Princeton Workshop in the History of Science, 1999-2001


Organizers: M. Norton Wise, Angela Creager, Elizabeth Lunbeck

Program for   2000-2001

Workshop V - Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis  (12/2/00)
Workshop VI - Field Sciences and Economics  (2/10/01)
Workshop VII - Law  (3/31/01)

Program for 1999-2000

Workshop I - Biomedicine
Workshop II - Human Sciences
Workshop III - Physics and Mathematics
Workshop IV - Historiography

The Theme

The term "model system" has become standard in the biological sciences but is rare in the physical sciences, where "model" has a long history. We wish to inquire into this difference and to ask whether attention to model systems can enrich our perspective on what it has meant "to know" in various fields. Beginning with model systems as understood in recent biology (from the laboratory mouse to hemoglobin), we intend to compare its scope and function with that of similar systems in domains as diverse as history and physics, seeking not to unify but to gain depth through mutual reflection. This exploration will occur in a series of workshops during 1999-2001, each composed of three or four pre-circulated papers written initially for discussion and then revised for publication.

A model system in biology refers to an object or process selected for intensive research as an exemplar of a widely observed feature of life (or disease). Model organisms frequently serve as model systems; many, like strains of laboratory mice, have been standardized through breeding and are obtained commercially. An important criterion for selection is accessibility, which may depend on wide availability, on physical features (size, simplicity, reproduction rate), or simply on an acquired prominence within a field of study. Model systems are valued for their particularity, materiality (reality), and complexity. But their key characteristic is surely typicality, as distinguished from universality or generality (in the sense of the general-specific distinction). This suggests that the function of model systems should be related historically to the generic categories of natural history, with a strong focus on the function of similarity relations in providing an analytic handle on a genre of similar instances. Finally, model systems exhibit a self-reinforcing quality: the more the model system is studied, and the more perspectives from which it is understood, the more it becomes a model system. Thus historians and philosophers of biology have become interested in the consequences of privileging particular model systems for the shape of knowledge in fields such as genetics (the fly), biochemistry (the Krebs cycle), molecular evolution (the globin genes), and primatology (the baboon). Behind biological principles and experimental approaches often stand specific model systems, which have functioned as prototypes for investigating other organisms and materials.

In a range of disciplines encompassing the social and human sciences, as well as law and medicine, "the case" functions somewhat like a model system. Cases, like model systems, are valued for their specific material reality and their typicality. They are assumed to capture individuals in all their complex uniqueness while at the same time rendering them in a generically analyzable form. From knowledge of infinitely various cases disciplines like psychiatry and psychoanalysis have been constructed. Yet a tension between an interest in capturing complexity and individuality and the demand for system, for formal principles-often presented as the demand of "science"-has historically run through the case-based disciplines, generating epistemological confusion and practical controversies. Can the case serve both for generating rational principles and for maintaining locality and specificity; and what has been the history of this relation? We want to explore the extent to which cases function like model systems in such respects and how certain cases have achieved exemplary status within their disciplines, serving as nodal points around which practices-including teaching, research, and the generation of theory-have been organized.

Turning to physics, the analogue of a model system is not obvious, partly because the subject has long been identified with the search for universal mathematical laws subsuming specific instances, as in Laplace's System of the World, and partly because the term "model" has been so closely associated with that ideal. One might think of attempts to find a complete mechanical model of the ether in the 19th century or the Bohr model of the atom with its generalized postulates for quantized states of atoms. The highly successful "standard model" in elementary particle physics even more strongly identifies "model" with mathematical unity, with the search for a deductive theory of everything. Recently, however, challenges to this ideal have come from areas where complexity seems inescapable, where non-linear dynamics rules, prediction is limited, "proof" relies in part on computer simulations, and the contingencies of environment and initial conditions are critical. Here such objects as "the snowflake" look more like model systems than like models since each one is different from every other and yet they are generically the same. Physicists in such areas regularly turn to morphology for their historical references, characterizing their objects in terms of shapes and periodicities and suggesting that the ideal of universality may be overextended. At that point the tensions so apparent in the human sciences between the demands of individuation and generality quickly flare up in physics, with the challenge to unification sometimes derided as "botany" or "stamp collecting."

The preceding examples have left implicit one of the features of model systems and cases which may on reflection carry considerable weight. Their typicality often includes a temporal dynamic, a process of formation, response, or growth over time which seems characteristic for the systems they represent. Analysis of a model system yields a representative history. This suggests that a comparison with the role of "exemplary narratives" in history itself may be useful, most pointedly in the local anthropological narratives of recent historiography. Such narratives provide opportunities to explore the range of possible actions within a complex set of circumstances, illuminating general historical conditions by showing how individuals find their way through the contingencies of their own situated lives rather than by deriving their actions from preexisting structures. Stereotyped as a contest between local histories and master narratives, the differences in approach have provided ground for historians to reengage the 19th century debate over the methodologies of the Naturwissenschaftern and Geisteswissenschaften. The time seems opportune to bring the natural sciences themselves back into the reengagement through the vehicle of the model system in relation to cases and exemplary narratives.

But it is not the two sides we are after; it is rather the contested middle ground or (probably) irresolvable tension along the universality-typicality axis. Are there universal laws in biology? Do the complex systems of non-linear dynamics fall into universality classes? What is the history of this middle ground? How has it differed between model systems, cases, and exemplary narratives?


1. Other possible examples: Athenian democracy, the gothic cathedral (Chartes), the Ecole polytechnique, the pin factory, the engine, the Dreyfus affair, the Balinese cockfight, the logistic equation (Predator-prey), the Belousov Zabotinsky reaction (oscillating chemical reaction), the ribosomal particles of E. coli, the oedipus complex.

2. Key words: Generic, characteristic, similar, representative, morphology, process, prototype, protocol.

3. Suggestive essays:

Robert E. Kohler, "Systems of Production: Drosophila, Neurospora, and Biochemical Genetics," Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences, 22 (1991), 87-130.
John Forrester, "If p, then what? Thinking in Cases," History of the Human Sciences, 9 (1996), 1-25.
James S. Langer, "Non-equilibrium Physics and the Origins of Complexity in Nature," in V.L. Fitch, D. R. Marlow, and M. A. E. Dementi, Critical Problems in Physics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 11-27.
Clifford Geertz, "Local Knowledge: Fact and Law in Comparative Perspective," Chapter 8 in his Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (New York, 1983).

WORKSHOP I - Biomedicine

Saturday, October 2, 1999
9:30am - 4:30pm, 211 Dickinson Hall


Rachel Ankeny, Connecticut College

"Model Organisms as Case-Based Reasoning: Worms in Contemporary Biomedical Science"

Commentator: Jane Hubbard, New York University

Jean-Paul Gaudillere, INSERM, Paris

"Modeling Practices in Postwar Biomedical Research: The Making of the Risk Society"

Commentator: Elizabeth Lunbeck, Princeton University

James Griesemer, University of California, Davis

"Managing Time in Model Systems: Illustrations from Evolutionary Biology

Commentator: Joan Fujimura, Institute for Advanced Study

WORKSHOP II - Human Sciences

Saturday, December 11, 1999
9:30am - 4:30pm, 211 Dickinson Hall


Clifford Geertz, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

"To exist is to have confidence in one's being": Rituals as Model Systems

Commentator: Jean-Christophe Agnew, Yale University

John Forrester, University of Cambridge, England

The Exemplarity of T.S. Kuhn and the Psychoanalytic Case

Commentator: Carl Schorske, Princeton University

Mary Poovey, New York University

The Model System of Contemporary Literary Criticism

Commentator: Anthony Grafton, Princeton University

WORKSHOP III - Physics and Mathematics

Saturday, February 12, 2000
9:30am - 4:30pm, 211 Dickinson Hall


Nancy Cartwright, London School of Economics

Laboratory Mice, Laboratory Electrons, and Fictional Laboratories

Commentator: Mary Morgan, London School of Economics and University of Amsterdam

Amy Dahan Dalmedico, CNRS, Paris

Between Model Structures and Model Fictions: Computer Modeling Practices in the Postwar Period

Commentator: Michael S. Mahoney, Princeton University

Sylvan S. Schweber, Brandeis University

Models, Modeling and Theories in the Physical Sciences

Commentator: M. Norton Wise, Princeton University

WORKSHOP IV - Historiography

Saturday, April 15, 2000
9:am - 5:00pm, 211 Dickinson Hall


Mario Biagioli, Harvard University

Title to be announced

Carlo Ginzburg, University of California

Title to be announced

Suzanne Marchand, Louisiana State University

Title to be announced

Josiah Ober, Princeton University

Title to be announced

WORKSHOP V - Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis

Saturday, December 2, 2000
11:00am - 5:00pm, 211 Dickinson Hall

11:00 Coffee

11:30 Nikolas Rose, Goldsmiths College, University of London

Biological Psychiatry as a Style of Thought

Comment: Angela Creager and Manfred Laubichler, Princeton University

1:00 Buffet Lunch for All

2:30 Jonathan Lear, University of Chicago

Freud on Love and Death

Comment: Clifford Geertz, Institute for Advanced Study

4:00 Summing Up and Reception

Papers will be pre-circulated. Please email Melanie Bremer at to request copies and to register for lunch. Papers will also be available in 208 Dickinson Hall after Monday, November 27.  The Workshop is open to all.  Questions?  Contact Melanie Bremer or Elizabeth Lunbeck ( We look forward to seeing you at the workshop.

WORKSHOP VI - Field Sciences and Economics

Saturday, February 10, 2001
9:am - 5:00pm, 211 Dickinson Hall

9:00 Coffee (210 Dickinson Hall)

9:30 Robert Kohler, University of Pennsylvania

The Particularity of Biology in the Field
Commentary: Manfred Laubichler, Princeton University
11:00 Coffee (210 Dickinson Hall)

11:15 Susan Sperling, Chabot College and University of California, San Francisco

The Troop Trope: Baboon Behavior as a Model System in the Postwar Period
Commentary: Henrika Kuklick, University of Pennsylvania
12:45 Buffet Lunch for All (210 Dickinson Hall)

1:45 Naomi Oreskes, University of California, San Diego

From Scaling to Simulation: Changing Meanings and Ambitions of Models in the Earth Sciences
Commentary: M. Norton Wise, University of California, Los Angeles
3:15 Coffee (210 Dickinson Hall)

3:30 Mary Morgan, London School of Economics and University of Amsterdam

The Curious Case of the Prisoner's Dilemma
Commentary: Suman Seth, Princeton University
5:00 Summing Up and Reception
6:30 Dinner for participants at Sunny Garden Restaurant

Papers will be pre-circulated. Please email Audrey Mainzer  at to request copies and to register for lunch. Papers will also be available in 208 Dickinson Hall after Monday, January 29.  The Workshop is open to all.  Questions?  Contact Audrey Mainzer or Elizabeth Lunbeck ( We look forward to seeing you at the workshop.


Saturday, March 31, 2001
9:am - 5:00pm, 211 Dickinson Hall

John Forrester, Cambridge University
Sheila Jasanoff, Harvard University
Jonathan Simon, University of Miami