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The Sense of a Beginning: Starting a History of Biology
April 2, 2018 @ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm
Lynn K. Nyhart
Senior Fellow (2014-2018)
Vilas-Bablitch-Kelch Distinguished Achievement Professor of History of Science; History, UW-Madison
In 1802, the word “Biologie” appeared for the first time, in French and German, to characterize a general science of life. But what does its appearance signify? Michel Foucault’s claim that it signaled part of a radical rupture between a “classical” and “modern” episteme has been challenged by considerable recent scholarship; nevertheless, historians of biology agree something big happened that justifies starting the history of modern biology around 1800. What is the nature of this “something big,” and how should we write about it? As I show in this talk, we get different answers to this question if we start from different time-points: reconstructing historical actors’ perspectives as the 18th century moved forward toward “biology” in 1800 looks and feels different from capturing the perspectives of scientists working at later moments in the development of the discipline in Germany in the 19th century or in America in the early 20th century. Both differ from the historian’s present-day retrospect across the whole sweep of the past two and a half centuries. Through such examples, the talk raises broader methodological questions about narrative structure and teleological reasoning in history that arise as I embark on a new book-length history of biology.
Lynn K. Nyhart is Vilas-Bablitch-Kelch Distinguished Achievement Professor of the History of Science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Nyhart’s main research interests lie in the history of European and American biology in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the relations between popular and professional science. She is currently working on a book on life science, politics and religion in mid-nineteenth-century Germany, and beginning a general history of modern biology (to be co-authored with Angela Creager).