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Innovators and Iconoclasts

Audra J. Wolfe

REBELS, MAVERICKS, AND HERETICS IN BIOLOGY. Edited by Oren Harman and Michael R. Dietrich. xii + 400 pp. Yale University Press, 2008. $40.

Peter%20MitchellClick to Enlarge ImageJames Watson, whose behavior has sometimes been outrageous, may think of himself as one of the greatest rebels of 20th-century science, but he doesn’t make the cut for Rebels, Mavericks, and Heretics in Biology, an engrossing collection of essays edited by Oren Harman and Michael Dietrich. That’s because his codiscovery of the structure of DNA fell squarely in the category of normal science. Unlike Watson, each of the scientists represented in the book participated in work that required some sort of methodological breakthrough, experimental heterodoxy or paradigm shift. They may not all be rebels, but all are iconoclasts.

In search of the driving forces behind scientific change, Harman and Dietrich have assembled 19 essays on scientists who in one way or another fundamentally challenged a scientific icon—that is, “the central, explicitly stated organizing assumption in a given discipline, an assumption . . . held and practiced by a substantial majority of researchers.” Although this definition falls somewhat short of a traditional Kuhnian paradigm, it indicates some degree of consensus as well as institutional power. It follows then that an iconoclast is a scientist who upends the received wisdom through methodology, conceptual framework, experimental choice or transgression of disciplinary boundaries.

We are reminded that not all rebels are iconoclasts, that not all iconoclasts are rebels, and that heresy may be another thing altogether. But readers who are uninterested in the subtle distinctions between rebels, iconoclasts, mavericks and heretics should not fear: The case studies themselves, written by such leading historians, philosophers and scientists as Daniel Kevles, Nathaniel Comfort, David Hull, Michael Ruse and James Crow, mostly shun semantic games in favor of good stories, well told.

Half the fun for readers of Rebels, Mavericks, and Heretics is in devising organizational schemes for the biologists who fill its pages. All but two (Barbara McClintock and Thelma Rowell) are men, but there the easy categorization ends. The subjects of these profiles are a diverse lot—not just in disciplinary identity (they include geneticists, evolutionary biologists, cytologists, primatologists, paleontologists and ecologists), but in age, employment history, wealth, willingness to be edited and level of crankiness.

Consider, for example, Peter Mitchell (1920–1992) and Oswald Avery (1877–1955), whose careers followed very different paths. Mitchell received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1978 for his development of the chemiosmotic theory of cellular energy transfer, after encountering years of skepticism and fierce controversy in what are known as the “ox phos wars.” Although trained as a biochemist, he had little interaction with the community of researchers who worked on oxidative phosphorylation. He based his inquiries instead on what he knew of the behavior of cellular membranes. He conducted his work at the Glynn Research Institute, a private research laboratory financed by a family inheritance, and typically disseminated his results in self-published white papers (known as the Grey Books) rather than in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Eventually, however, enough evidence emerged in support of this outsider’s theories that his detractors were forced to take him seriously.

Avery, in contrast, was a respected member of the scientific establishment in 1944 when he made his radical claim that genetic information is carried in DNA rather than in proteins. He was in his late 60s at the time, having already retired from his faculty position at the Rockefeller Institute, so his achievement reminds us that conceptual breakthroughs are not solely the province of the young. Although Avery considered himself a microbiologist rather than a geneticist or biochemist, within five years his work had been wholly embraced by the nascent community of molecular biologists. No one would have taken this modest, careful, reserved man for a rebel, yet he managed to turn the dominant assumptions of a generation of researchers upside down.

Of course Mitchell and Avery were both successful iconoclasts, as were most of the other scientists included in the book: Barbara McClintock, Cyril Darlington, Wilhelm Johannsen, Carl Woese, Howard Temin and Motoo Kimura, to name only a few. But Harman and Dietrich have done well to include at least a few failures in their sample. Leon Croizat (1894–1982), a biogeographer who may or may not have contributed key concepts to the notion of panbiogeography, depending on whom you ask, had difficulty forming and maintaining professional relationships. His constitutional inability to forgive his enemies did his reputation no favors. In part because he refused to let editors shape his meandering, self-published prose, his ideas reached few mainstream audiences outside of his adopted country, Venezuela.

Similarly, the first time Vero Copner Wynne-Edwards (1906–1997) published his theory of group selection in book-length form, he was met with a storm of criticism; his second book, published nearly a quarter-century later, was met with silence. Toward the end of his life, Wynne-Edwards became convinced that reputable journals would neither review nor publish his work. He wrote to a colleague that he had “grown accustomed to having articles rejected by editors who, being unqualified to make independent judgments, just assume I am a heretic.” Surely, as Richard Lewontin argues in the book’s epilogue, the question of scientific change is deeply caught up with issues of institutional power.

By focusing on a group of biologists with such varied backgrounds and life-course trajectories, Rebels, Mavericks, and Heretics opens a new conversation on the nature of scientific innovation. Does scientific change operate differently in biology than in some other fields? Is Harman and Dietrich’s definition of the iconoclast too narrow to encompass scientific change in fields that depend on the slow and relentless gathering of data (crystallography, for example) rather than on breakthrough experiments? Are successful women scientists—who have historically been outsiders—more likely to be thought of as “rebellious”? Have the trappings of academic science—grants, tenure, publication in peer-reviewed journals—limited the possibilities for truly iconoclastic work?

One thing is certain: Some iconoclasts are brilliant, and others are simply bullheaded, but all have something to tell us.

Audra J. Wolfe, who has a doctorate in the history and sociology of science, is associate director of the Roy Eddleman Institute at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, where she is also editor-in-chief of Chemical Heritage magazine and executive producer of Distillations (, a weekly chemistry podcast. Her research focuses on the relationship between 20th-century biology and society.

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