The first scientist…or natural philosopher

Nature has a review of a book on Aristotle:

Aristotle is considered by many to be the first scientist, although the term postdates him by more than two millennia. In Greece in the fourth century BC, he pioneered the techniques of logic, observation, inquiry and demonstration. These would shape Western philosophical and scientific culture through the Middle Ages and the early modern era, and would influence some aspects of the natural sciences even up to the eighteenth century…

Leroi, an evolutionary developmental biologist, visits the Greek island of Lesvos — where Aristotle made observations of natural phenomena and anatomical structures — and puts his own observations in dialogue with those of the philosopher. It was in the island’s lagoon of Kolpos Kalloni that Aristotle was struck by the anatomy of fish and molluscs, and started trying to account for the function of their parts. Leroi’s vivid descriptions of the elements that inspired Aristotle’s biological doctrines — places, colours, smells, marine landscapes and animals, and local lore — enjoin the reader to grasp them viscerally as well as intellectually.

But it is important to distinguish between natural philosophy and science. I have always thought Francis Bacon was the first scientist due to his, y’know, inventing much of what we consider scientific method. I don’t know the extent to which he codified existing ideas versus creating some sort of novel synthesis?

The history of the scientific method is of course a long gradient. Perhaps it began with another early innovator in scientific methodology was Ibn al-Haytham:

The prevailing wisdom at the time was that we saw what our eyes, themselves, illuminated. Supported by revered thinkers like Euclid and Ptolemy, emission theory stated that sight worked because our eyes emitted rays of light — like flashlights. But this didn’t make sense to Ibn al-Haytham. If light comes from our eyes, why, he wondered, is it painful to look at the sun? This simple realization catapulted him into researching the behavior and properties of light: optics…

But Ibn al-Haytham wasn’t satisfied with elucidating these theories only to himself, he wanted others to see what he had done. The years of solitary work culminated in his Book of Optics, which expounded just as much upon his methods as it did his actual ideas. Anyone who read the book would have instructions on how to repeat every single one of Ibn al-Haytham’s experiments.

A search for the science of the mind

More history of the scientists who wanted to understand the mind. Turns out, there was a lot of racism in early 20th century science – what a surprise.

He modelled the brain’s structure as though it was an archaeological site, the different levels supposedly reflecting evolutionary advances. The neocortex, shared by all mammals, controlled basic functions while the prefrontal area was the seat of more advanced abilities.

Investigating the perception of pain, Head had two cutaneous nerves on his left forearm severed. Every Friday for the next four years, he visited Rivers in his college rooms to chart the process of regeneration and the areas of acute sensitivity. Echoing Elliot Smith’s ideas about the evolutionary levels of the brain, Rivers and Head decided that the nervous system contained two layers: one older and more primitive; the other more subtle and localized. They speculated that the two systems “owed their origin to the developmental history of the nervous system. They reveal the means by which an imperfect organism has struggled towards improved functions and physical unity”. And this “could be seen as a metaphor for the triumph of civilization over savagery in human history”. Frederic Bartlett, a student of Rivers who went on to become a leading psychologist in the next generation, noted that this metaphor informed all Rivers’s later theories in physiology, psychology and anthropology. The structure of every human organ, every social institution, revealed cumulative layers of progressive development.

Psychology was looked down on by the Cambridge establishment, but Ludwig Wittgenstein was intrigued and regularly came to Mill Lane to work with Myers. “I had a discussion with Myers about the relations between Logic and Philosophy”, he wrote to Bertrand Russell. “I was very candid and I am sure he thinks that I am the most arrogant devil who ever lived . . . . I think he was a bit less confused after the discussion than before.” When the laboratory was opened to the public in 1913, Wittgenstein exhibited an apparatus for investigating the perception of rhythm. Perhaps influenced by Wittgenstein, Myers was moving away from biological determinism. The physiologists, he complained, “in their attempts to penetrate the reality of the known, were deliberately ignoring the knower”

And some more on the history of the word ‘scientist’ (see previously):

Carrington had noticed the spread of a particular term related to scientific research [it was “scientist”]. He himself felt the word was “not satisfactory,” and he wrote to eight prominent writers and men of science to ask if they considered it legitimate. Seven responded. Huxley and Argyll joined a five-to-two majority when they denounced the term. “I regard it with great dislike,” proclaimed Argyll. Huxley, exhibiting his usual gift for witty dismissals, said that the word in question “must be about as pleasing a word as ‘Electrocution.’”

…The English academic William Whewell first put the word “scientist” into print in 1834 in a review of Mary Somerville’s On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences.Whewell’s review argued that science was becoming fragmented, that chemists and mathematicians and physicists had less and less to do with one another. “A curious illustration of this result,” he wrote, “may be observed in the want of any name by which we can designate the students of the knowledge of the material world collectively.” He then proposed “scientist,” an analogue to “artist,” as the term that could provide linguistic unity to those studying the various branches of the sciences.

…“Scientist” met with a friendlier reception across the Atlantic. By the 1870s, “scientist” had replaced “man of science” in the United States. Interestingly, the term was embraced partly in order to distinguish the American “scientist,” a figure devoted to “pure” research, from the “professional,” who used scientific knowledge to pursue commercial gains…For most British readers, however, the popularity of the word in America was, if anything, evidence that the term was illegitimate and barbarous.

The story of stress

A history of the science behind stress:

“He would subject them to extreme temperatures, make them go hungry for long periods, or make them exercise a lot,” the medical historian Mark Jackson says. “Then what he would do is kill the rats and look at their organs.”

What was interesting to Selye was that no matter how different the tortures he devised for the rats were — from icy winds to painful injections — when he cut them open to examine their guts it appeared that the physical effects of his different tortures were always the same.

“Almost universally these rats showed a particular set of signs,” Jackson says. “There would be changes particularly in the adrenal gland. So Selye began to suggest that subjecting an animal to prolonged stress led to tissue changes and physiological changes with the release of certain hormones, that would then cause disease and ultimately the death of the animal.”

And so the idea of stress — and its potential costs to the body — was born.

But here’s the thing: The idea of stress wasn’t born to just any parent. It was born to Selye, a scientist absolutely determined to make the concept of stress an international sensation.

Is everything we know about Phineas Gage wrong?

How many of the stories we tell about Gage are wrong? Well, a metal rod did fly through the guy’s skull but:

The day after his accident, a local newspaper misstated the diameter of the rod. A small error, but an omen of much worse to come…Within a few days, however, his health deteriorated. His face puffed up, his brain swelled, and he started raving, at one point demanding that someone find his pants so he could go outside. His brain developed a fungal infection and he lapsed into a coma… 

[T]here’s no record of what Gage did in the months after the accident—and we know even less about what his conduct was like. Harlow’s case report fails to include any sort of timeline explaining when Gage’s psychological symptoms emerged and whether any of them got better or worse over time. Even the specific details of Gage’s behavior seem, on a closer reading, ambiguous, even cryptic. For instance, Harlow mentions Gage’s sudden “animal propensities” and, later, “animal passions.” Sounds impressive, but what does that mean? An excessive appetite, strong sexual urges, howling at the moon?

People butcher history all the time, of course, for various reasons. But something distinct seems to have happened with Gage. Macmillan calls it “scientific license.” “When you look at the stories told about Phineas,” he says, “you get the impression that [scientists] are indulging in something like poetic license—to make the story more vivid, to make it fit in with their preconceptions.”

Apparently there’s a minor industry in academia devoted to modeling rods being blown through people’s skulls. And this author is not impressed with Antonio Damasio.

In the end, I think Gage is a proxy for the idea that changes in the brain can cause changes in behavior: it’s hard to emotionally grasp that we’re controlled by a squishy thing in our skull until you have ‘seen it’.