20 April 2011

The Superorganism: Further thoughts on L J Henderson

Brainstorm, Michael Ruse's mildly interesting blog at the Chronical of Higher Education, offers some interesting observations on E. O. Wilson and the holistic tradition at Harvard:

The split between evolutionists who think that selection is for and only for the individual, and those who think that the group often comes first and foremost, goes back to the two men who discovered natural selection—Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Darwin always thought in terms of individuals, even when it comes to humans (I have discovered a letter making this point very clear), and Wallace always thought that often selection favors the group.

Without saying that the whole of science is a social construction — an epiphenomenon on the culture of the day—I don’t think there is any doubt that the Darwin-Wallace dispute reflects different socio-political commitments. Darwin the child of industrialists (his maternal grandfather was Josiah Wedgwood the potter) favored competition at all levels. Wallace, an ardent socialist, always pushed for integrative thinking and solutions.

Another who favored an integrative approach—for all that he is usually portrayed as the paradigmatic nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw Social Darwinian—was Herbert Spencer, about whom I have written before. And it was Spencer who had the big influence on early 20th-century American biology, not Darwin. Especially at Harvard, where there was a group of Spencerian holists, including the physiologist Walter B. Cannon, the father of the notion of “homeostasis,” the biochemist L.J. Henderson, who formulated an early version of the so-called anthropic principle, and most significantly the ant specialist William Wheeler. This last was ardent for group thinking and superorganisms.

Wilson is the direct intellectual grandson of Wheeler, for Wheeler’s student was Frank Carpenter and his student was Edward O. Wilson. So whether he is right or whether he is wrong, I am not at all surprised at the turn that Ed Wilson has taken. I would have been surprised otherwise. I remember the first time I met him in his lab over 30 years ago. On his wall, right next to the picture of Darwin was a picture of Herbert Spencer. “My God, Professor Wilson,” I gasped, “Herbert Spencer! Herbert Spencer!” “Great man, Mike.” He replied. “Great man.”

Ruse's observations rather neatly accord with my increasing conviction - I would love for it to be disproved -that physiologists in Britain and America were thinking systemically about political organization and were actually at the frontlines of organizational theory. Its worth reflecting, as I recall Steven Shapin does somewhere, that it was Henderson who introduced Vilfredo Pareto to Harvard and to Talcott Parsons.

But why, in the first instance, would Henderson have been interested in Pareto? Italy, following unification, was a mess. While there had been some positive developments in the sense of economic policy, Italian politics took a turn for the worst from the 1890s onwards. True, the Giolitti administration promoted liberal reforms, but quite frankly the direction of Italian politics was towards corruption and consequent radicalization both in nationalist and socialist terms. Violence prolifferated -  both in discourse and action. And against this backdrop we see the likes of Gramsci, Mosca, and Pareto. But fundamentally, as I understand it, Pareto was arguing against political liberalism. Indeed, he seems to have naturalized the position of the elite to the cost of democracy. What I cannot understand is why such a view would have appealed to Henderson? What does a cornerstone of Italian fascism - I don't know that Pareto was a fascist - offer to Anglo-American physiologists? There is a story here.

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