Teaching and Research: Bibliographic Essays

Life Sciences in the Twentieth Century

by Garland E. Allen


To understand the major developments within twentieth-century life science it is important to know something about its nineteenth-century background.

A particularly significant field is that of morphology, especially from the 1870s on. The mainstays of morphology were such disciplines as comparative anatomy, systematics, paleontology, and embryology, all aimed in one way or another at elucidating phylogenetic (evolutionary) history. It was a method of investigation–largely descriptive and often speculative–as much as a set of conclusions. One instructive study is Jane Maienschein’s “Cell Lineage, Ancestral Reminiscence, and the Biogenetic Law,” Journal of the History of Biology, 1978, 11:129-158, which discusses the influence of Ernst Haeckel and other morphologists on several key twentieth- century biologists. A history of the general relationship (one would say subservience) of embryology to evolution can be found in Stephen Jay Gould’s Ontogeny and Phylogeny(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1977), a stimulating book treating both history and contemporary theory (as so rarely happens) within the same volume. A nineteenth-century encyclopedia entry, Patrick Geddes’s “Morphology,” Britannica (9th ed., London, 1883), Vol. XVI, pp. 837-846, provides a thumb-nail portrait of morphology as it was understood in its heyday.

Two short papers provide additional general perspectives on developments in biological theory during the nineteenth century. J. W. Wilson’s “Biology Attains Maturity in the Nineteenth Century,” in Critical Problems in the History of Science, edited by Marshall Clagett (Madison: Univ. Wisconsin Press, 1959), pp. 401-408, emphasizes particularly the roles of cell and protoplasm theory as organizing principles of mid- and late nineteenth-century biology. Paul Farber’s discussion paper “The Transformation of Natural History in the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of the History of Biology, 1982, 15:145-152, argues that natural history became more analytical and causal in the nineteenth century, seeking explanations rather than remaining content with cataloguing and description.

The only readily available work to deal exclusively with the twentieth century is Garland E. Allen’s Life Science in the Twentieth Century (New York: Wiley, 1975; Cambridge Univ. Press, 1978). While not attempting to cover all topics, this book has chapters on the nineteenth-century background and on heredity, evolution, embryology, molecular biology, and general physiology. An extensive bibliographical essay surveys the pre-1978 literature in the field. The book is based on the theme that the life sciences in the twentieth century broke from the descriptive and speculative tradition that had dominated much of late nineteenth-century biology. Allen’s thesis has been challenged in a provocative series of essays by Jane Maienschein, Ron Rainger, and Keith Benson, published with the author’s own response and an evaluation of the discussion by Frederick B. Churchill, in Journal of the History of Biology, 1981, 14:83- 191.

Jane Maienschein surveys a number of major works in the history of twentieth-century life science in America in “History of Biology,” Osiris 1985, N.S., 1:147-162. Although devoted to American biology, Maienschein’s essay is particularly valuable since it focuses on a number of current historiographical issues.

In such a fast-moving field as the history of twentieth-century biology periodical literature serves as a valuable teaching resource. Numerous pertinent articles may be found in Journal of the History of Biology, Mendel Newsletter, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, and Bulletin of the History of Medicine. The now-defunct Studies in History of Biology (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1977-1984) was devoted to longer essays in the history of biology and focused on the twentieth century. Two journals that intermix history and philosophy of biology particularly well are History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences (Stazione Zoologica, Naples) and the newly launched (Spring 1986) Biology and Philosophy.