The Center for the Biology of Natural Systems (part I)

As I was finishing up the Commoner book and getting started on the new mercury project, I remained fascinated with the idea of developing a vernacular science. During the 1950s and 1960s, Barry Commoner was at the vanguard of a new science information movement, which involved making scientific information accessible to a lay audience. His efforts were an explicit expression of the fundamental principles of democracy in action: only an informed public had the tools necessary to participate in debate. To Commoner, the post-WWII privacy and secrecy of scientific endeavors threatened its integrity. His public activities were in response to the following description of recent scientific culture and its relationship to public life. At the end of Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer conclude with an insightful and incisive look at modern science:

Our present-day problems of defining our knowledge, our society, and the relationships between them centre on … dichotomies between the public and the private, [and] between authority and expertise. … We regard our scientific knowledge as open and accessible in principle, but the public does not understand it.  Scientific journals are in our public libraries, but they are written in a language alien to the citizenry.  We say that our laboratories constitute some of our most open professional spaces, yet the public does not enter them.  Our society is said to be democratic, but the public cannot call to account what they cannot comprehend.  A form of knowledge that is the most open in principle has become the most closed in practice (343).

The next—and concluding—sentence in that paragraph is: “To entertain these doubts about our science is to question the constitution of our society.” Barry Commoner spent a career reveling in questioning the constitution of our society, and the larger science information movement saw as its guiding principle an approach to breaking down this barrier between expertise and the public.  I would submit that this scientific activism is a critical and relatively under-appreciated feature of the history of environmentalism and one of the most significant developments in the history of science since World War II.

With that in mind, I keep turning back to the idea of the history of a post-WWII vernacular science and the relationship between scientists and their social responsibility. There’s a lot of rich material here (some of it very ably discussed in Kelly Moore’s book, Disrupting Science), and grounds for more research and analysis. And Commoner’s role, too. In 2007 and 2008, I started doing some preliminary research into the history of Commoner’s Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, which was established in the mid-1960s and is still going, now at Queens College in Flushing, NY. They do some fascinating work. For more, see their site here. For a variety of reasons, I tabled the project, but I do want to come back to it—maybe there’s an article or two to write down the line. At any rate, here’s a brief overview of the CBNS’s inception. It’s vague, but offers some indication of where it came from (but needs to be flushed out further). The following is the beginning of a close reading of the grant that Commoner wrote for a rather unique Public Health Service grant competition. It is drawn from notes prepared for a presentation I gave at the History of Science Society annual meeting in Pittsburgh in 2008. I share it here in order to spur returning to this material (which has direct overlaps with mercury project) sooner rather than later.

This paper will briefly examine the Center’s inception and role, before circling around to examine the social and scientific significance of the dissemination of a vernacular science and the Center’s role.  By way of caveat, I should stress that I do not mean to imply that the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems invented vernacular science or that its efforts in the 1960s and 1970s were the first examples of it.  Indeed, a host of literature has examined the manner in which knowledge creation has long been considered fundamentally open and accessible.  My interest is in the relationship between science and environmental activism and how that relationship sought to communicate its knowledge to non-scientific audiences.  Nevertheless, the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems is historically significant for a couple of reasons.  First, the Center coalesced around the experiences of scientists who had engaged in using a vernacular approach to warn the public about the hazards associated with radioactive fallout from aboveground nuclear weapons testing.  The Center’s mission and efforts were informed and nuanced by that work from the late 1950s and early 1960s. Indeed, Commoner and other scientists at Washington University had been instrumental in producing accessible information about nuclear fallout to the public in a variety of novel ways (this through the Greater St. Louis Committee for Nuclear Information).  But as much as the Center is important as a concluding point for an earlier chapter in the history of public science and “communicating knowledge,” it also served as a new departure.  The Center’s founding and funding marked a unique and important milestone in the history of the science information movement.

In September 1965, Barry Commoner submitted a proposal to the Public Health Service for funding for the creation of a scientific research center that would tackle the growing number of environmental threats to human health.[1]  Commoner was listed as the principal investigator of a team of St. Louis-based collaborators, on the grant, whose budget was $3.6 million dollars over six years.  Collaborators included members of the departments of botany, zoology, physics, and chemistry, but the Medical School at Washington University, the St. Louis Zoo, and the Missouri Botanical Garden were also represented.  As Commoner recalled, “The proposal represented a collaboration rather than an individual university-based or discipline-based activity with an elaborate program aimed at the complexities of the natural biological systems in which nature functioned required the attention of basic scientific research.”[2]

(It’s a remarkable document). “The scale and intensity of biological and technological activities of man which affect the environment has now begun to approach the scale of the environment itself.”  Whereas the environment had typically been regarded as an infinite sink for the hazardous products of human activity, the intensity of technological activity after World War II put into question the total environment’s capacity as a reservoir.  Also, the grant proposal asserted, the altered nature of the pollutants threatening the human habitat played a new role.  “In the past,” it stated, “apart from relatively localized inorganic industrial pollutants, human impact on the environment was due almost exclusively to human biology and was represented by the common products of animal excretion: CO2, nitrogenous wastes, and the concomitant microbial flora.”  While these pollutants constituted natural wastes and were subject to biological degradation, the new synthetic pollutants were new to the biosphere.[3]

The proposal not only reflected the environmental imperatives of the program, but also the importance of such research in the scientific climate of the time.  Public health research, the application asserted, was a scientific orphan.  The Public Health Service certainly thought so; more to the point their attempt to develop a comprehensive research program on the environment was something they had not attempted before.  Commoner and his colleagues proposed to connect to the rapidly developing modernization of biological research—including molecularly oriented research—with research in chemistry and physics.  In its formation and mission, then, the proposed research was very intentionally multi-disciplinary—or, as Commoner insisted, adisciplinary—because, he argued, traditional academic disciplines were not independently equipped to tackle environmental problems.  In a period in which scientific investigations tended toward greater reductionism, the more wide-ranging adisciplinarity of the Center’s vision demonstrated a novel reading of the nature of environmental problems.  I should stress that this isn’t ecology but rather a science of the total environment, which resisted being limited to ecological or toxicological methodologies.

The application also outlined the rationale for the center’s proposed name.  The Center for the Biology of Natural Systems was a deliberate response to the increasing molecularization of the biological sciences, which they argued, stressed extractive parts of living systems, but not the living systems themselves.  “The dependence of human health on the environment is an expression of a basic condition of life,” the grant stated, “that every organism functions as part of a natural system which includes other individuals of the same species, a wide variety of other organisms, and their non-living surroundings.”[4]

The scope of the Center’s programs was broad, ranging through: energy conservation and alternative energy issues, agricultural contamination of soil and water systems, appropriate technology for developing nations, the nature and proliferation of environmental carcinogens, organic farming, urban waste disposal and recycling programs, and the social and economic effects of environmental pollution.


[1] In the early 1960s, a Congressional Act made funds available to the Public Health Service to establish ten centers for research on problems in the environment as they related to human health. In spite of several preceding applications from numerous universities, CBNS was the first (and only) center to receive funding.

[2] Barry Commoner interview with author, 11 December 2007.

[3] CBNS, “Public Health Service Application,” 4.

[4] CBNS, “Public Health Service Application,” 3.

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