"Biology and the Agents Without History"
Plenary session, 1997 meetings

The speakers in this plenary were invited to address the people and things tending to be written out of biology and of our studies of biology, but implicated materially, discursively, economically or psychologically as the Others. Adele Clarke spoke "On the need for immodest witnesses: The case of 'othering' the reproductive sciences," and Anne Fausto-Sterling spoke about "The standard rat and the universal human." Hebe Vessuri was scheduled to speak about "Core-periphery relations and the social history of biology," but she was at the last moment unfortunately unable to attend. I took the opportunity of time thus freed up to sketch some of the sources and strands woven into the plenary's topic.

There are many changes going on in the world that link developments in the life sciences and in the engineering of living forms to diverse processes:
to the ever-expanding and ever more rapid circuits of information, finance, and commodities; to the declining regulatory state as it makes space for these ascendant transnational networks; and to capital's extension of its legal domain over intellectual property, life-form patents, and marketable pollution licenses. Changes in life have also evoked both resistance and participation by "new" social movements. In their discourses, globalized responsibility for sustaining the environment coexists with the promotion of individualized responsibility for disease and health. And, while some peoples fear being pushed further to the margins through the production of new hybrids, others give a liberatory spin to their visions of more extensive coupling with machines. (Taylor et al. 1997, p.1)
Even for those ISHPSSBers who study the past, these changes, and, more generally, the political-economic restructuring of the 1980s and 90s, influence the wider and the more immediate contexts for their work.
These changes are often labeled "globalization," but this obscures a lot. People in far distant places have their lives linked for centuries. As anthropologists Eric Wolf reminds us, accounts of commercial expansion and the rise of industrial capitalism in Europe after 1492 "must take account of the conjoint participation of Western and non-Western peoples in this worldwide process... Social historians and sociologists have shown that the common people were as much agents in the historical process as they were its victims and silent witnesses. We thus need to uncover the history of 'the people without history'" (Wolf 1982, p. ix-x).
This perspective can lead to qualitative changes in how a situation ought to understood. For example, in the context of biodiversity and resource conservation, Charles Zerner exposed that "in the Central Malaku Islands [of Indonesia], the so-called sasi restrictions on entry into resource areas or on harvests from them, far from being the indigenous conservation institutions that they have been recently called, have been continually re-interpreted and used for different purposes not only by local elites and others in Maluku communities but also first by Dutch colonial officials, then by Indonesian government officials, and, most recently by environmental NGOs as well" (Vayda 1997, p.11; discussing Zerner 1994). The environmental groups invoke conservation and tradition, but the Malaku are particularly interested in pushing back the outsiders so they can extract the resources themselves.
The Wolfian perspective leads us to another source or strand for the plenary's topic, the "New Social History." Since the 1970s historians who have looked have uncovered extraordinary documentation of the lives of peoples previously without history, from slave diaries to early colonial American wills whose list of tools convey much about the gendered division of labor.
This, in turn, leads us to feminist scholarship, itself consisting of several strands:
i) Exposing the contributions of women to biology;
ii) Pointing to the particular kinds of contribution women have been able to make. Or, in standpoint philosophy, are positioned to be able to make;
iii) Pointing to the shaping of biological theory through gendered binaries. For example, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (1981) establishes the terms for the rest of her book on sexual dimorphism in animal behavior through a speculative account of the origin of anisogamy - the difference in egg and sperm size. She does not notice that this story can only be relevant to sexual dimorphism if eggs are thought of as female and sperms as male. (Very few of my biology students notice this; many of them are perplexed when I point out that both eggs and sperm contribute to both males and females.)
iv) Pointing to theory in all kinds of fields that employs binary metaphors, rooted in - or at least guyed down by - personal experiences of a two gender world. However, as Anne Fausto-Sterling among others has illuminated, this two gender world is maintained at some cost. Children born with ambiguous genitalia have been treated surgically and psychologically so they better conform to one gender type or the other. In the United States they are beginning to emerge from their silence, challenging us to accept, if not embrace, ambiguity and diversity in gender.
These sources and others have brought new subjects, questions, evidence, and frameworks into biology and into interpretive studies of biology. This plenary seeks to alert or remind ISHPSSBers of new opportunities. Conversely, ISHPSSB has been a supportive context for scholars interested in transgressing established boundaries. One obvious component of that support is that ISHPSSB attracts those scholars from its constituent fields who are most interested in crossing boundaries. Another component is the small size of the meetings, their informal setting, and the absence of the business side of the major professional societies. Living and eating in dormitories one finds out more about people and their work than is presented in the papers delivered.
Therein lies a theme that has become important in my teaching and research: People know more than they acknowledge. New connections are facilitated where, in the right environment, that is brought to light. "Knowing more" has both an inward and an outward direction, a personal and a social sense. In 1989 I organized a plenary in which younger scholars - not so young now - presented, more or less autobiographically, how they came to do interdisciplinary work and what sources they drew from when they hit obstacles and faced new challenges. Many members of the audience were moved by hearing the personal dimension of scholarship acknowledgment in public.
I intended this plenary to be complementary, moving in the outward, social direction -- Where can our work go if we pay more attention to the underacknowledged agents in our worlds? By "worlds" here I refer both to the situations studied in the life sciences and to the situations in which ISHPSSB-like interpreters of these sciences do their work. These worlds would become less homogeneous, more variable and more unequal. Dominant and marginal; core and periphery would be spelled out and challenged. We would become more aware of the effects of work done to homogenize and regularize those worlds, and of the effects of resistance to homogenization and regularization--the strategies of the dominant are often shaped in response to the agents whose difference and histories become unacknowledged.
I wish we had had Hebe Vessuri to talk about how the social history of biology changes if one tries to make sense of the disciplinary endeavors in the "periphery," for example, in Latin American countries. However, neither three, nor two talks could cover all the dimensions of un- and under-acknowledged agency. I hope, however, that the spirit of this plenary will have stimulated ISHPSSBers to continue to explore subjects, questions, and frameworks from areas whose relevance they previously had not acknowledged.

Peter Taylor, ISHPSSB Past President
Swarthmore College

Literature Cited
Hrdy, S. B. (1981). "An Initial Inequality," in The Woman That Never Evolved. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 20-23.
Taylor, P. J., P. N. Edwards and S. E. Halfon (1997). "Changing Life in the New World Dis/order," in P. J. Taylor, S. E. Halfon and P. N. Edwards (Eds.), Changing Life: Genomes, Ecologies, Bodies, Commodities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1-13.
Vayda, A. P. (1997). Managing Forests and Improving the Livelihoods of Forest-Dependent People. Jakarta: Center for International Forestry Research.
Wolf, E. (1982). "Europe and People without History. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Zerner, C. (1994). "Through a green lens: The construction of customary environmental law and community in Indonesia's Maluku Islands." Law and Society Review 28: 1079-1122.