UCLA Spotlight

Norton Wise, Center for Society and Genetics

  • Published Jan 15, 2007 8:00 AM

Science. Culture. Some people think of them as separate fields, even opposites.


But UCLA professor Norton Wise insists that science and culture are not two domains, but one.

The research Wise does on the history of science focuses on the interrelation between science and culture. Science helps to shape culture, but it also depends on culture for conceptual and technological resources. Science and culture shape each other mutually.


Co-director of the Center for Society and Genetics and Distinguished Professor of History, Wise has Ph.D.s in both history and physics. He has written and edited a number of books on science and cultural theory including "Growing Explanations," "The Values of Precision," and "Energy and Empire."

In the late 18th century, Wise argues, precision measurement became a central scientific concern in part because scientific interests were thoroughly bound up with those of nations and traders. Nations wanted to centralize control and traders sought to extend their commercial reach. The "quantifying spirit" arose from this intersection of interests.

In the 19th century, Wise considers the case of the steam engine. Its output was measured by political economists as "labor value" and by physicists as "energy." The engine economy had metaphorical and cultural power, as well. In Prussia, a large steam engine was housed in an elegant mosque to drive a fountain 126 feet high - treated as a new spiritual force, a powerful presence in the landscape gardens of Sanssouci in Potsdam, like "the spark of heavenly fire which Prometheus, son of a Titan, stole from the gods."

Wise is interested in the future as well as the past. Working with Ed McCabe, co-director and founder of the Center for Society and Genetics, Wise promotes the view that biology and culture co-evolve in intimate interrelationships. That's true at the level of the gene and its environment, or the research laboratory and its social milieu. Trying to express complex relationships in terms of dichotomies - "nature vs. nurture" - impoverishes the rich dynamics of co-evolution, Wise believes. Our cultural and biological natures are inseparably bound together.

On January 21, the Center will host a free public symposium on the Genetic Marketplace. Wise will present his thoughts on the present controversies over commercialization and politicization of academic research. He is particularly concerned with the ways in which these developments affect the role of the university.

In democratic societies, Wise believes, the university serves as the primary source of trustworthy knowledge, available to citizens and legislators alike. Although commercialization may be inevitable, politicization is not. The challenge is to construct new institutional forms of oversight that can effectively preserve knowledge in the public interest.

Spotlight story by Sally Gibbons. Photos courtesy of Norton Wise.