Jane Maienschein, "Embryos Under the Microscope: The Diverging Meanings of Life" (Harvard UP, 2014)


Why do we study the history of science? Historians of science don't just teach us about the past: along with philosophers of science, they also help us to understand the foundations and assumptions of scientific research, and guide us to reliable sources of information on which to base our policies and opinions. Jane Maienschein's new book is a model of the kind of careful, balanced, and beautifully written history of science that makes a significant contribution not just to the historiography of science, but also to the public understanding of science and its lived consequences. Embryos Under the Microscope: The Diverging Meanings of Life (Harvard University Press, 2014) traces the historical transformations in the observation and observability of the earliest stages of developing life. Maienschein's account is a focused and thoughtfully organized book that gradually reveals aspects of the history of early stages of life, carefully curating the elements of her narrative such that they collectively inform broader debates over embryo-related policy in the contemporary United States. Readers follow animal and human embryos in their metamorphoses from hypothetical to observed entities, seeing them sequentially transform into experimental, computational, and engineered objects. The final chapter considers the implications of the story in light of recent debates on topics such as fetal pain, paying special attention to the distinction between making policy decisions based on metaphysics vs. science. Embryos Under the Microscope is equally well-suited to academic historians of science wanting a clear introduction to the history of developmental biology, general readers seeking an introduction to a crucial topic of social and political debate, and teachers interested in assigning one or more of the chapters in relevant undergraduate courses. Enjoy! You can find the related Embryo Project Encyclopedia, a wonderful digital and open access resource, here. Listeners might also be interested in this recent article on slate.com.

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