Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Most Elegant Experiment

    The term sustainability entered the public arena in 1987, with the Brundtland Report (Our Common Future). There, sustainability was introduced as “sustainable development” that meets the needs of the present without compromising future needs. Sustainability, then, was associated initially with developmental economics. Nowadays, of course, it's also associated with energy and carbon emissions, fossil fuels vs. renewables, and with everything from cultural traditions to consumer products, from agriculture to net neutrality, from the health of the human body to the health of economic and political systems.
     Is sustainability just an old wine in a new bottle? No; and yet many of its component ideas were in circulation earlier--perhaps most fully in the concepts of preservation and conservation. In my essay on sustainability for the Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, I wrote at length about the similarities and differences among these ideas; I needn't repeat that here. But since I wrote that essay a few years ago, I've come to understand something of my own involvement in the history of this cluster of ideas, a history that goes back not just to the environmental movement of the late 1960s but even further, to my education as an undergraduate, when I studied with a biologist whose name was Oscar Schotté.
     Suppose we go back a little in time, then. Conservation ecology, or conservation biology as it was originally was (and sometimes still is) called, began during the environmental movement of the late 1970s. This branch of ecology was  founded by Michael Soulé; he is credited with naming it, and his writings on the subject were, in its earliest period, definitive. He aimed to enlist the principles of ecological science with the environmentalist agenda for conservation of species, populations, and ecosystems, in a period of environmental crisis. Conservation biology was an effort at sustainability before the word sustainability became current. Yet even earlier, in the late 1960s, the environmental movement was concerned with the sustainability of the planet in the face of an expanding human population coupled with a limit in the capacity of the earth’s resources to feed them. Moreover, in the 1970s the energy crisis turned the environmental movement to concerns over the finite amount of fossil fuel energy resources and the need to conserve and to adopt, when possible, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. Again, the term sustainability was not in use to describe the population crisis or the energy crisis, but the concept was there, embodied partially in the term conservation.
    To come to my point: Another, even earlier era in which science was concerned with sustainability occurred just after World War I. A branch of embryology, experimental morphology, turned its attention to a practical problem: how to help wounded soldiers whose limbs had been amputated. It was known that some animals, such as newts, could grow new limbs after one was severed; why not humans? What, in other words, was the secret of limb regeneration? Oversimplifying, experimental morphologists introduced various environmental stimuli such as heat, light, and certain chemical compounds, to embryos see what the effects would be, hoping to find something that would induce regeneration. This branch of science flourished between the World Wars, and then gradually, as time went on and it became clearer that this was an extremely difficult and perhaps unsolvable problem, research money went elsewhere. Experimental morphologists were left to carry on their work with limited funds. Meanwhile, advances in molecular biology rendered this branch of embryology seemingly old-fashioned.
Schotte in 1970
    Amherst College, my undergraduate institution, had an experimental morphologist on its biology faculty. His name was Oscar Schotté. During the summer between my sophomore and junior years I interned on a human ecology project, and when I returned to Amherst I wanted to take a course in ecology. The college did not offer such a course, but my academic adviser told me that Professor Schotté had some knowledge of ecology, and so I went to see him. In those days students didn’t take independent study courses for credit, but when I told him of my disappointment in not being able to learn ecology, he suggested that I get hold of the basic ecology textbook, Eugene Odom’s Fundamentals of Ecology, and read through it. He volunteered to meet with me on occasion to discuss what I was learning, also. This was entirely a gift on his part; the college didn’t pay him to do this—he tutored me out of the goodness of his heart and his belief in science and, perhaps, in me. It did not trouble me that he was near retirement—in fact, he did retire a year after I graduated—or that my fellow students regarded him and his experimental morphology old-fashioned. He was the kind of professor who nevertheless commanded attention and respect, partly because of his old-world, European manner, and partly because this elderly gentleman struck a group of 20-year-olds as someone who might have been witness to the dawn of modern science. I liked his teaching so well that in the following semester I enrolled in his experimental morphology course.
Schotte in 1933
    A few years ago I began thinking back to Professor Schotté, when I was asked to be part of a plenary session on sustainability for AASHE, a group made primarily of academic scientists and engineers involved in university teaching and research in sustainability. They wanted to hear a perspective from a few of us in the humanities. On the plenary I was asked about my background in science in connection with my interests in ecology, and I mentioned Professor Schotté. Since then I’ve realized, with more gratitude than I showed him at the time, that even though I didn’t choose a career in science, his willingness to tutor me made it possible for me to get a basic understanding of ecological science many decades ago. I'd lost touch with him after graduating, so I began searching for more information about him.
Hans Spemann
    Oscar Schotté, it turns out, was born in 1895, either in Poland or Germany. He studied in Germany, obtained the PhD, and in the early 1930s he was working in the experimental morphology laboratory of Hans Spemann, in Freiburg. Spemann, born in 1869, must have been a formidable person; Schotté would mention him frequently as a role model. The two of them had designed an experiment and in 1933 published the results, an experiment which in its time had been thought significant. Two years later Spemann won the Nobel Prize. But they had not discovered the secret of regeneration. Schotté used to tell us, jokingly, that he would give his right arm to discover it.
   I had forgotten about Schotté, and I completely forgot the name Spemann, until my search on Schotté's life turned up a couple of very interesting—to me, at least—results. It happened that Spemann had studied with a scientist named Theodor Boveri at Wurzburg, who in turn had studied with Richard Hertwig in Munich, who had studied with Ernst Haeckel (b. 1834) in Jena. I had never heard of Boveri or Hertwig, but Haeckel was known to me as the person who in 1866, the same year he met Darwin, had invented the field of ecology, coining the word and defining it as the study of organisms and their relations to each other and to their environment. Haeckel was a polymath, among other things an artist (see below; the colors were added by someone else), but primarily an embryologist, like Schotté. It occurred to me that in those days embryology and ecological science must have been very close. And it occurred to me that I had been tutored in ecology by someone whose intellectual genealogy went directly back to the inventor of that science.
Ernst Haeckel
    A second thing I learned about Oscar Schotté was that there was very good reason for him to talk about Spemann four decades after the two of them had done their experiment and published the results. That experiment was exemplary in the history of biology. In 2003 the American Institute of Biological Science solicited nominations for determining the most “beautiful” or elegant biological experiments. According to an article published in The Scientist, one of the judges, Scott F. Gilbert, said that when teaching his students, he “often cites a few particularly elegant experiments. They include, for example, a 1933 experiment by Hans Spemann and Oscar Schotté in which the German biologists illustrated the importance of genes for specifying organ formation. Spemann and Schotte transplanted tissue from a salamander embryo's jaw-forming region into frog embryos and vice versa. The resulting frog larvae had salamander jaws, and the resulting salamander larvae had frog jaws. The embryos had signaled ‘make a jaw,’ but the genes in that tissue only knew how to make the type of jaw that the genes would allow. The experiment beautifully and succinctly brought together the notions of epigenesis and preformation, said Gilbert, and showed that both were critical in making an embryo.”
One of Haeckel's drawings
    I am sure that my fellow students and I thought, back in the 1960s, that scientific progress meant that new discoveries led to new theories that supplanted the old ones, and that as the sciences were able to penetrate further into the mysteries of cells, molecules, atoms, and so forth, older fields like experimental morphology and natural history must fall by the wayside. These scientific fossils weren’t worth paying attention to, even though the scientists who were prominent in those fields commanded respect. Perhaps Professor Schotté appeared to us as Louis Agassiz must have appeared after the 1860s to those who believed Darwin’s theory of evolution had supplanted the belief that Agassiz defended, in a kind of creationism of its time. Yet Agassiz was an eminent scientist whose natural history discoveries, and whose methods, were enormously influential in his day, and are still highly regarded. Who does not know the story of Agassiz and the fish, which his student was asked to describe in more and more detail, day after day, until he got it right?
    Moreover, to the historians and philosophers of science, discarded lines of research are nevertheless significant. Not only might their experiments be elegant, they may be exemplary, as in the case of Professors Schotté and Spemann. And, sometimes, older ideas come back around in different forms. Experimental morphology, like all ecology, was very much concerned with the effects of the environment on organisms, and vice versa. Today’s geneticists, after decades claiming that genetic programs alone determined animal behavior, now consider the genome rather than individual genes, and the way that the genome interacts with the environment. Sometimes these interactions result in modifications to the genome. In concept, this idea that the environment may modify the genome and resultant behavior is reminiscent of the concept that guided experimental morphologists to introduce environmental changes to the embryo to see what would transpire. And that same concept is apparent in the thinking of conservation ecologists today as they experiment with sustainability.
    No wonder, then, that some fifteen years after studying with Professor Schotté, when I was pondering the idea of music as a cultural system while writing the ethnomusicology textbook Worlds of Music, it occurred to me to think of a music culture as an ecological system. To be sure, in graduate school I’d studied cultural anthropology with a professor whose approach was shaped by the field of cultural ecology; that, also, must have steered me in an ecological direction when puzzling over how to think about music as culture. I hadn’t realized until recently, though, how much of a debt I owed to this old-fashioned, experimental morphologist, Oscar Schotté, whose experiment, co-designed with his teacher who went on to win the Nobel Prize, was cited as an example of the most elegant in biology.

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