Review of African Eve Effect by Aant Elzinga
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- Elzinga, A. Arch (2011) 7: 290. doi:10.1007/s11759-011-9163-y
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Alexandra Hofmänner’s paper is stimulating and provocative. For science and technology studies (STS) it importantly reintroduces a lost dimension, philosophical anthropology 1968; in a critique of Western science, Jürgen Habermas of the Frankfurt School retrieved this dimension and distinguished three “knowledge constitutive interests” whereof the “technical instrumental” associated an empirical-positivist ideal pinned on measurement and control. Such epistemic categories however soon fell outside mainstream science studies, even if Andrew Feenberg—a student of Herbert Marcuse—persistently pursues a broad critical theory of technology.
KeywordsAfrican eve effectReward systems of scienceAnthropological dimension of scienceImaginative geographiesFrontiers of science
L'étude d'Alexandra Hofmänner est stimulante et provocatrice. Pour les études en sciences et technologies, elle réintroduit surtout une dimension perdue, l'anthropologie philosophique. En 1968, dans une critique de la science occidentale, Jürgen Habermas de l'École de Francfort a récupéré cette dimension et a distingué trois « intérêts de connaissances », dont l'intérêt « technico-instrumental » a associé un idéal empirique positiviste reposant sur la mesure et le contrôle. Ces catégories épistémiques, cependant, ont bientôt dépassé les études scientifiques classiques, même si Andrew Feenberg – un élève de Herbert Marcuse – poursuit obstinément une vaste théorie critique sur la technologie.
El trabajo de Alexandra Hofmänner es estimulante a la vez que provocativo. Su importancia en el campo de los estudios científicos y tecnológicos (STS) reside en que recupera una dimensión perdida, la antropología filosófica. En 1968, en una crítica a la ciencia occidental, Jürgen Habermas, de la Escuela de Frankfurt, recuperó esta dimensión y distinguió tres «intereses constitutivos de conocimientos», entre los cuales estaba la «técnica instrumental», que asociaba un ideal empírico-positivista basado en la medición y el control. No obstante, estas categorías epistémicas pronto quedaron fuera de los estudios tradicionales científicos, aunque Andrew Feenberg – estudiante de Herbert Marcuse, persiste en llevar a cabo una crítica generalizada de la teoría de la tecnología.
Hofmänner’s intervention can deservedly be situated alongside Feenberg’s. The scheme regarding the projection of imaginaries and power of discursive conventions is fruitful. Her genealogy from Mertonian sociology to feminist history should however include the subsequent epistemological debate opened by standpoint theory and Sandra Harding’s later work on the “Racial economy of science”; Donna Haraway’s extension of feminist historiography to geography and introduction of “situated knowledges” is also relevant; it affords a reflexive antidote to the same reifying disembodied Eurocentric “gaze from nowhere” (and its imaginaries) that Hofmänner perceptively maps.1,2,3
Three cases illustrate the thesis: institutionalization of the Nobel Prize; the work and career of two genetic scientists; and Bruno Latour’s career and influence. The latter two fit the paper’s line of reasoning; the first is weaker.
Latour capitalized on cultural estrangement and distantiation in anthropology qua method. Whereas traditionally this generated terminologies marked by colonialism and imperialism plus a metaphorical ladder of human evolution, in Latour’s case articulation of difference, production of alterity and exoticization is (self) consciously put to advantage as an heuristic device for “exploring” life in the laboratory with the eyes of a would-be stranger, a “seeing” different from that of the indigenous inhabitants (scientists themselves).4 This led to novel rethinking of science as systems of circulation of resources (money) and cultural goods (papers and recognition). Authority and power accruing to the “scientific tribe” was seen to rest on cumulative circulation of “inscriptions” with classification and translation of data into tables and graphs that Latour later associated with “centers of calculation” and epistemic ordering akin to Hofmänner’s second “discursive convention”.
Here a further point may be made. Latourian analysis of laboratory occupants and epistemic territories (disciplines) in analogy with “tribes” was at first amusing. Later, continued exoticization roused protests from the “inhabitants”, sparking the so-called Science Wars. STS scholars were charged with anti-science hostility.5 In contrast the “indigenous inhabitants” of African and other territories, when they have protested, typically targeted enslavement, material expropriation and political suppression, and more recently in the case of the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP) biopiracy, genetic theft, biocolonialism or the lack of informed consent (ethics). Lacking the prowess of research professions, they seldomly challenged the Eurocentric scientistic gaze that configured them on lower rungs of an evolutionary ladder—this is also a telling point regarding the power asymmetries at work.
The second case highlights in part, early studies by Cavalli-Sforza but not his role in the HGDP wherein he discredited racism and race as a concept by showing that these value-laden terms have no basis in modern biology. Hofmänner’s finds discursive traces that nevertheless frame African Pygmies as “backward”. More is made of acts of transportation (as proxies of distantiation?) of “data” from distant “exotic” places to metropolitan laboratories as a necessary ingredient in the bestowal of scientific authority and recognition on the two scientists depicted.
Citing Elisabeth Crawford the author rightly notes how the Nobel institution resonated with industrial enterprise and progress. Linné’s legacy signaled evolutionism and taxonomic methods. But there was more! Geomagnetics and meteorology rested on an inductivist ideal of science, privileging systematic observation and hoping patterns transcending the local might emerge by generalizing from discrete time series obtained at many sites in a global network, a Réseau Mondiale.6 Physics and chemistry were dominated by the experimental ideal whence Nobel stipulated prizes should recognize “discovery” and “invention”, much to the chagrin of those like Poincaré and Einstein who used hypothetic-deductive methods.7 Exoticism, travelling and evolutionist imaginaries did not feature centrally here, but all the more in geography, ethnography, anthropology and archeology where there were no Nobel prizes. Exemplification of the paper’s thesis by reference only to Retzius’s guilt by association and a couple of cases of fieldwork in medicine and physiology thus needs qualification and further contextualization.8 In a broader frame it also becomes questionable if acts of transportation of “data” from distant “exotic” places to metropolitan laboratories weigh so heavily as a necessary requirement for the bestowal of Laureate status on scientists.
The term “tribes” was also used to advantage by Becher (1989) in his comparative study of disciplinary cultures, without pejorative associations.
On the significance of inductivism as a social epistemology see Elzinga (2009).
Einstein was systematically rejected for the prize until 1922 when C.W. Oseen a newer generation physicist in the relevant Nobel Committee framed the man’s work on the photoelectric effect as “discovery” of a natural law while relativity theory was explicitly disavowed even in the text of the Nobel diploma (Elzinga 2006).
In as far as Northern Europeans (Scandinavians), when confronted with classical Greco-Roman culture in the Mediterranean, identified themselves with the mythologically superior Hyperboreans and projected this geographical imaginary on their travels and meetings with indigenous peoples in far away colonial places one might also speak of an Hyperborean Effect in science (Schough 2008).