Book Thoughts: Leviathan and the Air-Pump

The cover of the 2011 second edition.

A couple months ago I had the pleasure of reading the classic history of science text by Steve Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life. It examines a dispute in the 1600s between Robert Boyle – “the father of modern chemistry” – and Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher known for his social contract theory as well as writing the famous phrase, that life outside civilization is “nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes is not known for his natural philosophy, but as Shapin and Schaffer show, he was an important figure in shaping the object of their study: how did something we take for granted – experiment – come to be a legitimate, and dominant, method of generating knowledge?

Note: Boyle’s birthday was last week and Whewell’s Ghost has collected some posts about this important scientist, or more properly, natural philosopher and chemist.

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The Turkey

In the United States this week we will be celebrating Thanksgiving, and as its icon is the turkey, I thought I would do a little tracing of the turkey through the history of science. I found some rather old pictures!

In case you forgot what a wild one looks like:

Gary M. Stolz, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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The American White Pelican

The American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchus) are in the midst of their southerly migration from their breeding grounds in the Dakotas and Minnesota. I saw some myself at Long Meadow Lake near the Mall of America two weekends ago, in which 15-20 were participating in this slightly discomforting but elegant synchronized fishing/swimming activity:

Seeing them, I decided to take some time to see what I could find in the old ornithilogical literature. I was also hoping to find some notes on their middle American migration (partially for another project).

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Mendelian-Mutationism (II): The Fluctuation-Mutation Distinction

As discussed in my last post, the mutationist/Mendelians (defined below) have mostly been sidelined in the history of biology. The claims used to justify this argument make up what Arlin Stoltzfus and I call “The Mutationism Story.” While Arlin first discovered this in the scientific literature, we found that scientists were getting many of these mistaken claims from historians and philosophers!

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Mendelian-Mutationism (I): The Forgotten Synthesis

tl;dr: I am published!

What did early geneticists such as William Bateson, Hugo de Vries, Thomas Hunt Morgan and R.C. Punnett contribute to evolutionary thought? Nothing, according to many scientific sources. They aren’t included in various timelines of the history of evolutionary biology and most are not included in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Evolution. When they are mentioned with regard to evolution, they are depicted as fools who missed the big picture, rejected natural selection, and developed a dead-end “mutationist” alternative to Darwinism.  The standard story is that clear and reasonable thinking about evolution vanished for a generation— the so-called “eclipse of Darwinism”—, returning with Fisher, Haldane, Wright, et al., who showed that genetics is the missing piece of Darwin’s theory, resulting in the Modern Synthesis.

This is wrong.

The first geneticists made substantial contributions to the theory of evolution, even though history has generally not recognized their achievements. Following their critique of Darwinism (next post), the Mendelians (Bateson, Punnett, Morgan, etc.) synthesized genetics with natural selection, laying down the foundations for later evolutionary theorizing. This post illustrates some of these developments.

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History of Ornithology: The Osprey

tl;dr: My first post about the history of ornithology (fulfilling the “Kestrels” half o my blog name) discusses the osprey and how various naturalists perceived it. It’s a rather messy story.

Note: As is evident from the opening lines, I wrote this around the time the Seattle Seahawks defeated the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. I wasn’t ready to relaunch my blog yet though, so I set it aside for a later time. It feels somewhat unfinished but whatever, it’s out there now!

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“Experimental Evolution Amongst Plants” (1895)

Tl;dr: This post features my (thus far) favorite quote that I have found when doing historical work on experimental evolution. In his speech/article, Liberty Hyde Bailey argued that the truth of evolution had already been demonstrated… centuries ago as well as in the present day, not by the academic elite, but by those involved in the cultivation of fruits, vegetables, and flowers. For Bailey, the domestication of plants and animals was a form of experimental evolution.

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Francis Bacon: The Father of Experimental Evolution?

Tl;dr: Experimental evolution is partially about controlling and directing change for human benefit. Early experimental evolutionists cite Francis Bacon as a predecessor as both 1) inspiration for scientific practice and 2) creating an institution to which such practice could be carried out. Much like Bacon’s own perspective, there is little to no separation between basic and applied research. However, Bacon’s actual influence on later developments is questionable. Thus, titling Bacon the “father of experimental evolution” is probably not correct, but it seems as though experimental evolution could be titled “Baconian.”

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Blog Relaunch!

In hindsight, I abandoned this blog 2.5 years ago, only approving the occasional comment that showed up in my e-mail inbox. Now I am relaunching it under a new name with a new purpose.

Much has happened since my unintentional abandonment. As can be seen in this blog’s history, I transitioned from wanting to be a biologist to being a historian of biology. Now that I am a Ph.D. student in the University of Minnesota’s Program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, I think I have succeeded!

Although I have wanted to resuscitate this blog for a couple of years, the burden of coursework prevented me from ever doing so. This was mostly a procrastination-fueled excuse that I can no longer accept. Furthermore, and this is silly, I could never come up with a name that pleased me. “Kele’s Science Blog” clearly no longer worked, and “Kele’s History of Science Blog” would be terrible.

Now the title is “Kestrels and Cerevisiae.” This reflects the (hopefully) dual purposes of this blog: Cerevisiae, from Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or yeast, represents experimental evolution (and work on them is what inspired my interest in the topic); Kestrels, a small falcon, represents my interest in birds, and I am planning on including some history of ornithology here to satisfy that curiosity. I also have a love for the American prairie, so if I can find a way to integrate the prairie with the history of science, that will appear also. Unfortunately I could not come up with a good w-word for the prairie since as you may have noticed, K and C are my initials.

Anyway, I will end this post here. I simply wish to announce the blog’s return with a new name, a new purpose and most importantly, new content! I hope you enjoy my work here!