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Historische Rekonstruktion naturwissenschaftlicher Grundlagen der Bioethik 1930-1970 unter besonderer Berücksichtigung von Evolutionsbiologie und Ökologie ** - [German]


Jan 1995 - Jan 1995

Funding body:

DFG Förderinitiative Bioethik


Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte

Wilhelmstrasse 44

10117 Berlin


E-Mail: potthast@mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de
URL: http://www.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/


Rheinberger, Hans-Jörg (Prof. Dr.)


Potthast, Thomas (Dr.)

Short Description:

Ecology, Evolution, and the Ethics of Nature: On Epistemic-Moral Hybrids within Biological Sciences contributing to the Formation of Bioethics

Abstract: Specific historical conjunctures of biology and ethics contributed to the disciplinary foundations of bioethics around 1970. This project focuses on the links between ecology and evolutionary biology and the ethics of nature in the 20th century. Theory formation and research practices, as well as the normative agendas of scientists, institutions, and disciplines are taken into account discussing some of the roots of bioethics in the natural sciences. Case studies from the history of biology in Germany are compared with the English and American contexts, thereby illuminating different modes of interdependent makings of both science and moral philosophy.

1. Introduction and context: In the course of the 20th century, biological inventions, methods, and theories - all understood as different modes of scientific practice - have shaped the human condition in many respects. Resonating with new technoscientific practices of the life sciences, bioethics emerged around 1970 as a discipline. The link between biology and ethics within bioethics is twofold: Biology is first conceived as having posed new moral problems related to new biomedical technoscience shaping the human condition. Second, the moral authority of nature as a source of ethical guidelines has been progessively derived from biology, above all from genetics, ecology, and evolutionary biology, eventually resulting in notions of a normative "science of survival". Biology led to a specifically scientific reworking of images of nature and of human moral obligations toward a nature threatened by transformations on individual and global scales. Carried out in the department of Prof. Rheinberger at the MPI for the History of Science, this project deals with ecology and evolutionary biology as organismic and mainly environmentally oriented disciplines between ca. 1930 and 1970. It is complementary to projects dealing with the history of molecular biology in Germany and North America between ca. 1930 and 1970 of that period.

2. Research goals and methodology: One main research goal is an investigation of some local conjunctures between biology and morals in 20th century. The comparisons with the English and North American situation should reveal more general patterns of diverse ways in which ecology and evolutionary biology did - or did not - mingle with the ethics of nature before 1970, i.e. before the heydays of, among others, environmentalism. A second goal concerns the question of the extent to which the development of both scientific disciplines and bioethics differed in the above- mentioned countries, despite ongoing academic exchange at least before 1933 and after 1945. Is there a German "Sonderweg" in organismic disciplines of biology with respect to the ethics of nature? Concerning the underlying epistemology and methodology of this project, a new concept of "epistemic-moral hybrids" has been proposed and will be developed as a reading frame for an historical account of biology and ethics. Systematic juxtapositions of science and morals notwithstanding, this approach will make clear the link between contested fields of epistemological reflections, philosophical boundary building, practical as well as theoretical blurs, and different ontological agendas forming the ethics of nature in the light of biology. Sources of this project comprise publications (mainly of scholarly origin, including public lectures etc.), archival material, and eyewitness interviews with some of the scientists educated and/or working between 1930 and 1970.

3. Current state of research: The archival material has for the most part been screened and collected; most of the interviews have been taped and transcribed. In order to broaden the historical and conceptual framework concerning the moral discourse, ideas of nature conservation and ethical reasoning in 19th century Germany and the U.S.A. have been analysed (cf. bibliography: Ott, Potthast et. al. 1999). Specificity of place, nature as emanation of a certain people and/or a nation, and hostility to scientific and technocratic reductionisms of several sorts are identified as elements still powerful while being transformed into Mid-20th century ethics of nature. The role of evidence from natural history and biology began to increase only slowly from the turn of the century on. An almost reverse situation can be observed for the late 20th century. Concepts derived from biology prevail in the foundations of conservation ethics. Scientific transformations of nature conservation ethics and the reverse impact of normative dimensions on epistemologies and ontologies of nature were studied concerning recent debates on the protection of ecological and ecological processes (paper on "Prozeßschutz", cf. bibliography). Here, the ethics and politics of "wild(er)ness" drawn from scientific notions of natural functioning return to the scene, with paradoxical pragmatic as well as theoretical effects on the notions of harmonious cultural landscapes which had dominated much of the German debate ever since the 19th century. The specificity of the German situation of epistemic-moral hybrids seem to be rooted deeply in metaphysical and political agendas concerning the role natural science and scientists may play in relation to the humanities and the broader culture. These debates also took a prominent place in German ecology since the late 1920s. Therefore, a close investigation of networks around two influential German ecologists (freshwater biologist August Thienemann, zoologist/entomologist Karl Friederichs) was undertaken. It revealed a rather specific situation still prevailing through the Mid-20th century. Concerning epistemic-moral hybrids, national-conservative views of nature and society as wholes by ecologists contrasted with more dynamic evolutionary notions of individual struggle for existence held by, among others, experimental physiologists and geneticists. This also resulted in a peculiar non Neo-Darwinian notion of race held by ecologists in this context. The Neo-Lamarckism of the spirit of place and races hence only partly fit into the National Socialist agendas. On the one hand, practices of ecology were oriented closely towards the application of their practices to fisheries, forests, water hygiene and the like, not least in order to establish their position within science and society. Moreover, ecology was presented as a unifying science and, by the same token, as a synthetic metascience unifying science and humanities including moral issues toward a holistic account of nature. Experiment and quantification were regarded as insufficient to gain knowledge about nature. This latter posed severe conflicts with powerful experimental biologists in Germany, who even questioned ecology being a subdiscipline of biology, either theoretically and institutionally. These debates can be read as contesting and redefining the overall cultural and moral significance of biology. The respective epistemologies were regarded as morally wrong with respect to the proper way of making science and being a natural scientist. Underlying conflicts on the nature of science and the role of scientists, as well as political and moral differences continued in the context of late Weimar Republic through the Third Reich and, later, the Federal Republic. German ecologists appeared as teachers of general ecological Bildung, in contrast to Anglo-American experts in pragmatic and technocratic contexts of ecology establishing guidelines for human behaviour. There, "wild(er)ness" was transformed into a moral device for cybernetic ecosystem function.

5. Further activities: An unfinished task is to interpret the transcribed interviews and the collected archival material. Thematically, it remains to be clarified why several influential West-German biologists hesitated joining scholarly and moral debates in reaction to widely recognised books on environmental and evolutionary degradation which appeared since the 1940s. In this context, the role of German Neo-Darwinists and environmentally oriented evolutionary ethicists around Konrad Lorenz will be investigated in their relation to ecologists and ethicists. Links between biologists and philosophers in Germany have to be worked out more explicitly, too. In order to strengthen the comparative perspective, a workshop is planned to focus the role of 'holisms' of ecology and conservation ethics issues in different European countries. Several publications dealing with the above mentioned issues to be completed in the year 2000 are being writing and revised: the methodology and content of epistemic-moral hybrids; Thienemann and Friederichs compared to US-ecology; notions of race; links to 'evolutionary ethics' and to moral philosophers. Additionally, an unpublished Autobiography of German ecologist Karl Friederichs (1878-1969; a sizeable and rich source) will be prepared for electronic storage and subsequent edition in collaboration with the Institute's Library.


environmental ethics – ethics of science – history of science – theory of science

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