Review of "Lords of the Fly" by Robert E. Kohler
A fine book about flies and scientists

Robert E. Kohler. Lords of the Fly: Drosophila Genetics and the Experimental Life. University Of Chicago Press, 1994.

First of all, Lords of the Fly is an excellent book. It is readable, thorough, vivid and original. It contains enough technical detail to guide the reader, but not too much to confuse him. It describes, in a novel way, an important and much-studied period in the history of biology: the rise of genetics in the first half of the century. It contains considerable detail about the everyday working lives of the “Drosophilists,” the men and women who worked with the fruit fly Drosophila. But it always tries to link those details to the actual science they produced. “I hope to persuade the readers of this book,” writes Kohler, “that experimental sciences have been shaped by their material cultures.” Kohler succeeds.

The challenge is to explain that success. What lessons does the book contain for those who would write laboratory-based histories of science? One lesson is that comparison works. Kohler uses the comparative approach to illuminate two separate but similar historical episodes: the early years of research based on Drosophila, led by T.H. Morgan at Columbia University; and the work, led by Beadle, on Neurospora.

Kohler also shows that structure works. Throughout the book, Kohler treats Drosophilia and the Drosophilists in three different ways: as technological devices, with the Drosophilists manipulating their flies to create scientific instruments; as an episode in natural history, with the human and animal organisms migrating, specialising, adapting, selecting; and as an example of a “moral economy,” a human community with a set of values, procedures, and penalties. These themes serve as a map, opening up a field of inquiry and setting its elements into clear array.

Kohler also makes good use of metaphor and analogy. At times her analogy between experimental life and ecological life is merely decorative. But often it is illuminating, casting descriptive and explanatory light. For example, he writes: “Intragroup conflict, by isolating Dobzhansky from the traditional practice of his American colleagues, cleared the way for the rapid evolution of a new species of experimental practice.”

The subtitle of the book is a nod to Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer's Leviathan and the Air Pump, the ground-breaking study of experimental science in the seventeenth century. Kohler only takes what he needs from Shapin and Schaffer, which is an interest in the details of experimental practice. He does not pick up Shapin and Schaffer's task of pricking the pretensions of scientists. By showing (for example) that Morgan and his students “constructed” a new fly by manipulating its genotype, Kohler means to show how scientists work, not to challenge the integrity of their results. In one sense this approach limits the force of Kohler's book, since he does not enable himself to explain the resolution of disputes about ultimate results. But it also opens up room to explain many other features of experimental life, such as choices of research topics, the pace of research, the harmony or otherwise of the “moral economy,” and the failure of interdisciplinary efforts.

Sometimes Kohler pushes his aims too hard. He suggests, for example, that material practices were the “controlling factor” in the rapid expansion of Dobzhansky's project of mapping the phylogenies of naturally occurring Drosophila pseudoobscura. From Kohler's account, however, it seems that a theoretical breakthrough (the discovery of a link between phylogenetic maps and chromosomal inversions) was just as important. Also, one might protest that Kohler does not fully capture the amount of repetition and long-term drudgery that was involved in processing Drosophilia. But the reader gets glimpses of this aspect, as in Dobzhansky slaving over mounds of flies. Kohler might have turned the glimpses into a full view by including more technical detail and literary evocation. But those two features are not on the book's agenda. As for Kohler's actual aims, he meets them in style.

Lords of the Fly on Amazon

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