Deeply researched, World as Laboratory tells a secret history that's not really a secret. The fruits of human engineering are all around us: advertising, polls, focus groups, the ubiquitous habit of "spin" practiced by marketers and politicians. What Rebecca Lemov cleverly traces for the first time is how the absurd, the practical, and the dangerous experiments of the human engineers of the first half of the twentieth century left their laboratories to become our day-to-day reality.
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World as Laboratory
Experiments With Mice, Mazes, and Men
By Rebecca Lemov
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2005 Rebecca Lemov
All rights reserved.
Strange Fruits and Virgin Births
ALMOST FIVE HUNDRED YEARS have passed since Francis Bacon imagined in The New Atlantis a scientific utopia whose inhabitants—in addition to controlling the wind and tides, turning salt water into fresh, and effecting the spontaneous generation of "frogs, flies, and divers others" out of thin air—perfected a method for turning plants and animals into new forms. Fruit trees were induced to bloom earlier or later, their fruit sweeter or different in size, smell, and shape from the typical. In the island's parks and enclosed pastures, all sorts of beasts and birds resided for purposes more experimental than ornamental: "We make them greater or taller than their kind," stated the great "Father" scientist in charge. "We find means to make commixtures and copulations of different kinds; which have produced many new kinds." Yet despite the marvelous specificity of his vision, Bacon did not offer a date for the actual start of these transformative practices. For when The New Atlantis was published in 1627, a year after Bacon's death, making one plant or animal turn into another was still the stuff of imaginary islands and magically endowed inhabitants.
Nearly three hundred years later, coinciding with the turn of the twentieth century, two men in America were hard at work on precisely such projects, creating new plant and animal forms out of the old in, respectively, an experimental farm and a scientific laboratory. Over the course of his life Luther Burbank, the author of Burbank's New Creations in Trees, Fruits and Flowers, "built" between eight hundred and one thousand new hybrids, using a combination of mass production methods and great doses of patience: Idaho potatoes, raspberries-married-to-strawberries, and oversize walnut trees that could bear a ton of nuts in a single season all testified to his powers. The second man, Jacques Loeb, constructed a stable of creatures he called "durable machines" in his laboratory at the University of Chicago: two-headed marine worms, metamorphosed slime molds, hydras with mouth and anus reversed, and artificially propagated sea urchins. (For this last, he was known as the instigator of a new virgin birth in the lab and was nominated for the Nobel Prize.) Both men inspired awe in their day, one as a wizard, the other as a prophet, and both brought assembly-line-like methods to biological processes. But it is Loeb's self-proclaimed "technology of living substance" that provides an understanding of the birth of human engineering in America. For if it is common today to eat Burbank's fruits, it is just as common to live Loeb's ideas.
The German-born Loeb was not one for photo shoots; nor was he interested in larding the national dinner table or making farmer's lives easier. Unlikely as it may seem, his most influential work got its start in the great fertile plains of the midwestern United States. This locale was strangely appropriate: a Middle European scientist settled in Chicago and, with daylight factories, factory-style farms, and sleek silos all around him, went about revolutionizing the life processes themselves. Loeb was a new kind of visionary in whom ideas were not separate from activity.
Born in 1859 in Mayen, a small Rhineland town full of Catholics, Jacques Loeb was the first son of a fairly prosperous Jewish merchanting couple. At birth he was given the distinctly un-French appellation of Isaak, and for his first fifteen or so years, he faced the limitations of life in the provinces; as an outsider because of his faith, he did little socializing with other children aside from his brother. For the next ten years, after moving to Berlin, he continued to face the double demerit of provincial origins and Jewish blood. By the time he was a teenager, his parents had died of illness, leaving him and his brother each a solid though not spectacular living. At the behest of relatives, Loeb tried his hand at a banking career in the metropolis but discovered the work to be a "terrible bore," boredom seeming to him then and remaining for the rest of his life his greatest enemy. He resolved to diverge from the path laid out for him by the Realschule (vocational) education that his parents had preferred for their sons by enrolling in an elite school for Jews.
Loeb proved to be quite brilliant at classical studies and to have an ear for German literature, but he was impatient with the humanism, theology, Hebrew, and philosophy that together comprised a well-rounded education there and chose medicine instead. At twenty he entered medical school and renamed himself Jacques, thus setting for himself a more Continental tone. At the time of his education in Germany, medical training was de rigueur for anyone who wanted to secure a professorship in the field of physiology. It was highly irregular to train, as Loeb ended up doing, with agriculturalists and botanists as well, and his decision to cross boundaries had something to do with his marginal social status within the mandarin world of German academics. Forced to the sidelines, he had greater freedom in his training. A disciplinary hybrid himself, he set the stage for the work he would later carry out in midwestern America, constructing hybrid life-forms out of stripped-down mechanical parts and functions.
DURING THE 1880s, M.D. in hand, Loeb went to work at the Berlin Agricultural College under a professor known for his technique of water-jetting away portions of a dog's brain. The point of the research was to show that, once the shock of losing a portion of its brain had worn off, the dog was less hampered than one might expect and, as it often turned out, could still function quite well. Loeb's own work used a similar method (making lesions on different areas of the brain instead of removing them) but went beyond his mentor's. He set out to find nothing less than an equivalent between physical and mental "energy." Convinced that thoughts and actions did not take place in separate spheres, he proposed a unified field theory for behavior. At the time, other scientists were wont to employ what Loeb felt were inadequate explanations for the behavior of their surgically altered laboratory animals. (For example, one of his colleagues argued for the existence of a "spinal soul," to be found diffused in the vertebral area.) Loeb, with a brashness not entirely attributable to his youth, was satisfied with none of these faith-based theories.
After suffering initial setbacks, a dog that had lesions made on its brain would soon be able to get on with its life and learn new ways of grooming itself, walking, or feeding. The whole organism, Loeb stressed, was a system of interconnected functions in dynamic equilibrium. On the basis of this observation, the postgraduate student set out to solve the age-old mind-body dilemma for the purposes of his dissertation. Loeb's analysis was hailed by none other than William James, the great American pragmatist, who commended him in the brain-function chapter of his Principles of Psychology for having "broader views than anyone."
Somewhat hokily but in tune with the practices of the time, the young apprentice relied for dramatic effect on the performance of a dog whose motor centers governing its hind legs had been removed yet was still able to walk and beg. Notwithstanding such feats overcoming surgical setback, "dog work" was not to Loeb's liking, as it was messy and inexact. One didn't always know which part of the brain had been discommoded, nor which of the animal's difficulties might be attributable to infection, rather than surgery. When he presented his findings to the major German scientific congress of the day, dog included, a hostile colleague took hold of the demonstration animal and put him on the windowsill with his lower leg dangling into a flowerpot, thus counterdemonstrating that the dog was not in fact able to withdraw his leg. Humiliated, Loeb was rendered temporarily dumb. And so it was with some relief that he turned to another course of study under another adviser.
Still in his twenties, he shifted from dogs to plants, specifically the study of simple plant reactions called tropisms. These reactions were originally the work of the brilliant, irascible, and drug-addicted botanist Julius Sachs at the University of Würzburg. Sachs had enumerated a set of tropisms—defined as any directed response by an organism to a constant stimulus, for instance, the way an aspidistra or ivy plant will turn its leaves toward the window where the sun comes in—and, as Loeb's new mentor, guided him in their further study. Loeb learned from Sachs a practical spirit that was unlike that of other researchers, who wanted to find answers to theoretical and philosophical questions. Guided by that spirit, Loeb wanted to use tropisms to suggest that plants were diversely functioning chemical machines.
Loeb drew up a semiology of tropisms, collecting all the particular responses a plant, sessile animal, or insect makes to its external environment. These were his building blocks. Introducing tropisms one by one in his 1906 Dynamics of Living Matter (a summary of his work from the 1880s), Loeb first set forth heliotropism, or the attempt of a living organism—be it a single-celled blob or a very complex sea animal or plant—to orient itself in relation to light. Geotropism, chemotropism, galvanotropism, rheotropism, and stereotropism, the respective responses of organisms to stimuli of gravity, chemicals, electric current, moving retina images, and the "pull" or influence of solid bodies, rounded out Loeb's tropism toolkit. Throughout, Loeb emphasized their compulsory quality. The green plant had no choice but to move by the compulsive force of heliotropism, turning mechanically toward the light, aligning its leaves with the angle of the rays. The Spirographis spallenzani, "a marine worm which lives in a stony tube," oriented itself toward the sun in a manner akin to the plant's, except that in its case the tropism was channeled through the worm's immediate milieu. Each time the sun moved, the worm secreted an elastic layer on one side of the interior of its tube, causing it to contract toward the light source.
Tropisms always began on the outside of the creature they affected, manifesting themselves through the involuntary workings of the response mechanism as a shifting, a twitching, a pulling, or a turning. Such machinelike creatures had no "inner" contents: no will, no striv-ings, no conscience of their own. Relentlessly, Loeb located any originating impetus outside the organism. He also refused to make anthropomorphic attributions: for example, he warned that, while observing a positively heliotropic insect (such as a moth) fly toward a flame, one may be tempted to believe the moth feels a humanlike emotion such as a fascination for light. But Loeb cautioned, "It seemed to me that we had no right to see in this tendency of animals ... the expression of an emotion, but that this might be a purely mechanical or compulsory effect of the light, identical with the heliotropic curvature observed in plants." Seeing plants as reactive chemical-machines allowed him to extrapolate directly to lower animals, even of the "free moving" variety. For Loeb, no preconceived idea of freedom—free will, free expression—should exist within the laboratory context. Tropisms were, at root, machinelike behavior, outside of the promptings of will, yearning, or desire. They had no secret unity with human feeling, and no delirious butterfly was drunkenly following the light.
IT IS STRIKING how ordinary tropisms are, in light of the extraordinary uses to which Loeb put them. They make up the humblest aspects of the daily life of an animal. Everyone knows these behavioral tropes—a plant swaying toward a window, a dog seeking a fire, a cat curling up in a basket. During his second apprenticeship, Loeb made these banalities into something dramatic, a kind of theater. He trained cockroaches through the clever use of simple tropisms: the insect's bilateral symmetry meant that a light shone on one side would cause it to move in the other direction. Equipped with this binary choice of movement either toward or away from light, Loeb could in effect control behavior. Troops of cockroaches marched in geometric array in Loeb's laboratory. In another case, browntail-moth caterpillars could be made to starve to death in a test tube, even when they were perched right next to their food, if heliotropism turned them in the other direction. "We can easily show that neither smell nor a special mystical 'instinct' leads the animals to the buds," he wrote, "as we are able to compel them by the aid of light to starve in close proximity to food." In Loeb's dramas, elements of the everyday could suddenly verge on the grotesque or the amazing. This early tropism work soon led Loeb to experiment with heteromorphism, using the modes of geotropism, stereotropism, and heliotropism to rebuild an organism and transform its development and functioning. He created a two-headed worm (bioral tubularian), "any number" of which, he claimed, he could propagate—"if, for any reason, it were necessary," he added somewhat vaguely. The ability to make new forms also meant the ability to mass-produce them.
During the late 1880s Loeb's engineering standpoint became more explicit, especially in correspondence with the Viennese physicist and influential philosopher Ernst Mach. From Mach he drew the strength to insist no true causes existed, no mechanical ideal, no "instinct," no "will," no "mystery," and above all no "metaphysics." By metaphysics he meant anything beyond what could be seen, described, or discovered. There were no busy bees or stalwart bugs. The purpose of this stripping-away was not to speculate on hypothetical mechanisms or inner states but rather to be able to predict and control behavior. To see was to cause; to see was to change. In 1890 Loeb wrote to Mach:
The idea is now hovering before me that man himself can act as a creator even in living nature, forming it eventually according to his will. Man can at last succeed in a technology of living substance [einer Technik der lebenden Wesen]. Biologists label that the production of monstrosities; railroads, telegraphs, and the rest of the achievements of the technology of inanimate nature are accordingly monstrosities. In any case they are not produced by nature; man has never encountered them. But even here I go forward only slowly. I find it difficult not to lose courage.
Man could be as a god, creating new forms of life out of living parts. This was a source of anxiety as well as of hope, for, as Loeb admitted, tinkering with creation was a dangerous business. (Consider Dr. Frankenstein's "filthy workshop of creation" and what issued from it.) Loeb, however, had a warrant to press on: he would be using animate rather than inanimate materials. His technology of living substance might create unknown beings—strange creatures never encountered before—but it would at least be anchored in nature.
AT THE START OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, the city of Chicago teemed with slums, pickpockets, foreigners, money, and enterprise, all of which influenced the type of science that was conducted there. When Max Weber visited around this time, he felt that the city was like a human body with the skin pulled off, entrails working for all to see. An early course catalog for the University of Chicago put a more dignified spin on it: Chicago was "one of the most complete social laboratories in the world." The work of its scientists made it feel like a laboratory within a laboratory. All was within the domain of experiment. The work of the multidisciplinary Chicago School of Pragmatism was unique in the world. However much its adherents differed, they shared an emphasis on recouplings, interactions, and progress: the environment acted and the creatures living within it acted back, in a constant interplay between things-as-they-are and things-as-they-are-becoming. Nothing was settled. The organism and its surroundings acted on and molded each other. The philosopher John Dewey, the psychologist George Herbert Mead, the biologist Herbert Spencer Jennings, and the zoologist Charles Whitman were advancing new ways of looking at such human and animal interactions.
In 1892, in nearby Iowa, a man named John Froelich had unveiled the first tractor. His farming machine, which had the power to reshape the environment, spurred the invention and use of many other technologies in agricultural production. Soon crops such as cotton and wheat were custom built to suit the machines that harvested them. Between 1900 and 1921 more than seven hundred R&D laboratories were created in the United States, along with many experimental stations for agriculture. Grain elevators and agricultural water towers rose to mark the landscape with new totemic structures. In these surroundings Chicagoans saw less a Hobbesian nature, brute and brutal, than a malleable one, tailor-made for what the historian Richard Hofstadter once called "the philosophy of possibility." Here was an environment where an engineering standpoint—toward crops, animals, buildings, or people—might go far.
Excerpted from World as Laboratory by Rebecca Lemov. Copyright © 2005 Rebecca Lemov. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
PART ONE - Mazes: Into the Laboratory,
CHAPTER 1 - Strange Fruits and Virgin Births,
CHAPTER 2 - Running the Maze,
CHAPTER 3 - Embracing the Real,
PART TWO - Rooms: Freud and Behaviorism Come Together,
CHAPTER 4 - Psychic Machines,
CHAPTER 5 - Circle of Fear and Hope,
CHAPTER 6 - In and Out of the South,
CHAPTER 7 - An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,
PART THREE - Files: Out of the Laboratory,
CHAPTER 8 - The Biggest File,
CHAPTER 9 - Anthropology's Laboratory,
CHAPTER 10 - The Impossible Experiment,
CHAPTER 11 - The Real World,