United fronts: Unity, organization, and syntheses in the life sciences

In his book Consilience, E.O. Wilson described science as he saw it: one moving ever closer to shared agreement on theories, principles, concepts, and standards of evidence. For Wilson, the indications that science was unifying were obvious; “disciplinary boundaries within the natural sciences are disappearing, to be replaced by shifting hybrid domains in which consilience is implicit.” (1998, pp. 11) Yet it wasn’t just that the conciliation of science was underway. For Wilson, unification was something that should happen. Consilience went hand in hand with a humanistic vision of science: “when we have unified enough certain knowledge, we will understand who we are and why we are here.” (pp. 7)


The value of a unified science pervades popular and philosophical thinking about science. Both have tended to portray science as something that is engaged in, or should be engaged in, the production of knowledge that hangs together in a unified way. Of course, as we find it in the world today, science is still messy and fractious—divided into a range of different disciplines, domains, and fields that pursue scientific knowledge using very different theories, models, methods, and tools. Yet the vision of a unified science continues to exert a powerful draw on empirical researchers, historical narratives, and philosophical accounts. This is true even within the complex and varied approaches of the life sciences. Here too there are ideas and stories about consensus and centralization, and movements to organize, synthesize and unify.


The nature of unity was the subject of a two-day meeting at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. This workshop, titled ‘United Fronts: Unity, Organisation, and Syntheses in the Life Sciences’, brought together historians, scientists, and philosophers to investigate two main questions. First, what is the value of unity? Second, what does unity consist in?


One way into these issues is to consider the mechanisms generating consensus. In his contribution to the workshop, Jean-Baptiste Grodwohl (with a commentary by Prof. Rebecca Kilner) examined the history of animal behaviour in the latter half of the twentieth century. One central component of his analysis was to demonstrate how consensuses in theory and method may be brought about by the active exploration of theories and methods by students. In many instances, students opportunistically assemble the best of the theoretical, field, and laboratory techniques of the previous generation. Pointing to the path-breaking use of both electrophoretic and field studies by Joan Strassman, Grodwohl showed both the difficulties of forging new hybrid approaches, as well as how such approaches pay-off: by standardizing practices, publishing papers, and training cohorts of students, hybrid methods can become industry norms.


Taking a different tack, Erika Milam (with a commentary by Prof. Nick Hopwood) examined the way in which exogenous political forces led scientists to coalesce under a shared banner. Milam focused her account on the work of Harvard scientists Irven DeVore, E.O. Wilson, and Robert Trivers, particularly how these scientists responded to attacks on evolution and evolutionary theory. The first attack came from conservative and Christian forces that criticized the role evolution played in promoting cultural relativism and secular humanism. As Milam argued, Harvard scientists ignored the political furore ignited by their work, and instead focused on teaching, researching, and getting on with business. This retreat to academic work set a precedent that would be repeated when a second social controversy blew up around their work on sociobiology.


Of course, science is not only sensitive to exogenous forces, but to internal dynamics like trends and fashion. In her analyses, Niki Vermeulen (with a commentary by Dr. Helen Anne Curry) traced the recent history of four different research traditions in systems biology. Looking particularly at the garnering of grants and formation of large, interdisciplinary research institutes, Vermeulen showed how an influx of money together with geographic centralization corralled what might otherwize be disparate suites of knowledge generation. Documenting both the internal drives to unity and disunity, Vermeulen documented how, when the large grants supporting systems biology expired, there was an ‘oscillation’ or dissipation of systems biology as the centralizing power of research institutions collapsed.


These papers approached unity by looking at how it is formed. In so doing, these researchers highlight how researchers value unity—whether this is in terms of public presentations, interdisciplinary, or methods and tools. The remaining talks flipped this approach and instead highlighted the nature of unity or discord. In so doing, they pointed towards ways of generating consensus and unity. In her talk, for instance, Anya Plutynski (with a commentary by Dr. Jacob Stegenga) looked at the claims of both cancer scientists and philosophers of science to argue that the rhetoric of theoretical incommensurability can be misleading. Though cancer scientists and philosophers sometimes treat different approaches to understanding cancer as competing theoretical positions, Plutynski showed how this move obscures the complementarity of supporting models and evidence. These models, though generating different perspectives on cancer, operate at different spatial and temporal scales. For Plutynski they represent regions of empirical work that can be integrated together in a patchwork fashion over time.


Along similar lines, Tobias Uller (with a commentary by Dr. John Welch) considered the role of abstraction and idealization in science. Uller argued that the general picture of evolution—of variation in heritable characters driving differences in reproductive success—can be fleshed out with causal detail in different ways. Uller diagnosed the ‘genetic instantiation’ as underwriting much of the scientific work in contemporary evolutionary biology. Yet as he argued, work in the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (‘EES’) represents a viable alternate instantiation. An EES instantiation of evolutionary theory highlights how multiple kinds of causes together interact to shape evolutionary trajectories. The genetic and EES instantiations need not conflict, and Uller argued for both theoretical and methodological pluralism as a means of capturing the complex nature of evolutionary change.


Finally, my own work (with a commentary by Dr. Adrian Currie) on EES researchers and scientists picked up on many of Uller’s claims. EES scientists often represent their account as a whole, evaluable by pointing to what philosophers call theoretical virtues (e.g. fruitfulness, simplicity, scope, and the like). Yet I argued this is a misleading strategy. I argued instead that one should evaluate the EES in a ‘bottom-up’ and piecemeal manner, examining at the particular way in which EES researchers deploy concepts and tools to investigate particular research questions. Taking the concept and models of niche construction as my example, I argued that a ‘bottom-up’ approach shows how much work on niche construction is compatible with and complementary to ongoing research in evolutionary theory. However, I suggested that some work—including that discussed by Uller—suggests potential areas of conflict.


If there was one clear outcome of the conference it was to highlight how the concept of unity itself is not unified: there are many different construals of the concept, none of which need align. Theoretical unity, for example, can progress apart from political or even methodological unity. Yet however different the understandings of unity might be, the concept is valuable. This is because the values and forces driving organization, syntheses, and unity can operate in concert; consensus and organization can help to secure funding, popularize methods, boost the visibility of a research area, and legitimate models. Yet at the same time, accounts and narratives of unity need to be treated with caution, insofar as they can obscure the visibility of alternate explanations, simmering conflicts, and differences in empirical strategies.