Book Thoughts: Pauly’s Controlling Life

In Controlling Life (1987), Philip Pauly explores how scientists have sought to manipulate life for the sake of human benefit through a biographical account of the enigmatic biologist-engineer Jacques Loeb. Pauly’s motivation is to point out that the drive for biotechnology in the 1960s was not borne from a vacuum. The lack of historical context, he argues, is due to historians not integrating such themes into the history of biology; and those that have, he claims, have made “superficial” connections to eugenics (p. 3). The result is that “scientific control of life has recurrently been conceptualized in fictional, even mythical, contexts – in terms of Faust, Frankenstein,” H. G. Wells, and Aldous Huxley” (pp. 3-4). This is surprising, given that “in a general sense, of course, control of life is coextensive with civilization,” as seen in domestication and agriculture (p. 4). The goal of Pauly’s book then is to fix this situation – to provide a “historical context” for this controlling desire – by focusing on the eccentric personality of “biologist-engineer,” Jacques Loeb (1859-1924). (Note, however, that this was published in 1987; the discipline has taken on fully these ideas.)

Today, Jacques Loeb is known for his work on artificial parthenogenesis, in which he initiated the development of sea urchin eggs by immersing them in a salt solution (rather than penetration by sperm). His work was popular and some of the public even took the experiment to mean that one of the sexes would be rendered superfluous.* Or that women should be careful about bathing in salty sea water, lest they wind up like the Virgin Mary! And foreshadowing Huxley’s Brave New World, some speculated that human life would be born in test tubes.

Loeb did not think so extremely, so to what end were his experiments? As Pauly argues, artificial parthenogenesis is better understood within the broader context of Loeb’s work: to control life. After a stint in vertebrate physiology/psychology, Loeb joined the plant physiologist Julius Sachs, extending his mentor’s botanical work on tropisms to the animal kingdom (a tropism is when an organism orients itself towards some stimulus such as light/dark or up/down (gravity); for instance, sunflowers track the sun’s movement across the sky). By manipulating such variables as light, Loeb discovered that he could control the “voluntary movements” of various animals. In one experiment, Loeb found he could cause a caterpillar to starve to death at the tip of the plant, even though food was nearby – in this instance, the “heliotropism” determined the insect’s movement, not its need to nourish itself.

How or why this happened was not of Loeb’s concern. A critical feature of Loeb’s view of science was that the search for causes was a pointless and distracting endeavor. Influenced by (and correspondent with) the anti-realist philosopher/physicist Ernst Mach, Loeb argued that “the determination of such internal conditions and the mechanisms by which they influenced action” were not central to his project (p. 40). Science’s task, according to Mach, was to “cope with the environment” and to provide concepts that allowed humans to predict and control (p. 43). In addition to Mach, Pauly points to the engineer Josef Popper-Lynkeus, who “did not consider material improvement to be the major significance of technology. For him, technology expressed a fundamental element of the human spirit, and could be justified on the same grounds as fine art: its ability to stimulate “aesthetic sensations”” (p. 44). According to Popper-Lynkeus, creations such as the undersea telegraph cables were “important not for their utility but for “purely aesthetic reasons”” (p. 44). Like Mach, Loeb thought speculation regarding causes (whether atoms or behavior) was fruitless, but argued that controlling phenomena was the point of science; like Popper-Lynkeus, Loeb did not necessarily control organisms for any utilitarian purpose, but because he could. Science was not done for the sake of knowledge, but for the sake of control. It was engineering.


A species of Tubularian from Allman, G. J., The Monograph of the Gymnoblastic or Tubularian Hydroids

Following the behavior work, Loeb brought this Machian/Popper-Lynkean engineering perspective to how tropisms influence biological growth and development. For example, by suspending a worm in water, rather than allowing it to grow upon a surface, Loeb wrote,

“I have succeeded in finding animals in which it is possible to produce at desire a head in place of a foot at the aboral end [its “foot” or anchor point], without injuring the vitality of the animal … A Tubularian has by artificial means been so altered that it terminates in a head at both its oral and aboral ends. If, for any reason, it were necessary to create any number of such bioral Tubularians, this demand could be satisfied” (quoted by Pauly, p. 50).

Why do this? Because he could! In a February 26, 1890 letter to Ernst Mach, Loeb wrote:

“The idea is now hovering before me that man himself can act as a creator even in living nature, forming it eventually according to his will. Man can at least succeed in a technology of living substance. Biologists label that the production of monstrosities; railroads, telegraphs, and the rest of the achievements of the technology of inanimate nature are accordingly monstrosities. In any case they are not produced by nature; man has never encountered them” (quoted by Pauly, pp. 50-51).

Not only does Loeb express the desire to control, but as Pauly emphasizes throughout the book, Loeb is not concerned with the distinction between what is natural and what is artificial or monstrous. As with biotechnology, or what Loeb calls the “technology of living substance,” the point is to create entities that do not exist in nature so as to make life do what humans want life to do. Here is Pauly’s excellent summary:

“The core of the Loebian standpoint was the belief that biology could be formulated, not as a natural science, but as an engineering science. More broadly, it meant that nature was fading away. As biologists’ power over organisms increased, their experience with them as “natural” objects declined. And as the extent of possible manipulation and construction expanded, the original organization and normal processes of organisms no longer seemed scientifically privileged; nature was merely one state among an indefinite number of possibilities, and a state that could be scientifically boring. This transformation … was a generalization from biologists’ practice as they saw the extent of artificialization taking place in laboratories. Nature was disappearing, not as a result of argument, but through trivialization; not through disproof, but displacement. The natural became merely one among any results of the activity of biological invention” (p. 199).

For Loeb, whether artificial parthenogenesis or manipulation of tropisms created unnatural organisms or behaviors was irrelevant; what mattered was that it allowed scientists better access to controlling biological phenomena for whatever purpose.

Importantly, Loeb did not hold onto the Machian view forever; in fact, in 1915, Loeb publicly repudiated his former views, perhaps to take on a new debate where Mach must be left behind, that of mechanism vs. vitalism – was the causes of life explainable by physics and chemistry or was there something unique to biological life? This debate is far too expansive to cover here, so I will simply restate Loeb’s apparent reasoning: While Loeb rejects Mach’s stance regarding science’s purpose (Loeb now thinks it is about understanding, not control), he retains a Machian distaste for speculation, much of which is vitalist.** Vitalists held that there was something special in biology that produced life; in contrast, Loeb thought life could (eventually) be explained entirely through physico-chemical mechanisms simply because organisms were physico-chemical machines. To do this, Loeb mostly abandoned biology for physical chemistry; in addition to his ontological reductionism which he had always held, Loeb absorbed it into his theoretical work, reducing life phenomena to those of chemistry. For example, in a debate about “colloids,” which some held to be the substance that made biology unique and was not explainable by the chemistry of the day, Loeb showed that chemistry was indeed up to this task. This style of thought and work continued until his death in 1924.

With all this talk of a “Loebian” or “engineering ideal,” what of its influence? Pauly argues that because of his unstable career and low number of graduate students, Loeb was never able to create a school of thought. However, Pauly claims that his engineering ideal did influence a small number of significant figures: H. J. Muller, J. B. Watson, B. F. Skinner, and Gregory Pincus. Not coincidentally, the geneticist Muller had wanted to be an engineer, but was influenced by the work of Loeb; by 1911, age 21, Muller’s “major scientific goal was to control evolution” by “producing mutations by physico-chemical means;” he eventually did produce thousands of mutations in a single experiment by exposing flies to X-rays. Why?*** By controlling mutations, Muller wrote,

“We would hold the key to unthinkable sources of concentrated energy that would render possible any achievement with inanimate things. Mutation and transmutation [of elements] – the two keystones of our rainbow bridges to power!” (quoted, p. 179).

Muller thought a lot about eugenics, but did not care for how it was practiced at the time: either “positively” (encouraging the genetically superior to reproduce together) or “negatively” (preventing the genetically inferior from breeding, frequently through forced sterilization). Instead, Muller imagined a “creative” eugenics reminiscent of Loeb’s parthenogenesis work, in which scientists separated reproduction from sex; he wrote a book advocating this called Out of the Night, a major influence on Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. A related real-world development was the invention of oral contraceptives, done by Gregory Pincus, who, like Muller, cited Loeb as an influence.

In psychology, J. B. Watson and B. F. Skinner extended Loebian ideals of controlling behavior to the mind (including humans). “By arguing that control was knowledge, he [Watson] broke down the barriers between the aims of pure psychology and those of behavioral technology. In this sense behaviorism was a model Loebian science, organized around the desire “to get the life phenomena under our control”” (p. 174). Pauly claims that Watson’s Behavorist Manifesto shared a positivistic methodology with Loeb’s early work, emphasizing external/environmental control of organisms; for example, he treats the reflex as a given phenomenon, rather than as something to be analyzed and understood. B. F. Skinner, an English major whose only scientific readings before graduate school happened to be the writings of Jacques Loeb, elaborated upon Watson’s behaviorism; after all, operant conditioning is all about controlling the psychology of organisms. Thus, Loeb managed to influence indirectly a handful of important scientists that contributed especially to the control of life.

Loeb’s indirect influence perhaps remains today, as themes reminiscent of his early work persist. For instance, the (relative) disregard for the natural/artificial distinction is evident in modern experimental biology (though debated). But more importantly, while “Loebism” never took over the biological sciences, important areas of the discipline are dedicated to controlling life, most especially biotechnology, genetic engineering, and experimental evolution. Ironically though, much of this is possible because scientists rejected the anti-metaphysical stance (for lack of better words) of the younger Loeb; instead of avoiding the search for causes, biochemistry and molecular biology have sought out the roots of what makes life function. Modern biotechnology would not work without the extreme reductionism that allowed for the discovery of DNA structure and its replication process. However, Pauly does show that the ideology of biotechnology is not at all new and that biologists over 100 years ago sought the same thing as some modern biologists do: controlling life.


* Today, it would render males superfluous, but at the time, Loeb thought males were X0 and females XX, meaning that development without sperm would create males, not females.

** This new position is also seen in Loeb’s views on evolution. Early in his life, he avoided the topic due to it being full of speculation not amenable to experiment (such as Weismann’s determinants or Haeckel’s historical program); however, with his move to the United States and the later rise of the acute anti-Semitism/racism of World War I, Loeb “perceived that the evolutionary biology he disliked as being used to support racism, national chauvinism, and militarism. In order to oppose these political positions … it was imperative to develop an authoritative alternative to an evolutionism that was no longer necessarily progressive” (p. 142). For a brief period, Loeb engages the public on these issues.

*** Ironically, Muller received similar criticism as Loeb did from the same figure, T. H. Morgan, who wondered what was the point of these highly artificial organisms. How did they help us understand genetics, evolution, and development?

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