Rebecca Mertens, Resident Scholar

Rebecca Mertens

Rebecca Mertens

Rebecca Mertens of Bielefeld University, located in northwest Germany, is the latest visitor to complete a term as Resident Scholar in the Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections and Archives Research Center.  A Ph.D. candidate in the philosophy and history of science, Mertens spent a month stateside, visiting both the OSU Libraries as well as the Caltech Archives.

During her stay she braved both a major (and unusual) snow event in Corvallis as well as torrential rains in southern California.  Despite these obstacles, Mertens enjoyed a fruitful visit to the west coast as she pursued her research on Linus Pauling’s contributions to the lock-and-key model of biological specificity and the influence that this model imparted upon the sweep of modern biochemistry.

The conditions that awaited Mertens upon her arrival at OSU.

The conditions that awaited Mertens upon her arrival at OSU.

An outgrowth of his research on antibodies and antigens, Linus Pauling’s work on biological specificity comprised a major contribution to contemporary thinking on biochemical topics.  Pauling biographer Thomas Hager gives us this primer on what is meant by by the term, “biological specificity.”

Pauling demonstrated that the precise binding of antigen to antibody was accomplished not by typical chemical means – that is, through covalent or ionic bonds — but solely through shape. Antibodies recognized and bound to antigens because one fit the other, as a glove fits a hand. Their shapes were complementary. When the fit was tight, the surfaces of antibody and antigen came into very close contact, making possible the formation of many weak links that operated at close quarters and were considered relatively unimportant in traditional chemistry — van der Waals’ forces, hydrogen bonds, and so forth. To work, the fit had to be incredibly precise. Even a single atom out of place could significantly affect the binding.

In her Resident Scholar presentation, Mertens described the thrust of her research, which focuses on how one should interpret the contributions that Pauling made in this particular arena.

In the course of his research on antibodies, Linus Pauling postulated that the complementary structure of two molecules or two parts of a molecule determined the specificity of reactions in the living organism. However, the idea that molecular complementarity and biological specificity are deeply connected was already mentioned by Emil Fischer at the end of the 19th century. Thus, Pauling’s novel contribution was not the initial articulation of the model, but rather his emphasis on the importance of molecular complementarity for all biological phenomena.

Through examination of the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers, as well as the institutional records held at Caltech, Mertens is pursuing the idea that “Pauling’s interdisciplinary reputation, his public presence and his engagement in the organization of scientific institutions led to the popularity of the lock-and-key model and to its standardization in the second half of the twentieth century.”  These forces of Pauling’s status and personality in turn made an impact on questions of “financial support, networking and science popularization within the administration of scientific projects.”

mertens-lecture

Beyond uncovering and detailing the history of Pauling’s role in the development of the lock-and-key model, Mertens is also using her research to “suggest an approach to the study of analogical models that considers social and political factors on successful model usage…[and] the formation and consolidation of model-based research programs.” Mertens returned to Germany with a large volume of content to sift through and absorb as she continues to develop her thinking on these issues.

Now entering its seventh year, the Resident Scholar Program at OSU Libraries provides research stipends of up to $2,500 to support work conducted in the Special Collections and Archives Research Center.  Applications for the 2014 class of scholars are being accepted now – the deadline for entry is April 30, 2014.  For more details, please see the program homepage.

Now Accepting Applications for 2014 Resident Scholars

The Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives Research Center (SCARC) is pleased to announce that applications are once again being solicited for its Resident Scholar Program.

Now in its seventh year, the Resident Scholar Program provides research grants to scholars interested in conducting work in the Special Collections & Archives Research Center. Stipends of $2,500 per month renewable for up to three months (for a total maximum grant award of $7,500) will be awarded to researchers whose proposals detail a compelling potential use of the materials held in the Center. Grant monies can be used for any purpose.

Researchers will be expected to conduct their scholarly activities while in residence at Oregon State University. Historians, librarians, graduate, doctoral or post-doctoral students and independent scholars are welcome to apply. The deadline for submitting proposals is April 30, 2014.

It is anticipated that applicants would focus their work on one of the five main collecting themes of the Special Collections & Archives Research Center: the history of Oregon State University, natural resources in the Pacific Northwest, multiculturalism in Oregon, the history of science and technology in the twentieth century and/or rare books. For 2014, proposals that focus on using the history of science and technology collections will receive highest consideration, though proposals can address use of any of the SCARC collections.

Detailed information outlining the qualifications necessary for application, as well as the selection process and the conditions under which awards will be made, is available at the following location (PDF link): http://scarc.library.oregonstate.edu/residentscholar.pdf

Additional information on the program is available at the Resident Scholar homepage and profiles of past award recipients – some of whom have traveled from as far away as Germany and Brazil – are available here.

Shannon Cram, Resident Scholar

Shannon Cram.

Shannon Cram

Shannon Cram, a Ph. D. candidate in UC Berkeley’s Department of Geography, is the most recent individual to have completed a term as Resident Scholar in the OSU Libraries Special Collections & Archives Research Center.  She is also the latest of many long-term researchers to dig deeply into our wealth of collections related to the history of atomic energy.

Cram’s research focus is the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, located on the Columbia River in Washington state, and the most contaminated landscape in the country. The cause of this contamination is an extensive legacy of weapons-grade plutonium manufacture that began there in 1943. Since then, an estimated 450 billion gallons of nuclear waste has entered Hanford’s soil and water table. Trace amounts have accumulated in plants and animals, humans included. Leakage also has spread to the Columbia River through direct dumping and groundwater seepage.

Hanford is home to over two-thirds of the United States’ high level nuclear waste. The ensuing cleanup has since comprised the most expensive environmental remediation project in human history. The cleaning project is also complex because planners must take into account the fact that the existing waste will still be harmful to humans for at least 10,000 years. Thus, long reaching and permanent containment solutions are required.

Under the Superfund Act, which governs hazardous waste cleanup, an area is considered fully remediated when the risk for contracting harmful cancer is, at maximum, 1 in 10,000.  In her rich and entertaining Resident Scholar lecture, Cram argued that successful remediation of the Hanford site will require not just the disassembly of all of the site’s physical nuclear structures and containment of its nuclear materials, but also the erasure of Hanford’s impact on the local environment.

This context established, Cram suggested that nuclear waste is not socially inert, but distinctly productive. She argued that, just as above-ground nuclear testing affected the populous in Pauling’s era, the contemporary issue of nuclear remediation also affects the public. She contended that former nuclear sites like Hanford have helped to redefine nuclear threats to the future, with nuclear waste posing a long-lasting risk to future populations.

hanford-cram

Hanford and the Columbia River. Photo by Shannon Cram, 2012.

In her talk, Cram also discussed the history of nuclear radiation protection standards with a particular focus on the Human Health Risk Assessment for the Hanford site. Back when atomic warfare was still new to the American people, guidelines for radiation exposure had to be developed. A handbook created by the U.S. Department of Commerce, titled “Permissible Dose from External Sources of Ionizing Radiation,” based its data on a Cold War political structure which regarded the U.S. to be under threat and saw the sacrifice of some as necessary for the survival of many more. The handbook also described the strategic advantages of using nuclear weapons on the battlefield and estimates of how long soldiers could function before they were “rendered ineffective.”

Having cited this handbook, Cram then described the attitude of standard makers toward the protection of nuclear industrial workers. Specifically, she quoted a member of the National Council for Radiation Protection who said

I see no alternative but to assume that [an] operation is safe until it is proven to be unsafe. It is recognized that in order to demonstrate an unsafe condition you may have to sacrifice someone. This does not seem fair on the one hand, and yet I see no alternative. You certainly cannot penalize research and industry…by assuming that all installations are unsafe until proven safe. I think that the worker should expect to take his share of the risk involved in such a philosophy.

Radiation protection guidelines of this sort clearly relied upon contentious judgments about the relative value and meaning of life in the nuclear age. Questions over quality of life were mixed with concerns about national security and economic efficiency. Cram’s research asserts that, in deciding on official terms for radiation exposure, life and death became matters of political and strategic calculation. In this, the U.S. government used public radiation standards as both a benchmark for nuclear safety and as a distraction for the public from the negative impacts of nuclear testing.

The Resident Scholar Program, now in it sixth year, offers stipends of up to $2,500 in support of researchers wishing to make extensive use of materials held in the OSU Libraries Special Collections & Archives Research Center.  More information about the program, is available here.  Applications for 2014 scholarships will be made available in January.

Clarissa Lee, Resident Scholar

Clarissa Lee, January 2013.

Clarissa Lee, January 2013.

Clarissa Lee is the most recent alum of the Oregon State University Libraries Resident Scholar Program, having completed her stay in Corvallis in early January. Lee is a Ph.D. candidate in the Program in Literature at Duke University.

The focus of Lee’s research and writing is the notion of speculation in contemporary quantum theory; or, more generally, “speculative physics.”  While at OSU, Lee dug deeply into the History of Science rare book collection, the History of Atomic Energy Collection and the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers in support of her dissertation.

Lee’s Resident Scholar presentation, “Experiments, Fictions, and the Question of Science-Modeling in Speculative Physics,” gave a glimpse into her ambitious research agenda as it is currently evolving.  From the abstract of her talk

In trying to work out what speculation entails, I have returned to the prehistory of particle physics, to earlier chains of physical epistemological developments in areas such as electricity, radioactivity and nuclear physics, especially in terms of their experimental-instrumental design and the formalistic developments that drive them forward….I will also explore the relationship of specific developments in particle physics to astrophysics and cosmology (with a nod towards the space science of the 1960s) especially over questions of space-time and locality of extra-terrestrial objects (as well as their relationship to String theory and hidden dimensions.)

According to Lee, her time at OSU

helped me shape…the arguments I am making about the freedom and constraints involved in physics speculation, especially through some of the physics problems faced by scientists in moving between theoretical prediction and experiment.

analog

Lee’s research “is also interested in theorizing and constructing models of fiction…through the use of speculative science fiction as well as speculative science fact, for the purpose of extending the imaginative realm of the scientific real.”

To this end, Lee made extensive use of Linus Pauling’s collection of Analog: Science Fact and Fiction paperback periodicals. Along with detective stories and the occasional walk, reading science fiction was Pauling’s favorite leisure activity, and his papers include thousands of dog-eared science fiction monthlies – a much-needed escape for Pauling from the unrelenting pressures that surrounded him for much of his life.

For Lee, sources like Pauling’s Analogs are useful in

trying to formulate some preliminary ideas concerning how fictionalizing can be used as a way for creatively modeling existing scientific ideas, theories and facts that aid scientists in pondering about more speculative areas of science, while also using scientific material to deal imaginatively with interdisciplinary studies of science and the humanities.

The Resident Scholar Program, now in it sixth year, offers research stipends of up to $2,500 in support of researchers wishing to make extensive use of materials held in the OSU Libraries Special Collections & Archives Research Center.  More information about the program, including the application form, is available here. The deadline for 2013 applicants is April 30th.

Now Accepting Proposals for 2013 Resident Scholars

The Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives Research Center (SCARC) is pleased to announce that applications are once again being solicited for its Resident Scholar Program.

Now in its sixth year, the Resident Scholar Program provides research grants to scholars interested in conducting work in the Special Collections & Archives Research Center. Stipends of $2,500 per month renewable for up to three months (for a total maximum grant award of $7,500) will be awarded to researchers whose proposals detail a compelling potential use of the materials held in the Center. Grant monies can be used for any purpose.

Researchers will be expected to conduct their scholarly activities while in residence at Oregon State University. Historians, librarians, graduate, doctoral or post-doctoral students and independent scholars are welcome to apply. The deadline for submitting proposals is April 30, 2013.

It is anticipated that applicants would focus their work on one of the four main collecting themes of the Special Collections & Archives Research Center: the history of Oregon State University, natural resources in the Pacific Northwest, multiculturalism in Oregon and/or the history of science and technology in the twentieth century. For 2013, proposals that focus on using the history of science and technology collections will receive highest consideration, though proposals can address use of any of the SCARC collections.

Detailed information outlining the qualifications necessary for application, as well as the selection process and the conditions under which awards will be made, is available at the following location (PDF link): http://scarc.library.oregonstate.edu/residentscholar.pdf

Additional information on the program is available at the Resident Scholar homepage and profiles of past award recipients are available here.

Mary Jo Nye on Pauling’s Models

In the Fall of 2009 and Spring of 2010, Jane Nisselson, founder of the film and design studio Virtual Beauty, served at Resident Scholar in the OSU Libraries.  The intent of her visit was to gather research in support of a film which examines the importance of model building in science, both historically and in present day.

The above clip is a rough cut of part of this work.  It features OSU historian of science emeritus Dr. Mary Jo Nye discussing Pauling’s early breakthroughs in structural chemistry and the importance of model building within the chemical world.  “The iconography of chemistry,” she says, “is molecular representation.” All of the artifacts shown in the clip are held in the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers.

Nisselson’s film, tentatively titled “Unseen Beauty: The Molecule Imagined,” is still in development. For more preliminary clips of this project, see the Virtual Beauty website and the Virtual Beauty channel on Vimeo.

Dr. Pnina Abir-Am, Resident Scholar

Pnina Abir-Am

Dr. Pnina Abir-Am, historian of science at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center, is the first individual to complete a term as Resident Scholar in the OSU Libraries for the 2012-13 school year.  An accomplished scholar, Abir-Am has authored and edited a number of noteworthy publications, including the influential book Uneasy Careers and Intimate Lives: Women in Science, 1789-1989 (Rutgers University Press, 1987, 1989) co-edited with Dorinda Outram.

Abir-Am traveled across the country to conduct research in support of another book, DNA at 50: A Revisionist History of the Discovery of DNA Structure, scheduled for publication in 2013.  Delving into the Pauling Papers, the Jack Dunitz Papers, the David and Clara Shoemaker Papers and the History of Science Oral History Collection, Abir-Am sought “to better explain Pauling’s failure with solving the structure of DNA by examining in greater detail his deployment of a group known as ‘Pauling’s boys.’”

In her Resident Scholar presentation, Abir-Am argued – as have many others – that Pauling was ideally positioned to solve the DNA structure, given his great successes in protein research from 1936-1951 and culminating in his elucidation of the alpha-helix.  The question then, is why did he fail to discover the double helix?  Why did he lose the “race” to James Watson and Francis Crick?

The reasons for the failure are manifold, and Abir-Am acknowledges many that have been pointed out by other researchers.  For one, Pauling was very casual in his approach, believing protein structures to be of more importance than DNA.  He also underestimated the research being conducted by certain of his peers, including Erwin Chargaff, J.T. Randall and Rosalind Franklin.

In particular, Abir-Am argues that Pauling disregarded the work being conducted at Kings College, London, believing that physicists like J.T. Randall and Maurice Wilkins could not be expected to solve a complex biological structure like DNA, as their training left them ill-equipped for the task.  By the time Pauling did get serious about the DNA structure, he was too far behind the competition, using poor quality data and rushing a structure to print. Indeed, in the end, Pauling’s attitude toward DNA could be summed up as “too little too late,” a situation further reinforced by the political problems – culminating in the revoking of his passport – that he faced throughout 1952.

Abir-Am sheds new perspective by focusing on the social structure surrounding Pauling at Caltech during the early 1950s. In examining the story from this perspective, Abir-Am wonders what “Pauling’s boys” – understudies, peers and other colleagues including Alexander Rich, Robert Corey, Eddie Hughes, Verner Schomaker, Jerry Donohue, David Harker and Pauling’s second-born son, Peter – could have done to render Pauling’s attempt at DNA more successful.

Abir-Am posits that “the boys” could have done plenty: collect x-ray crystallographic data, collaborate on model building, make calculations, serve as delegates at conferences and even collect intelligence on rivals.  To some extent all of this did occur, but never to the point where Pauling shied away from his manifestly wrong triple-helical structure.

In thinking about what could have gone differently, Abir-Am offers three possible conjectures as to why “the boys,” all hugely talented, didn’t steer Pauling down a more productive path:

  1. They did voice their objections but Pauling ignored them since, after the success of the alpha-helix, he was no longer seeking advice;
  2. Long accustomed to accepting Pauling’s ways, “the boys” lost the ability to criticize his work;
  3. Pauling did not inform “the boys” of his interest in DNA because he wanted to surprise them.

By the conclusion of her stay, Abir-Am was still wrestling with these questions and evaluating her conjectures.  An entire chapter of her DNA book will be devoted to Pauling’s failed structure – we’ll be very excited to read it!

The OSU Libraries Resident Scholar Program offers stipends of up to $2,500 per month to support research using the collections of the Special Collections & Archives Research Center.  For more on the program, check out its homepage. And to read of the work done by past Resident Scholars, see this link.

Update

After seeing this post, Dr. Abir-Am asked that we add some comments of her own, which are included here.

My initial reaction to OSU-SCARC’s (Oregon State University, Special Collections and Archive Research Center) Paulingblog’s entry of 11-21-12, reporting on my lecture “‘Pauling’s Boys’ and the Mystery of DNA Sructure” was “Wow, they did a better job than I might have done on my own!” Indeed, OSU-SCARC’s Program for Resident Scholars is a scholar’s paradise: a spacious reading room flooded by sunlight provides a superb “room with a view” of gorgeous Oregon trees. State of the art equipment scans archival documents straight into your flash drive. Rare, as well as recent, books that scholars might need to complement one’s ongoing archival research, line the reading room’s walls forming tasteful panels. The entrance is flanked by two glass cases for archival exhibits that rotate periodically and give the foyer a museum look.

But above all, SCARC is a paradise because of its angelic people, all eager to help resident scholars make the best of their precious stay. I was amazed at how readily the SCARC personnel not only guided me through the maze of archival documents in their care, but also helped me in preparing essential visuals. By displaying photomontages of Pauling and his associates, I was better able to convey his enigmatic predicament, as a leading molecular structurist who missed the solution of DNA structure, even though he was surrounded by many gifted and loyal associates, or “boys” in his era’s jargon. Along these lines, a slide of attendees at the Pasadena international conference on “Protein and Nucleic Acid Structure” which Pauling organized in September 1953, captured by photo 2 above, (click for enlargement) distinguished between “boys” from rival groups by color circles around their heads. These graphical devices were critical for my new argument that the outcome of competition over DNA structure was a matter of group rather than individual action.

Having spent considerable time in many archives on both sides of the Atlantic ocean, I have to conclude that OSU-SCARC, situated in the remote splendor of the Pacific Northwest, provides greater scholar-friendly opportunities than anything I have seen, including my prior favorite CCAC. (Churchill College Archive Center in Cambridge, UK) I now count SCARC scholars among my cherished colleagues and consider their work to be a valuable resource for my own chapter on Pauling & Co.’s effort with DNA structure. Last but not least, SCARC’s interest in this chapter, as well as in my forthcoming book DNA at 50 proved invigorating in propelling me toward a speedier revision of both chapter and book.

The Paulingblog’s Photo 2 conveys the civilized environment of OSU Libraries’ Willamette Lecture Room. For the sake of completeness, I wish to remind future applicants that the environment outside OSU’s library can also become a much cherished memory, especially the wild rapids of the McKenzie River which we survived during the Labor Day weekend preceding my 9-5-12 talk. Hopefully, the treasures I left untouched, whether in the archive or in the nearby Oregonian wild nature (e.g. Upper Klamath – I signed a petition to open it for rafting – Crater Lake, Sunset Bay) will soon cheer additional beneficiaries of SCARC’s Program for Resident Scholars.

Rafting on the McKenzie River, Labor Day weekend, 2012.

Rafting on the McKenzie River, Labor Day weekend, 2012.

Linda Richards, Resident Scholar

Linda Richards.

Linda Richards, doctoral candidate in the history of science at Oregon State University, is the first individual to have completed a term as an OSU Libraries Resident Scholar in 2012.  Steeped in the tradition of the activist-scholar, Richards has been discussing nuclear history, environmental justice and non-violent conflict resolution for over twenty-five years.  During her residency, Richards continued her investigations into these themes using the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers, the History of Atomic Energy Collection and the Bart and Sally Hacker Papers.

Titled “Starfish, Fallout Suits, and Human Rights,” Richards’ Resident Scholar presentation started from the premise that “how nuclear history is told matters.”  In exploring this idea, Richards introduced her audience to a number of events important to the history of nuclear energy that were likely unknown to most in attendance.

One such incident is the United Nuclear Corporation’s Church Rock uranium mine contamination, the largest release of radioactive material in U.S. history, which occurred in New Mexico on the Navajo Reservation in July 1979.  The disaster badly contaminated the reservation’s scarce water supply with radioactive pollutants flowing some seventy miles down the Puerco River.  The event took place just a few months after the Three Mile Island accident, but is far less well known to the general public.  As Richards noted

What I have found so far in my research confirms, as Gabrielle Hecht suggested, that radiation health safety is more a reflection of the value of what is being irradiated than how dangerous a substance is….I have [also] found nuclear history is most often told as a technocratic saga of nation states pursuing nuclear weapons superiority and energy independence. This narrative is incomplete because it not only separates the glitz of modern reactors from the rocks and dirt of uranium mines hiding what is polluting and harmful about nuclear technology, but it is missing the dimension of lived human experience, particularly of indigenous peoples’ physical and cultural interaction with nuclear technology.

In her discussion of Linus Pauling’s activism in opposition to atmospheric nuclear testing (including his involvement in the Fallout Suits) Richards likewise introduced a number of historical events that do not typically make their way into the shorthand version of nuclear history.

For example, in May 1958 James Van Allen announced his finding that the Earth is surrounded by belts of high-energy particles that are held in place by magnetic fields – the so-called “Van Allen Belts.”  That very same day, Van Allen signed an agreement to work with the military to test nuclear weapons high in space for purposes of studying the disruption of the belts and of military communication during the event of a nuclear war.  Historian James Fleming was later quoted, “this is the first occasion I’ve ever discovered where someone discovered something and immediately decided to blow it up.”

The most intensely disruptive and longest lasting of these tests was the 1.4-megaton Starfish Prime explosion, which occurred on July 9, 1962. The artificial extension of the Van Allen belts created by the test could be seen across the Pacific Ocean, from Hawaii to New Zealand, lighting up the night sky. The test damaged six satellites that all failed within six months. The explosion also created an electromagnetic pulse that blew out transformers on Hawaii and disrupted the electricity grid.

Richards also recounted, in alarming detail, the extent to which nuclear testing in the 1960s became increasingly extreme.  The largest nuclear device ever detonated was the Soviet’s Tzar Bomba, a 50-megaton bomb tested some eight months before Starfish Prime.  A graphic presented by Richards illustrated the magnitude of this detonation in stark terms.

The impact of the release of radioactive toxins into the environment was a source of great concern to Linus Pauling and is still being studied today.  By some estimates, radioactive fallout will cause around 430,000 fatal cancers by the end of this century.

And it is this human element that, Richards argues, must be included in contemporary historical writing on the nuclear age.  “My dissertation,” she concluded “is premised on the belief that including a human rights dimension into the nuclear narrative destabilizes the disempowerment of an inaccessible technocratic narrative while raising the questions that need to be asked of history.”

For more on the Resident Scholar Program, now entering its fifth year, please see the program homepage and our continuing series of posts on this blog.

Now Accepting Applications for 2012 Resident Scholars

The Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives Research Center (SCARC) is pleased to announce that applications are once again being solicited for the Resident Scholar Program.

Now in its fifth year, the Resident Scholar Program provides research grants to scholars interested in conducting work in the Special Collections & Archives Research Center. Stipends of $2,500 per month renewable for up to three months (for a total maximum grant award of $7,500) will be awarded to researchers whose proposals detail a compelling potential use of the materials held in the Center. Grant monies can be used for any purpose.

Researchers will be expected to conduct their scholarly activities while in residence at Oregon State University. Historians, librarians, graduate, doctoral or post-doctoral students and independent scholars are welcome to apply. The deadline for submitting proposals is April 30, 2012.

It is anticipated that applicants would focus their work on one of the four main collecting themes of the Special Collections & Archives Research Center: the history of Oregon State University, natural resources in the Pacific Northwest, multiculturalism in the Pacific Northwest and/or the history of science and technology in the twentieth century. For 2012, proposals that focus on using the history of science and technology collections will receive highest consideration, though proposals can address use of any of the SCARC collections.

Detailed information outlining the qualifications necessary for application, as well as the selection process and the conditions under which awards will be made, is available at the following location (PDF link): http://osulibrary.oregonstate.edu/specialcollections/residentscholar.pdf  Additional information on the program is available at the Resident Scholar homepage and profiles of past award recipients are available here.

Chris Hables Gray, Resident Scholar

Dr. Chris Hables Gray

Dr. Chris Hables Gray, professor at the Union Institute and University and lecturer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is the fourth individual this year to complete a term as Resident Scholar in the Special Collections & Archives Research Center.  Dr. Gray is a self-described “anarchist, feminist, post-modernist” who has written widely on a number of subjects, with a particular emphasis on cyborgs and evolution.

Gray visited Corvallis to examine the Paul Lawrence Farber Papers and the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers, spurred by a keen interest in tracing the development of Pauling’s thinking on evolution.  His provocative Resident Scholar presentation, titled “Linus Pauling and the Temptation of Evolutionary Ethics,” generated a great deal of thoughtful discussion among those who gathered to hear him speak.

Gray’s thesis was that, in at least two instances, Linus Pauling gave in to what Paul Farber termed “the temptations of evolutionary ethics.”  Farber, a historian of science and emeritus chair of the OSU History Department, defined this temptation as the impulse to use science as a basis for a full system of normative ethics.  Gray is sympathetic to Farber’s warnings against this impulse as, in his view,

Culture is not different from nature.  Human culture is natural.  It is evolved, as much as the behavior of mockingbirds or ants.  All of life is evolved.  The natural/biological vs. cultural distinction is not only wrong, it is dangerous.  [On the same token], humans are not rational.

As an extension of this postulate, Gray offered this thought, which was fundamental to his presentation

I don’t think evolutionary science will ever provide a base for a system of ethics.  The ideas and actions behind the Holocaust are as natural as those behind the Civil Rights movement.  All that humans do is natural….Farber is right that evolutionary science cannot give us a normative ethics, a complete system of ethics.  It cannot show what should be ethical, but it can show what is possible and what is impossible.  It can help us in our ethical reasoning.

During his stay in Corvallis, Gray traced Pauling’s thinking on evolution from his earliest documented years, noting a particularly optimistic Junior Class Oration in which the future scientific great “makes of evolution a religion.”  As time moved on, Pauling’s thoughts on the topic changed somewhat, his optimism tempered by the realities of the atomic age.  Instead of a religion, evolution became a morality.  Likewise, man was no longer destined to evolve into a superman, but rather was part of a superorganism, “humankind,” whose greatest attributes – as Pauling noted in 1959 – were “sanity (reason), and morality (ethical principles.)”

For Pauling the concept of morality was firmly rooted in Albert Schweitzer’s principle of “minimization of suffering,” and it is here that he began to fall prey to the temptations of evolutionary ethics. Most glaring was Pauling’s advocacy of negative eugenics in the mid- to late-1960s.  As Gray noted

Pauling saw reality as based on molecules, and so diseases were molecular….His work on sickle-cell anemia was framed in this way. Once he realized that it was a genetic disease he put forward some startling solutions… [including the tattooing of phenotype information on people's foreheads] enforced genetic testing and abortions…even though dietary and other treatments for sickle cell anemia were known and effective. Eventually he stopped raising this issue. We don’t know why for sure, but we can assume he realized it was not a popular approach to the problem of genetic disease.

Gray also submitted Pauling’s interest in vitamin C, especially as a possible treatment for cancer, as another example in which his evolutionary thinking went astray.

The reasoning behind Pauling’s belief that humans did not consume enough Vitamin C was based on evolutionary science. Roughly half the primates, including humans and our closest cousins, cannot synthesize vitamin C, an ability that all plants and almost all animals have. His theory was that the ancestral primate lost the ability to synthesize C when in an environment with plentiful dietary C. Then, as humans moved into other environments with less dietary C, deficiency diseases and conditions, such as a degraded immune system…resulted – and not just scurvy, but long term conditions and even cancer.

While Gray conceded that there is some validity to this argument, he found Pauling’s larger thesis to be “less than convincing.”

…numerous studies have failed to show that all, or even most, humans have a massive Vitamin C deficit. It is true that C can help limit the severity of colds, that it helps in some healing, and has other benefits. But the massive positive effects of massive doses of C have not proven to be as helpful as Pauling claimed.

Gray concluded that

we have to be more careful that Pauling in applying evolutionary thinking to ethics….if we take evolution seriously we have to let go of totalizing schemes for perfecting humanity, as much as the dream of perfection appeals to young chemistry students and profoundly moral famous scientists alike. But evolutionary science can be useful in our quest for a better, more moral, world.

Because of the great diversity of humans…especially as evolved culture allows for such a wide range of variation, and “conscious” evolution, no totalistic ethical system based on human altruism or any other quality is viable. Altruism has certainly evolved in humans, as has selfishness, cruelty, and social pathology. Inherited traits are often not universal, which makes sense in that variation is the key to evolution’s power. But this also means that any ethical system will have to be imposed on some people, even if it is a “biological” fit for the majority. And since all of us have many layers of moral reasoning and ethical impulses, often contradictory, and that humans continue to evolve and a very fast rate thanks to the Lamarkian power of culture, we will never have a perfect ethics.

For more on the Resident Scholar Program, please visit this page, which, among other details, includes links to the profiles that we have written of all past scholarship recipients.

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