- Science without Laws: Model Systems, Cases, Exemplary Narratives
Synecdoche is the literary figure in which the part stands for the whole, and, as this stimulating volume of essays reveals, the contemporary sciences are to a remarkable extent sciences of synecdoche. Objects of inquiry that are too big, too small, too complex, too varied, inaccessible, or invisible are replaced by model systems, exemplary cases, and simulations. This is true for the human as well as the natural sciences. The essays here span genetics, primatology, meteorology, geology, psychoanalysis, molecular biology, economics, anthropology, biomedicine, and history. Viewed from this perspective, the conventional distinctions between the various divisions of knowledge (natural/human, quantitative/qualitative, hard/soft) lose a great deal of their traction, as do philosophical accounts of the sciences that emphasize induction and general laws. In the modern sciences, fiendishly difficult problems concerning the action of genes or weather prediction or the nature of democracies are worked out on hand from the painstaking, focused study of drosophila, a computer simulation called Arpège, and the ancient Athenian polis, respectively. These modeling programs are overt, and the degree of analogy between exemplum and class can be and is subject to scrutiny. Other models are implicit: primatologists assume baboons might stand in for early hominids in general; economists take for granted that Prisoner’s Dilemma configurations capture the essence of many market transactions. In the essays devoted to these latter topics, the effect of studying commonplace scientific assumptions is revelatory and holds the potential to provoke debate among practitioners. To a degree rare in edited volumes, this collection works as a whole, despite its pleasingly varied subject matter. Readers may pick and choose according to specialist interests, but those who read cover-to-cover are rewarded with a novel and fascinating perspective on how science is done now. [End Page 494]
Lorraine Daston, director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and honorary professor at Humboldt University in Berlin, received the Pfizer Prize for her book Classical Probability in the Enlightenment. She is also coauthor of Talking with Animals and Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150–1750 and has edited or coedited Biographies of Scientific Objects, Things That Talk, The Moral Authority of Nature, and the early modern volume in the Cambridge History of Science.