The history of biology is rich and full of remarkable stories, which are often surprisingly relevant for the present. For example, some theoretical puzzles and tensions that date back to the 18th century remain unresolved today. Similarly, there are exciting analyses of the problematic assumptions at the historic basis of evolutionary theory. History also offers us important warnings for what can go wrong once totalitarian regimes determine what is good science and what not. With the right perspective and the right kind of questions, the history of biology can offer instructive insights for fundamental theoretical problems, for the sometimes difficult relations between biology and society, but also offer a glimpse of somewhat forgotten knowledge or of what is probably the toughest question of all: what actually is biology?
It may sound like a dreadful cliché, but the aim of this course is to learn from history. The course will not serve you with an endless stream of historic facts or isolated funny anecdotes (although some of the history of biology can be quite entertaining). The stress will be on the interpretation of history: we will try to understand patterns and relations in the development of biology, rather than list who discovered what, where, and when.
To this end, the course will offer an overview of styles of doing biology, which will show that biology and its history are more diverse than you might think. Whereas current biology is often dominated by laboratories and molecular biology, the history of biology abounds with a rich heritage of a taxonomical style of research. In this style, the most important centres of biological research were museums of natural history, botanic gardens, and other collections of specimen that were carefully collected, often on long and adventurous expeditions to exotic places. We will see how the laboratory gained a foothold in biology towards the end of the 19th century and then gradually expanded its reign through the rise of genetics and later molecular biology.
We will not only look at the development of biological ideas and research practices, but also at the development of the relation between biology and society. We will find out where biologists got their research funds in the past, how biological thinking was incorporated ideas from wider culture, but also how biology had a profound cultural impact itself. We will also follow biologists around as they try to improve agriculture, fight infectious dsiseases, become activists calling for nature conservation and environmental protection.
If we want to learn from history, then we should not only focus on the success stories and show-cases, such as the discovery of the structure of DNA or revered heroes such as Charles Darwin. We should also have the courage to see the dark side of biology’s history, such as the flirtations with eugenics or racism. For it is only when we have the courage to look in the dark corners that we may find the means to confront such monsters, should they once again rear their ugly heads. Hence the course will focus on history since the 18th century, where the most concrete connections with the current practice of biology can be made