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Science Matters, Culture Matters
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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 46.1 (2003) 109-124


MY FATHER AND MOTHER BELIEVED in science as a source of rational truth. Science was trustworthy and exportable to the many corners of human activity. Medicine, engineering, weather prediction, and even social planning could be approached scientifically. All one needed to do was isolate a problem, analyze it carefully, and design appropriate solutions. Politics were a separate matter. One could (and certainly did) argue about whether it was moral or immoral to drop the atomic bomb, or whether Lysenko had any right to stick his nose into the development of Soviet genetics. But although both science and politics were important for producing human progress, scientific knowledge and social belief were different beasts.

Understandings of how the world works change with time, and my current world is not my father's world of science. In the course of almost 40 years of practicing biology and thinking about how it works, I have come to believe in my deepest core that scientific knowledge is a particular form of social knowledge—that the scientific and the cultural are inseparable. Recently I have gained insight into my journey from my parents' science to my vision (shared, as the reader will see, with many other students of scientific knowledge) by thinking about a painful conflict I had with my department over an embryology course. One lesson from this journey is that how you teach science depends on what you think about the nature of scientific knowledge. I argue that we still teach science as if the world worked as it did in the first half of the 20th century, and that teaching this way is not a good thing.

Comparing Embryos

About 30 years ago, a colleague and I designed a course entitled "Comparative Vertebrate Embryology." It was a meat-and-potatoes course aimed at first- and second-year biology majors. In it we introduced the concept of morphogenesis (how groups of embryonic cells take on the three-dimensional shapes we come to recognize as fetuses, babies, and adults). Because the course compared embryonic development in different back-boned organisms, we discussed enough vertebrate evolution to make sense of the different developmental patterns we studied.

We integrated lecture material with the laboratory study of embryonic anatomy; students used the microscope to study serial sections that ran from the head to the rear of frog, chick, and pig embryos that had been prepared at different times after fertilization. In order to "get it," to picture what goes on during embryonic development, students had, in their mind's eye, to reconstruct a whole embryo from the microscopic slices. (This is rather like envisioning a whole loaf of bread—including the precise location of the air bubbles, raisins, and sunflower seeds—from a careful study of each slice in the loaf.) But to make matters even more difficult, they had to envision the embryo and all of its developing organ systems, not once, but at several discrete stages of development. To keep the bread metaphor going, they would need to reassemble not only the slices from the finished loaf, but also from the dough when it was first placed in the pan, and thereafter at various points in the baking process. We asked our students to understand developmental processes and to commit to memory the names and relationships of structures, so that during exams they could identify the structures on their slides and write descriptively about the processes by which they formed.

Over the years the course maintained a high enrollment and was well re-viewed. Because of its success, Comparative Vertebrate Embryology also established for itself a permanent place in our departmental curriculum. For about the first 15 years, I taught the course more-or-less every other year, often jointly with the same colleague with whom I had initially designed the class. Eventually, though, I found myself more compelled by the work I was doing on gender and the nature of scientific knowledge (Fausto-Sterling 1987, 1989, 1992a, 1992b, 1993a, 1993b, 1995, 2000), and I stopped teaching Comparative Vertebrate Embryology altogether.

About 10 years ago, however, my colleagues asked that I rotate back into...

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