Mon, 17 September 2018
The untold story of how hereditary data in mental hospitals gave rise to the science of human heredity
Theodore M. Porter is Distinguished Professor of History and holds the Peter Reill Chair at the University of California, Los Angeles. His books include Karl Pearson: The Scientific Life in a Statistical Age, Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life, and The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820–1900 (all Princeton). He lives in Altadena, California.
"I suspect this bold, dauntingly well-documented book will prove difficult to dismiss."--David Dobbs, Nature
"By following the technologies of paperwork and data collection, Porter has unearthed a radically new history of human genetics, one that evokes not the double helix but the humble filing cabinet."--Emily M. Kern, Science
"Fascinating but scary. Genetics in the Madhouse . . . uses date collection in psychiatric hospitals to show the stages when research straddles subjectivity and science."--Liz Else and Simon Ings, New Scientist
"Porter takes a fascinating look at early attempts to tame unruly minds with big data and statistics."--Bruce Bower, Science News
"[An] absorbing account of the role played by mental illness studies in gaining an early understanding of human heredity."--Robin McKie, The Observer
"Genetics in the Madhouse provides a fascinating examination of investigations of human heredity, conducted long before DNA could be studied in laboratories."--Glenn Altschuler, Philadelphia Inquirer
"We’ve all been taught how genetics got its start in Mendel’s pea patch. But the real story is more complicated, and a lot more interesting. In Genetics in the Madhouse, Theodore Porter chronicles some of the early history of heredity—not in gardens, but in asylums. The book is a fascinating exploration of the long-running conviction that madness, criminality, and other mental traits can be passed down from parent to child."—Carl Zimmer, author of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity
"Porter’s masterful book casts the fresh light of sanity over a previously uncharted sea of data on madness. He brings analytical order to an intriguingly chaotic subject, illuminating the challenges of ‘big data’ from a past era when the plasticity of categorization resulted in data being deduced from conclusions, a problem with uncanny similarities to those we face today."—Stephen M. Stigler, author of The Seven Pillars of Statistical Wisdom
"Porter brilliantly reveals the debt that the science of human heredity owes to the data gathering, numerical tables, and statistical interpretations that emerged from attempts to account for mental and physical disease among patients in asylums, hospitals, and prisons. Richly informed by archival sources, his book is masterfully argued, lucidly written, and boldly original. A landmark in the history of medicine, science, and mental illness."—Daniel J. Kevles, author of In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity
"Porter serves as a captivating and intriguing guide into the largely uncredited history of statistical and genetic data derived from the pre-Mendelian asylums, prisons, and schools. Genetics in the Madhouse succeeds in illuminating our present concepts of heredity and eugenics by leaning into the complexities of human science."—Aaron T. Beck, University of Pennsylvania
"Genetics in the Madhouse is a fascinating examination of the role played by big data in the history of genetics and its subsequent exploitation in the disgraced science of eugenics. Porter weaves together complex elements of historical influences, personalities, and seismic events almost like a novel, but the difference is that his story cannot have a neat and tidy resolution. Beautifully written and admirably researched, this is an enthralling book."—Catharine Arnold, author of Bedlam: London and Its Mad
"Important and original. Drawing on a wealth of archival research in many languages across many different national settings, Porter reexamines the role of psychiatry in the study of human heredity. Genetics in the Madhouse is an enormously impressive book."—Andrew Scull, author of Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity, from the Bible to Freud, from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine
"A very significant contribution to the history of the human sciences, statistics, and eugenics. Porter rewards readers not only with astonishing insights into nineteenth-century data collection on the mentally ill and feebleminded, but also with the pleasure of reading a good, intriguing story."—Staffan Müller-Wille, coauthor of A Cultural History of Heredity
Distinguished Professor of History & Vice Chair for Academic Personnel
I teach various topics pertaining more or less directly to history of science.
My first book, The Rise of Statistical Thinking (1986), was about the development of statistical ideas and methods in fields ranging from the social science of statistics to biological evolution and thermodynamics. This interest in the relations of the natural and the social is also central to my Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life (1995). There I emphasize that effective quantification is never a matter simply of discovery, but always also of administration, hence of social and technological power. Quantitative objectivity is in a way a form of standardization, the use of rules to confine and tame the personal and subjective. Science did not always idealize this mechanical form of objectivity, but has come to do so (at least in its rhetoric) as an adaptation to modern political and administrative cultures—which it at the same time has helped to shape. In both of these books I invert the usual account of the relations between natural and social science, by showing how some of the crucial assumptions and methods of science arose within contexts of application. The history of quantification is the history of a social technology, reflecting a sensibility that is as closely linked to fields like accounting and cost-benefit analysis and to social science as to physics. The ethic of systematic calculation as a basis for social decisions—and often, as in inferential statistics, also for scientific demonstration—responds to a political culture marked by distrust of elites and even, in a way, of experts.
Direct download: raj_persaud_talks_to_theodore_porter_about_his_new_book.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 8:52pm UTC