World as Laboratory

Experiments with Mice, Mazes, and Men

Rebecca Lemov

Hill and Wang

World as Laboratory
Mazes: Into the Laboratory
Strange Fruits and Virgin Births
ALMOST FIVE HUNDRED YEARS have passed since Francis Bacon imagined in The New Atlantis a scientific utopia whose inhabitants--in addition to controlling the wind and tides, turning salt water into fresh, and effecting the spontaneous generation of "frogs, flies, and divers others" out of thin air--perfected a method for turning plants and animals into new forms. Fruit trees were induced to bloom earlier or later, their fruit sweeter or different in size, smell, and shape from the typical. In the island's parks and enclosed pastures, all sorts of beasts and birds resided for purposes more experimental than ornamental: "We make them greater or taller than their kind," stated the great "Father" scientist in charge. "We find means to make commixtures and copulations of different kinds; which have produced many new kinds." Yet despite the marvelous specificity of his vision, Bacon did not offer a date for the actual start of these transformative practices. For when The New Atlantis was published in 1627, a year after Bacon's death, making one plant or animal turn into another was still the stuff of imaginary islands and magically endowed inhabitants.1
Nearly three hundred years later, coinciding with the turn of the twentieth century, two men in America were hard at work on precisely such projects, creating new plant and animal forms out of the old in, respectively, an experimental farm and a scientific laboratory. Over the course of his life Luther Burbank, the author of Burbank's New Creations in Trees, Fruits and Flowers, "built" between eight hundred and one thousand new hybrids, using a combination of mass production methods and great doses of patience: Idaho potatoes, raspberries-married-to-strawberries, and oversize walnut trees that could bear a ton of nuts in a single season all testified to his powers. The second man, Jacques Loeb, constructed a stable of creatures he called "durable machines" in his laboratory at the University of Chicago: two-headed marine worms, metamorphosed slime molds, hydras with mouth and anus reversed, and artificially propagated sea urchins. (For this last, he was known as the instigator of a new virgin birth in the lab and was nominated for the Nobel Prize.) Both men inspired awe in their day, one as a wizard, the other as a prophet, and both brought assembly-line-like methods to biological processes. But it is Loeb's self-proclaimed "technology of living substance" that provides an understanding of the birth of human engineering in America. For if it is common today to eat Burbank's fruits, it is just as common to live Loeb's ideas.
The German-born Loeb was not one for photo shoots; nor was he interested in larding the national dinner table or making farmer's lives easier. Unlikely as it may seem, his most influential work got its start in the great fertile plains of the midwestern United States. This locale was strangely appropriate: a Middle European scientist settled in Chicago and, with daylight factories, factory-style farms, and sleek silos all around him, went about revolutionizing the life processes themselves. Loeb was a new kind of visionary in whom ideas were not separate from activity.
Born in 1859 in Mayen, a small Rhineland town full of Catholics, Jacques Loeb was the first son of a fairly prosperous Jewish merchanting couple. At birth he was given the distinctly un-French appellation of Isaak, and for his first fifteen or so years, he faced the limitations oflife in the provinces; as an outsider because of his faith, he did little socializing with other children aside from his brother. For the next ten years, after moving to Berlin, he continued to face the double demerit of provincial origins and Jewish blood. By the time he was a teenager, his parents had died of illness, leaving him and his brother each a solid though not spectacular living. At the behest of relatives, Loeb tried his hand at a banking career in the metropolis but discovered the work to be a "terrible bore," boredom seeming to him then and remaining for the rest of his life his greatest enemy.2 He resolved to diverge from the path laid out for him by the Realschule (vocational) education that his parents had preferred for their sons by enrolling in an elite school for Jews.
Loeb proved to be quite brilliant at classical studies and to have an ear for German literature, but he was impatient with the humanism, theology, Hebrew, and philosophy that together comprised a well-rounded education there and chose medicine instead. At twenty he entered medical school and renamed himself Jacques, thus setting for himself a more Continental tone. At the time of his education in Germany, medical training was de rigueur for anyone who wanted to secure a professorship in the field of physiology. It was highly irregular to train, as Loeb ended up doing, with agriculturalists and botanists as well, and his decision to cross boundaries had something to do with his marginal social status within the mandarin world of German academics. Forced to the sidelines, he had greater freedom in his training. A disciplinary hybrid himself, he set the stage for the work he would later carry out in midwestern America, constructing hybrid life-forms out of stripped-down mechanical parts and functions.
DURING THE 1880s, M.D. in hand, Loeb went to work at the Berlin Agricultural College under a professor known for his technique of water-jetting away portions of a dog's brain. The point of the research was to show that, once the shock of losing a portion of its brain had worn off, the dog was less hampered than one might expect and, as it often turned out, could still function quite well. Loeb's own work useda similar method (making lesions on different areas of the brain instead of removing them) but went beyond his mentor's. He set out to find nothing less than an equivalent between physical and mental "energy." Convinced that thoughts and actions did not take place in separate spheres, he proposed a unified field theory for behavior. At the time, other scientists were wont to employ what Loeb felt were inadequate explanations for the behavior of their surgically altered laboratory animals. (For example, one of his colleagues argued for the existence of a "spinal soul," to be found diffused in the vertebral area.) Loeb, with a brashness not entirely attributable to his youth, was satisfied with none of these faith-based theories.
After suffering initial setbacks, a dog that had lesions made on its brain would soon be able to get on with its life and learn new ways of grooming itself, walking, or feeding. The whole organism, Loeb stressed, was a system of interconnected functions in dynamic equilibrium. On the basis of this observation, the postgraduate student set out to solve the age-old mind-body dilemma for the purposes of his dissertation. Loeb's analysis was hailed by none other than William James, the great American pragmatist, who commended him in the brain-function chapter of his Principles of Psychology for having "broader views than anyone."3
Somewhat hokily but in tune with the practices of the time, the young apprentice relied for dramatic effect on the performance of a dog whose motor centers governing its hind legs had been removed yet was still able to walk and beg. Notwithstanding such feats overcoming surgical setback, "dog work" was not to Loeb's liking, as it was messy and inexact. One didn't always know which part of the brain had been discommoded, nor which of the animal's difficulties might be attributable to infection, rather than surgery. When he presented his findings to the major German scientific congress of the day, dog included, a hostile colleague took hold of the demonstration animal and put him on the windowsill with his lower leg dangling into a flowerpot, thus counterdemonstrating that the dog was not in fact able to withdraw his leg. Humiliated, Loeb was rendered temporarily dumb. And so itwas with some relief that he turned to another course of study under another adviser.
Still in his twenties, he shifted from dogs to plants, specifically the study of simple plant reactions called tropisms. These reactions were originally the work of the brilliant, irascible, and drug-addicted botanist Julius Sachs at the University of Würzburg. Sachs had enumerated a set of tropisms--defined as any directed response by an organism to a constant stimulus, for instance, the way an aspidistra or ivy plant will turn its leaves toward the window where the sun comes in--and, as Loeb's new mentor, guided him in their further study. Loeb learned from Sachs a practical spirit that was unlike that of other researchers, who wanted to find answers to theoretical and philosophical questions. Guided by that spirit, Loeb wanted to use tropisms to suggest that plants were diversely functioning chemical machines.
Loeb drew up a semiology of tropisms, collecting all the particular responses a plant, sessile animal, or insect makes to its external environment. These were his building blocks. Introducing tropisms one by one in his 1906 Dynamics of Living Matter (a summary of his work from the 1880s), Loeb first set forth heliotropism, or the attempt of a living organism--be it a single-celled blob or a very complex sea animal or plant--to orient itself in relation to light. Geotropism, chemotropism, galvanotropism, rheotropism, and stereotropism, the respective responses of organisms to stimuli of gravity, chemicals, electric current, moving retina images, and the "pull" or influence of solid bodies, rounded out Loeb's tropism toolkit. Throughout, Loeb emphasized their compulsory quality. The green plant had no choice but to move by the compulsive force of heliotropism, turning mechanically toward the light, aligning its leaves with the angle of the rays. The Spirographis spallenzani, "a marine worm which lives in a stony tube," oriented itself toward the sun in a manner akin to the plant's, except that in its case the tropism was channeled through the worm's immediate milieu. Each time the sun moved, the worm secreted an elastic layer on one side of the interior of its tube, causing it to contract toward the light source.4
Tropisms always began on the outside of the creature they affected, manifesting themselves through the involuntary workings of the response mechanism as a shifting, a twitching, a pulling, or a turning. Such machinelike creatures had no "inner" contents: no will, no striv-ings, no conscience of their own. Relentlessly, Loeb located any originating impetus outside the organism. He also refused to make anthropomorphic attributions: for example, he warned that, while observing a positively heliotropic insect (such as a moth) fly toward a flame, one may be tempted to believe the moth feels a humanlike emotion such as a fascination for light. But Loeb cautioned, "It seemed to me that we had no right to see in this tendency of animals ... the expression of an emotion, but that this might be a purely mechanical or compulsory effect of the light, identical with the heliotropic curvature observed in plants."5 Seeing plants as reactive chemical-machines allowed him to extrapolate directly to lower animals, even of the "free moving" variety. For Loeb, no preconceived idea of freedom--free will, free expression--should exist within the laboratory context. Tropisms were, at root, machinelike behavior, outside of the promptings of will, yearning, or desire. They had no secret unity with human feeling, and no delirious butterfly was drunkenly following the light.
IT IS STRIKING how ordinary tropisms are, in light of the extraordinary uses to which Loeb put them. They make up the humblest aspects of the daily life of an animal. Everyone knows these behavioral tropes--a plant swaying toward a window, a dog seeking a fire, a cat curling up in a basket. During his second apprenticeship, Loeb made these banalities into something dramatic, a kind of theater. He trained cockroaches through the clever use of simple tropisms: the insect's bilateral symmetry meant that a light shone on one side would cause it to move in the other direction. Equipped with this binary choice of movement either toward or away from light, Loeb could in effect control behavior. Troops of cockroaches marched in geometric array in Loeb's laboratory. In another case, browntail-moth caterpillars could be made to starve to death in a test tube, even when they were perchedright next to their food, if heliotropism turned them in the other direction. "We can easily show that neither smell nor a special mystical 'instinct' leads the animals to the buds," he wrote, "as we are able to compel them by the aid of light to starve in close proximity to food."6 In Loeb's dramas, elements of the everyday could suddenly verge on the grotesque or the amazing. This early tropism work soon led Loeb to experiment with heteromorphism, using the modes of geotropism, stereotropism, and heliotropism to rebuild an organism and transform its development and functioning. He created a two-headed worm (bioral tubularian), "any number" of which, he claimed, he could propagate--"if, for any reason, it were necessary," he added somewhat vaguely. The ability to make new forms also meant the ability to mass-produce them.
During the late 1880s Loeb's engineering standpoint became more explicit, especially in correspondence with the Viennese physicist and influential philosopher Ernst Mach.7 From Mach he drew the strength to insist no true causes existed, no mechanical ideal, no "instinct," no "will," no "mystery," and above all no "metaphysics." By metaphysics he meant anything beyond what could be seen, described, or discovered. There were no busy bees or stalwart bugs. The purpose of this stripping-away was not to speculate on hypothetical mechanisms or inner states but rather to be able to predict and control behavior. To see was to cause; to see was to change. In 1890 Loeb wrote to Mach:
The idea is now hovering before me that man himself can act as a creator even in living nature, forming it eventually according to his will. Man can at last succeed in a technology of living substance [einer Technik der lebenden Wesen]. Biologists label that the production of monstrosities; railroads, telegraphs, and the rest of the achievements of the technology of inanimate nature are accordingly monstrosities. In any case they are not produced by nature; man has never encountered them. But even here I go forward only slowly. I find it difficult not to lose courage.8
Man could be as a god, creating new forms of life out of living parts. This was a source of anxiety as well as of hope, for, as Loeb admitted,tinkering with creation was a dangerous business. (Consider Dr. Frankenstein's "filthy workshop of creation" and what issued from it.) Loeb, however, had a warrant to press on: he would be using animate rather than inanimate materials. His technology of living substance might create unknown beings--strange creatures never encountered before--but it would at least be anchored in nature.
AT THE START OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, the city of Chicago teemed with slums, pickpockets, foreigners, money, and enterprise, all of which influenced the type of science that was conducted there. When Max Weber visited around this time, he felt that the city was like a human body with the skin pulled off, entrails working for all to see. An early course catalog for the University of Chicago put a more dignified spin on it: Chicago was "one of the most complete social laboratories in the world." The work of its scientists made it feel like a laboratory within a laboratory. All was within the domain of experiment. The work of the multidisciplinary Chicago School of Pragmatism was unique in the world. However much its adherents differed, they shared an emphasis on recouplings, interactions, and progress: the environment acted and the creatures living within it acted back, in a constant interplay between things-as-they-are and things-as-they-are-becoming. Nothing was settled. The organism and its surroundings acted on and molded each other. The philosopher John Dewey, the psychologist George Herbert Mead, the biologist Herbert Spencer Jennings, and the zoologist Charles Whitman were advancing new ways of looking at such human and animal interactions.
In 1892, in nearby Iowa, a man named John Froelich had unveiled the first tractor. His farming machine, which had the power to reshape the environment, spurred the invention and use of many other technologies in agricultural production. Soon crops such as cotton and wheat were custom built to suit the machines that harvested them. Between 1900 and 1921 more than seven hundred R&D laboratories were created in the United States, along with many experimental stations for agriculture. Grain elevators and agricultural water towers rose to markthe landscape with new totemic structures. In these surroundings Chicagoans saw less a Hobbesian nature, brute and brutal, than a malleable one, tailor-made for what the historian Richard Hofstadter once called "the philosophy of possibility." Here was an environment where an engineering standpoint--toward crops, animals, buildings, or people--might go far.
Loeb eventually made his mark in Chicago. Having for years come up against the limits imposed by academic anti-Semitism in Germany, Loeb met and married Anne Leonard, a well-connected American, and began thinking of moving. At first he considered becoming a gentleman farmer in the fabled farmland of Indiana, where he imagined himself keeping a laboratory on the side. (Conversations with a visiting scholar from the Midwest had sold Loeb on the idea of its vast spaces and fertile fields.) With a baby on the way, however, he realized that his inheritance might not suffice to support a family, and so he attempted, for the second and last time, to train himself in a more mundane profession, this time as an ophthalmologist. Soon he again encountered boredom and despair, for he had "questions that I have carried in my head for years ... if I cannot work on them I cannot live," as he told his new wife. They immigrated to the United States in 1891, he lacking command of English but she having a fortunate connection with Clark University. (Its president, G. Stanley Hall, was her father's cousin.) Loeb was offered a job at Bryn Mawr, despite the college administration's reservations over his Jewishness, which they believed might deter daughters of the best Protestant families from attending. Still, Loeb did well there, and within a year he was able to gain a position at the just-founded University of Chicago, where his arrival coincided, and in a few cases collided, with the new interdisciplinary paradigm just being advanced.
His great enthusiasm for experimenting made him an exemplar of the attitude Chicago loved, though the man and the city were not a perfect fit. Loeb chafed at American adherence to progressive evolutionism--the view that nature, although not in any particular form, was always working toward something and bore within itself a manifestly intelligent design. But still he came to feel that living there wasworth it and gave him the chance to work in the Midwest's "primeval forest." Even as he was transplanted, Loeb's purpose remained clear: "to form new combinations from the elements of living nature," to
"produc[e] new forms at will," to "produc[e] living matter artificially," to discover the "energetics of life phenomena."9 In short, he sought the basic blocks for building life, nothing less than the "ultimate units of living substance"; but he insisted that these must be real components that one could actually work with. From 1895 to 1898 he studied physical chemistry in search of a language that would encompass all phenomena. Loeb then continued his work at the university during the academic year and at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory during the summer.
EGGS, FOR THE TURN-OF-THE-CENTURY SCIENTIST, were of great interest. They were like miniature factories for creating life, microcosms in which the stages of development unfolded. They held life's secrets in a neat package. Great debates raged between so-called epigenecists and preformationists: did the fertilized egg grow by responding only to cues from its environment, or did it also follow a "built-in" track determined by inherited instructions? Loeb opposed the preformationists, who saw the egg as carrying out a predetermined recipe, but he nonetheless felt there was some "germ plasm" inside the egg giving out orders. In this sense he predicted the existence of DNA many years before the discovery of the double helix.
To Loeb, now thirty-seven, the fulfillment of his goal of creating life seemed sometimes close at hand, sometimes distant. It was at this point, while carrying out experiments on marine animals' eggs, that he managed at last to fulfill one long-held dream. He invented artificial parthenogenesis, a technique that gave promise, soon, of an artificially produced mammal, followed by a human. The basic technique was an applied tropism--stereotropism, to be exact: a sea urchin egg was surrounded in its normal state by sea water, which provided a constant stimulus. When Loeb altered this environment by adding a mildly acidic solution, the egg began to divide and reproduce itself automatically,almost like a machine. It was "triggered" by the tropism. The discovery of this technique, at once relayed to the nation in breathless accounts, made Loeb a star. Novelists and newspapermen saw possibilities for test-tube-generated life, for women to have babies without men, for factory farming of domestic animals and children. Loeb, perhaps carried away, confided to a reporter, "I wanted to take life in my hands and play with it--to start it, stop it, vary it, study it under every condition."10 To some he looked like a mad scientist, while to others--such as Sinclair Lewis, who featured in his 1925 novel Arrowsmith the noble yet irascible scientist Max Gottlieb, based directly on Loeb--he seemed a high priest of the laboratory whose presence inspired a kind of awe.
In 1903 Loeb was wooed away from Chicago by the University of California, whose regents wanted to make an international name for themselves by recruiting the nation's most famous scientist. They agreed to give him everything he wanted, including no teaching or administrative duties, a decent salary, several junior positions to fill as he liked, and a special laboratory in New Monterey, near Pebble Beach, where he could live and conduct experiments to his heart's content.
Meanwhile the University of California was also promoting Luther Burbank's strange experiments. Just as Loeb used his laboratory to craft new life-forms, Burbank drew crowds that clamored to see his fruit, flower, and arborial creations at his Experiment Grounds. The two scientists also shared a distaste for the too-well-trained academic. Burbank once complained to the president of the Carnegie Institution about a man sent to oversee his work: "It seems to be almost necessary to perform a surgical operation before some fixed impression can be removed to make way for another, but once convinced by an overwhelming number of facts he at once admits that that is the way he always thought it was."11 Both cultivated an attitude of receptivity, finding that fixed impressions got in the way.
Although Loeb's later efforts were not as sensational as his earlier work on virgin births, he continued to pursue proof of the physico-chemical basis of life. His conviction that a firm understanding of the life processes of the simplest creatures was the basis for moving on tohumans took root among a widening circle of scientists and social thinkers, such as the heterodox economist Thorstein Veblen; Gregory Pincus, the inventor of the birth control pill; B. F. Skinner, then a graduate student doing his dissertation on tropism in ants; and Loeb's literary admirer, Theodore Dreiser. Further research was called for, and the end goal remained controlling human behavior.
LOEB'S PROJECT and its aftereffects (the people he influenced, the programs he inspired, and the cult-figure status he attained) raise questions about the ethics of treating living things as machines. Some critics felt that Loeb, in pursuit of his goals, had ignored everything important and interesting about life, its particularity, unpredictability, messiness, and passion; perhaps its divinity; certainly its soul. And his work did seem to pave the way for the recombination of more than sea urchins and starfish--humans were next in line. In this sense his experiments have often been labeled "materialist" or "mechanistic" or "reductionist" or simply "bad." They have been connected with the intellectual views that separate mind from matter (often traced to Descartes) and the scientist from the natural world (often traced to Bacon, who wrote of learning to "torture nature for her secrets"); and with the relentless buying and selling of the life processes, the death processes, and everything in between (traced to the economic ravages of capitalism). All in all Loeb's work appeared to be a damning slide toward the domination and enslavement of all of nature.
As William James once said, certain scientists (he called them materialists) sought to "defin[e] the world so as to leave man's soul upon it as a sort of outside passenger or alien."12 Loeb appeared, to some, to be one of them. In denying that humanlike qualities of will, yearning, and desire were operating within tropistic organisms, Loeb reserved "will" for the human actor, the scientist. Those who followed in his footsteps, inspired by his rigor, his progress toward creating life, and his seemingly mechanistic viewpoint, eventually went on to deny a "will" to human subjects in the laboratory as well.
Loeb's science paved the way for others to see that life itself is subjectto design. It was at Chicago that the later crystallizer of behaviorism as a "movement," John B. Watson, as a graduate student, came under the special influence of his biology and physiology teacher, Loeb. Watson, watching Loeb's work with interest, took his insights to the extreme and eventually mapped out a science of behavior that could conceivably explain everything--from a houseplant facing the sun to a philosopher writing a tome--in terms of stimulus-and-response reactions. So Loeb's turn-of-the-century experiments on tropisms sketched out a vast matrix of stimulus-response mechanisms that later brought the engineering of human fears and desires into the realm of possibility. Sometimes the behaviorists put it rather crassly, as when Watson boasted of being able to take a baby and "build" any type of man (by evoking and recombining the infant's conditioned responses to fear, love, and anger). But the basis of human engineering, at least as Loeb and his fellow pragmatists liked to say, was in a quality of observation, a style of looking, and thus a style of inquiry. The world could be altered by the way one looked at it, and in the confined space of the laboratory, the new techniques of looking at objects, people, and phenomena of nature could be tried out intensively.
Through his laboratory practices, Loeb could build new life-forms out of functional parts of sea worms, houseplants, and hydras, and this betokened other changes as well. To design new holding places, mazes, and conduits for herding, molding, and shaping humanity (through tropisms, conditioned responses, and other techniques) was indeed to take life into one's hands.
Copyright © 2005 by Rebecca Lemov