Workshop 4: Bruno Strasser ‘Collecting Experiments: The Art of Natural History and the Pursuit of Objectivity’

Bruno Strasser (Department of History, Yale University, USA) opened his presentation by stating that in it, he will provide a brief glimpse into a book that he is working on now regarding changing meanings and practises of experimentation in the context of natural history practises (museum) and experimental practises (laboratory). Strasser’s talk was combined of four parts: historiography, Boyden’ serological systematics, a museum in a laboratory and conclusions.

Firstly, Bruno Strasser addressed the topic of historiography. In this context, he was particularly interested in the relationship between experiment and natural history. Strasser argued that at the forefront of this kind of investigation lies the narrative about the decline of the way of knowing and subsequent ideas regarding producing the way of knowing through museum. He explained that natural history carried one distinctive characteristic of being predominantly interested in collections, comparison, measurement and computing. In this context, he pointed to the natural history as a science of rocks, crystals and bones. Strasser emphasised that experimental science, on the other hand, was focused on the production of phenomena in modern organism (as singular), using expensive instruments and relying on objective, quantitative knowledge. However, interestingly, Strasser argued that experimental life sciences of today borrowed much more out of natural history than experimental practises (i.e. databases or collection of DNA sequences). Further, he proposed that it was experimental knowledge that dominated all other forms of knowledge in 20th century and by all accounts the natural history and experiment are seen as mutually exclusive ways of knowing about the world. Consequently, Bruno Strasser claimed that he wants to introduce a different approach here, combining various but complementary ways of knowing that together compose the fabric of modern experimental practise.

Secondly, to illustrate his claims Strasser spoke about Boyden’s serological systematics which aimed at: “[t]he discovery of an objective, quantitative test which could be applied to animals and through which some general agreement as to their relationships might be attained’’ and “[making systematics] entirely objective and independent of the interpretation of the observer” (Alan A. Boyden. “The Precipitin Reaction in the Study of Animal Relationships.” Biological Bulletin 50, no. 2 (1926): 73-107). Strasser explained how Boyden, arguing that chemical description is the most objective method of study, compared various serums made out of animal blood samples to attain a more detailed knowledge about species and their evolution. Strasser stated that Boyden was opposed to simple comparison of anatomy and aesthetics and wanted to attain a method of a classification that would allow him to produce an objective data. He argued that “[s]ystematicists depend on interpretation as to what various structures may mean in descent [and interpretation] differs with interpreters [resulting] in an endless difference of opinion as to the relationships of certain groups of animals” (Alan A. Boyden. “The Precipitin Reaction in the Study of Animal Relationships.”, Biological Bulletin 50, no. 2 (1926): 73-107). Further, Strasser illustrated that for Boyden ‘‘phylogeneticists and systematicists sometimes appear to work on an instinctive basis, to ‘feel’ their way to their systematic groupings” (G. Kingsley Noble, in Alan A. Boyden. "Systematic Serology: A Critical Appreciation." Physiological Zoölogy XV, no. 2 (1942): 109-45.) Hence, Strasser elaborated on how Boyden was looking for a more transparent approach that would allow him to exclude the major problem of scientific bias related to the applied ontology of researcher. His claims, however, were contested by other scientific figures of that period. For example, Simpson argued that “[the fact that homology is based] on theory and opinion rather than on objective fact [does not] invalidate it or make it less useful […] Science certainly needs words to express opinions.” (George Gaylord Simpson to Alan A. Boyden, October 30, 1944, Simpson Papers, American Philosophical Society), acknowledging that “[p]erhaps like a tennis player or musician, [the taxonomist] works best when he does not get too introspective about what he is doing.” (George Gaylord Simpson, Principles of Animal Taxonomy, 1961). Further, Simpson’s claims had much support in the field, in statements from other prominent natural scientists:

- ‘‘classifying is never entirely objective since the particularities of the human mind and of the individual taxonomist impose subjective elements on the result.” “How far the subjective element can be eliminated or controlled, or even how far it is desirable to attempt so to treat it, is debatable.” (W. E Turrill, “The Subjective Element in Plant Taxonomy“, Bulletin du Jardin Botanique de l'État à Bruxelles 27, no. 1 (1957): 1-8)

- “the good doctor and the good taxonomist make their diagnoses by a skillful evaluation of symptoms in the one case and of taxonomic characters in the other” (Ernest Mayr et al. Methods and Principles of Systematic Zoology, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1953).

Therefore, Bruno Strasser demonstrated how Boyden’s task was not an easy one and there was not much support for his chemical approach at that time.

 

Thirdly, Strasser elaborated on the idea of a museum in a laboratory evident in Boyden’s work. Here, he demonstrated Boyden’s commitment to the idea with a following quote: “the proteins of the bodies of organisms are essential parts of their natures and are fully as worthy of collection, preservation and comparison as, for example, are the skins and bones of vertebrate animals.” (Alan A. Boyden, “Introductory Remarks.” In Serological and Biochemical Comparisons of Proteins, ed. William H. Cole, 1-2. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1958). Strasser proceeded in explaining that Boyden was a lonely leader of experimental systematic until he decided to build a ‘Blood Museum’ in 1948 – a big fridge with all the samples, without a typical museum display but as a place of study and producing knowledge. Strasser explained how Boyden was interested in collection, comparison, classification and sharing of the serum samples relying on many researchers to provide him with the materials for the analysis: “proof that, among biologists of many lands, there can be wholehearted and friendly cooperation [and in] these times — in any times — it is well to have occasion to reaffirm our faith in men and their capacity for mutual aid.” (Alan A. Boyden, “The ‘Flying Lemur’ Comes to the Museum”, Serological Museum Bulletin 4 (1950): 4–5). Strasser explained how Boyden’s approach was driven by the idea of completeness and started blurring the boundaries between the museums and laboratories. The Blood Museum lasted until 1980s when someone pulled the plug on the ‘big fridge’.

Finally, in terms of a conclusion, Bruno Strasser argued that talking about a museum in a laboratory it is important to emphasise that researchers represented a hybrid culture and valued both of these approaches. Further, he pointed to a growing convergence between natural history and experimental practises at that time. Strasser explained that the clash took place not between but within these groups regarding a debate within the natural history project. Here, he argued that as much as the groups were divided over the topic of objectivity and the idea that museums assemble and laboratories produce, they converged in the efforts to provide a fuller scientific picture.

 

DISCUSSION

Firstly, a debate oriented on how Boyden described his museum as a studio, place of study and making things visible. In this context some questions were posed regarding the instances where things become visible through they agency. It was established that it is museum that makes differences visible and it causes the relationship between study and its dissemination to become problematic – how do you portray chemical differences in entertaining to an audience way?

Secondly, some comments were made pointing out that Strasser’s arguments regarding these two parallel histories are not novel. Here, an example of the hospital which started as a museum for the collection of specimens of disease, later overshadowed by the laboratory, was brought forward. Further, some contemporary examples of pharmaceutical companies such as Welcome, overtaking museums with collections were cited.