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Controlling Life: Jacques Loeb and the Engineering Ideal in Biology.

Controlling Life: Jacques Loeb and the Engineering Ideal in Biology

"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." So concluded Jacques Loeb, a developmental biologist and physiologist who achieved international prominence at the turn of the century for his invention of artificial parthenogenesis, and the subject of Philip Pauly's carefully crafted biography. Loeb lived during one of the most important transitional eras in modern biology. Between 1860 and 1920, Darwin's proposals provided the foundation for vigorous debates over biological explanation and interpretations of evolutionary theory. Increasingly, biology shed its Aristotelian influence and drew on the paradigms of physics for direction. Mechanists and vitalists fought for hegemony of the field. Entelechy and teleology lost ground to abiogenesis--the creation of living things from simple substances--and mechanistic materialism. Through Loeb, Pauly examines these influential social and intellectual struggles within biology, and throughout the book biography merges with intellectual and scientific history in a successful balance.

Controlling Life is instructive in part for attempts to gain a historical perspective on current scientific and technological developments in molecular biology. Contemporary public policy has been burdened with the dilemmas of scientific progress in such notable areas as genetically engineered plants and insects, the patenting of animals, hybrid mammalian species, surrogate motherhood, and human gene therapy. Yet, current concerns about the warrants for human intervention and inference in nature and human technological fallibility can be viewed as descendants of similar debates in the Loebian period, when the proper boundaries of experimental inquiry and technological transformation were matters of controversy within and outside of scientific circles.

In the New Atlantis (1622), Francis Bacon describes a future in which biological life serves as the primitive substrate for recreation of the biosphere. Nothing in nature as given is sacred. The responsibility of science, in Bacon's vision, is to improve upon the natural world. Loeb represents a bridge between the ideal propounded by Bacon and the modern "genetic alchemist." Loeb advocated a physical and biochemical reductionism in the study of life processes and maintained that the justification of biological theory was its effective role in the reconfiguration of nature. To understand life is to have control over it.

In his experimental work, Loeb transformed lower animals by embryological engineering. Using tubularia as a model system, he would replace a foot with a head or even make a two-headed organism. His goal was to develop a technology of living substance (einer Tchnik der lebenden Wesen), the nineteenth century counterpart to modern genetic engineering.

Pauly traces modern biology, its ideals, philosophical foundations, instrumentalities, and ethical norms directly to the physiological mechanists. The rhetoric of expectation from the Loebian mechanists is identical to that of the new generation of plant geneticists. According to Loeb, famine could be eliminated if we could only imitate the chemical and molecular processes in cells. In addition, Pauly's account of Loeb's invention of artificial parthenogenesis is particularly interesting as a counterpart to the historical accounts of the controversy over recombinant DNA in the 1970s. The images (Frankenstein monsters), media accounts ("Science nears the secret of life"), public anxieties, and ethical concerns associated with these events at the turn of the century have an uncanny resemblance to our contemporary debates.

Beyond these illuminating parallels Controlling Life offers the historian and sociologist of science a superb portrait of aGerman emigre scientist, a Jewish-atheist, and sometime political activist. In this portrait, the resemblances between Loeb's early career and that of the young Einstein are most apparent. Trained in the philosophy of Spinoza, Kant, and Ernst Mach, Loeb rebelled against the rigidity of his education. Like Einstein, he preferred a secular version of judaism and chose to present himself as a internationalist.

The biography of Loeb is supplemented by informative material about his mentors and colleagues. Pauly relates Loeb's extensive correspondence with Mach and his profound influence in the shaping of Loeb's philosophy of nature. From Mach, Loeb incorporated the concept of "economy of thought" and theory without metaphysics. The description of Loeb's encounters with the work of his contemporaries is very detailed, and the nonhistorian should be forewarned that sections dense in scientific genealogy may be somewhat ponderous.

Yet while it may challenge the reader, in the finest tradition of historical scholarship Controlling Life informs us of our intellectual forebears. Loeb carried as forcefully as any scientist the Baconian torch. Through Pauly's presentation, we get a clearer understanding of the ideological fault lines. On one side, the Loebian position affirms: "The way to improve life was not through cultivating natural processes, but by disrupting them" (p. 141). On the other, skeptics demand: "Hearken to nature!" The dilemmas have never been sharper. The balance then and now remains unclear.

Philip J. Pauly. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. 252 pp. $24.95, cloth.
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Author:Krimsky, Sheldon
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Article Type:Bibliography
Date:Jun 1, 1988
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