Cycles of Life
Fifteenth Ischia Summer School on the History of the Life Sciences
‘Villa Dohrn’, Ischia, Italy, 24 June – 1 July 2017
Organizers: Janet Browne (Harvard), Christiane Groeben (Naples), Nick Hopwood (Cambridge), Staffan Müller-Wille (Exeter) and Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn (Naples)
Applications are invited for this week-long summer school, which provides advanced training in history of the life sciences through lectures, seminars and discussions in a historically rich and naturally beautiful setting. The theme for 2017 is ‘Cycles of Life’. The confirmed faculty are Warwick Anderson (University of Sydney), Peder Anker (New York University), Ariane Droescher (University of Bologna), Guido Giglioni (Warburg Institute, London), Mathias Grote (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin), Shigehisa Kuriyama (Harvard University), Maaike van der Lugt (Université Paris Diderot), Lynn Nyhart (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (MPIWG, Berlin) and Lucy van der Wiel (University of Cambridge).
Funding: Wellcome Trust, National Science Foundation
Deadline for applications: 28 February 2017
More information: http://ischiasummerschool.org/
In the early twenty-first century, organisms are understood as having life cycles, inherited sequences of stages through which they reproduce and adapt to environmental challenges. Strategies to disrupt pest and pathogen life cycles play key roles in agriculture, biomedicine and public health. Organisms are also connected to each other, as well as to the air, soil, rocks and water, by material fluxes forming ‘biogeochemical’ cycles. The continual recycling of such elements and compounds as carbon, nitrogen and water links the life and environmental sciences from biochemistry to geology and ecology. The effects of human activities on these nutrient cycles threaten us with climate change, resource depletion and pollution, some of the biggest challenges in global politics today. Yet if cycles are topical, they are neither all new, nor all the same. Cycles of various kinds are among the oldest ways of framing human existence on earth and in the cosmos, and of thinking about health and disease, animals and plants – and at least calendars and seasons remain fundamental. This summer school seeks to understand the history of ‘cycles of life’ from early times to the present day, to trace connections and to identify patterns of continuity and change.
Cycles of generation and corruption, and of the transformation of the elements, have long structured knowledge and everyday life. The revolutions of the celestial bodies were thought to shape repeated events in the sublunary sphere, from the succession of the seasons to women’s monthly bleeding. Linking microcosm and macrocosm, William Harvey likened the circulation of the blood to the weather cycle. Human beings, their bodily constitutions and fever cycles determined by natal astrology, proceeded through the seven ages of man (or woman) in the hope that individual death would be followed by not just a new generation, but also spiritual rebirth. Religious festivals, calendars and almanacs followed an annual cycle, although Judaeo-Christian theology was based on a finite, arrow-like chronology that would provide an important resource for a transformation in conceptions of time around 1800.
In the Age of Revolutions this world was reconceived as a historical phenomenon subject to natural law. Enlightenment savants, notably William Hutton and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, proposed that nature ran in perpetual cycles. Hutton’s earth was a machine like a steam-engine for producing worlds without beginning or end; in Lamarck’s transformism spontaneous generation initiated series upon series of ascending forms. By the nineteenth century theories of evolution were founded on the reality of irreversible change, not least through extinction. Individual organisms were understood to develop through life cycles that occasionally showed ‘alternation of generations’, the phenomenon of a species appearing in two different forms, such that an individual would resemble its grandmother and granddaughters, but not mother or daughters. Rich studies of life cycles led to new understanding of the reproduction of plants and animals, with perturbations providing variations from which nature would select.
The ground was laid for a more general view of cycles of life and nutrition during the debates that in the mid-1800s pitted Louis Pasteur against Justus Liebig and defined the roles of biology and chemistry in explaining the phenomena of generation, contagion and putrefaction. Biologically, life, even microscopic life, came to be understood as arising not spontaneously, but strictly from reproduction of the same species. Chemically, the cycles were more promiscuous: in accordance with the principle of the conservation of matter, microbes made new life possible by rotting dead bodies, returning their molecules to the earth and making them available for another organism. Pasteur taught that life stems from death and death from life in an eternal cycle. Chemical changes in individual bodies — Liebig’s ‘metamorphoses’, or ‘metabolism’ as it came to be known — were thus linked to life cycles and the larger circulation of elements. Fundamental cycles of photosynthesis, nitrogen fixation and carbon assimilation were identified in plants.
Biological cycles gained currency in the mid-twentieth century, from the citric acid (Krebs) to the menstrual cycle, from nutrient to cell cycles. On a larger scale, by deploying radioactive isotopes as tracers after World War II, ecologists such as Evelyn Hutchinson followed carbon and phosphorus through biogeochemical cycles that included living and non-living compartments of ‘ecosystems’. Cyberneticians touted ‘circular systems’ as a general key to ‘self-regulating processes, self-orientating systems and organisms, and self-directing personalities’; and feedback became a standard concept. Control techniques were invented to intervene in biological cycles and create artificial ones, from the oral contraceptive pill and IVF treatment to the thermal cycling that drives the polymerase chain reaction.
Historians have investigated only a few biological cycles and largely in isolation; this school aims to encourage synthesis. We shall explore shared properties of cycles, and the differences and relations between one discipline or research programme and another and over the centuries. Modern metabolic and diurnal cycles oscillate. Life cycles are directional and their individual spans finite. Heredity and evolution work through their succession and endless variation. Ecological cycles are open-ended – and yet the ideal of a return to an original state underpins all modern conservation and restoration work. Concepts of cyclicity in the life sciences thus operate on vastly different spatial and temporal scales, and at the same time constitute a productive point of intersection with physics, chemistry, geology and economics. How much the various modern and premodern cycles have in common, or what biological cycles share with those in other sciences, and other domains of knowledge and practice, are open questions. The theme ‘cycles of life’ invites fresh engagement with the history of the life sciences over the long term.