Book Review: ‘About Method.’

'About Method' remains true to its title. It surveys a three-century span not to tell a comprehensive history of venom research, but to intricately contextualise the shifting ways in which modern scientists have committed publicly and procedurally to experimental method.

Jutta Schickore, About Method: Experimenters, Snake Venom and the History of Writing Scientifically. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. 316 pp., US$50.00. ISBN: 978-0-226-44998-2 (hbk).

by Peter Hobbins

If scientists reflect only infrequently on their commitment to experimental method, contends Jutta Schickore, then historians and sociologists have been equally remiss in interrogating this lacuna. In her carefully considered About Method, Schickore interrogates the history of snake venom research to dissect the ‘methods discourse’ promulgated by key practitioners from 1650 to 1950. In historicising her actors’ statements about ‘proper’ experimental practice – over time and across emergent disciplinary boundaries – Schickore proffers a tripartite framework for evaluating their epistemological imperatives. Encompassing ‘protocols’, ‘methodological views’, and ‘commitments to experimentation’, her novel schema is applicable to unpicking disciplinary investment in experimentation across diverse scientific communities.

The author’s focus on snake venom is neither arbitrary nor arcane. At the outset she foregrounds one of the most astonishing scientific projects of eighteenth-century natural history: Felice Fontana’s studies of viper venom. Undertaking literally thousands of experiments, this Tuscan naturalist sought to understand far more than simply the pathophysiology of being injected with venom. In enumerating the quantity, variety, variability and enduring uncertainties attendant upon his observations, Fontana reflected deeply upon the heuristic purpose, design and conduct of experiments.

The sheer scale of his vivisectional program – unsurpassed until well into the twentieth century – was thus paralleled by Fontana’s epistemological legacy. Indeed, this very continuity justifies Schickore’s selective focus in tracking methods discourse across three centuries. ‘For more than 250 years’, she remarks, ‘venom research was imbued with a strong sense of tradition both in terms of techniques and results and in terms of the methodology of experimentation’ (p.4). Moreover – and importantly for scholars working across the human sciences – venom research continues to intersect with multiple biomedical disciplines, including biochemistry, physiology, pathology, bacteriology and immunology. It is indeed an apposite field for asking what experimenters believed they were actually doing.

The result is a coherent and largely consistent unravelling of the dialectic linking programmatic statements about method with pragmatic experimental experience. Eschewing a Foucauldian formulation of ‘discourse’, Schickore instead defines ‘methods discourse’ as the rhetorical framing of good experimental practice. Yet, she insists, ‘methods discourse does not constitute a specific genre of text’ (p.215). Rather, three tiers of elements can be discerned across shifting modes of experimentation and expression. At its most ordinary, methods discourse simply outlines the specifics of experimental or observational design – a ‘protocol’. The next level, ‘methodological views’, articulates the procedures deemed necessary to generate empirically verifiable results. The deepest stratum, ‘commitments to experimentation’, encapsulates ‘the imperative that scientific ideas must be confronted with, or based on, empirical findings’ (p.213).

Just what those findings are, and how they can be validly obtained, lies at the heart of each of Schickore’s close readings in historical context. Commencing in the early modern shadow of Roger Bacon, she turns first to Francesco Redi’s 1664 text, Observations on Vipers. Under the patronage of the Tuscan court, Redi combined animal experiments, dissections and observation of human cases to detail the effects of being injected with venom (or ‘envenomation’). His commitment to the repetition of experiments both challenged prevailing rubrics received from ancient authorities, and delineated the full range of experimental circumstances that might alter the outcome of a given trial. Convinced that he had thereby vindicated his veracity as a natural philosopher, Redi concluded that the toxic agent in snakebite was viper’s venom. Yet neither his experiments nor his epistemology led him to query how it caused death.

In contrast, French apothecary Moyse Charas insisted that the viper’s ‘yellow fluid’ was inert. Rather, it was the serpent’s enraged spirits which were transmitted to its victim during a bite. Charas’s response to Redi’s trials was to assert that uniformity of experimental results – rather than the variability of procedural circumstances – carried the greatest epistemic weight. Charas thus emphasised both the heuristic value of definitive outcomes, and the importance of comparative trials. Unlike Redi, his narrative sought both to explain away inconsistent results, and to interleave his recordings with causal explanations. Rather than testing their respective truth-claims, Schickore teases out how the dispute between Charas and Redi ‘tells us much about how the general commitment to experimentation was fleshed out … [and] how flexible and fluid were the methodological statements employed by early modern experimentalists’ (p.52).

Schickore turns next to physician Richard Mead, a British medical maven whose Mechanical Account of Poisons was reworked over multiple editions from 1702 to 1747. In contrast with many fellow clinicians, Mead recapitulated the necessity for experimentation according to the methodological purity of mechanical philosophy – primarily the works of Isaac Newton. Yet, remarks Schickore, ‘Mead’s treatise does not seem to be informed by any practical challenges he might have encountered in his research’ (p.76). If his commitment to empiricism was overt, his methodological views remained decidedly opaque. Indeed, the most remarkable transition across the various versions of Mead’s work was the incorporation of others’ experimental results. These transformed his mechanical conception of venom, from sharp salts that burst blood ‘globules’ to an agent that vitiated the victim’s nervous fluid.

Mead’s work proved powerful across the Anglophone world, but paled in comparisons with Fontana’s studies, which spanned the final third of the eighteenth century. Indeed Fontana’s oeuvre forms the conceptual and chronological pivot for About Method. The central chapters inspect selected protocols and rhetorical structures drawn from his 700-word opus, Treatise on the Venom of the Viper. Here, Schickore focuses on Fontana’s place in shaping two formative strands of methods discourse: the value and delimitations of repetition, and the heuristic purpose of prolixity, the extravagant use of detailed text that proliferated page after page after page.

Across the biological sciences, Fontana’s fame arose chiefly from his insistence upon conducting repeated experiments, reporting in great detail their minor procedural divergences. ‘In Fontana’s work’, Schickore notes, ‘the leitmotif is the phrase “I varied the experiment in a hundred different ways”. It appears over and over again’ (p.84). In each case the apparatus and protocol were carefully laid out, including dead-ends and failures, in order ultimately to design the simplest trials capable of generating the purest results. As the earlier chapters highlight, there was no novelty to insisting on repetition or comparison. Rather, Schickore contends, Fontana’s fundamental innovation was a thoroughgoing commitment to exploring almost infinite variations in the conduct of his experiments, and their impact upon the outcomes.

Allied with this procedural largesse – including its horrific toll on animal life – was Fontana’s careful documentation of his practices and inferences. The result was a prodigious text configured as a narrative with ‘the flavor of a (very gruesome) scientific adventure story’ (p.82). For Fontana, prolixity not only buttressed his ‘epistemological sovereignty’ – in the words of Ohad Parnes 1 – but invited readers to share his journey as individual protocols, outcomes and interpretations were concatenated into an exhaustive chain of investigation. It struck me that Fontana’s work predated Alexander von Humboldt’s synoptic insistence on recording every conceivable detail of the physical and biological world. Both men ultimately struggled with aggregating and selectively representing their accumulated data.

This concern, indeed, animates the second half of About Method. The acknowledged heir to Fontana, at least in the Atlantic world, was Philadelphia physician, physiologist and littérateur, Silas Weir Mitchell. Schickore’s discussion of Mitchell broadens the analysis of methods discourse to consider its intersections with nascent if highly contentious definitions of ‘scientific medicine’ across the second half of the nineteenth century. She contends that Mitchell’s experimental and textual strategies resulted from two contemporaneous concerns: the urge to adjudicate upon ‘rational’ therapeutics, and the growing public opprobrium of vivisection. In contrast with my own focus on the epistemology, ontology and ethics of vivisection in venom research, Schickore explores Mitchell’s insistence on comparative experimentation and the abstraction of his results into tabulated data. 2

Mitchell’s insistence on comparison was not animated by a growing concern with experimental variability. Rather, it reflected the inherent diversity of snakebite. Bemoaning the poorly documented natural history of envenomation in humans, Mitchell also conceded that laboratory animals – especially dogs – responded in markedly different ways to nominally consistent toxins. Furthermore, by the late 1860s it was becoming apparent that there was no singular ‘snake venom’; its differentiation by species was followed, from the 1880s, by an appreciation that venoms themselves comprised multiple active constituents. These acknowledgements of biological individuality sat uncomfortably with Mitchell’s commitment to vivisection, and may have prompted his turn to tabulated data to facilitate ‘the synoptic presentation of evidence’ (p.138). Schickore suggests that this drive for concision shaped an evolving methods discourse in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

On the one hand, therefore, Schickore warns against a teleological reading of emergent disciplines. Both experimental protocols and methods discourse crossed multiple fields of practice in the nineteenth century. Not to survey this breadth risks omitting pertinent experimental mentalities and methodologies. On the other hand, there is a certain telos to Schickore’s own rendering of the imperative of the busy reader. The medical publishing transformations from 1850 to 1900, she argues, pushed back against Fontana’s prolixity in favour of brevity and structural regimentation. This is certainly one reading, but Mitchell was as well regarded for his prose as his science; might not an alternative pathway have favoured experimental virtuosity matched by rhetorical verbosity?

The last quarter of the book explores the epistemological implications of the formation of specialised practitioner communities. If this organizational gambit was itself a means of mastering the exponential growth in experimenters and publications, methods discourse also increasingly addressed the twinned problems of control and standardization amid the burgeoning ‘agency of substances that were not directly observable’ (p.175). Textually, Schickore observes, by the 1930s scientific papers had foregone any lingering narrative elements and largely adopted the modular introduction-methods-results-discussion format familiar to current-day biomedicine. ‘This bland list of standardized procedures and methods could hardly be any more different from Fontana’s graphic prose’, she laments (p.212).

The final chapters likewise become more synoptic and feel a little harried, in contrast with the elaborate, close reading that precedes them. Turning to centrifuges, electrophoresis and debates over the degree to which venom consist of protein, these chapters comprise a more contextual sweep across the biomedical literature. This rendering parallels the fate of Schickore’s twentieth-century protagonists who ‘found themselves on shifting grounds [as] theoretical approaches multiplied, concepts changed meanings, and new analytic techniques were being developed’ (p.200). Indeed, proliferating instruments, reagents, procedures and analyses themselves became a barrier to unambiguous empirical interpretation. It now became the place of survey reports and review articles – rather than individual studies – to reflect upon the intent and value of experimental methods. This final section, however, comes to a rather abrupt end, without a clear explanation for why 1950 marks a specific terminus in methods discourse.

About Method nevertheless remains true to its title. It surveys a three-century span not to tell a comprehensive history of venom research, but to intricately contextualise the shifting ways in which modern scientists have committed publicly and procedurally to experimental method. The focus on Atlantic world investigators necessarily side-lines scholarship on venom research in Asia, India, Australia and Africa, while Schickore’s engagement with the ethics and heuristics of vivisection is restrained rather than foregrounded. The book also treads a fine analytical line between the elaborate specifics of laboratory praxis and the literary technologies and witnessing procedures articulated by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer in their seminal work 3. Yet, written in a pleasant and at times jocular style, Schickore’s text sustains an intellectual rigour and precision throughout. In asking fundamental questions about what experimenters believed they were doing, its interpretive value for scholars across the biomedical and human sciences is undoubted.

Peter Hobbins is a historian of science, technology and medicine. A postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Sydney, his work focuses on the epistemology of research and its ontological products. He is the author of Venomous Encounters: Snakes, Vivisection and Scientific Medicine in Colonial Australia.

 

 

 

 

Notes:

  1. Parnes, O. (2003) ‘From Agents to Cells: Theodor Schwann’s Research Notes of the Years 1835–1838’, in Frederic L. Holmes, Jürgen Renn and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, eds., Reworking the Bench: Research Notebooks in the History of Science. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, pp. 119–39.
  2. Hobbins, P. (2017) Venomous Encounters: Snakes, Vivisection and Scientific Medicine in Colonial Australia. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  3. Shapin, S. and Schaffer, S. (2011/1985) Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press.