“The Book of Woe” – Gary Greenberg’s Romp of a Read About the DSM Debacle

Note: This review first appeared in Nature, 2 May 2012. My thanks to Nature for the commission and fine editorial support.

When it is published later this month, the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, DSM-5, will mark well over a century of formal guides to psychiatric diagnosis. The first two psychiatric taxonomies were produced by Emil Kraepelin in 1893 and Thomas Salmon in 1918. Kraepelin’s included not only schizophrenia and what we now as bipolar disorder, but also “masturbatory insanity” and (hopefully unrelated) “wedding night psychosis”, both of which soon fell out of favour. Salmon’s contained a mere 20 diagnoses. The DSM-5, intended to be the primary US guide to mental-health diagnoses, is expected to include some 300. These will reportedly include new entries aimed at hoarding and binge eating, and a relaxed depression diagnosis that allows therapists to classify someone grieving a loved one’s death for more than two weeks as depressed rather than, well, grieving.

Each such manual, DSM or outliers, has tried to improve on its predecessor. All have failed, says psychotherapist Gary Greenberg in his entertaining, biting and essential The Book of Woe. But none have failed so spectacularly as the DSM-5.

For the first quarter of this packed but swift-reading book, Greenberg reviews how these earlier manuals — including the 1952, 1968, 1980 and 1994 editions of the DSM — reflected and shaped psychiatry. The history nicely sets up his main subject, which is the long, tangled efforts of the book’s publisher, the American Psychiatric Association (APA), to create this fifth edition. Even as the APA started on the DSM-5 more than a decade ago, psychiatry was suffering deep and painful divisions over issues such as overdiagnosis, overtreatment and overmedication; its problematic ties to the pharmaceuticals industry; and a shortage of demonstrable biological pathways for most diagnoses. The APA, which depends heavily on revenue from the sale of the DSM-IV, responded to these controversies by vigorously defending the manual — while promising to create a fifth edition that would draw on new paradigms.

From the adventure in bookmaking-by-committee that followed, Greenberg builds a splendid and horrifying read. He digs up delicious dirt; extracts from the rivalrous main players a treasure chest of kvetching, backbiting, rebuttal, regret, sibling rivalry, Oedipal undercutting and just plain pithy talk; and relates gruesome sausage-making stories about the APA’s tortured attempts to refashion rusty diagnoses or forge shiny new ones. (The aetiology of that new temper-tantrum disorder? You’ll throw a fit.) He even managed to become a tester in one of the draft manual’s clinician field trials. The process proved so convoluted that Greenberg wanted to apologize to one patient for the “inadequacy, the pointlessness, the sheer idiocy of the exercise”. He never got the chance: she never called again.

The DSM, Greenberg concludes, is “a book that dresses up symptoms as diseases that are not real and then claims to have named and described the true varieties of our suffering”. Technically, the APA concurs, admitting sotto voce (for instance, in planning documents and public discussions for earlier versions of the DSM) that many psychiatric diagnoses are constructs of convenience rather than descriptions of biological ailments. This originates in an explicit decision the APA made, during the creation of DSM-III, to base diagnoses not on aetiology but on recognizable clusters of symptoms that seem problematic. The APA did so recognizing that this would mean stressing consistency among clinicians in recognizing symptom clusters rather than any other marker of a condition’s origins.

A slippery deal, but essential. For by formalizing this scheme, psychiatry can claim medical legitimacy (and accompanying insurance coverage and pay rates) so that it can help people. Unfortunately, writes Greenberg, this scheme has led everyone, psychiatrists included, to talk about and treat DSM’s conceptual constructs as if they are biological illnesses — a habit that has bred troubles ranging from overconfidence to incestuous liaisons with Big Pharma.

Greenberg is in rough harmony with not just many clinicians but longtime psychiatric leaders such as DSM-IV editor Allen Frances, whose own diatribe, Saving Normal (William Morrow), to be published this month, charges that the DSM-5 will “turn overdiagnosis into hyperdiagnosis”, and Thomas Insel, the psychiatrist who directs the US National Institute of Mental Health in Rockville, Maryland. Insel tells Greenberg that he hears constantly from psychiatrists who feel trapped by the DSM, and that perhaps it’s time to “just sort of start over”.

Or does the scheme work just well enough to stay afloat? As Greenberg notes, the DSM’s diagnoses sometimes work. For many people with Asperger’s syndrome, for instance — a diagnosis introduced only 19 years ago in the DSM-IV — the label helps them forge a coherent identity, perhaps because it lies outside the norm from which they already feel excluded. The differentiation centres rather than marginalizes them. Or, as one person with the condition tells Greenberg, “It meant I’m not an asshole. I’m just wired differently.”

To be diagnostically accurate, I should say that a former patient with the condition said that the DSM-5 has expunged Asperger’s, folding it into a tightened autism spectrum disorder diagnosis. Studies suggest that anywhere from one-third to three-quarters of those with Asperger’s will fail to secure one of these new autism diagnoses and the accompanying health-insurance coverage and other benefits. And for those who do secure one, few are likely to find in the autism diagnosis the same satisfying fit between workable description and recognizable self-identity.

The annihilation of Asperger’s suggests what may be a key part of psychiatry’s tension. As Greenberg writes, the DSM, and psychiatry with it, increasingly “casts its subjects into dry, data-driven stories, freed from the vagaries of hope and desire, of prejudice and ignorance and fear, and anchored instead in the laws of nature”. Yet when psychiatry works, it often works less essentially at a biological than at a humanistic, narrative level, by helping the sufferer to reframe the story of his life and of his place in the world into one that includes a sense of agency, strength and social connection. This is doubtless why drugs and talk therapy generally work better than just drugs. It also helps to explain why schizophrenia, as described in Ethan Watters’ fine Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche (Free Press, 2010) and in work by Tanya Luhrmann, is much less disabling in cultures — or even treatment — regimes that cast its eccentricities more as variations in human nature than as biological dysfunction.

For more than 100 years, psychiatry has been getting by on pseudo-scientific explanations and confident nods while it waited for the day, always just around the corner, in which psychiatry could be a strictly biological undertaking. Part of the DSM-5’s long delay occurred because, a decade ago, APA leaders actually thought that advances in neuroscience would allow them write a brain-based DSM. Yet, as former APA frontliner Michael First, a psychiatrist at Columbia University in New York, confirms on Greenfield’s last page, the discipline remains in its infancy.

Greenberg shows us vividly that psychiatry’s biggest problem may be a stubborn reluctance to admit its immaturity. And we all know how things go when you won’t admit your problems.


See also:

Strange Voices & Apartments as Antipsychotics – T.M. Luhrmann on Schizophrenia and Culture

A Case That Tells the Weird Tale of DSM – and Other Recommended Reading

Psychiatry Throws a Tantrum

Psychiatry Set to Medicalize Hissy Fits

Neurocritic Asks, Where Are Psychiatry’s Clinical Tests?



How Eugenics Gets Legit

Frontispiece and title page of "Eugenics"

In the wake of the flap over Geoffrey Miller’s fat-shaming, a friend pointed me to a remarkable collection at the Cold Spring Harbor website, the Eugenics Archive. In one section on how eugenics ideas get traction, it offers a useful global reminder and a more specific warning:

Science, or what is claimed to be science, is a product of culture — like any other human activity. What seems in hindsight to be naive or absurd, must have seemed reasonable in its own era. This is especially true when scientific ideas are used to explain social problems.

That last sentence is the take-home. Beware genetic or “innate nature” explanations of social behavior.

To find that page, to go the Cold Spring Harbor Eugenics Image Archive and click on the Social Origins page — the one that looks like a photo album.

Photo via Andrew Kuchling at flickr. Some rights reserved.

Why I Moved My Blog From Wired

The best place I ever worked — a room in Leipzig.

Apologia: This is a bit inside-baseball, but as quite a few people have asked me what’s the full skinny on why I moved my blog from WIRED, I thought it best to leave a post particularly about that. No dirt here, in case you’re wondering; if you were looking for a whack at WIRED, adjust your expectations.

The reasons, more innocent, boil down to two: Changes in my own work priorities; and changes in the media and blogging ecosystem.

The prime reason I’m moving is so I can focus more steadily for a time on finishing my book, which I’ve mentioned often here, tentatively titled The Orchid and the Dandelion (Crown). I know some people manage it, but I’ve found it hard to reconcile the demands of blogging at a venue like Wired and of writing a serious book that requires deep immersion: a matter of not just the time each  requires, but of what you might call the focal length of one’s mental lens. A venue like Wired requires, methinks, either an unrelenting focus on a particular beat or fairly steady and regular surveys of many fields; I can’t seem to mesh either with the sort of time and focus needed for a book. The move also frees me to experiment a bit more at the blog. I hope to see what sort of more Tumblr-like approach I can take at Neuron Culture now that it’s in a self-hosted venue.

The economics of blogging have also changed. When I joined the WIRED team, people who blogged mostly about science had few venues in which they could place one-off posts. Those few — places like Slate or Salon — were valuable, but few enough that it was hard to place many pieces there. Now, however, at least for established writers, we have not only Slate and Salon, but new venues such as The New Yorker’s Elements blog, Nautilus, Aeon, Medium, and, almost certainly, a couple I’m forgetting at the moment. Despite the value of a platform like WIRED, the cost of leaving it — as I believe I’d have to do now anyway to write my book — is reduced by the breadth of opportunity to place pieces in other places that also have high profile, but which don’t require the singular devotion in the way a regular hosted blog like WIRED does.

I had a great run at WIRED, and give  thanks to Betsy Mason and Evan Hansen for bringing me on at the beginning, and to thank my colleagues Brandon Keim, Dave Mosher, Adam Rogers, Nadia Drake, and the rest of the WIRED team, some present and some past, for giving me a productive blogging platform and great companionships there since September 2010; my fellow bloggers for their support, good cheer, and many fabulous posts; Maryn McKenna, Deborah Blum, and the departed Daniel MacArthur for being not just great blogging colleagues but fine friends; and, most especially, my readers, whom I hope will come along and follow me here. And you can always follow me at The Twitter, as well.

Orchids & Dandelions Abloom (Repost)


Can Genes Send You High or Low? The Orchid Hypothesis A-bloom

by David Dobbs

Originally posted March 2012*


A few years ago, Arial Knafo, a psychologist at Jerusalem University, wanted to see if three-year-olds would share their bonbons. Snack time would come amid a bunch of other activity at Knafo’s lab — drawing, games, doll-making — whose real purpose was to disguise tests of prosocial behavior in these toddlers. The researcher, saying it was high time for a snack, would bring out two packages of Bambas, peanut-butter-flavored corn puffs much coveted in Israel. The child’s pack, like every pack, would hold 24 of the little treats. But when the researcher opened her pack, she would cry out in dismay, dump the bag out on her plate, and say, “Ohhh, mine has only three!” Which it did, because the researcher had earlier removed the rest. Would the child share her bigger treasure without being asked?

Most did not. This was expected. “The average child,” says Knafo, “will help or share without being asked less than one in three times. Self-initiated sharing is a difficult task — they have to detect the need, then decide to do it.” A few 3-year-olds, however, will do it far more often than their counterparts. And in Knafo’s study, the ones who tended to share more were kids carrying what is generally considered a risk gene for antisocial behavior: DRD4-7R, a variant of a dopamine-processing gene called DRD4. In a pile of previous studies, 7R kids, if they had harsh or distant parents, were far more likely to develop attention, social, conduct, and school problems. These studies had given the DRD4‘s 7R variant a reputation as a “vulnerability gene” — bad news. People had dubbed it the ADHD gene, the drinking gene, the bully gene, even the slut gene. Now Knafo, in effect, was calling it the Bamba-sharing gene.

Continue reading →

Madness, Genius, & Sherman’s Ruthless March (NC Moving Party Track #9)

Sherman’s troops destroying the Atlanta rail depot — part of his methodical, seemingly mad destruction of the South’s infrastructure

[Ed note: Originally posted March 2012. See note at bottom.]

In 1864, in a move crucial to winning the Civil War, William Tecumseh Sherman led his army of some 80,000 men to Atlanta, burned it to the ground, and then marched to the coast of South Carolina, destroying almost all in his path. It was a wild, risky gambit: He meant to and did destroy the South’s infrastructure, crops, railways, and will. But to do so he had to work for weeks without supply lines for his own army and in near total isolation — no supplies, little communication — from both civilian and military leadership to the north.

Was there a method to Sherman’s March? And what did it have to do with him being crazy? Nassir Ghaemi’s A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness, which I’m now reading with mixed feelings and total fascination, raises these questions in a single, succinct, startling chapter, and answers Yes and Yes.

Continue reading →

They Froze for Science — But Got the Eggs

Below find #8 in my Best of Neuron Culture Moving Party — a run of 10 of my favorite posts from the blog’s stay at WIRED, posted on the eve of the blog’s move to this site. (Details on my move are at bottom of the first post in this series). This piece, among my personal favorites among the posts written just for Neuron Culture, looks at what members of Scott’s South Pole expedition went through to secure some particularly remote biological specimens during their winter on the South Pole. 

They Froze For Science – But Got the Eggs

by David Dobbs

Bowers, Wilson, and Cherry-Garrard just before departure, June 27, 1911.

In winter I sometimes warm up by reading books with real cold. For a few years years I shuttled between Rick Bass’s Winter, about his first winter in Montana in the 1980s, and R.M. Patterson’s magnificent, shivering Dangerous River, of his days trapping the Yukon in the 1920s. Last week, partly to commemorate the centenary of Robert Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, I re-read The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s beautifully written account of that mission and of a strange mission within it. For six weeks in the darkness of polar winter, with temperatures running between -40F and -70F (-40C to -56C) — a hundred degrees of frost — Cherry-Garrard and two other men drag a heavy sledge of supplies across the Ross Ice Shelf. They hope to reach a bay on Cape Crozier so they can collect the eggs of the Emperor penguin, for science.

Nothing beats this trip for cold. No trip could deliver more misery, for even a gram more would have killed them and ended it. They expected such daily.

On 29 June the temperature was -50° all day.… Owing to the weight of our two sledges and the bad surface our pace was not more than a slow and very heavy plod.… That night was very cold, the temperature falling to -66°, and it was °-55 at breakfast on 30 June.

Some nights it dipped below -70F. At night the men’s sweat and breath condensed and saturated the tent and turned their clothes and gear to stone. Each morning they had to pound one another’s clothes and sledge harnesses for as long as an hour to get the harnesses on so they could pull the sledge;  “sometimes not even two men could bend the [harness] into the required shape.” Each evening it took 3 to 4 hours to make camp and dinner and get into their bags. Each morning it took 3 to 4 hours to start the stove, make and breakfast, get their icelike boots on, and break camp. Then into harness.

Frostbite was routine. The worst was the hands. Even within his thick fur mittens, Cherry-Garrard’s frostbitten fingers developed blisters running their length. The blisters filled with fluid, and the fluid froze.

To handle the cooking gear or the food bags was agony; to start the primus was worse; and when, one day, I was able to prick six or seven of the blisters after supper and let the liquid out, the relief was very great.

They should have died, many times over. At one point, when their tent and much of their gear blew away in the midst of a storm of hurricane force, it seemed merely a confirmation of the inevitable.

File:Apsley Cherry-Garrard.jpg
Apsley Benet Cherry-Garrard during the Scott expedition. Courtesy Wikimedia

Cherry-Garrard, 24 at the time, claims his job was easy; as the junior member, he had merely to follow orders and example. Plus he never had to guide, for between the dark and the condensation on his glasses, he could see nothing. He actually put the glasses away much of the time while he walked. He fell constantly, sometimes tripping over a chunk of ice, sometimes into crevasses. Several times a day his companions pulled him free.

These were Bill Wilson, the Scott expedition’s second-in-command and the leader of this three-man winter project; and Henry “Birdie” Bowers. Their discipline and self-control is inhuman.

Through all these days, and those which were to follow, the worst I suppose in their dark severity that men have ever come through alive, no single hasty or angry word passed their lips. When, later, we were sure, so far as we can be sure of anything, that we must die, they were cheerful, and so far as I can judge their songs and cheery words were quite unforced. Nor were they ever flurried, though always as quick as the conditions would allow in moments of emergency.

At one point Bowers falls into the bay. Wilson and Cherry-Garrard, close ashore but not close enough to reach Bowers in time, watch their companion struggle, amid all his weight of iron clothing, to pull himself to shore and out. Bowers struggles in silence and they watch in silence. He extracts himself, and they assemble camp to warm him up. He lives.

Wilson wanted to collect eggs of the Emperor penguin, thinking the embryos might reveal an evolutionary link between reptiles and birds — a hint of how feathers got started. At the end of their third week, having almost given up on living, they find the rookery.  It saves their lives, for the penguins restore their exhausted supplies of food and fuel. The fat-burning stove proves troublesome, however. At one point it spits burning fat into Bowers’ eye. He moans all the night.

They collect five eggs, pack them in spare mittens, then set off back toward the base camp at Cape Evans. This return proves almost as trying as the journey out — less horrible, says Cherry-Garrard, only because they are inured. When a three-day storm blows away their tent and many of their supplies, they weather the last day of the storm in their sleeping bags, half-covered in snow, expecting to die. When the storm ends they regroup, set off, and, incredibly, find the tent blown against some rocks a half-mile away: a dividend of dumb persistence. As they trudge along, chipping away at the 60 miles, sometimes making 2 miles in a day, sometimes 8, the days begin to bring them a bit of light around noon. Only when they wake one morning within a day’s trudge of Cape Evans do they dare feel hope. They pull that day with a growing conviction that on that evening they will reach warmth, companions, food, and safety. The camp is silent as they approach. None of the camp’s dogs bark. Finally someone opens the cabin door and is astonished. “My God! It’s the Crozier party!” They had long been thought dead.

Two and a half years later, Cherry-Garrard, back in London, carries the three penguin eggs to the Natural History Museum. Scott is two years dead, an embarrassment in some circles; Cherry-Garrard was among those who found him in his tent. The eggs are the expedition’s last piece of business. At the museum, Cherry-Garrard delivers them to a distracted official and asks for a receipt. The official assures him there is no need of issuing a receipt for the eggs. When Cherry-Garrard repeats his request, the official gives him a vague answer and, closing the door, returns to the appointment that Cherry-Garrard had interrupted. Cherry-Garrard takes a seat in the anteroom and sits. For hours he sits. He maintains his composure and manners even though he increasingly feels and, he suspects, looks, murderous. “The receipt finally comes.”  He leaves. The eggs, he learns later, go to a Professor Assheton. Assheton dies without examining them. The eggs then go to a Professor Ewart of Edinburgh. Ewart, in a report Cherry-Garrard includes in the book in its entirety — another necessary torment to endure in full — finds that the eggs contain no embryos. They shed little light on the origin of feathers, little light on anything at all.

Other than the draining blisters — inseparable from them — two passages from this book stayed with me in the three years between readings. One was when the men break camp the final time. They are within a dozen miles of Camp Evans.

We just pulled for all we were worth and did nearly two miles an hour.… We slept as we walked. We had done eight miles by 4 p.m. and were past Glacier Tongue. We lunched there.

As we began to gather our gear together to pack up for the last time, Bill said quietly, “I want to thank you two for what you have done. I couldn’t have found two better companions — and what is more I never shall.”

I am proud of that.

The other passage comes earlier in the book. It is a goodbye kiss planted in advance. In the spring following the Crozier trip, Cherry-Garrard was not among those selected for the polar journey, but Wilson and Bowers were. Both went with Scott and died with him. It was they, and Scott, that Cherry-Garrard and others would later find in Scott’s tent. If you don’t know that before reading the book, it’s almost possible to miss it here.

In civilization men are taken at their own valuation because there are so many ways of concealment, and there is so little time, perhaps even so little understanding. Not so down South. These two men went through the Winter Journey and lived: later they went through the Polar Journey and died. They were gold, pure, shining, unalloyed. Words cannot express how good their companionship was.

The histories of exploration and science are littered with catastrophies like the Scott expedition, big ones like his polar push and the small ones like the penguin eggs: people and ideas and ventures embedded in ice and slowly obscured. These failures are necessary to the successes; Scott’s drive drove Amundsen, and Wilson’s questions about the origins of feathers later got answers, in transmuted forms, in today’s theories about birds’ descent from dinosaurs. The same desire, an ardor akin to Ahab’s, animates them all. It shows more in the failures. Who can’t be at their best when things go well? The real test is when things don’t quite work out.

The polar party at the Pole. Standing: Oates, Scott, Wilson. Seated: Bowers and Edgar Evans

How Darwin Seduced the Devout Asa Gray

Below find #7 in my Best of Neuron Culture Moving Party — a run of 10 of my favorite posts from the blog’s stay at WIRED, posted as I moved the blog here. This one features an abridged chapter of my book Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral, which finds the 19th-century creationist Louis Agassiz facing off against his Harvard colleague Asa Gray, a botanist, in a decisive argument over Darwin’s theory of evolution —  decisive, crucial turning point in the U.S. reception of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

How Charles Darwin Seduced Asa Gray

from Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral
© David Dobbs, all rights reserved

After Darwin published The Origin of Species came out in late 1859, Louis mounted an all-or-nothing attack on it. He waged his war on two fronts — one among peers, another in the popular press and lecture circuit. Louis actually won a draw on the popular front, at least in the United States, for most Americans chose the straddle mentioned earlier. Even 150 years later, over half of Americans continued to believe that God either created most species as is or somehow directs evolution.

This happy stance ignores, of course, the philosophical implications that haunted Darwin, and it overlooks the underlying disagreement about how one should seek answers. Louis’s idealist logic and Darwin’s empirical method clashed as violently as did their creationist and mechanistic conclusions. For scientists of the era — a time when science was self-consciously moving toward an empirical stance — this argument about method mattered as much as whether we arose from God or monkey. It was this methodological debate that Louis so decisively lost.

A debate, of course, requires an opponent, and even Darwin couldn’t argue effectively from across the Atlantic. He didn’t much like arguing anyway, preferring to sway through his writing while friends did the knifework. In England, Thomas Huxley, self-anointed as “Darwin’s bulldog,” did the bloodiest of it. Huxley won an early and instantly famous debate over Darwinism even though his opponent, the former Oxford debater Archbishop Wilberforce, fired the most memorable salvo of the entire long war: In June 1860, before an excited crowd at Oxford, Wilberforce wrapped up his creationist attack on Origin by asking Huxley whether it was through his grandfather or grandmother that he descended from a monkey. The agnostic Huxley, murmuring to a friend that “The Lord hath delivered him unto my hands,” rose, rubbing those hands together, and dismantled the archbishop’s argument. He finished by declaring that if given the choice between kinship to a smelly ape or to a man willing to use his intelligence and privilege to twist the truth, he would choose the ape. The packed hall erupted in shouting; one woman reportedly fainted.

Darwin’s American advocate was less flashy. The Harvard botanist Asa Gray, it will be recalled, was among those who warmly welcomed Louis Agassiz to America. Far less outgoing than Louis (he preferred doing taxonomy to lecturing about it), Gray, at Harvard since 1842, had won eminence through solid work, lucid writing, and judicious promotion of rigorous science. As charmed as most by Louis’s high spirits and dazzling talk, he had accompanied him on his first trip to Philadelphia and Washington in 1846 to introduce him to the country’s scientific establishment. He was thrilled when Agassiz joined the Harvard faculty, inviting him to dinner several times to meet new colleagues. Louis would often stay late at these dinners as he and Gray talked deep into the night. Their rapport seemed to promise long allegiance.

But the two differed on numerous points over the next 15 years. In the mid-1850s, at a time when the issues of race and slavery repeatedly took the United States to the brink of civil war, Gray was disgusted to see Louis offer scientific views in support of racist arguments. Louis held that different human races, like similar but different animal species, had been created separately — and none too equally. This theory conflicted with both Gray’s growing scientific belief in species descent and his Christian belief in humankind’s common origin.

Gray also favored a more egalitarian, less authoritarian educational model than Agassiz did, and the two clashed repeatedly over how to shape the growing university. Similarly, Louis (along with Ben Peirce, who had delighted in being called a nabob) favored an elitist, invitation-only structure in scientific organizations, while Gray, his geologist friend James Dwight Dana of Yale, and many others preferred a more open, democratic structure based on interest and commitment. And Gray, despite himself, resented that Louis garnered unprecedented attention and funding while he struggled to raise enough money to replace pickets in the botanical garden’s fence. Gray, Dana, and others also felt that Louis’s pursuit of fame, funding, and lecture opportunities was leading him to practice sloppy science and oversimplify its results. His love of popular lecturing “has greatly injured him,” Gray complained at one point, leading him to “tamper with strict veracity for the sake of popular effect.” These resentments sharpened in 1858 when Louis sent an article to the American Journal of Science expressing support for a book of one of his protégés, Jules Marcou, that harshly attacked the work of Gray’s friend James Dwight Dana (who happened to edit the Journal) and other American geologists — and insisted that his letter be printed even though he had not read the book it praised. After consulting Gray, Dana printed Louis’s letter along with a rejoinder and a note explaining the whole affair.

All this accrued to quite a pile of bother. But what irked Gray most — more every year — was that the view of species Louis sold so effectively was idealist rather than empirical.

Gray had once held views rather idealist himself, even while professing empiricism XE “empiricism: held by Asa Gray” . This was actually a common stance among scientists in the mid-nineteenth century, as a growing commitment to empiricism eroded various idealist assumptions and approaches. The year Agassiz arrived in America, for instance (1846), Gray reviewed a controversial work called A Sequel to the Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation that espoused a roughly Lamarckian theory of evolution. (Louis’s Lowell lectures the following winter were partly a response to the same book.) Gray panned Vestiges, attacking its shoddy science and concluding that its unproven Lamarckian evolutionary scheme must be rejected because the “unity we perceive in nature” is one to which “sound science has ever delighted to point, as the proof that all is the direct handiwork of a single omniscient Creator.” As yet, Gray wrote, those arguing that species arise any other way “are bound to show that natural agencies are competent to produce such results …. The burden of proof rests upon them.” This could easily have been Louis talking.

For Gray, however, the burden of proof would soon shift — or, more to the point, it would apply as much to speculative religious explanations as to speculative evolutionary theories. During the 1850s, Gray grew ever more self-consciously empiricist. He would increasingly insist that theories correspond first and foremost with observable evidence. Though he was more conscientious about this than most, he was hardly alone. He was simply helping to push a more rigorous empiricism.

Gray would only take this so far. He was among the few to immediately accept the theory of natural selection. Yet he would not admit its ruthlessly mechanistic implications (or those of the larger evolutionary theory). Instead he chose to believe, as would so many after him, not only that God had created life in some manner “lost in the mists of time” but that in some similarly unknowable manner He now directed the selective process. Thus Gray conceded to his devout Christianity — yielding, as he saw it, in an arena beyond the knowable.

Otherwise, however, Gray viewed religious or abstract explanations warily. He trusted instead the literal and demonstrable. In the 1850s, as Agassiz’s idealist preachings began to grate, Gray found support for his empiricism in his friendship with several English naturalists, most notably Joseph Hooker, the eminent and well-traveled botanist who directed the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew. Gray had met Hooker while visiting England in the late 1830s, and since then the two, frequently corresponding, had pioneered the subdiscipline of plant geography. Like Darwin’s and others’ close attention to the distribution of animal species, their study of the geographical distribution of plants would reveal much about evolution’s dynamics. For now, pre-Origin, their efforts were notable for their empirical tenor: a broadening enquiry, ever tied to direct evidence, into why plant species were distributed as they were.

Hooker and the other British scientists Gray corresponded with — all friends of Darwin — tried to practice the no-nonsense empiricism first articulated by their countryman John Locke a century before and elaborated in the early to mid-1800s by the British philosopher-scientists William Whewell and John Stuart Mill. Gray, besieged by Louis’s idealist spinnings as well as by the transcendentalism then being spangled about by Emerson, Thoreau, and their followers, was glad to find such literal-mindedness in scientists so respected and prominent. By the late 1850s he was ready to let empiricism override not only speculative evolutionary schema such as that of Vestiges but creationist elaborations such as Louis’s.

After all, both made the same sort of unfounded conceptual jump — exciting but ultimately unsupportable — that left one standing on air. As he put it to Joseph Hooker in 1858, “[I] sympathize more with & estimate higher the slow induction that leads step by step to sound conclusions so far as they go, than the bolder flights of the genius which so often leads the possessor to mount three pairs of steps only to jump out of the garret window.”

The idea that species were God’s “direct handiwork” — a conviction he had once shared with Louis — was starting to feel like a jump out the window.


What brought Gray to ground was a botanical conundrum. As early as the 1840s, Gray had noted that eastern North America and eastern Asia, especially Japan, both hosted many plants found nowhere else. Identical or closely similar species were growing a world apart. Forty plant genera existed only in these two areas. He noted this oddity in print several times but lacked time to examine it closely.

In 1855, however, a new pen pal revived his interest in the puzzle. Charles Darwin, drawing on their mutual friendship with Joseph Hooker (and having admired a letter that Gray sent to Hooker regarding plant geography), wrote Gray asking for help in solving some plant-species distribution problems he was struggling with. As always, Darwin was humble, solicitous — and subversively Socratic, even while fishing for information he genuinely needed.

As I am no Botanist, it will seem so absurd to you my asking botanical questions, that I may premise that I have for several years been collecting facts on “variation,” and when I find that any general remark seems to hold amongst animals, I try to test it in Plants.

Though Darwin in this particular letter asked about differences among North American alpine plants, his confession to testing ideas on “variation” against Gray’s plant data sums up the course of their ensuing correspondence. Their exchanges would greatly strengthen Darwin’s theories even as he sold them to Gray.

It wasn’t by accident. At the time Hooker re-introduced Darwin and Gray (who had met briefly when Gray toured England in 1838), he was one of just two people to whom Darwin had confessed his theory of evolution. (Charles Lyell was the other.) Hooker and Darwin had corresponded extensively about how anomalies of plant distribution seemed to support Darwin’s ideas about species change. Like Darwin’s Galapagos finches, plant species on nearby islands often took closely similar forms that suggested descent from common ancestors. Hooker had seen this in the plants Darwin brought back from the Galapagos, and he had noted many similarities in plant communities in the European Alps and the Arctic, as if those two flora had once shared a single habitat and then been separated. Hooker recognized that Gray’s eastern North American – east Asia conundrum offered a similar puzzle — and that if Darwin’s theory helped Gray solve it, it would strengthen Darwin’s theory and win him an important ally. He set the two men up knowing damn well what he was doing.

For two years, then, Darwin — humble, politic, and also knowing damn well — plied Gray with questions about plant distribution problems in North America, and particularly about the eastern U.S.-East Asia puzzle, that led Gray to consider more deeply the possible links between species distribution and “variation,” or species change. Darwin’s intriguing questions, modest suggestions, and requests for clarification helped Gray see much about plant geography that, short of an Agassizian leap of faith in divine creation, seemed explainable only by some mechanism of transmutation.

It was a brilliant strategy, convincing Gray not by rhetoric but by enticing him to reconsider the evidence on his own lab tables. Gray saw he was being led, and he gathered from Hooker that Darwin was nursing some new evolutionary theory. He recognized that one of his most important tenets — “like breeds like” — was being challenged. Yet he allowed it. For Gray’s belief in species fixity stemmed less from religious or essentialist principles than from empirical observation. His thousands of hours classifying plant specimens had convinced him that if species were not fixed — if species boundaries could be easily and often crossed — then the order he perceived in his many specimens would have broken down long ago, and he would not find the fairly clear distinctions he saw daily. He believed in species fixity, in short, because it seemed to confirm what he saw. But as a belief based on observation, he held it open to revision. By the late 1850s he had already softened this belief, for he knew Hooker and others were questioning it and he himself saw growing evidence that species varied so much as to stretch their own boundaries. Many specimens seemed to lie right on species boundaries. The question was what “natural agency,” to use the terms with which he’d skewered Vestiges, might “be competent to produce such results.” Hooker’s hints that Darwin was pondering such an agency did not surprise him.

Finally, in July 1857, Darwin fessed up. With a short letter followed by an abstract, he made Gray the third confidante to know of his theory of evolution, including his ideas on natural selection. His letter was typically humble and disarming. He offered his ideas as admittedly blasphemous and doubtless flawed while making clear the key mechanism — the selection and amplification of advantageous traits through greater survival and reproductive rates of the individuals who happened to inherit them — that elevated his above previous transmutation theories. The following summer, Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace (who had finally scared the cautious Darwin into publishing by writing him of his own similar theory) published their short papers in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society, providing a slightly fuller explanation and making his theory a matter of record.

Gray was at first cautiously receptive about Darwin’s theory, then increasingly convinced. The logic seemed sound. Even if Darwin himself worried aloud to Gray (somewhat in the manner of one looking to have an insecurity contradicted) that this theory was “grievously hypothetical,” it nevertheless made an empirical argument based on a natural process rather than a supernatural one. It thus appealed to Gray’s empiricism. But what truly sold Gray, in those months between Darwin’s private confession of the theory and his publication of it more fully in the Linnean Society papers and then Origin, was the light the theory shed on the Japan-North America pattern Gray had long been pondering.

Gray’s Japan-North America findings presented an obvious but difficult puzzle: How did such a large group of identical or nearly identical species come to exist only in two areas far apart? Nearby islands, of course, often shared closely similar plant communities; but that was easily explained by the idea that the islands had once been high points on a single land mass that sank. That didn’t seem to apply to Asia and North America.

Gray, however, applied something very close to that explanation, solving the puzzle by essentially treating the two great continents as islands formerly joined. Though this seems routine in our post-plate-tectonics era, it was a big leap at the time. In one of the boomerang-like ironies that careened through the contradiction-filled air around Louis Agassiz, Gray connected and disconnected the two continents by using Louis’s Ice Age theory. Using a hypothesis Hooker had employed with good results to European alpine flora, Gray proposed that in the warm part of the Tertiary period, a single temperate flora had spread unbroken across the northern reaches of Asia and North America — unbroken, he asserted, because the two continents had then shared a land bridge across the Bering Strait. This band of flora lay well north of what later became Japan and eastern North America. When the next Ice Age came, however, the cooling climate pushed these plant communities southward, splitting them, as they moved down either side of the Pacific, into separate communities in North America and eastern Asia. Subsequent climate changes, such as the increasing dryness of the American West, then drove the two communities into the more limited areas found by Gray’s time.

This explanation was not exactly innocent of speculation. Even so, it was far more empirical than the notion that God arbitrarily placed identical species in two places a world apart. But a puzzle remained. If these two communities were remnants of a former single community, why were some of the species closely similar but not identical?

Enter Darwin’s new theory. In Gray’s paper, drafted and refined over late 1858 and early 1859, he accepted and employed, gingerly but quite clearly, Darwin’s notion (as Darwin put it in his original letter of confession to Gray) that species “are only strongly defined varieties” that rose from an ancestor species. In the millennia since the two plant populations separated, he explained, some of the species had diverged enough to become taxonomically distinct from their cousins across the Pacific.

Gray’s Japan paper still stands as a thoughtful, creative, and bold piece of work and a pioneering piece of biogeography. Along with Hooker’s papers, it was one of the first to use Darwin’s theory in the way it would so often be used later — to explain the anomalies of species distribution. For Gray, the paper confirmed not only the strength of Darwin’s theory but the obsolescence of Agassiz’s. He realized the Japan paper armed him well to challenge Agassiz, for it contradicted virtually every aspect of Louis’s view of species creation and order. It even used Agassiz’s own Ice Age theory — his most solid piece of work, as Gray saw it — against him in a way sure to heighten the contrast between Louis’s idealism and Gray’s empiricism. For Gray described the Ice Age not as a sudden holocaust erasing all life so God could start over, but in a more restrained sense, as a gradual natural event that pushed species around rather than wiping them out wholesale.

With the publication of Origin soon to come, Gray sensed the time was ripe to dethrone Agassiz and relieve American science of his speculative, idealist vision. Gray had no idea that the Darwinian theory he incorporated into his Japan theory would turn the world upside down. But he saw full well that it might upend Louis.

Gray chose a friendly forum in which to first air his ideas, reading an early version of the paper at a meeting of the Cambridge Scientific Society, a small club of which both he and Agassiz were members, on December 10, 1858. This was a full year before Origin was published, though several months after the Darwin and Wallace papers had been read at the Linnean Society in London. While no transcript of the talk survives, notes from attendees suggest that Gray (like Darwin a rather cautious revolutionary) presented his ideas on species drift in language of a delicacy similar to that which he used a few months later in the Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In a footnote within that published version, Gray asserted that Darwin’s theory would resolve the “fundamental and most difficult question remaining in natural history” and predicted it would hold “a prominent part in all future investigations into the distribution and probable origin of species.” But he described the actual theory of variation and new species creation in fairly tentative language, writing that “the limits of occasional variation in species … are wider than is generally supposed, and … derivative forms when segregated may be as constantly reproduced as their originals” — in other words, variations might become new species. Whether the listener would infer those other words — or even read the footnote — was left to chance. As for the Cambridge Society meeting, Gray appears to have drawn on Darwin’s speciation theory only enough to help explain his solution to the Japan-North America plant distribution puzzle.

Gray wrote a friend afterwards that Louis took the presentation “very well indeed”. In fact, Louis, distracted by museum matters at the time, seemed to miss how large an issue Gray was raising. Gray, however, felt emboldened. He immediately arranged to read the paper before a fuller, more important audience at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences meeting the following month. There, he wrote his friend Henry Torrey in New York, he would “knock out the underpinning of Agassiz’s theories about species and their origin [by] turning Agassiz’s own guns [i.e., his Ice Age theory as well as much of his data on species distribution] against him.” When the meeting came, Gray was indeed more bold. He spoke for more than an hour, laying out his paper’s argument and stating explicitly that its view of species distribution, creation, and variability directly contradicted the theory of species distribution and fixity offered by Agassiz — which theory, as Gray put it, “offers no scientific explanation of the present distribution of species over the globe; but simply supersedes explanation, by affirming, that as things now are, so they were at the beginning; whereas the facts of the case … appear to demand from science something more than a direct reference of the phenomena as they are to the Divine will.”

If Louis had missed the directness of Gray’s challenge before, he certainly saw it now. Gray stood before a room of peers accusing him of pseudoscience. Louis, perhaps sensing explosive ground, was uncharacteristically measured in response. In a half-hour deflection maneuver he declined to rebut Gray’s botanical argument by pleading knowledge mainly of zoology — which knowledge he then drew on to reaffirm his position and deny, without addressing the evidence just presented, that climate affected species distribution.

Perhaps recognizing he had not quite risen to the occasion, Louis proposed at the next Academy of Arts and Sciences meeting, two weeks later, that this subject of species origin be pursued in a series of “discussions.” His old friend Ben Peirce, perhaps hoping to rally the sort of crowd before which Louis usually prevailed, moved that the meetings be open to the general public. (Peirce’s and Agassiz’s feelings on exclusivity softened when convenient.) The rest of the group agreed. And so a showdown was arranged, and the public meetings scheduled, and over the months ahead, in a series of three debates, Gray and Agassiz fired the first shots in what would become a loud and long war.

It is one of history’s minor oddities that nobody saw it that way at the time — so complete was the resistance to Darwin’s idea. Everyone at the meetings saw that Agassiz was being challenged, but they missed that a common, fundamental view of the world was also under fire. The two men debated monthly through that winter and spring, at Academy meetings in February, March, and April and then at a May meeting of the Cambridge Scientific Club at Gray’s garden house. A couple times the debate started from the Japan paper, and at least once it started from Louis’s presentation, yet again, of his “Plan of Creation” lecture. Gray was more explicit and pejorative every time about the difference in views and methods being presented, repeatedly contrasting his view of species distribution and creation to Agassiz’s, which he said was so speculative and idealist that it “remove[s] the whole question out of the field of inductive science.” Finally, at a May meeting, in the cozier forum of a Cambridge Scientific Club held in his own garden house, Gray let the big cat out of the bag. “To see how it would strike a dozen people of varied minds and habits of thought, and partly, I confess, maliciously to vex the soul of Agassiz with views so diametrically opposed to all his pet notions,” he explicated Darwin’s theory directly, summarizing and reading parts from Darwin’s Linnean Society paper and the abstract Darwin had sent him, presenting plainly Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection and noting once again that this view of species creation directly contradicted Louis’s idealist vision.

Well there, Gray must have thought; that should do it. Yet even now no one seemed to see how huge a door was swinging on the small hinge of these debates. None seemed to note, for example, the distinction that Darwin’s insight about natural selection gave his theory; they instead likened it to Lamarck’s. Everyone seemed to see the debate as a lively but essentially routine academic spat.

The seeming thick-headedness of Gray’s Cambridge audiences was almost surely due to the deeply subversive nature of Darwin’s thinking. It would take the 600 pages of Origin, with its agile argument wielding a huge weight of evidence, to convince them of evolution and common descent, and decades more before the frighteningly mechanistic natural selection theory took hold. It would take the inflamed, post-publication shouting of religious rebutters and self-styled Darwinian agnostics to highlight the philosophical and religious differences between the two views. Gray wasn’t about to get such work done in a few evenings’ repartee with Louis.

Doubtless the attendees were also partly fooled by the debaters’ collegiality. A friendly decorum prevailed at these meetings; the two were, after all, neighbors. Gray, despite his directness and his deep, long resentments, was his usual polite self, and Louis, a bit uncertain on this new ground and perhaps not wanting to start a shooting war, remained gracious in response. The gladiatorial atmosphere of the Huxley-Wilberforce showdown never took hold. On the contrary, these meetings in the spring of 1859 — before the publication of Origin, before the infamous Huxley rejoinder, before America’s religionists started feuding with America’s scientific rebels and agnostics, before, in short, Darwin’s book ignited a popular controversy — witnessed perhaps the last sustained congeniality between two colleagues who had once approached close friendship and now faced each other across an opening abyss. Both still behaved as if their collegiality could span the rift — as if their differences could be raised, explored, summarized, and then set aside like most scientific and philosophical discussions, and that life and work (as Gray perhaps feared and Agassiz surely hoped) would continue as before.

But if the audience seemed to miss the depth of the opening chasm, the participants did not. After the last of the debates, the one held in May at the garden house where they had once shared long dinners, Agassiz told his colleague, “Gray, we must stop this.” Gray would remember the words even twenty years later.


A few weeks after that last May meeting, Louis sailed to Europe for a long-planned and much-needed vacation, creating a ceasefire in the debate with Gray. When Louis returned in late September, things stayed quiet, as Louis resumed teaching and organizing the new museum.

Almost as soon as the first copies of Origin arrived around Christmas, however, Agassiz could see that this debate would not stop. Darwin’s book — engaging and accessible but supported by broad knowledge and compelling detail — was the buzz not only of scientific but of wider literary and academic circles, exciting discussion among the same milieu Louis had once effortlessly dominated. It immediately sold well, with a full print run of 1750 copies sold in the U.S. by May 1 — a stunning distribution then for a book of science. Several of Agassiz’s students read the book in the weeks after its publication, as did others in the close Harvard community. Harvard aesthetics professor Charles Eliot Norton, for instance, wrote a friend that he, the eminent Harvard zoologist Jeffries Wyman, the poet James Lowell (an Agassiz friend), and the historian Henry Torrey met excitedly the day after Christmas and “grew warm” discussing the book, recognizing immediately that “if Darwin is right, Agassiz is wrong.”

Louis recognized this too. And now, rested from his trip, invigorated by the enthusiasm of his new students and the possibilities his new museum offered to buttress his case, he took up anew the job of refuting Darwin’s folly.

Doing so proved maddeningly difficult. Darwin was like a punchy clown you could not knock down. At the January 1860 meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Louis reasserted the fixity of species by trying to refute any relationship between Tertiary-period seashell fossils and present forms — but was soundly contradicted by William Barton Rogers, a prominent geologist who was then starting the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ben Peirce called for another a series of discussions, but his friend fared even worse this time around. In early March Louis tried to move the fight from Gray’s turf to his own by asserting that “varieties, properly so called, have no existence, at least in the animal kingdom,” and at a meeting two weeks later, in a sort of surprise managerial move, he sent in a couple subs — a Harvard philosophy professor defending tenets of essentialism and Louis’s old benefactor John Avery Lowell, the textile magnate — to attack Darwin on philosophical and religious grounds. Louis’s use of a businessman to forward a scientific debate suggests his growing desperation. (Darwin, reading a review of Origin that Lowell subsequently published, noted “it is clear [Lowell] is not [a] naturalist”.) Yet Louis had method in this madness, for Lowell was the dominant member of the Harvard Corporation, and his active opposition to Darwin carried an implicit warning to Gray about job security. But Gray, ignoring both the zoological bait and the veiled threat, countered the next month by using a wealth of botanical data to show not only that variations existed in nature but that natural selection retained and amplified them. Meanwhile another debate series had sprung up at the Boston Society of Natural History, where Louis, rushing from one front to another, found himself again outflanked by the geologist William Rogers. Rogers, a charismatic lecturer himself, had transmuted into a sort of American Huxley, repeatedly turning Louis’s paleontological and Ice Age research (as well as his own vast geological and paleontological knowledge) against him. These Boston Society of Natural History meetings provided an extra dimension of aggravation and humiliation (not to mention a disturbing sign of things to come) when some of Louis’s own students asked provocative questions that fanned the debate hotter.

None of these contretemps were true scientific debates. They were rhetorical battles in which a new argument confronted a wall of stubbornly repeated assertions. Gray pointed this out in a long, lucid, and measured review of Origin of Species in the March issue of American Journal of Science. Playing the dispassionate arbiter, he contrasted Darwin’s view of species with Agassiz’s. While Charles Darwin saw facts of nature as “complex facts, to be analyzed and interpreted scientifically” and “view[ed] them in their relations to one another, and endeavors to explain them as far as he can … through natural causes,” Louis Agassiz treated the facts of nature as “ultimate facts [to be] interpreted theologically” and viewed them “only in their supposed relation to the Divine mind.” Darwin’s theory of species, despite some flaws Gray perceived, was “a legitimate attempt to extend the domain of natural or physical science.” Louis’s theory, on the other hand, was “theistic to excess.” Though the tone was slightly more tactful, the message was as a year before: What Louis Agassiz did could not be called science. Gray would send the same message to an even wider audience in a three-part article on Origin in the July, August, and September of the Atlantic. This Atlantic series extended the debate into the popular realm and, given that the Atlantic was owned and edited by good friends of Louis, spoke volumes about how far the center of debate had moved in just six months.

Louis, meanwhile, dragged his feet in providing a written critique of Origin. He promised to send one to the American Journal of Science by early February but did not deliver, prompting Gray to write Hooker that

Agassiz has again failed to provide his promised criticism on Darwin for [the] Jour[nal] after promising it over and over…. [He has] failed because [of] the poor stuff— as everybody calls it — he has been pouring out at the Academy. I do not wonder that he hesitates to commit himself to print. I really think his mind has deteriorated within a few years.

When Louis’s first printed rebuttal of Darwin finally appeared in the July 1860 American Journal of Science, it seemed to confirm that he would rather stubbornly defend an idealist vision than undertake the critical thinking of science. Ostensibly a review of Origin, the piece was really an expanded version of a chapter from his own Contributions to the Natural History of the United States in which he re-rehashed his Plan of Creation scheme. Here he stated — proudly, as if this proved Darwinism’s falsity — that “the arguments presented by Darwin … have not made the slightest impression on my mind.” Darwin’s evolutionary theory was a “scientific mistake, untrue in its facts, unscientific in its method, and mischievous in its tendency.”

Yet Louis could not so convince his colleagues. They had read Darwin’s book, talked about it extensively, and saw it was no Vestiges. While many scientists first received Darwin’s theory guardedly, few rejected it outright. They saw Darwin’s empirical basis, respected the voluminous evidence he marshaled, and admired the lucid power of his argument. By trying to dispose wholesale of this engaging new theory, Louis exposed his close-mindedness and a hostility to his discipline’s inquisitive, empirical basis. Should someone who so proudly closed his mind to a productive idea stand as an icon of American science? More and more colleagues thought not.

So began the collapse of Louis’s high tower. Long weakened by rust, the thing began to crumble. Louis, sensing he was losing the scientific battle, fought a rear-guard action writing for popular magazines, lecturing, and building the museum, whose collections, he felt sure, would yet prove Darwin wrong. He wrote his own piece for the Atlantic, rebutting Gray and Darwin; gave yet another series of Lowell lectures on his Plan of Creation, which he soon published as a book (Methods of Natural Study) that went through several printings; gave a variation on that lecture series in New York, which he also soon published in book form; and then composed a entire series of a dozen articles for the Atlantic that were also soon printed as a book Between 1861 and 1866 he gave scores of lectures and published four books and twenty-one articles — almost all in the popular press — asserting his special brand of special creationism. Yet even as he fought, he fell. He retained virtually no scientific allies. Most of his Harvard colleagues (as well as the Massachusetts legislature) continued to support the museum, and the scientific community continued to recognize the great value of his taxonomic and curatorial work. But as a theoretician, Louis walked alone. As he recognized himself by writing only for the popular press, the scientific debate had moved on. His own students were questioning and deserting him. Colleagues grew less deferential. He began suffering political reversals. Members of the Academy of Arts and Sciences — a group that Louis had long dominated — began siding with Gray on political matters, and in 1863 they elected Gray president and William Rogers secretary.

Louis’s most searing defeat came at the 1864 meeting of a new scientific group he had helped found only the year before, the National Academy of Sciences (or NAS — a new, national organization unrelated to the Boston-based Academy of Arts and Sciences). The 1864 NAS meeting took place in New Haven, a location that should have warned Louis of trouble, for New Haven was home to Yale geologist James Dwight Dana, the Gray ally and American Journal of Science editor who had been attacked by Jules Marcou with Louis’s support. But Louis felt confident, for it was only the year before that he, Peirce, and their closet scientific allies, having had their elitist agenda rebuffed at the Academy of Arts and Sciences, had founded the National Academy of Sciences specifically to emulate the elite, election-only French academies Louis adored. The new Academy’s elitist function seemed confirmed by its designation as the federal government’s official scientific advisor. Membership was limited to fifty internally elected members, and since Louis, Peirce, and their allies had hand-picked most of the original forty-nine, they figured to control subsequent entries, including the addition of the fiftieth member, which was part of the business for the 1864 meeting. But the New Haven meeting (only the organization’s second) brought a stunning reversal when Gray, Dana, and a few allies, using a slippery, last-minute switch of career geologist Dana to the organization’s zoology section so he could cast a deciding nominating vote within that section, managed to give the fiftieth spot to Smithsonian Institute director Spencer Baird — a man whom Louis hated because he lent Louis specimens only reluctantly and, worse, had once hired a defecting Agassiz assistant. Louis was livid. Gray had outmaneuvered, outvoted, and embarrassed him in the elitist political structure that he himself had founded. The incident starkly lit his fall from power. On the train back to Boston he confronted Gray, calling him “no gentleman” and apparently other words less printable, insulting Gray so deeply that the two would not speak again for several years. Back in Cambridge Agassiz complained widely, and rumor spread that he had challenged Gray to a duel. (Swords, presumably.) Had he received such a challenge, Gray, even were he not pacific to begin with, would surely have declined. He had already won.

From Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral (Pantheon, 2005). Copyright 2005 by David Dobbs. Not to be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

For more excerpts, you can read (from the start) the Introduction, Louis Agassiz, Creationist Magpie, The One Darwin Really DID Get Wrong: Rumble at Glen Roy, Louis Agassiz, TED Wet Dream, Conquers America, and Reef Madness 5: Alexander Agassiz Comes of Age.

Read what Oliver Sacks and others have to say about Reef Madness.

Buy Reef Madness at your favorite US independent bookstore or at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes and Noble, or Google eBook Store.


Key sources for this chapter included the superb biographies Asa Gray, by A. Hunter Dupree, and Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science, by Edward Lurie, as well as various works on Darwin. Some of Darwin’s letters you can now read at the splendid Darwin Correspondence Project — see , for instance, the fascinating string of letters between Gray and Darwin that mention Agassiz’s resistance to Darwin’s theory.

Free Science, One Paper at a Time (Neuron Culture Moving Party Track 6)

Below find #6 in my Best of Neuron Culture Moving Party — a run of 10 of my favorite posts from the blog’s tenure at WIRED, posted as I move the blog here. This piece,  originally published in May 2011. looks at the attempt one scientist makes to free his father’s papers from the calcified structures of today’s legacy scientific publishing system — a system that started as a conduit, but has become a chokepoint. 


Free Science, One Paper at a Time

by David Dobbs


Howard Eisen, 1942-1987

On Father’s Day three years ago, biologist Jonathan Eisen decided he’d like to republish all his father’s papers. His father, Howard Eisen, a biologist and a researcher at the National Institutes of Health, had published 40-some-odd papers by the time that he died by suicide at age 45. That had been in Febuary 1987, while Jonathan, a sophomore at college, was on the verge of discovering his own love of biology. At the time, virtually all scientific papers were just on paper. Now, of course, everything happens online, and Jonathan, who in addition to researching and teaching also serves as an editor for the open-access, online-only journal PLoS Biology, knows this well. So three years ago, Jonathan decided to reclaim his father’s papers from print limbo and make them freely available online. He wanted to make them part of the scientific record. He also wanted, he says, “to leave a more positive presence” — to ensure his father had a public legacy first and foremost as a scientist.

[Sidebar:] I researched and wrote this article last summer and fall (2010) under assignment from a magazine that accepted and paid for it but, in the way these things sometimes work, decided not to run it and gave me its blessing to publish it elsewhere. I’m publishing it here at Neuron Culture and also in an identical post at my website, daviddobbs.net. It is based on extensive reporting. I’d like to thank in particular Jonathan Eisen,, for reasons that the article will make obvious; Cameron Neylon, Peter Murray-Rust, Richard Grant, Michael Nielsen, Martin Fenner, Leslie Carr, and Lord Rees, whose ideas are fundamental to the story and its subject; Mark Patterson and Brian Mossop of PLoS; Victor Henning, Jason Hoyt, Ian Mulvany, William Gunn, and Jan Riechelt, all of Mendeley; and Melody Dye, Kristi Holmes, John Timmer, and Sara Wood, who along with Reichelt participated in a session on open science I organized at ScienceOnline 2011. I also had several conversations off-record; you know who you are — thanks.

How hard could it be? Howard Eisen had been a federal employee, so his work rightly lay in some sense in the public domain. And Jonathan, as an heir, presumably owned copyright anyway, along with his brother Michael (also a biologist, and one of the founders of the Public Library of Science, the innovative journal group that publishes PLoS Biology). Yet to the brothers’ continuing chagrin, Jonathan has found securing and publishing his father’s papers to be far harder than he expected.

For instance, even though Jonathan has access to the enormous University of California library system, which subscribes to a particularly high number of journals, he often can’t even find some his father’s papers. And when he finds a paper in a journal the university doesn’t subscribe to, he is asked to pay as much as $50 to read the paper — even though his father did the work with public funds. He’s not alone; one recent study found that even most university researchers have access to only about half the papers they need to cite for a given bit of research. Just yesterday, in fact, Jonathan asked on Twitter if anyone could send him a copy of one of his father’s paper and confronted a paywall asking for his credit card number. “I ain’t payin’,” he replied.

Continue reading →

Play That F**king Little Sixteenth Note (NC Moving Party Track 5)

Below find #5 in my Best of Neuron Culture Moving Party — a run of 10 of my favorite posts from the blog’s tenure at WIRED, posted as I moved the blog here. This one looks at the best lesson a teacher ever taught me.  



Originally posted October 2011

The fine writer Steve Silberman has posted a collective homage to good teachers at his blog NeuroTribes. The loveliest is his tribute to his husband Keith, who holds a PhD from Berkeley and teaches science in a high school. Lucky be his students.

Steve asked several writers to answer the question, What’s the most important lesson you ever learned from a teacher? Below is my answer. Over at NeuroTribes you’ll find more from writers including Deborah Blum, Rebecca Skloot, Ferris Jabr, Amy Harmon, Geoff Manaugh, and Maggie Koerth-Baker. It’s a lovely collection.

Hope you enjoy this — and then head over to NeuroTribes for the rest.


What’s the Best Lesson You Ever Learned from a Teacher?

What Malone Said

I started studying the violin in my 30s, working with a warm, intense teacher named Malone. After 5 years he put Bach’s D minor partita in front of me. “We’ll start with the Allemande,” he said. He put the music on the stand and talked me through the first movement, pencilling in bowings and fingerings, occasionally demonstrating how to get through some rhythmic puzzle, and sent me home. I practiced hard all week and came in ready to play about half the first page.

He stopped me on the second note. “Please put down the violin,” he said. I did.

“You’re skipping through that first D. I know it’s just a fucking little sixteenth note, but you have to play the whole thing. I don’t even mean the time. You’re actually giving it enough time. But you’re playing over it instead of through it. You have to play right through the center of it. It’s a leading note, but it’s not just a step into the room. It is the room, and you have to put us there. Play it. Play through every single note in the piece.”

I started to reach for the violin. He held up a hand.

“Wait,” he said. “This is Bach. And Bach, more than any other music, and these pieces, more than any other Bach, is music complete. This doesn’t just mean it’s beautiful. This means you can play this music all your life, even just this Allemande, and no matter what you do, it will expose you. It will expose everything you are and everything you’re not. It will expose everything you can do and everything you can’t. It will expose everything you’ve mastered and everything you’re scared of. And I don’t mean just about the violin. I mean about everything. It’ll show all that today and it’ll show all that when you play it again in 10 years. And people who know music, who’ve seen you play it both times, they will see you play it and know who you were and who you’ve become.

“There is nothing you can do about this. Or actually there is only one thing you can do about it. And that’s to play the fucking music. To not play scared, even if you’re terrified. To not rush. To not short anything. Inhabit this thing. Play it full.”

He took a deep breath, let it out slow, and gave me the tiniest hint of a smile. “Okay,” he said, and nodded at my violin. “Play.”


Get more over at NeuroTribes.

See Also:

  • How Led Zeppelin + Franz Schubert = Writing
  • How to Write Like Nicolas Cage
  • Why I Love Hemingway (and Why I Write)
  • How I Wrote “The Orchid Children,” via Open Notebook
  • Musical Audition 2.0: Live, from Carnegie Hall, the YouTube …

On folding the tent: Over the next week I’ll be leaving WIRED’s Science Blogs, moving Neuron Culture on June 7 , 2013, to a self-hosted location at http://neuronculture.com — a domain that will on June 7 cease pointing to WIRED and lead instead to the blog’s new, self-hosted home elsewhere. Please join me there. 

Meanwhile, to celebrate and mark the end of Neuron Culture’s 2.75-year run at WIRED, I’m posting a “Best of Neuron Culture” over its final 10 days, spotlighting each day a post from the past that I feel embodies the best of Neuron Culture’s WIRED tenure. (Neuron Culture was previously at Seed’s ScienceBlogs as well as at my own site on TypePad.) These posts, among the stronger  and more popular ones I’ve done here, characterize the possibilities that a hosted blog has offered in this period’s strange transitional time of writing, publishing, and journalism. 

Why leave Wired? So I can focus more steadily for a time on finishing my book, tentatively titled The Orchid and the Dandelion, that I’ve often mentioned here. I know some people manage it, but I’ve found it hard to reconcile the demands of blogging at a venue like Wired and of writing a serious book that requires deep immersion: a matter of not just the time needed for each venture, but of the mindset and what you might call the focal length of one’s mental lens. A venue like this requires, methinks, either an unrelenting focus on a particular beat or a fairly steady tour through many fields; I can’t seem to mesh either with the sort of time and focus needed for a book. The move also frees me up to experiment a bit more. I hope to see what sort of more Tumblr-like approach I can take at Neuron Culture once it’s in a self-hosted venue.

But it has been a fun run here at WIRED. I want to thank WIRED.com, and especially Betsy Mason, Evan Hansen, Brandon Keim, Dave Mosher, Adam Rogers, and the rest of the WIRED team, present and past, for giving me a productive blogging platform here since September 2010; my fellow bloggers for their support, good cheer, and many fabulous posts; and most of all, my readers, whom I hope will come along and follow me at my new home, starting June 7, 2013, you can find at http://neuronculture.com — a domain name that on June 7 will switch from one pointing to WIRED to one pointing to the blog’s new, self-hosted home elsewhere. Please join me there. And you can always follow me at The Twitter as well.

The PTSD Trap (NC Moving Party Track 4)

Below find #4 in my Best of Neuron Culture Moving Party — a run of 10 of my favorite posts from the blog’s tenure at WIRED, posted as I moved the blog here. This post, “The PTSD Trap,” is a substantially longer version — call it the director’s cut — of a feature I published in Scientific American in early 2009. The article looks at evidence that we’re wildly overdiagnosing PTSD in the United States, particularly among veterans. Though the evidence for this is substantial, this was a very difficult piece to place in the mainstream media, and I’m still impressed and grateful that Scientific American ran it. (They did so enthusiastically. When I warned them it was controversial, the answer was, essentially, “That doesn’t worry us. The science is solid. We’re happy to run it.”) This evidence that we’re overdiagnosing PTSD in the US continues to go largely ignored, however, and fiercely resisted (see the comments on the original post, for instance), even as we struggle to help veterans of our recent wars re-enter civilian life, and many people didn’t have access to the piece behind the SciAm paywall. I ran the piece here at Neuron Culture in early 2012 at the urging of a young Army doctor, who thought this perspective needed to be spread more widely — yet another opportunity provided by the freer media ecosystem that blogs play such an important role in.


The PTSD Trap
Originally posted 22 March, 2012
from reporting done in 2007, 2008, and 2009


Standing Watch
Standing Watch. Photo courtesy U.S. Army

Author’s note: This story originally appeared in Scientific American, April 2009. As the suggestion of U.S. Army medical student Petulant Skeptic (see below), I am re-publishing it here, open access, because the return of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars renews the importance of examining our ideas about how most soldiers react to combat. As noted in Petulant Skeptic’s preface below, the U.S. press and populace seems all too ready to attribute every trouble suffered or made by combat veterans a sign of searing trauma. We can do better.    – David Dobbs

Preface by Petulant Skeptic, U.S. Army.

As America rushes to understand SSgt Robert Bales’ alleged murder of 16 Afghan civilians there will be, and already is (see: here, here, and here), a renewed interest in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) among those who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the media have been more restrained in blaming Bales’ purported PTSD or TBI than they were with Benjamin Barnes—the Mt. Rainier Shooter three months ago (see here for a recap)—there continues to be precious little examination of PTSD’s prevalence and persistence among veterans. As a soldier, a medical student, and someone interested in these “invisible” injuries of war I find myself often paraphrasing David’s article in order to elucidate the confusing nomenclatures, conflated diagnoses and backwards incentives of how the Department of Veteran’s Affairs handles PTSD. Rather than rush to understand Bales, let’s use this time to let the facts of that case settle and resolve — and take this as an opportunity to reexamine a broken system for the good of those who suffer below the radar of national calamity.


The Post-Traumatic Stress Trap

by David Dobbs

In 2006, soon after returning from military service in Ramadi, Iraq, during the bloodiest period of the war, Captain Matt Stevens of the Vermont National Guard began to have a problem with PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Stevens’s problem was not that he had PTSD. It was that he began to have doubts about PTSD: The condition was real, he knew, but as a diagnosis he saw it being dangerously overemphasized.

Stevens led the medics tending an armored brigade of 800 soldiers, and his team patched together GIs and Iraqi citizens almost every day. He saw horrific things. Once home, he had his share, he says, of “nights where I’d wake up and it would be clear I wasn’t going to sleep again.”

He was not surprised: “I would expect people to have nightmares for a while when they came back.” But as he kept track of his unit in the U.S., he saw  troops greeted by both a larger culture and a medical culture, especially in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), that seemed reflexively to view bad memories, nightmares and any other sign of distress as an indicator of PTSD.

“Clinicians aren’t separating the few who really have PTSD from those who are experiencing things like depression or anxiety or social and reintegration problems, or who are just taking some time getting over it,” says Stevens. He worries that many of these men and women are being pulled into a treatment and disability regime that will mire them in a self-fulfilling vision of a brain rewired, a psyche permanently haunted.

Stevens, now a major, and still on reserve duty while he works as a physician’s assistant, is far from alone in worrying about the reach of PTSD. Over the last five years or so, a long-simmering academic debate over PTSD’s conceptual basis and rate of occurrence has begun to boil over into the practice of trauma psychology and to roil military culture as well. Critiques, originally raised by military historians and a few psychologists, are now being advanced by a broad array of experts, including giants of psychology, psychiatry, diagnosis, and epidemiology such as Columbia’s Robert Spitzer and Michael First, who oversaw the last two editions of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM-III and DSM-IV; Paul McHugh, the longtime chair of Johns Hopkins University’s psychiatry department;  Michigan State University epidemiologist Naomi Breslau; and Harvard University psychologist Richard McNally, a leading authority in the dynamics of memory and trauma, and perhaps the most forceful of the critics. The diagnostic criteria for PTSD, they assert, represent a faulty, outdated construct that has been badly overextended so that it routinely mistakes depression, anxiety, or even normal adjustment for a unique and particularly stubborn ailment.

This quest to scale back the definition of PTSD and its application stands to affect the expenditure of billions of dollars, the diagnostic framework of psychiatry, the effectiveness of a huge treatment and disability infrastructure, and, most important, the mental health and future lives of hundreds of thousands of U.S. combat veterans and other PTSD patients. Standing in the way of reform is conventional wisdom, deep cultural resistance and foundational concepts of trauma psychology. Nevertheless it is time, as Spitzer recently argued, to “save PTSD from itself.”

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