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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

science as culture

There is nothing some scientists hate more than to have their activities scrutinized by a certain kind of sociologist. Somebody, for instance, like Bruno Latour, who they suspect is saying, in obscure language, that science is a dream, a highly wrought bubble composed of countless work-arounds and displayed before the credulous, who haven’t the training to see through the trick, as a seamless miracle. That is not, really, what Latour is saying, although he does, at critical points, suspend the question of the truth of what a particular scientist or a collection of scientists is maintaining in order to aim at what the scientists are doing. For the scientists, their motivations come from the nature of things; for Latour, their motivations come from the nature of scientists.

To do this kind of work, one must be extremely clever. But often, one isn’t. Which brings me to the Spring 2004 issue of Science as Culture magazine. Jon Turney has written just the kind of article that would seem to back up the scientists’ suspicions: “THE ABSTRACT SUBLIME: Life as Information Waiting to be Rewritten.” Turney turns his gaze on the genre of the popular science book. A little hurray for that – we are great devourers of popular science books ourselves. The poetics of the genre has been much neglected. Turney, however, isn’t interested in being extensive. Rather, he uses only one popular science book, Adrian Woolfson’s Life Without Genes. He does, it is true, make an allusion to one of Carl Sagan’s. But that is it. This is typical of Turney’s m.o. – generalization with too few examples. The article is an amalgam: Turney borrows Burke’s notion of the sublime to categorize the aesthetic appeal of popular science book, thus applying literary theory to science (of a type). The idea is good, but the follow through is lousy. His explanation of Burke is canned – he throws in some remarks about how people in the Middle Ages feared mountains and people in the eighteenth century started to revere them, which is such a stale insight, has been repeated so often as a cultural fact marking the borderline between the medieval and the early modern, that we are beginning to think it must be untrue. We look forward to some brave soul resurrecting a whole lost culture of medieval mountain climbers.

Turney likes Burke saying:

“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”

Surely Turney is right that some feeling that mingles terror and beauty is the expected response that shapes certain passages in certain popular science books. But he really should have gone to Kant for further information. Kant’s idea that sublimity is about the overcoming of some natural disproportion through the intellect is much closer to the modern sublime. The modern sublime is engineering and special effects. To understand the aesthetic impulse, as it relates to popular science books, you have to see its relation to curiosity – which, as problem-solving, has become the basis of our idea of intelligence. I say “our” – not LI’s idea of intelligence, I should add.

Fortified with his idea of sublimity, Turney then takes a crack at biology. Here things get much worse.

By any measure, biology is an incomplete science. Any sampling of the literature on biodiversity, for example, quickly shows that we have little idea how many different kinds of organisms currently exist on Earth, let alone how many may have existed in the past. Electronic databases contain records of a few complete genomes, but there are many more to analyse. And there are many aspects of intracellular or neuronal interaction which are poorly understood, to say the least.

Yet from one point of view, it is possible to imagine a biology which takes complete inventory of all these things. If you begin with the conviction that, in principle, all that is known can be represented as information, then what is not yet known is simply extra information. Conceptually it is equivalent to more of the same. One can then move imaginatively from, say, a DNA database containing the decoded genomes of a few species whose hereditary information has been processed through mass sequencing to a complete database of all species, or even all existing individual organisms. Expand to
include all the organisms that ever have existed and you are still nearer completion. All that remains is to include all the organisms which ever could exist.”

This is biology as Linneaus imagined it – infinite taxonomy. Turney’s unlikely idea that biology is data base making takes him to his even more unlikely idea that biology has now embraced, across the discipline, information as a sort of father son and holy ghost:

There is more to the state of any living organism than its genes, Woolfson acknowledges, but all the other features of its development, organization and experience can nevertheless be considered as simply additional information. In fact at this level of abstraction, the universe of all possible organisms is simply an awfully large subset of the set of all possible states of anything at all. The awesome extent of the Information Sea stems from the fact that ‘all possible bits of information are housed within an information
space … which accommodates every element of an infinitely detailed description of the state of the world at any moment in the past, present or future’ (p. 77).

Indeed, it contains all possible histories—for, again, The Information Sea is [thus] the space of all possible mathematical spaces, a hypothetical information space which contains the complete collection of all the infinite libraries of description that document every possible state of the universe to the highest degree of resolution.

Turney is very impressed by this. LI is less so. What makes information valuable isn’t captured, here, at all – for all possible histories includes false ones. The information that I leaped off the roof and flew for several miles is only separated from the information that I didn’t by the fact that one is a true statement and the other isn’t – not something information can specify. Although, to be sure, in specifying, I am providing information. As for the particular dynamism that provides us with our information about organisms – descent with modification – well, that sort of sinks to the bottom, here, doesn’t it? Turney’s paper has just that aggressive tendency to exaggeration that should make the science-as-culture people cringe. This isn’t, after all, the English department. So that I doubt very much Turney’s point:

As I have stressed, this may seem an unexpected space to explore in a book about the potential and limits of biology. But it is a logical product of the development of biological thinking in the last halfcentury, and of the ascendancy of computational and cybernetic metaphors. As Lily Kay and others have documented in detail, the
development of the idea of the genetic code indicated that biology was becoming an information science.”

In fact, biology is a vast array of different sub-disciplines. Molecular biology certainly uses the information archetypes – which, in turn, are parasitic on 19th century thermodynamics. But the key to biology is that it explains histories – organic development – and the information archetype is always oriented to this explanation. As Turney should have known from reading, well, popular science books, genes are not blueprints. If you skip survival in your tour of biology, you skip, well, biology itself.

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