1. Please could you introduce yourself and your areas of research?
I am Staffan Müller-Wille, Associate Professor in the Department for Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology, and Professor at the University of Lübeck. In my research I look at how scientists in the past processed information to come up with theories of the natural world. For this, I specialize in two areas, the history of natural history – botany, zoology, mineralogy – in the eighteenth century, and the history of heredity and genetics from Darwin to roughly the 1950s, when molecular biology began to change what it meant to do biology.
2. What sparked your interest in the life sciences and how did you get into the field?
My first postgraduate degree was an MSc in Geology at the Free University of Berlin. Specializing in palaeontology, the study of fossils, I became intrigued by what biologists call the species problem: How do we distinguish kinds of plants and animals, and are these distinctions “cutting nature at its joints”, or of our own making. I soon realized that the debates that raged around this problem in my own discipline did not provide satisfying answers to the problem, and began auditing history and philosophy of science classes. (I like to tell that, back then, you could study as long as you wanted, and whatever you wished, at German universities.) I was then lucky enough to be offered a PhD-scholarship to do science studies at the University of Bielefeld in Germany, and from then on, I had become a humanities scholar, who did not look at science “from within”, but treated it like other cultural phenomena like literature or the arts.
3. Could you explain briefly what Egenis is and your work within it?
Egenis is a research centre that was originally funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of a whole network of such centres from 2002 to 2013 that examined the social and economic implications of recent developments in the life sciences, very much against the background of the rapid advances that were made in the life sciences due to the development of genomic technologies, that is, technologies that allow to sequence and study whole genomes rather than isolated genes. Questions surrounding the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture, embryonic stem cells, or tests for heritable diseases, were hotly debated in the public, and the ESRC wanted to prepare the ground for informed discussion through basic research on the disciplines involved. In 2013, funding ran out, but we decided to carry on, keeping the acronym Egenis (which had become a kind of trademark internationally), but calling ourselves Centre for the Study of the Life Sciences to widen our remit (instead of ESRC Research Centre for Genomics in Society, hence the acronym). Our research now spans the sociology of medicine and health care, historical, sociological and philosophical studies of data-intensive science, as well as ontological questions raised by the most recent developments in systems biology and microbiology. I am one of the co-directors of the Centre, and along with my colleagues Sabina Leonelli and John Dupré, I simply try to keep the Centre going by organising research seminars and events, networking with research groups elsewhere, and fundraising.
4. What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on the history and philosophy of modern systematics, the discipline in biology that studies biodiversity. I am particularly interested in two questions: How did the many conventions emerge that govern the naming and classifying of organisms since the late eighteenth century, and how did they change our perception of living nature? A particular interest of mine in this context is the conceptualization of evolutionary relations among plant and animal species, relations like parasitism or mimicry, which seem to be “evil” and “deceptive”, but do drive evolution.
5. Tell us a bit about your work as Editor-In-Chief of History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
As editor of an international and interdisciplinary journal like History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences one bears a lot of responsibility, not only for the journal itself, but also for how the field develops. This means two things need to be kept in a balance. On the one hand, you need to secure quality standards by choosing specilist reviewers for each manuscript that is submitted for publication to provide feedback, but also by editing the manuscripts yourself. This is a very time consuming task which unfortunately is not valued very much by institutions. On the other hand, one needs to be very careful not to introduce a bias. Especially contributions from early-career scholars, or scholars from non-English speaking countries are sometimes not so polished but bring in a new perspective that the discipline finds difficult to accommodate. In such cases, the editor sometimes needs to apply his judgement, and pass a manuscript that reviewers, and perhaps the editor themselves, were very sceptical of.
6. What advice would you give to students looking to get into research like yours?
The standard advice that a lot of colleagues give, and that I can only repeat, is develop and follow your own interests! Research has a lot to do with the passion of wanting to know something despite all obstacles. Without that passion, one can perhaps do good routine research, but will never be able to fuel one’s own original research programme. This is why academics don’t like to talk about money, or claim to be “objective” and “disinterested”. You’re not into it for reward, but for the higher goal of “truth” (whatever that is). It is a little bit like being an artist: serious artists don’t want to please their publics, but pursue their own, often obscure aesthetic goals.
7. What modules are you teaching next year?
I will be teaching Philosophy of Nature, a second year module I have been teaching for six years now. I have grown a bit tired of teaching this module, not because of its content – it’s about how, in the past and in the present, philosophers have reflected on nature, how we know it, and what values we attach to it – but because you do grow tired as a lecturer repeating yourself from year to year. So I plan to revamp this course over the summer. The other two undergraduate modules I teach are: “The Human Condition: Classic Readings in Anthropology”, where students are asked to read and reflect on some classic books in anthropology, including, for example, Darwin on the descent of man, and Engels on the bourgeois family; and philosophy dissertations, were I help students define their dissertation topic and find supervisors, hold lectures on how to write a dissertation, and supervise students myself. I also teach a postgraduate module on “Cultures of the Life Sciences”, an introduction to history and philosophy of the life sciences.
You can find out more about Staffan on his staff page here.