Roundtable with Erika Milam, 2020 Levinson Prize Winner

Editor’s note: The HSS Newsletter is pleased to congratulate Erika Milam, winner of the 2020 Suzanne J. Levinson Prize, for her book Creatures of Cain: The Hunt for Human Nature in Cold War America (Princeton University Press, 2019). The Levinson Prize is awarded biennally (in even-numbered years) to the author of a book from the past four years on the history of the life sciences and natural history. Matthew Goodrum, Georgina Montgomery and Marga Vicedo had questions aplenty to ask of about her “nuanced and compelling book” which Erika tackles with aplomb and clarity.

Matthew Goodrum: One of the interesting ideas proposed in your book was the notion of “colloquial science” writers and the decision to focus the book on such individuals. There has been interest among historians of science in examining popular science and its relationship to the intellectual and social history of science generally. I am curious to know your thoughts regarding how the concept of “colloquial science” writers might offer new ways to think about and explore subjects in the history of science. What might a focus on “colloquial science” writers contribute that has not been captured by other conceptual approaches to the history of science?

What a great question to get us started! As I worked on Creatures of Cain, I was inspired by historical scholarship that has demonstrated the importance of scientific ideas in the public realm and their capacity to shape ongoing programs of research. One of the more surprising angles of my research was the continued importance of books as places of scientific discourse among professionals in the decades after the Second World War. Scientific books as a genre existed in a space of fluid authority. They might sell well because of their appeal to other scientists and the standing of the author within a discipline. They also might sell because non-scientists found them of gripping interest. In fact, they might do both.

It was this overlap of intended audience that caught my attention and it struck me that postwar conversations about human nature were taking place in and about books that could not be classified as belonging strictly to the realm of the “popular” nor the primarily “professional”—they were read, debated, and reviewed in newspapers and academic journals alike. I coined “colloquial science” as a term to highlight that fluid space and the powerful overlap between text, television, and film during this period. Creatures of Cain offers one set of stories, about the evolution of human nature as marketed and discussed in the United States. There are, I think, many other subjects that operate in this realm, whether debates over environmental policy or neurobiological subjecthood.

Both Marga and Georgina, had follow-ups to Matthew’s opening gambit, from specific parts of the book. Marga asks: In your introduction, you note “the highly visual nature of colloquial scientific publications” (p. 11). And later, you show the importance of visual depictions of humanity’s evolutionary past, the images of scientists at work, and the representations of animal behavior. Do you see this key aspect of your story as something that is specifically important during the period you cover and/or in the disciplines you examine? Or is this an ingredient of all colloquial science?

I would suggest an appeal to multiple senses, certainly both sight and sound, played a role in most colloquial science of the era, for far more subject areas than just human evolution. Scientific American and Natural History, for example, made ample use of images for all their content. For human nature, standout examples were the headline stories created by National Geographic. Packed with images in the magazines, the organization also released study guides for children and documentaries that aired on national television. After the Second World War, with the exciting coverage of paleoanthropological fossil discoveries in Africa and nature documentaries about modern human cultures from all over the world, still and moving images stirred audiences’ interests in anthropological and paleoanthropological topics.

As I wrote, I kept an eye out for drawings and illustrations that depicted the theories under discussion or scientists at work. Their striking visual styles reflect both the artistic conventions of the time and the highly visual nature of scientific conversations. More so than photographs, which can easily be read as flat representations of the past, I hope these images center readers’ attention on the creativity required to bring theories of human nature to life. Thank you for asking about this.

Georgina: The chapter “Unmaking Man” is particularly vivid and as a reader, I was transported to The Berks in 1972. You note how “such debates rendered treacherous the porous boundary between professional and colloquial discourse, especially for women” and the challenges encountered by women “who entered academic from the periphery rather than the center.” Building on Matthew’s question, I would love to hear what you think about how Creatures of Cain is in discourse with the broader field of women and gender in science.

As I was working on Creatures of Cain, I thoroughly enjoyed collaborating with Robert A. Nye on our co-edited Osiris volume, Scientific Masculinities—and by enjoyed, I mean lucky! Bob and all of our wonderful contributors pushed me to think through the ways that difficulties faced by women in the sciences should be understood as a function of masculine norms. That led me to think of Creatures as an exploration of how firmly those norms were embedded in the sciences of human nature during the 1960s and 1970s, as a function of women entering these fields. I found this part of the research rather disheartening, too, especially the research published during the era on strategies for keeping women in the sciences. As a graduate student in biology, I had attended a number of ‘women in science’ leadership events. The suggestions and advice I received in 1999 matched exactly the advice proffered by Harriet Zuckerman and Jonathan Cole in 1975. If we knew all of this in the 1970s, I wondered, why were the same issues of gender and science still so pertinent at the turn of the century and today, now two decades after that? As the time horizon of historians’ investigations is just now reaching the 1980s, these are important questions to keep asking.

Again from Georgina: In addition to a wealth of published and archival sources, you draw on fifteen interviews taken across eight years. How did these interviews enrich your narrative, and indeed, your experience as a historian? What challenges come with interviewing scientists, many of whom continue to be influential figures in the sciences that you study? Do you have some highlights or favorite moments from interviewing these scientists?

Creatures of Cain would have been a very different book without the generosity of the scientists and writers who took the time to speak with me about their research. In reconstructing past events, historians necessarily rely on archival research. This works brilliantly when people have already deposited their correspondence and papers in an archive, but those collections can be hard to come by, are quite selective, and are usually available only after someone has died. (Not everyone is keen to have future historians read through old letters!)

When working on recent history, talking with scientists while they are still alive allows historians like myself access to voices and perspectives that would otherwise be difficult to include. Much about a scientist’s life is never recorded in a paper trail: from the books and experiences people found inspiring when they were teenagers to the friends and colleagues who sustained them during and after graduate school. Talking with people about their histories is thus invaluable, especially in trying to re-create informal networks of collaboration that I would have otherwise missed. Plus, I find it thrilling to meet people in person. The lilting cadence of a voice, the disorderliness of an office, or the art on a wall: each of these things leaves a singular impression impossible to glean from the written word alone.

There are challenges, too, of course. The thrill is accompanied by a heightened sense of responsibility and a commitment to represent the experiences of my interviewees in a way that they would recognize as themselves. Yet when you interview several people about the same events, everyone’s accounts differ—which is exactly why I wanted to interview such a wide array of people. Just as with archival evidence, then, the historian has to find a way through these wonderful and sometimes conflicting accounts.

Marga: Toward the end of your introduction, you say that we “are still living” with the legacy of the events you trace in your book. Can you elaborate on this point? Do you think evolutionists still have a privileged voice in discussing questions about human nature?

The ‘human condition’ is an enduring conundrum that theologians, humanists, and scientists pondered long before the events I document in Creatures of Cain. Even in the mid-twentieth century, it was not obvious that questions about the meaning and nature of humanity could, perhaps even should, be answered by scientists. One living legacy of this story, then, is that science is now seen as crucial to understanding human nature. Evolutionary theories continue to play an important role in these public conversations—just think of the Paleo diet, the idea that humans were born-to-run long distances because of our deep history, or the fascination with genetic ancestry test kits. However, evolutionists are far from the only scientists vested with the cultural authority to speak about human nature. Human nature plays a role, too, in the experimental psychology research and the interpretation of fMRIs, neuroscience and brainhood, Homo economicus, the microbial nature of humans, and more.

Matthew: Your book offers a wonderful analysis of ideas circulating among scientists and science writers about human nature and the arguments generated by these ideas. Stepping back from the diverse range of individuals and dimensions of this subject that your book examines, I would like to know what lessons you think practicing scientists today might draw from the history you outline. Equally, what lessons might non-scientists (average citizens) draw regarding the social and political consequences and implications of scientific research on human nature?

Fundamental questions about the nature of humanity addressed head-on in colloquial science have helped recruit and inspire generations of students to pursue careers in the natural and social sciences. Even though such discussions now appear only rarely in the pages of professional scientific journals, they are central to how scientific and popular ideas about human nature change. We need scientists to write, to keep writing these books, to educate and inspire interest in the physical and biological world in which we live.

At the same time, historians of science, technology, and medicine also have real lessons for general readers (including scientists), about the political and social nature of knowledge. I was delighted when Alondra Nelson was appointed the Deputy Director for Science and Society for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Someone with real experience analyzing issues of science and social inequality, past and present, is helping to shape national science policy at the highest levels of government. It’s just terrific. It’s also a reminder that historical books, like Nelson’s, that have the potential to reach wide audiences—colloquial history, if you will, addressed to both colleagues and non-experts alike—are crucial to the public profile of our profession, as well as the bottom-line of university presses. (This answer has veered away from my book to the profession more broadly, I recognize, so I’ll stop).

Georgina: In terms of historical research and writing, I am interested to know how you approached Creatures of Cain in comparison to you earlier book, Looking for a Few Good Males. And what advice do you have for early-career historians of science about how to approach writing their first book?

Every project presents its own challenges. In Looking for a Few Good Males, it was transforming a mass of details into a story, with real people. As someone who became a historian after training in biology, I was used to writing about the ideas, never the people. My father, whom I adore, jokingly told me my dissertation was a brilliant cure for insomnia. Revising it into a book forced me to imagine an audience larger than my dissertation committee and a book that would not induce instant sleepiness in well-meaning readers. (No, I never asked my dad whether I succeeded.) For Creatures of Cain, it was narrative structure. I conceptualized the structure as shaped like an American football—all the threads start together and end together, but the middle balloons out in a series of chronologically parallel stories. I tried a number of different organizational schemes before settling on the final chapter sequence of the book.

I found the writerly tools I needed for thinking about these issues—audience, story-telling, and narrative structure—in novels. If I have only one piece of advice to convey to early-career scholars thinking about their first book it would thus be: Read lots of fiction!

More from the July 2021 Newsletter