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  • The Law of the Series and the Crux of Causation: Paul Kammerer’s Anomalies1
  • Kirk Wetters (bio)

1. Introducing the Law of the Series and the Kammerer Case

It is difficult to disentangle the Austrian biologist Paul Kammerer’s 1919 Das Gesetz der Serie (“The Law of the Series”) from his work as a biologist and the notorious “Kammerer case”—the accusation of the falsification of experimental results and the resulting loss of reputation that contributed to his suicide in 1926. The connections are especially unavoidable, given that Kammerer’s scientific reputation seems to be on the way to a partial rehabilitation, whereas The Law of the Series stands as an enigmatic and dubious yet certainly influential “crossover” work. Before addressing this work itself, however, it is necessary to cut to the chase and inform the reader of a major recent change in the status of this cold case, which is recorded in the final chapters of Klaus Taschwer’s 2016 investigative study of Kammerer’s life, times and work. Taschwer concludes, without discounting the fact that both Kammerer’s person and his work were (and remain) highly controversial, that he was discredited by an anti-Semitic conspiracy [End Page 643] within the University of Vienna. By tampering with Kammerer’s specimens, the perpetrators intended not primarily to harm Kammerer (who had already been marginalized) but to damage the institute of which he was a part, the Biologische Versuchsanstalt or BVA. Taschwer thus significantly extends the work of Arthur Koestler, whose 1971 The Case of the Midwife Toad first suggested that Kammerer might have been framed. Taschwer strengthens the hypothesis by adding to the evidence and establishing possible motives.

Taschwer’s reconsideration of the Kammerer case thus represents an important opportunity for a far-reaching reconsideration of the functions of power among scientific and academic elites under the conditions of intense competitiveness and politicization. Turning to The Law of the Series within this context, Taschwer shows that Kammerer’s professional setbacks and resistance to his work, in which envy and anti-Semitism played a crucial role, predated the final scandal by more than a decade. Given this overall situation, the natural scientist’s extended forays into the wider public realms of social, political, philosophical and theoretical analysis were highly damaging to his overall reputation. The Law of the Series in particular served as a pretext for his being denied a professorship at the University of Vienna in 1919 (Taschwer 186–196). Taschwer’s work is now in a position to inform and inspire further research on the Kammer case, but it may also allow certain questions to be set aside. Though it is important whether the experimental work was sound, whether the specific results were reproducible, whether they proved that environmentally induced adaptations may be genetically heritable and thus whether he counts as the “father of epigenetics” (Taschwer 36, citing Vargas), Taschwer’s work makes it evident that even if these questions remain unanswerable, the case as a whole clearly falls within the spectrum of Thomas Kuhn’s famous thesis on “the structure of scientific revolutions.” To put this differently, the Kuhnian view would no longer focus on Kammerer’s research in isolation and instead encourage the consideration of the history of the fields in which Kammerer was working. The Chilean biologist Alexander O. Vargas has recently argued, for example, that the scandal associated with Kammerer’s research may have not only ruined his own posthumous reputation, but contributed to the general disrepute of neo-Lamarckian theory, thereby delaying the discovery of epigenetics by several generations: “If Kammerer’s experiments had been accepted as authentic, we can rightfully wonder whether important facts of epigenetics could have made an earlier entrance to mainstream science” (Vargas et. al. 190). In other words, without the [End Page 644] scandal, Kammerer’s work could have contributed to the overturning of the scientific orthodoxy of his field. This possibility would have been (as Kuhn suggests) predicated on his personal eccentricity (reported extensively by Taschwer) and the specific mix of political and scholarly quirks that led him to be committed to the idea of the heritability of acquired traits. This commitment was itself the result...


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pp. 643-660
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