Turning research organisms on their head at 4S in Australia
Rachel Ankeny and Sabina Leonelli have done a great deal to shape and populate history and philosophy of science attention to model organisms through their joint work over the past two decades. At present, that work is continuing to play out in Ankeny's Australian Research Council-funded project “Organisms and Us: How Living Things Help Us to Understand Our World,” investigating how roles for research organisms have changed in the 20th and into the 21st century through historical and philosophical perspectives. And at the most recent annual meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science, that project played out in the form of a panel on “Organisms and Us in Dialogue,” not so much in historical but in relational perspective with an emphasis on how human affective relationships with organisms and perceptions of their capabilities have shaped scientific agendas.
Research organisms in general and model organisms in particular have become a popular organizing principle for tracing histories of biology. Tracing the developmental trajectory of an organism provides an alternative to tracing the career of a prominent scientist too often likely to be a privileged white man whose success is an emblem of the lack of opportunities afforded to others. Tracing organisms also provides an intersection with movements in STS to investigate the roles of scientific apparatus in scientific development, and with movements in multispecies studies emphasizing the activity of diverse creatures when the a priori assumption is not that humans alone can meaningfully act. The questions today are not about whether research organisms are important, but largely about what various methods afford for the way scholarship structures relationships among research organisms, human researchers, and scientific knowledge production.
The panel invited discussion of how existing social science methods might be applied to multispecies science studies. That discussion manifested through studies of plant intelligence and the potential utility of anthropomorphism for countering “plant blindness” (Laura Ruggles, University of Adelaide), tensions around using native Australian animals for “domesticated” scientific purposes as a strategy for promoting their survival (Rachel Ankeny, University of Adelaide), what new materialisms might afford for locating the ambiguous material of vaccines (Roberta Pala, University of New South Wales), and how yeast is brought into being as diverse kinds of creatures through diverse human/scientific yeastwork (my own presentation). From koalas to corn, yeast, and viruses, a common theme was openness and invitation to non-human organisms to be more than they have historically been allowed to be. And alongside that theme, our common trouble seemed to remain how to adequately listen to the response to that invitation.
4S might be criticized for becoming an overwhelming, sprawling meeting, especially by those of the old guard who fondly recall the intimate underdog vibe of the meeting in its earlier years. An advantage of the current format, however, is that participants can track with their preferred specialty interest and interact with a sub-group of like-minded people while still being able to dip into the more diverse world of the rest of the conference from time to time. “Organisms and Us in Dialogue” was only one amongst many panels concerning relationships amongst humans and other creatures in and around science and technology; indeed, one could have self-crafted an entire multispecies conference by attending back-to-back panels on that theme. The dialogue amongst research organisms and science studies scholars is clearly ongoing. The question remains: how to avoid having the only voices we hear be our own? Or, maybe, how to become reconciled to that inevitability?