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Notes on Biography and Historiography of Science - The Life and Work of Michael White

Doug McCann
In this paper I would like to describe some of my experiences in researching and writing a biography of a scientist, namely, the Australian geneticist Michael White. It is a bit difficult in a paper as brief as this to give a comprehensive account of an individual whose life was so manifold and abundant.

Nevertheless, I think it is always a useful and sobering exercise to be able to precis or summarise the central features of any project. I thought it might be worthwhile to emphasise my own personal experience in writing the biography, and some of the problems I have encountered, rather than spend too much time on the details of the subject matter of the biography itself. I will also include some comments on the relationship between science and the history of science.

I should begin by explaining that I am working on a scientific biography. Now, there a number of ways one can go about approaching a scientific biography. The first and very obvious point to make is that a scientific biography is more than merely a portrait or sketch of the life or personality of the subject in question. As Thomas Hankins indicated in his article 'In Defence of Biography: The Use of Biography in the History of Science', 'the usefulness of a biography depends on what it is being used for'.1 In my case I was writing the biography in order to submit it as a PhD dissertation and the form it has taken has been dictated by the constraints imposed by that exercise. For example, it must be no more than 100,000 words; it should make a statement on the broader issues in the history, philosophy and sociology of science; it should contain within it a sustained, coherent, and adequately supported argument; it must include adequate documentation; and so on.

Never having undertaken such an exercise before, I spent a lot of time carrying out detailed preliminary work. I consider myself very fortunate to have had this project fall into my lap. Michael White died in December 1983 and his papers were transferred to the Australian Science Archives Project in the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Melbourne. For a period of time I was employed by the Australian Science Archives Project indexing White's papers, and during that time I glimpsed the possibilities that the archival material could offer.

But it really wasn't until I started writing the thesis that I realised just how valuable the material was. When I started writing I didn't have a clear thesis as such and in fact it is only now, after I have produced a rough first draft, that the thesis is becoming clear to me. The thesis really just emerged out of the material in a sort of organic fashion. I just wish the process hadn't taken so long.

When I started the thesis I received lots of good advice from my mentors. I was told to avoid writing a hagiographical or heroic account; to eschew whiggism or whiggishness; and not to write a neglect story. It has been incredibly difficult to avoid any of these tendencies, and in the case of the third point mentioned, i.e. the issue of a neglect story, it was impossible to avoid, so I decided to embrace it instead. To a great extent Michael White's story is a neglect story. This reality also led to the choosing of my central thesis which, although I have not yet fully articulated it, is close to finalisation.

One aspect of my thesis is succinctly summed up by Paul Feyerabend in his notorious book, Against Method,2 where he declares that 'the history of science is inseparable from science itself'. A major problem Feyerabend addresses is the difficulty encountered in the demarcation of science from other activities. He asserts that scientists will exploit almost any resource in order to legitimate their knowledge claims, or to win out against their competitors. Feyerabend maintains that history itself can be such a resource. In the process of the formation of scientific ideas, extra-scientific resources are frequently commandeered, and the separation of science from other domains in practice often becomes difficult to discern. As a consequence Feyerabend insists that:

The separation between the history of science, its philosophy and the science itself dissolves into thin air and so does the separation between science and non-science.3

The issue of the demarcation between science and non-science is beyond the scope of my thesis and I am not directly interested in that aspect of the problem, but I am interested in the issue of the demarcation between science and the history of science. Also I do not deal directly with the philosophy of science but I need to raise a philosophical point at this juncture. Unlike Feyerabend, who has all the hallmarks of a radical relativist (although he denies this), I am a pragmatic realist - at least to the extent that I believe that, right now, I am real, this room is real, and scientists are attempting to gain a handle on reality (whatever that may be).

However, I am also a social constructivist following Bruno Latour in his article 'Clothing the Naked Truth'.4 I agree with Latour that we never see nature naked - but always, to a greater or lesser degree, dressed up in various cultural costumes as it were. Rhetoric, in particular, has a part to play in what we collectively accept as scientific truth. It is difficult to deny that to some degree at least, scientific knowledge is socially constructed.

Even though I use a social constructivist approach my history is mainly an internalist history, and I make no apology for that. It deals, for example, with what could be called the internal politics of science. Here I follow Jan Sapp and Pierre Bourdieu in viewing science as a competitive enterprise. According to Bourdieu, there is in science, what he calls 'a struggle for authority' for such things as funding, for legitimacy, for preferred occupational positions, for who 'speaks for nature'5; and the struggle is often centred on the discipline. There is, in effect, a struggle between disciplines.

However, the discipline consists of individuals, or groups of individuals, and this is where biography can be so useful. As Hankins points out in his article the individual can act as lens, or a filter, or a focus, or an integrating entity for the many historical cross-currents involved in scientific knowledge making:

For we can say at least one thing with certainty about biography: the ideas and opinions expressed by our subject came from a single mind and are integrated to the extent that that person was able to integrate them in his own thoughts. We have, in the case of an individual, his scientific, philosophical, social and political ideas wrapped up in a single individual.6

There is another cogent reason that biography is important, which really needs no special defence, and that is that science is, after all, as much a human endeavour as any other cultural activity. A study of a scientist or scientists, critical or laudatory, helps bring us back in touch with our own humanity. Sometimes the essence of what constitutes being a human being gets lost or overlooked in the grander theorising about the nature of scientific thought and practice, whether we are talking about rational reconstruction, or social construction, or whatever. I mainly look at White in relationship to other scientists and deal with the cooperative and competitive nature of their relationship. I also deal very much with the scientific aspects of their work.

I will now give a couple of brief examples of what I am theorising about from the scientific career of Michael White, and also give a bit of background about his scientific work.

White was English-born but ended his career in Australia. He was a geneticist, or more specifically, a cytogeneticist (i.e., his studies mainly concentrated on chromosomes, and chromosomal mechanisms). He began his career in the early 1930s at University College, London and was very much influenced by J.B.S. Haldane, and also Cyril Darlington whom White came to dislike intensely. The White-Darlington interaction (or antagonism) is one of the relationships that I concentrate on in the early part of the thesis. White eventually came to challenge Darlington's status as the world's leading cytogeneticist. Their relationship was marked by disdain for each other, and for each other's approach to science.

Darlington was more of a theoretician; White was an empiricist. Darlington worked on plants; White worked on animals. Darlington was right wing politically and advocated a eugenics approach to genetics; White was left wing and opposed to much of eugenic science, and the eugenicists themselves; and so on. The versions of genetics that they produced did reflect some of these differences. However, I should point out there are not always obvious and simple causal connections and correspondences between these factors and their science. The point I emphasise is that their relationship was a competitive one and was, in essence, a struggle for authority in the field (however, it was a struggle within a discipline rather than between disciplines).

Another important relationship was that between White and the person who was to become the world's leading evolutionary biologist, Ernst Mayr. White and Mayr were very close friends and White was a strong supporter of Mayr's ideas. Both scientists wrote important books in the 1940s which are considered to be seminal contributions to the so-called evolutionary synthesis (also referred to as the modern synthesis, or the modern neo-Darwinian synthesis) - in other words, the modern theory of evolution. Mayr published his book Systematics and the Origin of Species in 1942, and White published his book Animal Cytology and Evolution in 1945. White was regarded as an important primary contributor to the evolutionary synthesis by his colleagues as evidenced by comments in books and reviews of the period.

In the late 1960s, White began to publish papers and books on modes of speciation that stressed chromosomal mechanisms and challenged the exclusivity of the geographic models which were strongly upheld and defended by Ernst Mayr. Significantly, from the mid-1970s onwards, White's name started to disappear from the standard histories of the evolutionary synthesis.

From about the mid-1950s Mayr, after a very successful career as an evolutionary biologist, started publishing articles on the philosophy and history of biology and evolutionary theory. He influenced a whole generation of biologists, philosophers and historians. He has enjoyed enormous status as a major figure in evolutionary biology. I argue in my thesis that Mayr used history as a weapon in his struggle to maintain his authority in the field. In particular, he used history to marginalise his opponents, criticise their contributions, or simply to omit them from the history altogether. The cases of Sewall Wright and Michael White are two such outstanding examples, but there were others, such as the geneticist Richard Goldschmidt.

By the mid-1980s, White was virtually a forgotten figure in the history of the evolutionary synthesis. It is important to stress that it was not just a struggle between isolated individuals for a just place in the history of science but was centred on their particular science. Mayr, in particular, was vying not only for his own place, but for the place of his discipline, as central to evolutionary biology. Mayr did not omit White from the history because he did not like him personally. Quite the reverse, they were longstanding friends. Mayr probably sincerely believed that White's contribution was insignificant, but more to the point, White's approach to speciation theory threatened completely to undermine the importance of Mayr's own theory, and hence Mayr's place in history. The struggle was thus as much a disciplinary one as a personal one.

As Bourdieu and Sapp maintain, intrinsic to the practice of normal science is a struggle for authority. As Feyerabend asserts science, the philosophy of science and the history of science are inextricably interwoven. As Mayr has brilliantly demonstrated in the case of White (and others), history can be appropriated and used as a resource in the minimisation, marginalisation or elimination of your opponent's science. History and science are thus both cultural and social resources available for utilisation by able, astute and strategically located participants.


1 Thomas Hankins, 'In Defence of Biography: The Use of Biography in the History of Science', History of Science, vol.17, 1979, p. 1.

2 Paul Feyerabend, Against Method: Outlines of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge, New Left Press, London, 1975, p. 30.

3 ibid., pp. 47-8.

4 Bruno Latour, 'Clothing the Naked Truth', in H. Lawson, and L. Appignanesi (eds), Dismantling Truth: Reality in the Post-Modern World, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1989, pp. 101-126.

5 Pierre Bourdieu, 'The Specificity of the Scientific Field and the Social Conditions of the Progress of Reason', Social Science Information, vol. 14, 1975, pp. 19-47.

6 Hankins, op cit., p. 5.

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