11 December 2011

Neuro-Reality-Check: Brief Replies to Contentious Claims (Part II)

Second assertion: Neuroscience is a young science.

Francis O. Schmitt
Empirically there is little wrong with this assertion. If the origins of Francis Otto Schmitt’s neurosciences research program can be taken as an index, then the domain of neuroscience and a community of scientists and physicians identified with neuroscience work took shape sometime after 1940, and as the festschrift of Schmitt’s life puts it, events in the years 1966 and 1967 “served to crystallize the new field, the neurosciences” ( Worden et al 1975, p. xx). In so far as this discussion of beginnings matters, then it is empirically clear that neuroscience is of recent origins. To speak of neuroscience in the nineteenth century or earlier is to engage in a retrospective reconstruction.

However, this assertion of neuroscience’s comparative youth cannot be treated as wholly innocent. The words ‘youth’, ‘adolescence’, ‘immature’, or other synonyms that neuroscientists often deploy when speaking about new techniques, areas of work, divisions of labor, or the whole domain, imply that neuroscientists have some right to be naïve in their scientific method and interpretations.

“Metaphors of growth”, as Roger Cooter has termed teleological language of this ilk (Cooter 1993), when applied to specialties of medicine or disciplines of science, speak to rhetorical or ideological assumptions about the way progress occurs in science. When used by scientists, physicians, policy makers, and university and hospital administrator, such organic metaphors are usually offered as an excuse for imprudent claims, over-reaching promises, or as a justification for further time, funding, or infrastructure. The view is that eventually neuroscience will ‘flower’ into a mature area of expertise.

Most typically, neuroscientists appeal to ‘youthfulness’ when discussing scientific conclusions or the applications of neuroscience beyond the laboratory. In other words, ‘immaturity’ is really ‘impetuosity’ and therefore it is not anyone’s fault that the young science’s practitioners reach sometimes rather deeply and naively into such terrains as philosophy, ontology, and history.

Yet this claim of youth is also somewhat curious, when counterbalanced by alternative claims to a long history. With only a little effort, a long history for neuroscience can be reconstructed, either from the internet or in the historiography. Thus, do I see, for example, on my own bookshelf a volume subtitled “Essays in eighteenth-century neuroscience.” The history of neuroscience in this literature traces from Aristotle, Plato, and Hippocrates and through Galen, da Vinci, and Vesalius to our modern day.  Thus may we detect an alternative set of claims to neuroscience’s impetuous youth – its great wisdom derives from its many Ages.

The slight-of-hand at work in making both short and long claims for neuroscience’s history comes from the way deep debates in philosophy, theology, and the human sciences are appropriated by neuroscience. Thus while any one can see that the nerves and brains, to which, for example, Hobbes refers in Leviathan are most certainly not the nerves and brains of twenty-first century neuroscience, Hobbes’ discussion of power, obedience, and authority are most certainly part of a longer discussion about political philosophy and critique which everyone, including neuroscientist, can claim as knowledge within the Western tradition and canon.

By collapsing together the short and long history, neuroscientists who protest the youthfulness of their science, can nevertheless claim legitimacy for their science’s answers to debates long extant before their science’s time. That the potency of those debates derives from conditions and eventualities far different from neuroscience’s discussions of nerves and brains is quite beside the point. It is in the transcendence of politics, philosophy, and history that many sciences establish their contemporary purchase.

The long tradition is invented to establish legitimacy. The short tradition is expedient for disclaiming responsibility. Such tricks have long been used in the history of specialization, discipline-formation, and profession building. As a matter of making scientific communities, such strategies are invaluable. As a faithful record of history, they are inadequate. But as an excuse? Well, when the object of the science’s claims is in part to know what is in our heads and minds, to tell us what in human history really matters, to show us that universal art is in our brains, indeed to claim that humans are little more than their brains, well, it is an excuse that falls short.  

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