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Woods Hole: The Early Days

DEFINING BIOLOGY Lectures from the 1890s. Jane Maienschein, ed. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1 986. 352 pp. $25. Every Friday evening during the summer season at the Marine Bio logical Laboratory in Woods Hole, there is a general lecture for the scientific community on some aspect of biology. This custom dates from the laboratory's founding. During the 1890s, seven volumes of these lectures were published. Defining Biology reprints 10 of the lectures; they serve as a peg on which Jan

By | November 17, 1986

DEFINING BIOLOGY
Lectures from the 1890s.
Jane Maienschein, ed. Harvard University
Press, Cambridge, MA, 1 986. 352 pp.
$25.

Every Friday evening during the summer season at the Marine Bio logical Laboratory in Woods Hole, there is a general lecture for the scientific community on some aspect of biology. This custom dates from the laboratory's founding. During the 1890s, seven volumes of these lectures were published. Defining Biology reprints 10 of the lectures; they serve as a peg on which Jane Maienschein hangs an introductory essay in which she describes the early history of the laboratory and the special role of C.O. Whitman, its first director, in establishing what she regards as the initial intellectual ethos of the place.

Six of the lectures deal with issues in the field of developmental biology. These lectures include the prospectus W. Roux wrote for his new journal, Archiv fur Entwick lungsmechanik der Organismen, translated into English by WM. Wheeler. This translation was presumably prepared to give American biologists an introduction to the new developmental biology. The other lectures on development, by E.B. Wilson, E.G. Conklin, C. Clapp, T.H. Morgan and J. Loeb, deal with a variety of issues ranging from the mosaic theory of development to physiochemical interpretations of fertilization.

There is a related lecture by Wheeler on Casper Friedrich Wolff, which is really a commentary on preformationist and epigenetic developmental viewpoints. I suspect that it was an attempt to make the scientific community of the time aware that the developmental issues they were discussing had a history.

There are two lectures on behavior; one of them is one of the initial statements defining the field of ethology by Whitman and the other is a treatment of behavior in protozoans by H.S. Jennings. The remaining lecture, by H.F. Osborn, deals with the relationship between heredity, development and evolution.

The lectures make interesting and enjoyable reading. They function as a collection of viewpoints from a time when many of the ini-tial questions that helped to define emerging disciplines in biology were being formulated. A few of these viewpoints are still with us in almost their initial form. Most of them have been transformed in various ways.

The introductory essay does an excellent job of providing background information on the laboratory and the scientists who gave the lectures. As one reads the essay it becomes clear that the lectures included in the book were selected because they support Maienschein's view of the role Whitman played in the development of the laboratory. This is putting the cart before the horse. The propounding of a thesis is a disease that is endemic to the history of biology business; it is frequently synonymous with creating significance where it does not exist. In the case at hand, Maienschein's thesis gives Whitman a larger role in the intel-lectual life of the laboratory than any one man could possibly have
had.

Freeman is a professor in the Department of Zoology, University of Texas, Austin, 78712.
 

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