant number, as they would be doubly perceived as irrational and unscientific for being mentally ill and women. Jahren discusses the sexism she has faced, and locates its burden to the “the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can’t possibly be who you are”, the knee-jerk assumption of what a scientist can be which affects more or less all but the white European, wealthy middle-aged able-bodied man.

Whilst the title suggests the book’s subject is the “girl”, I think Jahren intended the stress to be on the “lab” in which the girl happens to be in. Jahren grew up in her father’s lab, and sees the labs she has built over the world as her home, a refuge from the outside world where she can be herself. The book is a love letter to the physical and mental space to think, play and discover that a lab of one’s own brings to the female scientist in particular.

Lab Girl is not a The Double Helix style account of one extraordinary discovery, Jahren sees science as work and herself as “like an ant, driven to find and carry single dead needles [..] and then add them one by one to a pile so massive that I can only fully imagine one small corner of it”. Whilst a science appears to be progressing in leaps and bounds from the outside, as seen from the individual point of view science stagnant with your budget or regresses as your work is made irrelevant.Whiggish narratives are irrelevant or dangerous on a day to day basis, so Jahren explores the pleasure of her work itself; to try to understand the logic of plants, from the inside. But the moments of discovery are beautiful when they happen, such as the blissful moment when Jahren is standing in the lab in the sunrise thinking herself the only one in the world with a newly discovered gem of knowledge, making her “unique existentially”.

As a young woman with designs on making a (increasingly circuitous) route into research science, I have absorb Lab Girl not as a manual for being a scientist, but rather as a suggestion of a way of being as a scientist, a path already flattening down the grass. A path which shows the principle is possible, but does not dictate the route. But it is more important to me as a showing how a life scientist can draw upon their subject – these strange ways of being as a way to reflect upon your own life, to use the subjectivity of another as a way to root yourself in the chaotic seas of your own subjectivity.

The Self in the Data: review of Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

Futurology is a notoriously difficult field; difficult to practice and difficult for the practitioner to be taken seriously. There is an art to avoiding both Nostromdamusian vagueness and the retrospective naivety of Thomas Watson’s mythic comment on the “world market for maybe five computers”. A good futurologists needs to be aware of the aims and abilities of modern technology and scientific research, but crucially must understand how the political and social environment could channel or outright block scientific and technological development. Futurology is more than simply predicting what shiny new inventions will be out in the next five years. Rather, it is the skill of locating the core philosophical underpinnings of modern technology, science and politics to predict what would happen if they were allowed to proceed to their logical conclusions, the tech being the means to this social end.This is Harari’s aim in Homo Deus, not to prophecy but rather to give a warning of there we are going. It is left to the reader whether we should, or can, fight this.

Early in the book, Harari defines the New Human Agenda as to achieve happiness, immortality and deification, or supreme knowledge and manipulation of nature. Harari argues that despite having mostly solved issues of famine, war and disease in the West and increasingly in the rest of the world, we are still not content. Rather we sapiens strive to achieve the next items on the list. In doing so, Harari notes sees many unknown unknowns opening up. With our measly sapiens brains, we struggle to comprehend what a future of cognitively enhanced Homo dei would be like, what Ray Kurzeweill terms the singularity. Such adherence to uncertainty is refreshing in a book about the future, but does not serve as a cop out for refusing to consider what the future may hold.

I disagree with Harari complacency over the eventual conquest of infectious disease. It rather reminds me of a review paper by Rodney Wishnow and Jesse Steinfeld published in 1976 entitled precisely The Conquest of Infectious Disease in the United States. After the emergence of the AIDS epidemic, Hughes and Berkelman gave their similarly titled 1993 paper the despairing blunt subtitle Who are we kidding? It would be fallacious to predict that no major infectious disease could emerge in the future and take a significant toll on the population. Rising anti-biotic resistance makes this a growing likelihood. But even many non-infectious diseases are caused, worsened or treated by the shared environment, so the effect of the person’s community in a future healthcare cannot be ignored. Whilst I do agree that happiness, immortality and deification will become major goals of the wealthy into the 21st century, the trials previous human civilizations – disease, famine and war – will be persistent problems, faced as we will be with dwindling natural resources and changing opportunities for pathogens to spread in a climate altered, post-antibiotic world.

Harari places the move from mass to personalized healthcare within a narrative of the diminishing of the value of individuals, in addition “Great Decoupling” of intelligence from consciousness and the decline of mass warfare could make many economically irrelevant. But the infectious and environmental aspects of healthcare will mean it will always be social, as Eula Biss writes “our bodies may belong to us, but we ourselves belong to a greater body composed of many bodies.” Precisely that we are all to a lesser extent custodians of the health of those around us would likely preserve the value of the group in the face of atomised personalized healthcare.

Harari is a professor of world history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His previous work, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, had the focus on broad historical themes expected by someone with that job title. He carries over this historical scholarship to Homo Deus, with a surprising about of the book given over to discussion of the past. But Harari does not use the past in the way endorsed by Santayana’s well-worn quote, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Things are more complicated than this. As Harari so eloquently puts it; “Historians study the past not in order to repeat it, but in order to be liberated from it. […] It enables us to turn our head this way and that, and begin to notice possibilities that our ancestors could not imagine, or didn’t want us to imagine.” On this rationale, Harari spends a significant part of the book exploring the foundational ideology of modern society. Principally, this is humanism – the centering of the value of individual (human) subjective experience in politics, art and ethics, with sapiens rather than deus as the source of all meaning. However, Harari treats this as a religion, broadly defined, and as such holds its claims up to empirical scrutiny, and finds them lacking.

Harari presents a number of arguments drawing on experiments in the life sciences which threaten the idea of the indivisible self and free will key to the liberal religion. After two years of being told by my A-Level Philosophy teacher I do not have free will I am sure are not novel. But more interestingly, Harari argues that as living systems must be conceived of as a algorithmic system, if we are to abandon ideas of the immaterial soul, we can be causally predicted. Throughout human history, the difference between our experiencing and narrating selves in which the latter assess experience based only on the peak and end pleasure or pain means we are a poor judge of our subjective experience.

What Harari describes as the new religion of “dataism” therefore intends to jettison this reliance on the vagaries of our own assessments of our experience and go straight to the data. Human experience is defined as the data patterns that human generates, no messy, qualitative feelings needed. Whilst this description makes dataism sound like a cult from a sci-fi film, many people in the West do make feelings concede to data every day. Harari references the BRCA 1 and 2 mutation tests taken by the perfectly healthy Angelina Jolie, the data on her risk for breast and ovarian cancer lead to her deciding on a preventative mastectomy and ovariectomy. Nothing in her subjective experience told her she was in need of significant surgery, it was rather her genetic data and the population study data relating to her phenotype that lead to her decision.

Whilst reports of the New Human Agenda have been somewhat exaggerated, as the old one still persists, I find Harari to be most illuminating on the role of data in the future. Upon being explain to that I have no free will in my mid-teens, I was remarkably relaxed about this compared to my classmates. I am not alone in being a persistently inconsistent judge of my own feelings. I have often felt lost and confused in a sea of my own subjectivity, grasping for something stable and objective. I gladly concede that a powerful enough algorithm could know me better than I know myself, and maybe would consult such non-conscious, intelligent algorithms when making decisions.

My acceptance of the role of data to supplement human decision-making does not necessarily entail an acceptance of a future unemployable ‘underclass’. Harari grounds his projections for a dataist future upon the continuation of free market capitalism. Such a future is far from guaranteed. Harari makes a good case for the pacifying effects of global trade under capitalism making it a very stable political system. But given climate instabilities and the consequential political chaos will worsen, the future seems far from stable. It is understandable that Harari gives little space to predictions of political revolution given the aims of his book (and his reading of Marx), but the absence of the effects of climate change, given how it could indirectly hamper our attempts to achieve happiness, immortality and deification, is inexcusable.

Harari is honing a niche as a popular historian in the grandest sense, synthesizing much of global history for his readers but his respect for the readers own mind means he refrains from fable-like storytelling. His mind ranges far over history, both tunneling back into the deep past and sending tendrils into the future, giving him a sense of fore- and hindsight which we and our politicians could well learn from.

Of Whales and Women: The Importance of Nature in Culture and Culture in Nature

granny_orca
J2 or “Granny”, an orca estimated to be 80-105 years old, who has been post-reproductive for over 40 years.

A recent documentary broadcast on Radio 4 presented by Victoria Gill no doubt sparked a recent editorial in The Guardian on the topic of the increased post-fertility lifespan, the menopause, in orcas. The documentary followed Darren Croft of the University of Exeter and Daniel Franks of the University of York and other studying the Southern Resident orca clan, which boasts a number of older female orcas who have survived well after their reproductive years have ending, including J2 or “Granny” who had her last calf in the 1960s and is still swimming at somewhere between 80-100+ years old today. This is similar to the menopause seen in women today, and in only a single other mammal species, the short-finned pilot whale. The phylogenic oddity of the menopause, appearing not in our close relatives the chimpanzee but in animals with very different evolutionary histories and habitats to us is enough alone to spark a inquiring scientist to investigate how the menopause evolved.

Furthermore, under an earlier and more narrow definition of evolutionary fitness, the menopause has been seen to be evolutionarily inexplicable. An understanding of the reproductive success of an individual as increasing the frequency of their alleles in subsequent generations means that suddenly stopping reproducing seems the exact opposite of a trait that evolved by natural selection. But Croft and Franks argue in this programme that the orca menopause did evolve by natural selection in part due to the post-reproductive females taking care of their adult sons they already have rather than pushing out as many kids as possible. This therefore increasing the number of their sons’ children surviving to breed and so on, so her genes increase in frequency in the population. Rather than increasing her own personal reproductive fitness, the post-reproductive orca uses her sons to increase the frequency of her genes in the population. This account is not particularly revelatory, it is an application of W.D. Hamilton’s ideas of inclusive fitness applied to a particular case.

However, in The Guardian editorial, the author argues that research into the evolution of any trait in any non-human animal is irrelevant to human society and attempts to infer “what constitutes a well-ordered society”, in this case the value of older women in a society, from facts about how a trait has evolved is dangerous. But such a wholesale dismissal of the cultural importance of an understanding of the evolutionary basis does not accomodate the view of biology and nature having a dialectic materialist relationship, the phenomenon of gene-culture coevolution which has been proposed to occur in both humans and several whale species notably including the orca. In the scientists studying animal culture, culture is considered to be behavioural practices transmitted through a population through social learning and not genetic inheritance, this is the lowest common denominator definition of culture and not as intricate as human culture, but significant none the less. By the gene-culture coevolution model, as Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell describe in The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, the two streams of information in a cultural species, the genetic and the cultural, can interact. Whilst, as E.O. Wilson termed it, “genes hold culture on a leash” as our culture cannot reach beyond the limits of our biological limits, the favouring a behaviour by a culture, such as adult milk drinking in humans, can lead to the natural selection of genes allowing the most successful use of a cultural trait, which is why the frequency of genes for lactose tolerance is highest in pastoral populations.

Using an understanding of gene-culture coevolution, we can try to understand the evolutionary origins of our cultural practices, or most likely how the biological capacities to develop such cultural practices arose. Indeed, in the orcas the menopause may be one of the key elements in allowing the orcas to transcend the realm of purely genetic inheritance and learn socially and so develop their own culture.

As Whitehead and Rendell discuss, the menopause may have evolved as a means of preserving cultural knowledge. The older females are saved by the menopause from the risks of increasingly infrequent pregnancy at the age of 40 or older and so can live into their 80s and older. These grandmothers play an important role in helping raise children, especially in systems which Sarah Blaffer Hrdy describes as cooperative breeding, where the child is reared by a large extended family of parents, aunts and uncles, siblings, grandparents etc., the proverbial village it takes to raise a child, which she believes is likely the social organisation of early humans.Additionally, these older members of the (human) group will have amassed a great knowledge of the environment over time, which is very useful if a group is blighted by famines every 60 or so years and have to turn to alternative food sources, the knowledge of their edibility is preserved in the mind of the oldest grandmothers. Thus, cultural transmission of information may rely on these elders to preserve information, as in non-literate societies there is no way of preserving cultural information like DNA preserves genetic information, and applied to the early humans as to orcas. We look to orcas to give us clues as to how the human menopause evolved in part because of one of the key philosophical drivers of Darwin’s work, the principle of the consilience of inductions, as termed by William Whewell. By this, the power of a theory increase the more domains of empirical evidence it can explain. This is way Darwin bolstered this theory of evolution by natural selection using examples drawn from biogeography, embryology, behavioural instinct and the fossil record, and why modern menopause researchers use the evidence from orcas to increase the explanatory power of their theories. Crucially, the vast differences between women and whales, not least of all the lack of medical care received by the 80+ orcas, means that the menopause cannot be a pathological state in the orcas as their extended lifespan relative to the males cannot be explained by longevity alone. And explaining how the menopause evolved and therefore shows its advantages in a past environment, rather than dismiss as a pathological aberration of living longer, like Alzheimer’s disease, as some would argue, cannot be a dangerous thing.

I sense that I may be accused of spinning another “very interesting” evolutionary story, which has no relevance to human values and society now. But this society and values are supported by biological and social structures which have evolved, and upon which we have built our complex ethical and social systems. But we did not imagine these systems out of thin air a few thousand years ago, they have a long a gradual pre-history. We eventually had an explosion of social complexity in humans when our culture began to “rachet”, to become increasingly more complex as we built upon the knowledge of others, we stood on the shoulders of giants. It would be intellectually dishonest to refuse to try to encompass politically charged phenomena under an evolutionary frame-work if we call ourselves modern biologists, especially one so counter-intuitive as the menopause, in humans and in orcas. Indeed, not giving an accurate account of the origins of the menopause, gives power to those who would like to dismiss the menopause as pathological and showing womens’ inherent inferiority. Understanding the events of your body as having been selected for in evolutionary time for the advantages it brought your genes can only help understand and learn to value how you experience life. As Croft mentions in the radio programme, many menopausal women draw strength from learning of the menopasual orcas, as it shows “the important of older females in society really valued that story [and] empowered them to think what might be their role in society”. Revealing the evolutionary importance of a trait, thorugh comparison with those who also share this trait across the animal kingdom, can lead us to consider whether our social prejudices are the only way to be, and whether we could reassess our values in light of this.

I believe some of the confusion on these issues are draw in part from the different meanings of the word “value”. The evolutionary biologists uses the concept of evolutionary value as how a trait performs in a cost-benefit analysis in terms of the survival of the organisms. In contrast, value is used most commonly to refer to ethical values, which I will argue are mostly socially determined, though by the laws of causation these must have some sort of basis within the limits of biological possibility. Therefore the science vs. humanities debate comes to its apotheosis. Critics may claim that biologists equate is with ought, that what had the greatest evolutionary value in the human past is what we should value ethically today. I disagree with this position, but doing so does not mean that we should ignore the role of biology in being the basis from which culture springs, but something which does not tether all its ties to biology, as it can reach down and change it biological basis. Life is dialectic; never anything but subtle and dynamic.

 

 

 

 

 

Phallocentric Fallacies: On Gender Bias in Science

In the media and in the science classroom, it is common to hear the lamenting of the lack of women in science at the highest level. This is made evident in the statistics, such as the 12.8% of the STEM workforce in the UK being women as of 2014. The world over and in the majority of scientific disciplines, women are conspicuously absence at the highest level. Most agree that this is not due to women’s inherent inability to do science or their lack of ambition to do anything but raise their children. Therefore the gender disparity at the leading edge of scientific research and innovation is often bemoaned as a shameless waste of talent. In such an example, Athene Donald explores the phenomenon of girls interested in physical sciences being subtly or unsubtly discouraged from taking A-Level Physics and being “lost” from the path to a career in physics or engineering. Donald argues that such a phenomenon is harmful to the economy, as to simply maintain the status quo in terms of science industries in the UK, we need 10,000 more STEM graduates than we had graduating as of 2012, according to the Royal Academy of Engineers.

I don’t deny that women aren’t needed to make up the numbers of competent STEM professionals if we hope to expand STEM industries. Furthermore, I agree with Donald that it reflect poorly on an intellectual culture if those who are academically able and motivated to pursue a field of interest are discouraged from doing so for reasons unrelated to their ability.

However, these arguments apply to encouraging anyone who has the merely inkling of interest in science to pursue it in the educational systems, so are not in principle incompatible with having the upper echelons of scientific institutions filled with men of a particularly narrow social slice if this is how the dice have fallen in terms of interest.

But I will argue that women, as well as everyone else who isn’t of the demographic which has been historically the definition of a scientist; the middle-class white European man, have more to offer science than just another pair of hands.Though science aims to be objective it is inescapably subjective as it is done by human beings with subjective experiences. We gain our subjective biases through how we experience our lives in our society, these background biases act as “blinkers” and inevitably limit our outlook on the ever elusive truth of reality. This narrowing is not out of stubbornness to see reason, as the perjorative use of “blinkers” entails, but means it is very difficult to see otherwise. As Elizabeth Anderson writes in Feminist Epistemology: An Interpretation and a Defence: There is no reason to think our presently cramped and stunted imaginations set the actual limits of the world, but they do set the limits of what we now take to be possible.”

Those who have very similar experiences due to their similar social backgrounds are likely to have similar “blinkers” and similarly narrow outlooks, which becomes the status quo. As Anderson writes: “A scientific community composed of inquirers who share the same background assumptions is unlikely to be aware of the roles these assumptions play in licensing inferences from observations to hypotheses, and even less likely to examine these assumptions critically.” In contrast, those who have different experience and interests through being socialised differently will have their own slightly different set of blinkers and fields of vision of reality slightly askew from the status quo.

Science done by those with very similar life experiences, such as coming from the same social class, same country, same educational background, same sex-class and so on can be very fruitful, I do not deny the achievements of the Enlightenment, but this can only go so far. The introduction of someone with different backgrounds, such as that of being a woman in a patriarchal society, into a field previously dominated by androcentricism, the centring of the male means that she brings with her a different set of subjective biases about the field, so her blinkers are slightly offset to those of her male colleagues and she may have an outlook subtly different, and may encompass a patch of reality the men have so far missed. By contrasting ideas developed by those with divergent outlooks, scientists in the field should then conduct experiments to work out which idea matches reality most closely, and therefore help edge science ever closer to the truth.With such similar subjective biases, a field can only go so far until old hypotheses become rehashed again and again until the empirical evidence relevant to them is exhausted. But using her subtly different outlook onto the world, the female scientist may be able to come up with an innovative hypothesis which after sufficient empirical corroboration may be a theory which comes closer to reality than male scientists with their own particular outlooks have until then been able to.

My focus here will be on the use of what Anderson describes as gender symbolism, “which occurs when we represent nonhuman or inanimate phenomena as masculine” or feminine” and model them after gender ideals or stereotypes.” I will use a historical example of this where gender ideals are mapped onto a biological phenomenon where in fact no sound evidence of it’s existence is found, a true phallocentric fallacy where the masculine is seen where it does not exist. The episode which sparked this articles comes from a particularly obscure branch (or hypha) of biology: fungal reproduction.

As Nicolas P. Money writes in Mushroom, 19th century mycologists were very interested in the topic of fungal sexual reproduction, though the difficulties of studying the phenomena meant that, whist most specialists seemed to favour “the gentle fusion of colonies”, no experimental data nor a mechanism for this was proposed. However, during the First World War, Worthington G. Smith (1835-1917) proposed that he had observed through his microscope mushrooms producing sperm cells, which were ‘ejaculated’ onto the spores in the soil. Smith’s observations are flawed on two fronts. Firstly, he seems to have struggled to see these sperm cells, writing that “At first it requires long and patient  observation to make out the form of these bodies satisfactorily, but when the peculiar shape is once comprehended, there is little difficulty in correctly seeing their characteristic form.” It sounds rather like to see these cells, you must know what to look for, so you see what you know. But his most egregious mistake was to hydrate his samples with the shocking non-sterile “expressed juice of horse dung”, no doubt containing sperm-like amoeba. However, it is highly likely that due to his experience as a man in the patriarchal Victorian society Smith could only imagine sexual reproduction to occur by the forceful ejaculation of the active male sex cells onto the passive female sex cells, a clear projection of the gender symbolism of Victorian society onto the natural world. His blickers contributed to the poor quality of his science, as he did not or refused to acknowledge the contaminating effect of the horse dung on his samples so certain his results were correct.

In contrast, the young graduate Elsie Maud Wakefield (1886- 1972) appears to me to be the model of the “New Woman”, a graduate of the then all-women’s Somerville College, Oxford. Though information on her biography is sparse, as a woman in the late 19th century and early 20th century she would likely have been aware of ideas about human sexual relations being more mutualistic and equal than the Victorian ideals of male dominant courtship, such as those later expressed in the work of Marie Stopes. Whether she adhered to these political values or not, she would have been better able to imagine a non-phallocentric natural world which Smith could not. Therefore, her subjective ‘blinkers’ were different enough from those of Smith’s that she was able to conduct her experiments on fungal reproduction without the phallocentric assumptions of the active male sperm and passive female spores.

Wakefield conducted a series of experiments which demonstrated the necessity of the fusion of the mycelium, the fungal ‘roots’, to produce mushrooms in the Basidiomycete fungi, with no role for mobile sperm cells. But as Wakefield discovered, the nuclei of the two colonies don’t immediately fuse when the colonies fuse, instead the fused colony grows and forms mushrooms with the two, unfused nuclei inhabiting every cell. Nuclear fusion, the event which occurs in animals when sperm meets the egg, only occurs in the mushroom just before spores are produced. Neither colony engaged in sex takes on an ‘active masculine’ or ‘passive feminine’ role which the Victorian Smith expected to find in society and in nature, and so the phallocentric system of gender symbolism breaks down.

I do not claim that women are able to tap a magical reserve of female knowledge gained purely by virtue of having a female body. This sort of crude gender essentialism only aids in cementing differences. Instead, I argue that simply because no two people can ever occupy the same position in time and space, each person’s subjective experience of reality will be slightly different from that of others, and so will have different background assumptions and interests when entering science, including biases based on being socialised as a woman or a man. Instead a shuffling of subjective, gender biased perspectives is where real scientific innovation and the hope of objectivity can be found. As Anderson writes, “Each individual might be subject to perhaps ineradicable cognitive biases or partiality due to gender or other influences. But if the social relations of inquirers are well arranged, then each person’s biases can check and correct the others’.In this way, theoretical rationality and objectivity can be expressed by the whole community of inquirers even when no individual’s thought processes are perfectly impartial, objective, or sound.”