Woven like a scarlet thread through Jones’ account of the ingenuity, stamina, skill, and sheer will to believe required to keep at the improvement of calculating machines until they were reliable enough to be used widely (not until the 1870s) is the puzzle of what, if anything, mechanical calculation has to do with thinking. Pace almost all histories of computers that trace a lineage from Babbage to John von Neumann via Alan Turing, Jones answers: not much. Although some of the inspired tinkerers, such as Charles Stanhope, did toy with the idea that mechanical calculation was a materialization of thought, Jones concludes that the fact that machines could (eventually) be made to calculate did not immediately suggest the idea of artificial intelligence. On the contrary: calculation ceased thereby to count as intelligence.
The book itself is described on the publisher’s website as follows:
From Blaise Pascal in the 1600s to Charles Babbage in the first half of the nineteenth century, inventors struggled to create the first calculating machines. All failed—but that does not mean we cannot learn from the trail of ideas, correspondence, machines, and arguments they left behind.
In Reckoning with Matter, Matthew L. Jones draws on the remarkably extensive and well-preserved records of the quest to explore the concrete processes involved in imagining, elaborating, testing, and building calculating machines. He explores the writings of philosophers, engineers, and craftspeople, showing how they thought about technical novelty, their distinctive areas of expertise, and ways they could coordinate their efforts. In doing so, Jones argues that the conceptions of creativity and making they exhibited are often more incisive—and more honest—than those that dominate our current legal, political, and aesthetic culture.
Today, a scientific explanation is not meant to ascribe agency to natural phenomena: we would not say a rock falls because it seeks the center of the earth. Even for living things, in the natural sciences and often in the social sciences, the same is true. A modern botanist would not say that plants pursue sunlight. This has not always been the case, nor, perhaps, was it inevitable. Since the seventeenth century, many thinkers have made agency, in various forms, central to science.
The Restless Clock examines the history of this principle, banning agency, in the life sciences. It also tells the story of dissenters embracing the opposite idea: that agency is essential to nature. The story begins with the automata of early modern Europe, as models for the new science of living things, and traces questions of science and agency through Descartes, Leibniz, Lamarck, and Darwin, among many others. Mechanist science, Jessica Riskin shows, had an associated theology: the argument from design, which found evidence for a designer in the mechanisms of nature. Rejecting such appeals to a supernatural God, the dissenters sought to naturalize agency rather than outsourcing it to a “divine engineer.” Their model cast living things not as passive but as active, self-making machines.
The conflict between passive- and active-mechanist approaches maintains a subterranean life in current science, shaping debates in fields such as evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence. This history promises not only to inform such debates, but also our sense of the possibilities for what it means to engage in science—and even what it means to be alive.
The September 2017 issue of Isis, the official journal of the History of Science Society, is now online. Two articles in this issue may be of especial interest to AHP readers: one documenting the relationship between cybernetics and modern Chinese linguists and the other exploring the construction of “gifted” and “academically talented” students in the context of efforts to desegregate schools following the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling. Full details follow below.
“From Modernizing the Chinese Language to Information Science: Chao Yuen Ren’s Route to Cybernetics,” by Chen-Pang Yeang. Abstract:
As one of the most famous Chinese intellectuals of the twentieth century, Chao Yuen Ren is known primarily for his founding of modern Chinese linguistics. This essay examines a less familiar part of his career: cybernetics. When he taught at Berkeley in 1947, he read Norbert Wiener’s book manuscript and gravitated toward the subject. His participation in the 1953 Macy Conference marked the beginning of his decades-long work that used the concepts of feedback and information to understand language in general and Chinese in particular. This essay argues that Chao’s exploration of cybernetics was influenced not only by the rise of information science in the midcentury United States but also by the movement to modernize the Chinese language two decades earlier. His phonetic research for dialect surveys, involvement in language reform, and appropriation of structuralism when he worked in China in the 1920s and 1930s shaped his cybernetic interpretations of language in the 1950s and 1960s. This article enriches the current historiography of information science, which stresses disunity and internationalism, by showing how an East Asian context affected an aspect of the early development of cybernetics. It also demonstrates the value of an immigrant scientist’s intellectual biography for studies of transnational science.
“L’esprit (dé)réglé: Literature, Science, and the Life of the Mind in France, 1700–1900,” by Florence Vatan and Anne Vila. The abstract reads,
The case studies presented in this special issue illustrate the unique appeal that the puzzle of the mind exerted across fields of knowledge in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They highlight the diversity of approaches and perspectives that the exploration of the mind elicited in literature, philosophy, and the sciences de l’homme. They also testify to the conceptual challenges and persistent nebulousness that surrounded the notion of esprit and its close associates. That fluidity of meaning was, in its way, productive: it provoked debates about the nature of the self, the precarious status of consciousness, and the relevance of human exceptionalism.
“Comment l’esprit vient aux filles… et comment les garçons le perdent: Maladie d’amour, médecine et fiction romanesque au XVIIIe siècle,” by Alexandre Wenger. The abstract reads,
This article proposes a commentary on a little known novel, Les Amours du chevalier de Faublas, written between 1787 and 1790 by Jean-Baptiste Louvet de Couvray. The objective is to show a rivalry that existed in the second half of the eighteenth century between the novel and medical treatises as ways to document knowledge of the human mind. Taking as a point of departure the problematic polysemy of the term “esprit” in the eighteenth century, this article reveals how Couvray’s novel engages in therapeutic writing. Its main hypothesis is that as a fictional narrative, the novel discusses the madness of love and the disturbances of the mind.
A special issue of the journal Personality and Individual Differencesmarking the centenary of Hans Eysenck’s birth is now available online. Among the many varied contributions to the forthcoming issue are a number of personal reminiscences of Eysenck and his influence, including ones from his wife Sybil Eysenck and son Michael Eysenck, both psychologists in their own right.
Particularly interesting contributions to the special issue include an article and commentary addressing Eysenck and the question of his Jewish ancestry. Articles that focus on the history of Eysenck and his work are highlighted below.
“Hans J. Eysenck: Introduction to centennial special issue,” by Philip J. Corr.
“Hans Eysenck and the Jewish question: Genealogical investigations,” by Andrew M. Colman and Caren A. Frosch. The abstract reads,
We present evidence establishing that Hans Eysenck was half Jewish. He went out of his way to conceal this fact and to disavow his Jewish ancestry until the publication of his full-length autobiography in 1990, long after he retired, when he revealed that one of his grandparents was Jewish. Using specialized genealogical techniques and resources, we trace his Jewish maternal grandmother, who died in Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1944, and his Jewish maternal grandfather, who practised medicine in Königshütte and later in Berlin. We discuss Eysenck’s possible motives for disavowing his Jewish heritage for most of his life.
“Commentary on “Hans Eysenck and the Jewish Question: Genealogical Investigations” — by Andrew M. Colman and Caren A. Frosch,” by Roderick D. Buchanan. The abstract reads,
Several intriguing questions pertaining to Hans Eysenck’s family background were raised but only partially resolved by Buchanan (2010). Here I comment on the implications of the new genealogical evidence unearthed by Coleman and Frosch (2016; this Special Issue) in light of Eysenck’s life and career.
The autumn 2014 issue of Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences is now online. Articles in this issue discuss the race and professional organizations in South Africa, intelligence testing in British India, and discussion over psychical, occult, and religious research at early twentieth century international congresses. Full titles, authors, and abstracts follow below.
“The Rhetoric of Racism: Revisiting the Creation of the Psychological Institute of the Republic of South Africa (1956–1962),” by Wahbie Long. The abstract reads,
This paper revisits the 1962 splitting of the South African Psychological Association (SAPA), when disaffected Afrikaner psychologists broke away to form the whites-only Psychological Institute of the Republic of South Africa (PIRSA). It presents an analysis of the rhetorical justification for forming a new professional association on principles at odds with prevailing international norms, demonstrating how the episode involved more than the question of admitting black psychologists to the association. In particular, the paper argues that the SAPA-PIRSA separation resulted from an Afrikaner nationalist reading of the goals of psychological science. PIRSA, that is, insisted on promoting a discipline committed to the ethnic-national vision of the apartheid state. For its part, SAPA’s racial integration was of a nominal order only, ostensibly to protect itself from international sanction. The paper concludes that, in a racist society, it is difficult to produce anything other than a racist psychology.
BBC Radio 4 begins a new series today on the fraught topic of intelligence. The focus of each of its three half-hour episodes is given by the series title: “Intelligence: Born Smart, Born Equal, Born Different.” The series is hosted by BBC4 science regular, Adam Rutherford. It will cover questions such as what intelligence is, how we have tried to measure it, what difference intelligence makes, and, most controversial of all, what relation intelligence may have to genetics.
What is the relationship between intelligence and sex? In recent decades, studies of the controversial histories of both intelligence testing and of human sexuality in the United States have been increasingly common—and hotly debated. But rarely have the intersections of these histories been examined. In Gentlemen’s Disagreement, Peter Hegarty enters this historical debate by recalling the debate between Lewis Terman—the intellect who championed the testing of intelligence— and pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, and shows how intelligence and sexuality have interacted in American psychology.Through a fluent discussion of intellectually gifted onanists, unhappily married men, queer geniuses, lonely frontiersmen, religious ascetics, and the two scholars themselves, Hegarty traces the origins of Terman’s complaints about Kinsey’s work to show how the intelligence testing movement was much more concerned with sexuality than we might remember. And, drawing on Foucault, Hegarty reconciles these legendary figures by showing how intelligence and sexuality in early American psychology and sexology were intertwined then and remain so to this day.
Arthur Jensen, who suggested in a now infamous 1969 article in the Harvard Educational Review that genetic differences between races were the root cause of differences in intelligence test scores between black and white students, has died. As reported in the New York Times,
In the article, Professor Jensen posited two types of learning ability. Level I, associative ability, entailed the rote retention of facts. Level II, conceptual ability, involved abstract thinking and problem-solving. This type, he argued, was roughly equivalent to general intelligence, denoted in psychology by the letter “g.”
In administering I.Q. tests to diverse groups of students, Professor Jensen found Level I ability to be fairly consistent across races. When he examined Level II ability, by contrast, he found it more prevalent among whites than blacks, and still more prevalent among Asians than whites.
Drawing on these findings, Professor Jensen argued that general intelligence is largely genetically determined, with cultural forces shaping it only to a small extent. For this reason, he wrote in 1969, compensatory education programs like Head Start are doomed to fail.
Unsurprisingly, this suggestion of a link between race and intelligence ignited intense controversy.
Jensen’s death comes on the heels of the death of Philippe Rushton, also known for his controversial views on the relationship between race and intelligence.
Controversial psychologist John Philippe Rushton (above), best known for his views on the relationship between race and intelligence, has died. Rushton passed away after a battle with cancer on October 2nd. He was 68.
Rushton was born in Bournemouth, England, in 1943. While still a child, he emigrated first to South Africa and then to Canada. He went on to receive his PhD from the London School of Economics in 1977. Prior to receiving his PhD, he taught for a time at York University (1974-76) in Toronto and then at the University of Toronto (1977). He joined the faculty at the University of Western Ontario (UWO, now Western University) in 1978 and became a full professor at the university in 1985. In addition to his work on race and intelligence, Rushton also produced controversial research on the relationship between race and crime, and race and penis size.
In the late 1980s, Rushton’s views on race-based differences in intelligence sparked vehement protest at UWO. (More photographs from these protests can be seen here.) Despite calls for Rushton to be fired – by UWO students and Ontario’s premier – and although he was relieved of teaching duties during the height of these protests, he remained on the faculty of UWO for 25 years. The attention Rushton received for his controversial views on race and intelligence also led to a prominent debate between Rushton and geneticist, and environmentalist, David Suzuki on the subject in February, 1989 (the full debate can be viewed below).
Notice of Rushton’s death can be found here. Further discussion of Rushton’s passing can be found here, here, and here.