15 March 2011

Thinking about L. J. Henderson & J. Z. Young

From Robert M Young's "Science, Ideology and Donna Haraway":

In the early twentieth century the admixture of respectable physiology and confident extrapolation to society became characteristic of a whole school of writers, led by Lawrence Henderson on the fitness of the environment and the social system (1913, 1970; Heyl, 1968) and Walter Cannon on the wisdom of the body (1932; Benison et al., 1987; Cross and Albury, 1987). The sociological version of functionalism eventually came full circle, and its scientistic analogies were applied to the history and sociology of science itself, in the work of Robert K. Merton (1938, 1968). A theological version of this way of thinking - a basis for mutual harmony - has recently been revived in the Gaia hypothesis, according to which an eminent scientist, James Lovelock, invites us the see the universe and all that is in it as a vast, mutually adaptive system in which all parts are in equilibrium with all others. His notion of Gaia is thought to ensure the co-ordination (Lovelock, 1979, 1988).

One way of thinking about the role of ideology in all these disciplines is to see their concepts as part of an overall ideological project - the naturalization of value systems which have a conservative tendency. I have listed the above concepts and disciplines in the service of the claim that there have been fairly convincing ideological critiques across a broad range of scientific ideas, and I have cited publications referring to each of them.

The same can be said of many other individuals and their work, although I will refrain from annotating every example. I am thinking of Isaac Newton and esoteric knowledge (Rattansi, 1973); of Mary Shelly and Erasmus Darwin on theories of life (Jordanova, 1986; McNeil, 1987); of Gall and Spurzheim on phrenology, and the origins of brain research, of other key figures in the history of brain research in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, e.g., Magendie, Broca, Ferrier, Sherrington, Pavlov, Eccles; of the history of the dispensing of partronage of the natural, social and medical sciences by the Rockefeller charities (Brown 1979, 1979a; Abir-Am, 1982; Kohler, 1991); of some of their most prolific proteges, the molecular biologists, whereby there flowed from Watson and Crick's double helix a whole plethora of developments, leading to a belief that genetic engineering can voluntarily reshape all of life, including humanity, eventually virtually at will (Yoxen, 1983, 1986). Once again, there are admirable learned writings on each and every one of these subjects.

Young's essay, a really wonderful read, ponders whether there is any point to talking about science and ideology any more. I wonder if he has revisited these ideas. To me, science and ideology seem the salient questions of our historical moment - but I'm a bit old-fashioned.


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