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Notes for some PhD proposals

Prediction of biological futures - a perennial problem.

The current debates over the safety of genetic engineering highlight a perennial problem - whose knowledge is right? Are consumers right to want labelling of genetically modified (GM) foods so that they can chose? Are governments allowed to ban GM foods or is this a breach of free-trade agreements? Are economic and environmental benefits being lost due to public irrationally?

One aspect of this problem is that the above questions are cross-disciplinary - they require communication between sometimes conflicting disciplines. In cases between economics and environmentalism (Beckerman 1995), or science and cultural theory (Sokal 1996), there seems more conflict than communication. However, historical analysis of the different disciplines involved in an arguement may reveal alternative words or ideas that allow greater communication.

A starting point could be an investigation of parallels between the formalist programmes of mathematics and linguistics that began early this century. Turney (1998), although privileging biology over culture, points to a way that a history of biological ideas can be linked to mathematical and cultural ideas. In Chapter 5 he discusses some popular representations of biology from Karel Capek's "Rossum's Universal Robots" (1921) to Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" (1932).

The interwar years were a period of great change in mathematics and biology. In biology, Fisher, Haldane, and Wright were creating a mathematical synthesis of Mendel's "genetics" with Darwin's "evolution through natural selection" (Kiruma 1983). This synthesis is known in Britain as neo-Darwinism and in the USA as the Synthetic Theory of Evolution. In mathematics, Russell and Hilbert were trying to resolve paradoxes in Cantor's set theory. By expressing Epimenedes' paradox in formal mathematics Kurt Godel (1931), was able to show that paradoxes would always exist in formal mathematics. However, no one seems to agree on the implications of Godel's theory on mathematical sciences, or on mathematical representation. One current discussion involves the limits of knowledge (New Scientist).

Two books that Turney focuses on are Haldane's "Daedalus" (1924) an optimistic view of the power of biology and Russell's reply - "Icarus" (1924) which supposes that biology would succumb to industrialisation in the same way as physics and chemistry in World War I. Turney appears to value Haldane's arguements because Haldane is biologist and Russell is a philosopher (ref). This seems to ignore their mathematical backgrounds but it gives us an historical link between neo-Darwinism and mathematical formalism.

Kurt Godel was born in 1906 in Brno where he was educated until leaving for the University of Vienna in 1923. It would be interesting to speculate that his early aptitude for mathematics and languages was stimulated by a academic climate for linguistics in what was to become Czechoslovakia. It is sufficient for my purposes to say that Prague was the climate that nutured Karel Capek and that Brno was where Roman Jakobson to after leaving the Soviet Union.

The Prague School (1926-?), the intellectual descendents of Jakobson's school of 'Russian formalism' forms part of the historical context of linguistic structuralism. This is the tradition that led from Saussare and Pierce through the cultural aspects of Levi-Strauss and the mythology of Barthes to the post-structural ideas of Derrida, Baudrillard and Foucault. It is interesting that Turney discusses Frankenstein as a cultural myth without discussing Barthes (but he does briefly mention Levi-Strauss).

By expanding on these themes of mathematical and linguistic representation it will allow...

Written 18/2/99
Created 20/2/99
Last modified 14/10/99