Hello and welcome back to The HPS Podcast where we discuss all things history, philosophy, and social studies of science for a general audience. I am your host, Samara Greenwood and today's guest is Greg Radick, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Leeds. Greg specialises in the history of biology with particular emphasis on the history of genetics, as well as all things Darwin.
Today he'll be introducing us to the use of counterfactuals in history of science. Counterfactuals is the term we use to refer to asking ‘what if?’ questions about history.
In Greg's research, a central counterfactual question is this - What might biology be like now if a different side had triumphed in early debates on genetics? From this seemingly simple ‘what if?’ question a fruitful range of new research opens up.
Hi Greg, thanks for joining me on the podcast today.
It's a pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Samara Greenwood (01:04):
A question I like to ask all our guests is, how did you make your way to history and philosophy of science?
Greg Radick (01:10):
Well, unlike a lot of people in the field who came to HPS, as we call it, through the sciences, I'm among the relative minority of people who came from the other direction. I started as an undergraduate historian who never lost a sense that I was fascinated by science.
After I graduated, that sense just got stronger. I initially thought that the way to bring science into my life was through medicine, so I was going to bury myself in medical school. I took all the sciences that you need to take the entry exam, but I thought I'd have one last fling with the humanities. So I had a look at master's prospectuses, and there I saw for the first time History and Philosophy of Science.
I'd never encountered that expression before, but as soon as I saw it, I thought, ‘that's it, there's a name for what I like to read and think about’. The thought that you could actually, at a university, talk about science all day - well, I just thought that sounded amazing. So I took the master's degree and the master's degree turned into a PhD and the PhD into a career.
I'm thrilled to have had the chance to be part of this discipline.
Samara Greenwood (02:31):
Obviously, you've got a passion about history of science and talking about science. Beyond that, what do you think is valuable about the discipline of history and philosophy of science?
Greg Radick (02:41):
When I pitch it to high school students, one thing I sometimes say is that there's always that moment in the science classroom when awkward questions arise. And for the most part, in a science classroom, nobody has the time to patiently deal with those kinds of questions. And a lot of people, even if they have the time, don't want to. That's not what they're there for, they’re there to get on with it.
But HPS, as I see it, is a licence to engage the awkward questions for the people who want to go there. And what that engagement typically does is to open everything out. That's always been my experience. My experience is that HPS is a permanently stimulating companion for thinking about science because everything that you might have been complacent about intellectually, it turns out to be a whole world of complication. And the further you go in learning about that, the more fascinating it becomes, the more difficulty emerges. The awkwardness just turns out to have layer upon layer upon layer and that's just endlessly interesting, for my money.
The history and philosophy of science is the best investment that anybody could make in ensuring that you stay awake and aware in your engagements with science. And, in seeing scientific problems as problems that existed for certain people at certain moments, for particular reasons, they cease to be impossibly abstract. They become part of the hurley burley of the human world that we can all relate to and they become irresistible.
Samara Greenwood (04:28):
So turning to the central theme, what is a topic in HPS you believe would be of interest to a broader audience?
Greg Radick (04:35):
The topic that's been most engaging for me, over some while now, has been the question of whether science might have turned out differently, the question of alternate pasts for science. And this goes under the heading of the counterfactual history of science.
I don't actually think that phrase is all that helpful because it suggests that when you begin asking about what might have been in science, you've somehow left history and entered an evidence free zone. And that's not at all how at least the best of alternative past counterfactual history of science goes.
I think that both for the professionals, but also for a wider audience, this is a really exciting topic and an exciting moment to be investigating it.
So very straightforwardly to make an assertion about why something happened the way it did is to assert an implication, which is that: if not for this, something else would've occurred.
In a very straightforward way, whenever we go beyond simply chronicling what happened in the past and begin to explain it - and this is I think absolutely fascinating feature of historical explanation generally - whether we like it or not, we are in the business of making counterfactual assertions.
The question isn't, should we go there or should we not go there? We have no choice. If we're explanatory at all, were counterfactual. And so the question is really, should we be open and reflective about the counterfactual implications of our explanations? Or no? Should we pretend that we're not doing that? And should we just be furtive and dogmatic about it?
Plainly, by putting it like that, I'm on the side of being open and reflective. I think it makes for more creative historical understanding. My experience is that the more options you open up within the past, the more options you open up for the present. And that's really exciting.
Samara Greenwood (06:55):
For some time. Now, Greg has been interested in a significant debate that took place in early 20th century inheritance research.
On one side were Mendelians, like Bateson, who thought Mendel's work on hybrid peas should become the centrepiece of a new experimental science of inheritance.
Cutting to the chase - this is the side that won today. Mendelian ideas still serve as the standard entry point for learning about genes.
On the other side were biometricians like Weldon, who admired Mendel's work, but thought it limited and considered Bates and strong Mendelism a backward step - pushing important insights about the role of the environment on inheritance to the margins.
Today we know contextual environments are crucial to a full understanding of genetics.
Unfortunately, Weldon died in 1906 before he could finish the book he was writing, which set out his alternative vision. For Greg, this marks a potential ‘sliding doors’ moment, an inflexion point at which a very different history of genetics might have unfolded, if only things had gone a slightly different way.
This live alternative history is the starting point for Greg's recent work described in his book, Disputed Inheritance: The Battle Over Mendel and the Future of Biology, which comes out very soon, and which we discuss further in our interview
Greg Radick (08:19):
Probing the significance of the Bates and Weldon debate and being unable to actually go back and intervene and change the past to see what difference it would've made, I thought, ‘well, maybe I can indirectly get at it through teaching’.
Our textbooks typically start kids off with Mendel and his peas and then complicate it. Would it be possible instead to write an alternative curriculum? As if it came out of the past in which Weldon had lived long enough to publish his alternative science of heredity and it had gone on to have at least enough influence to affect the way textbooks got written.
What would that textbook look like? Could I teach it? What effect would it have on the students? To my amazement, we got a grant to run the experiment. Working with brilliant collaborators, Annie Jameson and Jenny Lewis, we wrote a new curriculum for introductory Genetics, which starts kids off with this idea that whenever you're dealing with inheritance, you're always dealing with development.
Development always takes place in a context. Whenever you've got development in context, you have the possibility for sometimes enormous variability.
So we start them off there and then throughout the module, it's hammered home at every moment that - whenever you're thinking about inheritance, you're thinking about development in context and therefore thinking about variability.
What we then did was assess the attitudes of our students to the idea that heredity is destiny - what academics call genetic determinism - before teaching and after teaching. We did the same with students who were taking Genetics 101.
What we found was that the students taking Genetics 101 were as determinist about genes at the end of teaching - if anything, a little more so - compared with how they were at the start. So in other words, for all the learning that they had done, nothing had disabused them of the determinist ideas about genes that they'd come in with.
By contrast, our students, the more they learned about genetics - on average - the less determinist they became. In my own view, and I think a lot of biology educators shared this view, that's what you ought to be achieving in the biology education classroom, right? The more you learn about genes, the less simple-minded you become.
We ran that experiment about 10 years ago and published the results in 2017. It's been really gratifying to see the response among genetics educators. It's really kind of taken off.
It's a rather beautiful example of an inquiry into the scientific past that might have been. What if Weldon had lived long enough to publish? What if these ideas had had a life outside of the archive where they now moulder? What difference might it have made?
It was a historians of science question, but out of that has come new options for genetics educators and new options for genetics education research. I am part of a big NSF project right now, which is doing it in a much more rigorous way.
My hope is that when the book comes out, it might excite other people working in other sciences to begin making these kinds of dot to dot connections between the questions they might pose about the past that might have been, and the ways in which we teach now, the ways in which we think about how our scientific knowledge is organised.
Samara Greenwood (12:11):
So really using historical research as inspiration for something to shift today. I also got the image, you know, there's that movie Sliding Doors, <laughter>, when you have that sense of two options opening up, but you can obviously only take one. Going back and revisiting what those alternative realities might have been might open up possibilities that are hard to access in other ways.
Greg Radick (12:40):
I think that's beautifully put, Samara. In the book I talk quite a bit about Thomas Kuhn's classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Among the many valuable lessons I think one gets from that book is Kuhn's insights into how scientific communities effectively takes certain investment decisions before all the information is in, because they have to when they're deciding whether to go this way or that way. You have to go one way or the other and you don't know in advance whether you've chosen well, so you cross your fingers and off you go.
And, as you say, in the course of life, whether it's the life of an individual or the life of a community, you can't literally go back. But by being open to posing, and even trying to answer, counterfactual questions, you have a chance to replay that moment of decision.
In doing so with hindsight, you can potentially free yourself from a certain conventional way of looking at how you got where you got.
In the sciences, the tradition is to say that it's just inevitable that we would've ended up teaching what we teach, thinking the way we think about genetics, the theory of relativity, whatever it might be. It's the nature of scientific knowledge that it has this tremendous authority and it's very hard to unthink that.
One of the values of the history of science, and even more so when you add in this pinch of counterfactual thinking, is that it opens up space for critical perspective on the present, which is otherwise weirdly hard to achieve.
Mendelian thinking has become so much a part of what it is to be serious about heredity now that you kind of need to back to a moment when there was someone thoughtful and well-informed, but who didn't have to unthink Mendelism.
Samara Greenwood (14:58):
The other thing that struck me with what you were talking about is also that it's a good way to open our eyes to things that we take for granted, assumptions we have now that we don't even see.
Greg Radick (15:12):
Yes. Another dimension of it - to touch on something that I know you and I share interest in - is the question of how science relates to its context.
I think quite a bit about genetics, but I also think quite a bit about Darwin and Darwin's theory of natural selection and an observation that goes all the way back to Darwin's time. You see it in correspondence that Karl Marx has with Friedrich Engels, to do with a kind of structural relationship between Darwin's theory of natural selection and his Victorian context.
Here you have a theory about how - through competition - progress emerges. The competing individuals are depicted in Darwinian biology as kind of like machines.
What is the nature of the society that begat this theory? Well, it's a society which is fascinated by machines and competition and progress. And so you think, huh, what is the relationship between these two?
And of course, from a Marxian view, the relationship is non innocent. It's ideological.
As the Marxist would say, it's no accident that Darwin's theory of natural selection emerges in Victorian competitive, industrial, imperial society because it functions to legitimate power relations in that society.
That's a fascinating thesis, I should think, for anyone even remotely interested. I found it really liberating in asking myself, what do I make of all of this? To find that a good way in is to begin posing counterfactual questions.
One can say, well, it's certainly the case that in the actual past the theory of natural selection arose within a society that was committed to an ideology of competition and that competition bringing progress. But would it only have arisen in such a society? Would it only have arisen from a Darwin, that is to say, from someone who was occupying the upper stratum socially of that society? And then you can begin investigating. It turns out to be both fascinating and really hard.
But wherever one ends up in adjudicating that question, you'll have learned a lot about Darwinian natural selection theory, about Victorian society, about the nature of historical explanation and the relations between content and context.
So I think that's another way in which the posing of counterfactual questions can push a debate in a productive new direction.
Samara Greenwood (18:04):
At the recent conference where we met, I was struck by a comment where you suggested that the use of counterfactuals is widespread in practice, even by those who don't admit it or perhaps don't even recognise it in themselves.
Greg Radick (18:17):
Once you become sensitised to counterfactual language, you see it everywhere all the time. I'm particularly struck by how often counterfactual language comes up when people try to express what's really important when the emotional stakes are higher. When people reflect on their own pasts and they identify those kind of ‘pivot moments’, or they identify people, the teachers who changed everything for them. It's really striking how often they express their sense of the significance of something by being counterfactual about it. If that teacher hadn't taken an interest in me and the way that they did everything would've been different for me. Likewise, when we think about world history, if we think about something like the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan at the end of the Second World War, when people ask themselves, you know, what difference did that make? Again, they'll tend to go counterfactual.
Some will say that if not for the dropping of the bombs, vastly more people would have died trying to take Japan by conventional means. Or, if the bombs hadn't been dropped, Japan would have asked for peace anyway and we would not have had the nuclear Cold War, which changed everything in our lives as individuals in our lives as collectives. The counterfactual is kind of inescapable.
I think, just quantitatively, if you were to rule all of that out as just nonsense, that's a big price to pay. You're ruling out a lot of what we actually say as beneath examination. But you're also ruling out moments when what we say is really important to us.
I once gave a lecture where I pointed out that a historian who has come out as sceptical about counterfactual history as kind of an evidence free zone, which also typically serves conservative politics.
What I showed in the lecture - this is Richard Evans, Sir Richard Evans, a brilliant historian - that when Richard Evans as a brilliant historian is being a brilliant historian, Richard Evans is counterfactual.
I quoted from a classic article of his about social Darwinism in Germany. He's building to the question of what difference did it make that there was all of this Darwinian language about in Germany in the 1920s and thirties, right? So kind of a big question. What is the relationship between social Darwinism and Nazi crimes?
You might be of the view that it was just talk, it's repellent talk, but just talk. But Richard Evans at least was of the view that that's not the case. This talk was effective, it made a difference. And how does Richard Evans underscore the causal significance of Darwinian language for what happens in Nazi Germany? By going counterfactual. That's how he underscores what's important for him and what he thinks is important for us, right? If not for social Darwinian language being as pervasive as it was, men and women who found themselves doing awful things would not have been able to tell themselves that in doing those awful things, they were on the side of nature and history and science.
So to my mind, that's about as good an example I can give about how, even when you are intellectually committed to counterfactual history being rubbish, you will do it anyway. <Laughter> If you're any good and Richard Evans is great. That to my mind is an instructive moment.
Samara Greenwood (22:36):
That reminded me, and I think listeners might be interested in this, when I was talking to Donna Haraway one of the things she spoke about was the importance of getting her role at the University of California Santa Cruz.
At the time Donna no longer had a position elsewhere and she said to me, ‘if I hadn't got that job, I probably wouldn't have had a career and you wouldn't know who I am and you wouldn't see me today’. It wasn't just having the job, but the position opened up a whole lot of opportunities. It was a much more interdisciplinary, open-minded kind of a location where she could really explore some experimental stuff she was working on, and which she then became known for.
It was very much as you said, talking about her own past in this counterfactual way. If not this, if I wasn't in this particular location with this particular context, I couldn't have done the things that I did, and that have then gone on to have an impact.
Greg Radick (23:30):
You know, one could go on from there in Haraway studies to have an interesting conversation. Someone else might come along and say, I disagree. I mean, have you ever seen her book before Primate Visions, the one on developmental biology? It's intellectually in a completely different idiom, but equally brilliant.
You might have an interesting disagreement with Donna Haraway about how actually it was inevitable that she was going to find a job and she was going to thrive there.
I mention this not because I have a stake in how Donna Haraway views her own past, but rather that - to my mind - if every counterfactual had to show that everything was contingent, everything could have been different, that would be boring. If it's just a foregone conclusion that the result of a counterfactual inquiry is that everything would've been different, then why bother?
Another way in which it's valuable for historians is that - at its best - you won't know where your investigation will take you. It it should be an open question, whether had something in the past been different, the present with now be be different. In certain circumstances, I think it's legitimate to conclude that actually had things been different, the present now would be much the same. That's instructive too. To move in a fresh direction is worth grabbing with both hands.
It's kind of amazing how powerful counterfactual inquiry can be for liberating you from the accustomed grooves of your thinking.
Samara Greenwood (25:29):
We've talked a lot about historians of science and potentially what scientists maybe can get out of it. What do you think a more general audience can gain from appreciating the use of counterfactuals in the history of science?
Greg Radick (25:43):
Culturally, unless you've already become part of HPS world, you just encounter science as something that drops from the skies, these kind of truths. Part of the authority of scientific knowledge in our culture comes from the perception that it's supra-personal. It stands above culture in a way that is unlike anything else in our culture.
This very strong sense in the culture that's part of what makes science so powerful, that it's not dependent on individual personalities or on one group rather than another group happening to have the upper hand at a certain moment - that the contingencies get washed away. That's a very powerful image that we have of science. And I think why counterfactual history of science can be controversial is that it has a whiff of subversion about it. It's challenging that image and the authority that goes along with that image.
I think that for general audiences, the very idea that this immensely authoritative knowledge could have been otherwise. The idea that actually our science of inheritance might now be just as powerful, but we wouldn't have this legacy of determinism, which is so problematic for individuals and for collectives, that's going to be a new idea and a really interesting one.
My hunch is that, as with the professional audiences, general audiences will be delighted to discover that something that they would otherwise have no choice but to take for granted as just the way it is, turns out to be something where one could conceive alternatives.
Even in the conceiving of those alternatives, something opens up - space opens up - imaginatively, asking new questions, thinking differently. And when you think differently, you can act differently in the present.
I think that, just as one HPS mission is to make science more relatable to wider audiences, when you add a counterfactual dimension, it just increases the human relatability of science for wider audiences.
Samara Greenwood (28:25):
Thank you so much, Greg. I think that's a really good spot to finish for the interview. I wanted to thank you once again for joining us on our first season of the podcast. It has been a delight to talk with you.
Greg Radick (28:38):
It's been my pleasure. Thank you so much, Samara, and good luck with the podcast.
Samara Greenwood (28:42):
Thank you for listening to the first season of The HPS Podcast, where we discuss all things history, philosophy, and social studies of science. To learn more, check out our website at www.hpsunimelb.org. There you can also find links to our blog, Twitter, Facebook, and Insta, as well as show notes for today's topic. I'm Samara Greenwood and my co-producer is Indigo Keel. We look forward to having you back again next time.