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Outsider Scientists

Routes to Innovation in Biology

Outsider Scientists describes the transformative role played by “outsiders” in the growth of the modern life sciences. Biology, which occupies a special place between the exact and human sciences, has historically attracted many thinkers whose primary training was in other fields: mathematics, physics, chemistry, linguistics, philosophy, history, anthropology, engineering, and even literature. These outsiders brought with them ideas and tools that were foreign to biology, but which, when applied to biological problems, helped to bring about dramatic, and often surprising, breakthroughs.
This volume brings together eighteen thought-provoking biographical essays of some of the most remarkable outsiders of the modern era, each written by an authority in the respective field. From Noam Chomsky using linguistics to answer questions about brain architecture, to Erwin Schrödinger contemplating DNA as a physicist would, to Drew Endy tinkering with Biobricks to create new forms of synthetic life, the outsiders featured here make clear just how much there is to gain from disrespecting conventional boundaries. Innovation, it turns out, often relies on importing new ideas from other fields. Without its outsiders, modern biology would hardly be recognizable.

392 pages | 22 halftones, 4 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2013

Biography and Letters

Biological Sciences: Evolutionary Biology, Physiology, Biomechanics, and Morphology

History: History of Ideas

History of Science


"Illustrate[s] a variety of ways of coping with the clash of perspectives that is often encountered in attempts to bridge community and disciplinary barriers. Learning to turn this friction into constructive means of devising and testing assumptions--learning to overcome impasses--should be of considerable value to workaday scientists."


"Offers a very instructive account of the work and ideas of several important figures of the history of the life sciences from the second half of the 19th century to the present. . . . It shows that individual people, at least on some occasions, are able to perform work and develop ideas that are of great significance. Such a demonstration is invaluable to transmit and to help reinforce the taste for research."

Laurent Loison, University of Strasbourg | Centaurus

"Outsider Scientists is a pleasure to read and would be an excellent companion volume for an interdisciplinary class in history or philosophy of biology, science studies, or, indeed, an introductory course in the biological sciences. The contributors are outstanding, and the quality of the historical scholarship, as well as the writing, is consistently high. This volume is a great boon to teachers of science, as well as history and philosophy of science. I highly recommend to all students of biology and its history."

Science and Education

“Biology is a constantly shifting chimera—so we learn from this remarkable set of essays curated by Oren Harman and Michael R. Dietrich. But unlike the Greek mythic creature (lion, goat, snake), biology, these authors show, has been even more polymorphic, and in ever new ways: biology is put together from linguistic, philosophical, and literary practices, and involves skills borrowed from physics, computation, and chemistry, among other fields. Anyone interested in biology should read this book—and so should all of us who want to understand outside thinking as a crucial driver of innovation.”

Peter Galison, Harvard University

Table of Contents


Introduction: Outsiders as Innovators in the Life Sciences
Oren Harman and Michael R. Dietrich

I Outsiders Before the Inside

1 The Many Sides of Gregor Mendel
Sander Gliboff

2 Louis Pasteur: The Chemist in the Clinic
Jonathan Simon

3 Félix d’Herelle: Uncompromising Autodidact
William C. Summers

4 The Paradox of Samuel Butler: Insider or Outsider?
Michael Ruse

II Outsiders from the Physical Sciences

5 Erwin Schrödinger’s Excursus on Genetics
Sahotra Sarkar

6 Linus Pauling: Leading Exporter of Chemical Insights into Biology
Gregory J. Morgan

7 From Bomb to Bank: Walter Goad and the Introduction of Computers into Biology
Hallam Stevens

III Outsiders from Mathematics

8 R. A. Fisher and the Foundations of Statistical Biology
Michael R. Dietrich and Robert A. Skipper, Jr.

9 Nicolas Rashevsky’s Pencil- and- Paper Biology
Maya M. Shmailov

10 Searching for Patterns, Hunting for Causes: Robert MacArthur, the Mathematical Naturalist
Jay Odenbaugh

IV Outsiders from the Human Sciences

11 Noam Chomsky and the Biology of Language
W. Tecumseh Fitch

12 Dunking the Tarzanists: Elaine Morgan and the Aquatic Ape Theory
Erika Lorraine Milam

13 David Hull’s Philosophical Contribution to Biology
T. J. Horder

V Insider-Outsiders

14 Ilya Metchnikoff: From Evolutionist to Immunologist, and Back Again
Alfred I. Tauber

15 François Jacob: Tinkering with Organisms and Models
Michel Morange

VI Outsiders from Informatics

16 Theoreticians as Professional Outsiders: The Modeling Strategies of John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener
Ehud Lamm

17 On the Importance of the Parvenu: The Amazing Case of George Price in Evolutionary Biology
Oren Harman

18 Outsiders and In- Laws: Drew Endy and the Case of Synthetic Biology
Luis Campos

Epilogue: The Problem with Boxes
Richard C. Lewontin

List of Contributors

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