New from New Books Network (NBN) is an interview with Tara Abraham on her recent book Rebel Genius: Warren S. McCulloch’s Transdisciplinary Life in Science. As the NBN describes,
Fueling his bohemian lifestyle and anti-authoritarian attitude with a steady diet of ice cream and whiskey, along with a healthy dose of insomnia, Warren Sturgis McCulloch is best known for his foundational contributions to cybernetics but led a career that spanned psychiatry, philosophy, neurophysiology, and engineering. Tara H. Abraham‘s new book Rebel Genius: Warren S. McCulloch’s Transdisciplinary Life in Science (MIT Press, 2016) is the first scholarly biography of this towering figure of twentieth century American science. Abrahams careful tracing of McCulloch’s broad disciplinary traverses is grounded in explication of heady theories and mathematical models of the brain. The growing historical scholarship on cybernetics rests on a curious threshold: its subject matter, rife with outsized personalities and uncannily forward-looking ideas, is ever poised to remain more ineluctably fascinating than scholarly analysis can render. Rather than attempting to beat the cyberneticians at their own game–self-consciously or not becoming participant observers in the reflexive system described by “second-order” cybernetics–this rich portrait offers pointed and entertaining insight into the role of style, sociability, and mentorship in twentieth century scientific life.
The full interview can be heard online here.
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Tara Abraham‘s Rebel Genius: Warren S. McCulloch’s Transdisciplinary Life in Science is now available from MIT Press. Rebel Genius recounts the life and work of neurophysiologist and cybernetician Warren McCulloch. As described by the publisher,
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Warren S. McCulloch (1898–1969) adopted many identities in his scientific life—among them philosopher, poet, neurologist, neurophysiologist, neuropsychiatrist, collaborator, theorist, cybernetician, mentor, engineer. He was, writes Tara Abraham in this account of McCulloch’s life and work, “an intellectual showman,” and performed this part throughout his career. While McCulloch claimed a common thread in his work was the problem of mind and its relationship to the brain, there was much more to him than that. In Rebel Genius, Abraham uses McCulloch’s life as a window on a past scientific age, showing the complex transformations that took place in American brain and mind science in the twentieth century—particularly those surrounding the cybernetics movement.
Abraham describes McCulloch’s early work in neuropsychiatry, and his emerging identity as a neurophysiologist. She explores his transformative years at the Illinois Neuropsychiatric Institute and his work with Walter Pitts—often seen as the first iteration of “artificial intelligence” but here described as stemming from the new tradition of mathematical treatments of biological problems. Abraham argues that McCulloch’s dual identities as neuropsychiatrist and cybernetician are inseparable. He used the authority he gained in traditional disciplinary roles as a basis for posing big questions about the brain and mind as a cybernetician. When McCulloch moved to the Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT, new practices for studying the brain, grounded in mathematics, philosophy, and theoretical modeling, expanded the relevance and ramifications of his work. McCulloch’s transdisciplinary legacies anticipated today’s multidisciplinary field of cognitive science.