Putting History and Philosophy of Science to Work with the Life Sciences

by Betty Smocovitis (University of Florida)

“I’m German. I like order.”
Jens Kuhn, workshop participant “The Future of Systematics in Data-Centric Biology”

Ernst Mayr would probably love the reference to the “German tendency to order” in the comment made by virologist Jens Kuhn at a recent workshop that I attended; but he would also likely be rolling in his grave if he knew that a virologist had uttered it, especially in the way of offering taxonomic prescriptives. Viruses do not exactly conform to our understanding of basic biological principles, let alone lend themselves to classic Linnaean taxonomy, whatever we actually mean by that. But then again, neither do bacteria, or fungi or myriad other groups that are now posing special challenges to systematists, students of the diversity of life on Earth. Indeed, it would not just be the invitation list that included bacteriologists, mycologists as well as virologists that would have upset Mayr; it would also be the fact that most everything that he fought to establish is now being challenged by systematists applying molecular methods to sequence genomes. From the biological species concept, or the highly orderly branching patterns of “trees,” to the emphasis on field collections stored in museum-like repositories, most everything he endorsed in books like his 1942 Systematics and the Origin of Species, or his 1969 Principles of Systematic Zoology, or even his 1982 The Growth of Biological Thought, placing systematics and evolutionary biology firmly at the center of modern biology, is actively being challenged by systematists today employing new molecular technologies. In short, the emphasis on animals, especially birds (Mayr’s preferred group), and even plants has given way to the systematic study of a staggering diversity of organisms whose biological properties pose new and at times irresolvable taxonomic problems; it isn’t just the difficulty of gaining coherence across these many groups, but also the very special challenges posed by naming or establishing standard “type specimens” in groups that are not even capable of being stored in standard museums or herbaria.

Putting History and Philosophy of Science to Work with the Life Sciences Workshop

Group Photograph in Front of MBL, F. R. Lillie Hall; Back row: Jane Maienschein, Robert Beicko, Nico Franz, David Remsen, David Hibbett, Jen-Pan Huang; Middle row: Joeri Witteveen, Arvind Varsani, Jens Kuhn, Staffan Müller-Wille. Greg Morgan, Ramon Rosselló-Móra; Front Row: Kate MacCord, Beckett Sterner, Sean Cohmer, Betty Smocovitis

This much was apparent at the first international workshop held at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts in October as part of a project funded by the James S. McDonnell Foundation and led by McDonnell Fellow Kate MacCord. The project is titled “Putting history and philosophy of science to work with the life sciences”; and the event did just that. Organized by Beckett Sterner, Nico Franz, and David Remsen, it brought systematists working on a range of biological groups, many of which were long thought to be intractable for taxonomic study, together with historians and philosophers of science. The goal was to share historical and philosophical insights in order to gain some understanding of the complex problems, conceptual, practical and disciplinary, faced by taxonomists today as they become inundated by data. The kick-off lecture by Staffan Müller-Wille on Linnaeus was especially successful in setting the tone of the workshop. The lecture did not just serve as an introduction to the “great man”; it actually demonstrated the conceptual challenges that Linnaeus faced, as well as how he worked with containers and index cards in creating his famous classification scheme. Remarkably, it also served as an introductory lesson on the basics of the philosophy of taxonomy; some of the workshop participants had never actually trained in the area and were intrigued by Linnaeus’s employment of “nested hierarchy.” Other discussions led to equally surprising statements, at least for systematists, including someone who challenged the need for Darwin—and this is but a tip of the iceberg of startling comments made at this workshop. The systematics of the microbial world, especially, is shaking up our accepted beliefs in the history and philosophy of biology, that much. My overall sense is that scientists at the workshop benefited from the comments of historians and philosophers, and historians and philosophers were similarly challenged by systematists who served to undercut some cherished assumptions; and I was left thinking that although Mayr would be displeased with some of the specific remarks, the invitation list, and directions taken by molecular systematics, he would have been delighted with the transformative potential of bringing together history, philosophy, and science in a way that challenged received notions of systematics. Indeed, I think he might have learned a thing or two.


Betty Smocovitis is Professor of the History of Science in the Departments of Biology and History at the University of Florida. She was one of the historians at the workshop on “Systematics and the Future of Data-Centric Biology.”