Shaping Science with Rhetoric: The Cases of Dobzhansky, Schrodinger, and Wilson

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How do scientists persuade colleagues from diverse fields to cross the disciplinary divide, risking their careers in new interdisciplinary research programs? Why do some attempts to inspire such research win widespread acclaim and support, while others do not?

In Shaping Science with Rhetoric, Leah Ceccarelli addresses such questions through close readings of three scientific monographs in their historical contexts—Theodosius Dobzhansky's Genetics and the Origin of Species (1937), which inspired the "modern synthesis" of evolutionary biology; Erwin Schrödinger's What Is Life? (1944), which catalyzed the field of molecular biology; and Edward O. Wilson's Consilience (1998), a so far not entirely successful attempt to unite the social and biological sciences. She examines the rhetorical strategies used in each book and evaluates which worked best, based on the reviews and scientific papers that followed in their wake.

Ceccarelli's work will be important for anyone interested in how interdisciplinary fields are formed, from historians and rhetoricians of science to scientists themselves.

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Editorial Reviews

Drawing from the tradition of rhetorical inquiry, Ceccarelli (speech communication, U. of Washington-Seattle) explores how scientists have exploited the means at their disposal to design their arguments to persuade others, especially those in other disciplines than their own. Anthropologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, physicist Erwin Schr<:o>dinger, and sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson are her case studies. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226099064
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 7/28/2001
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 192
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Leah Ceccarelli is an assistant professor in the Department of Speech Communication at the University of Washington, Seattle.

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Shaping Science With Rhetoric: the Cases of Dobzhansky, Schrodinger, and Wilson

By Leah Ceccarelli

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2001 Leah Ceccarelli
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226099075

Inspiring Interdisciplinarity

With this book a new branch of scientific investigation came of age, and many workers were induced to enter it. The book is one of the few seminal publications of its generation.
Howard Levene, Lee Ehrman, and Rollin Richmond, "Theodosius Dobzhansky up to Now"
There is no other instance in the history of science in which a short semipopular book catalyzed the future development of a great field of research.
Walter Moore, Schrodinger: Life and Thought
Some books make an impact, not because they introduce new ideas that have never before been thought, but because they repackage ideas in a way that allows readers to see things they had previously been unable or unwilling to recognize. The two books referred to in the quotations above--Theodosius Dobzhansky's 1937 Genetics and the Origin of Species and Erwin Schrodinger's 1944 What Is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell--were such books. Both were addressed to groups of scientists from different fields who had conflicting intellectual and professional allegiances. Both were designed to help thosescientists see beyond the barriers that separated their fields, urging them to change their professional goals and enter into new interdisciplinary alliances. And both books were highly successful at what they sought to do. Dobzhansky's book has been praised for motivating biologists from various fields to overcome their deep suspicions of each other and embark on "the evolutionary synthesis," an integration of research in genetics and natural history that resulted in the modern interdisciplinary domain of evolutionary biology. Schrodinger's book has been hailed for serving a similar function as the primary motivating influence that brought physicists and biologists together to do the research that would form the discipline of molecular biology.

Though both books were written by scientists, addressed to scientists, and concerned with science, neither performed the typical work of a scientific monograph. Neither author was primarily interested in introducing his unpublished research to a "core set" scientific community in the hope of establishing the truth of a novel scientific knowledge claim. Rather than monographs written to validate new scientific discoveries, they were monographs of broad interdisciplinary persuasion that sought to shape new scientific communities. Rather than make direct contributions to the history of ideas, these books attempted to change the way scientists perceived the nature and future of their own work and the work that colleagues were doing across disciplinary boundaries. Because the immediate response to each book was overwhelming support for the interdisciplinary research programs each promoted, these books are universally recognized by scientists and historians of science as two of the most influential works in twentieth-century science.

A more recent book with a similar purpose is Edward O. Wilson's 1998 Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Like Dobzhansky and Schrodinger, Wilson sought to build bridges between disciplines. Expanding on arguments that he made in the first and last chapters of his 1975 Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Wilson built a case for uniting the social sciences and the humanities with evolutionary biology. But though he has had some success over the years with this argument, inspiring a number of readers to conduct research between fields, Consilience has not been an unqualified success at achieving its goals. Many readers of Consilience have rejected Wilson's call to action; they have been unpersuaded by his appeals for interdisciplinary collaboration. In fact, some have said they were so offended by Consilience that they have chosen to work actively against its goals. Whereas Dobzhansky and Schro¨dinger designed appeals that were accepted enthusiastically by their audiences, Wilson designed appeals that became the subject of intense controversy, accepted by some but firmly rejected by many others.

Given the inherently conservative bent of the academy when it comes to institutional structure and traditional departmental prerogatives, how do books such as Dobzhansky's and Schrodinger's stimulate interdisciplinary work without arousing suspicion and sparking controversy? Considering the investment most scientists have in the approaches, methods, and conceptual worldviews that define their own disciplines, what arguments can compel them to risk themselves, and their careers, in a research program that goes beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries? Why do some attempts to inspire interdisciplinary research achieve consensus of acclaim and support, while others are less successful at the same task, persuading only one group of readers while angering another?

In this book, case studies of these three authors' arguments for interdisciplinarity reveal what strategies work and do not work to persuade people to cross intellectual borders. These studies explain why books such as Dobzhansky's and Schrodinger's achieve such universal success with their audiences, while books such as Wilson's spark controversy. In addition to illuminating the rhetorical strategies best designed to motivate interdisciplinarity, these three case studies shed light on a previously unacknowledged and unexamined genre of scientific writing, one that, while failing to meet many commonly held expectations about scientific writing, has nevertheless had a significant impact on the history of science by helping to initiate new scientific communities.

Texts That Seek to Catalyze Community: An Unexamined Genre of Science

The rhetoric of science is a growing area of research, devoted mainly to the study of how scientists persuade each other.1 Scholars in this field have done their best during the past two decades to prove the "hard case" that the prototypical scientific text, the research report that seeks to establish a scientific truth claim, is amenable to rhetorical scrutiny. On the whole, these scholars have done an excellent job of showing that rhetorical analysis can provide novel and intriguing commentary on the prototypical scientific text and its place in history. Without adopting the view that science is merely rhetoric, most of those who read this literature recognize that scientists are indeed advocates for their own theories and data and that the more successful scientists are often those who can couch their findings in terms that are most persuasive to their peers. Some of the best research in the rhetoric of science undertakes the close reading of individual scientific texts to show exactly how they were designed to persuade specific audiences at particular moments in history to acknowledge the truth of their authors' theories.

Unfortunately, in their rush to open the "hard case" of the prototypical scientific text to scrutiny, rhetoricians of science have failed to explore some of the other ways in which scientists use persuasion to advance the scientific enterprise. Ironically, the motivational texts scientists write to persuade their colleagues to undertake new research, texts that have an obvious rhetorical flavor, have been largely ignored by scholars of rhetoric.

Although historians of science have paid a bit more attention to this kind of text, they too have had difficulty identifying and assessing the genre. Historians acknowledge the motivational influence of books like Dobzhansky's and Schrodinger's, but because their discipline is not devoted to the analysis of subtle persuasive strategies, they cannot fully explain how such books achieved their influence. In attempting to account for the impact of such books, historians have often made broad pronouncements about the charismatic leadership of the author or the fortuitous timing of a book's publication. They have had little to say about the way in which the text itself was designed to achieve its influence.

Scientists also find themselves at a loss when it comes to explaining why these books achieved such influence. Though they recognize these books as motivational successes, they tend to assess all important works of science by the standards of the prototypical scientific truth claim. Using these standards of judgment, they struggle to explain why a work such as Schrodinger's, which fails to meet basic criteria of "good science" such as originality and accuracy, could have had such a strong and positive impact on science itself.

My study of books like these builds on a recognition that they belong to a special genre of scientific writing and should be understood and evaluated according to standards that are appropriate to that genre. We can call these texts interdisciplinary inspirational works of science, because books of this kind attempt to stimulate the growth of community between different scientific disciplines.

A text in the interdisciplinary inspirational genre is like a catalyst-- it addresses separate disciplines that are relatively inert and facilitates a reaction between them. Its main function is to encourage change, to motivate action in others. Like a catalyst, this type of text might seem at first glance to be a relatively minor part of science, but it can have a surprisingly large effect. When such a book succeeds, it produces a new area of research that otherwise would not have been formed or would have taken much longer to develop. The books by Dobzhansky and Schrodinger were designed to be incredibly effective catalysts, whereas the book by Wilson was written in a manner that undercuts its catalytic function.

In case studies of these three books, I identify several common characteristics of this newly identified genre, including a tendency toward synthesis rather than the introduction of original truth claims, the development of an authorial persona that is different from that used in the prototypical scientific text, and forms of address that recognize dual or even multiple audiences. This last characteristic is what leads to the most exciting finding from my analysis of this genre: two specific rhetorical strategies designed to appeal to divided audiences appear in the most effective texts but are absent in less effective texts.

"Conceptual chiasmus" is a neologism I have constructed to describe the first of these, a rhetorical strategy that appears in the works of Dobzhansky and Schrodinger. A chiasmus is a rhetorical figure (a stylistic device) in which words and their order are reversed in parallel clauses: for example, "He went in, out went she." Each side of the sentence is a mirror image of the other. Biologists may be familiar with a similar term, chiasma, which, like chiasmus, is derived from the ancient Greek word for "cross." I propose "conceptual chiasmus" to indicate a rhetorical strategy that reverses disciplinary expectations surrounding conceptual categories, often through metaphor, to promote the parallel crisscrossing of intellectual space. With a conceptual chiasmus, unusual linguistic choices force readers from one discipline to think about an issue in terms more appropriate to their counterparts in another discipline, and vice versa. The result of this parallel reversal of disciplinary expectations is that the thought patterns of each side are forced temporarily to cross over to the other side. This crossing over may work to make interdisciplinary action more conceivable to readers from both fields.

The second rhetorical strategy I will identify, the polysemous textual construction, is similar in that it too works on different audiences differently. The word polysemy can be defined by breaking it into its roots: poly, meaning "many," and semy, having to do with meaning; polysemy is thus defined as "many meanings." A polysemous textual construction is a passage that can be read (that is, interpreted) in two or more ways. When used effectively by an author, a polysemous passage can bring different audiences, for different reasons, to accept a message. Each group sees its own interests as being served by the polysemous passage; they interpret it differently (sometimes focusing on different parts of the passage to do so), and because of this, they unite in praise of the text and are brought into a position of support that allows them to initiate an interdisciplinary alliance.

The action of both of these strategies--conceptual chiasmus and polysemous textual constructions--will become more clear in the case studies, where I closely analyze the rhetorical design of the texts and the responses of readers. As theoretical concepts, these rhetorical strategies may seem rather obscure, but the case studies will bring them to life, illuminating their presence and action in the structure of specific texts.

The Close Textual-Intertextual Analysis: Combining Rhetorical Criticism and Historical Research

Rhetoricians engage in a variety of approaches to analyzing texts. The "method" of analysis I adopt in the case studies to reveal how individual texts achieved their persuasive influence is a new approach to rhetorical criticism I call a "close textual-intertextual analysis." It is a variation on an established critical practice called "close textual analysis." The purpose of this modified approach is to explain how texts work by connecting rhetorical strategies to their effects on historical audiences.

Close Textual Analysis

Rhetoricians engaging in close textual analysis tend to focus on a single text at a time. By examining details of the text, they uncover subtle and otherwise unrecognized rhetorical strategies. They do this to explain how a text was constructed to invite a particular response in a particular audience. The close textual critic, in other words, scrutinizes a work in order to determine how its form was designed to achieve its function.

One way of understanding what a close textual analysis adds to the scholarly conversation is to think about it as the microscopic study of a primary text. Historians, social theorists, and cultural critics take an approach to scholarship that pieces together information from fragments of discourse across time. For example, historians of science are skilled at weaving a complex pattern out of the many traces of biographical, social, intellectual, and institutional influences on scientific thought. Uncovering multiple fragments of evidence, they synthesize explanations for scientific development that are expansive and intriguing. In contrast, close textual analysis offers the sustained examination of a single moment in history. Because close textual analysis restricts its focus to one work at a time, it can produce a microscopic study of that particular work that would not be possible if a broader range of materials were being discussed.

Of course, one problem with the critical approach of close textual analysis is that a researcher who spends so much time squinting through a microscope tends to become somewhat myopic. The critic who focuses too much attention on the internal characteristics of a particular work often neglects to fully explore the external influences that the text had on its context, or the external influences its context had over it. Marveling at the formal intricacy of a textual strategy that appears to be perfectly designed, a rhetorician may be tempted to proclaim its author a master rhetor and to judge the text an exemplary product. But it can be a mistake to make this sort of judgment before examining how the audience actually interpreted the work in question. The close textual critic can only say how an audience was invited to respond; the critic is unable to make any conclusions about the actual persuasive influence of the text. For various reasons, some having to do with the design of the text and some not, an audience may have chosen to decline the invitation.

This limitation with close textual analysis is even more problematic when a text has multiple audiences. It may be the case that an ideal reader identified by the author was invited to interpret a text in a particular way, but the text was received very differently by other groups of readers with different interests and backgrounds. A close textual analysis that examines a text from the perspective of the reader who was conspicuously constructed in that text may neglect to recognize the way in which other audiences were invited (deliberately or not) to interpret the text in different ways. The influence of a text on the world (and the influence of the world on a text) is often more complicated than the close textual critic imagines when closely scrutinizing the inner patterns of the text.

In short, the close textual critic can postulate how the intrinsic design of a text (its form) is connected to its extrinsic effect (its function). But without looking beyond the text itself, a close textual critic can make no confident claims about that connection. Also, without looking at the reception given a work by its actual heterogeneous audiences, one can come away from a close textual reading with an understanding of its compositional artistry that takes an unnecessarily limited view of what it means and what it does in the world.

Adding the Study of Reception to Close Textual Analysis

Close textual critics who seek to escape the decline into a myopic formalism will often supplement the close reading of a text with a study of context. But rhetoricians usually conduct this research by reading the work of historians, relying on secondary sources for the relevant information about the situation in which the text was produced and read. From this research, critics learn important things about the interests and attitudes of people in the culture surrounding the text. However, rhetoricians rarely take this research further; few have uncovered intertextual material produced in response to a primary text, and fewer still have conducted a close reading of that material. This is where I recommend a modification to the "close textual analysis" approach to criticism. I urge rhetorical critics to explore all available evidence of the reception to a work; we should conduct a close textual analysis not only of the primary text, but also of the intertextual material produced by audience members who were responding to it.

This new approach to rhetorical criticism, a "close textual-intertextual analysis," provides a more reliable connection between internal form and external function. The rhetorician conducts a close reading of the text in its context to offer hypotheses about how readers might have been invited to respond to the text's appeal. The rhetorician then tests these hypotheses through a close reading of contemporary responses, such as book reviews, speeches, editorials, articles, or letters that make direct reference to the primary work under examination.

There are at least two convenient forms of intertextual material that preserve the response of audiences to the scientific books I examine in the case studies: scientific articles that cited the primary texts, and book reviews. I consulted the Science Citation Index and uncovered more than sixty articles that cited these three texts in the years immediately following their publication. I also uncovered more than eighty book reviews that recorded reader response to the three primary texts. My intent was not merely to show that these monographs have been extensively cited and reviewed by scientists, but to discover how readers interpreted each book and to identify the aspects of each book that produced specific responses. I checked each hypothesis about how a particular rhetorical strategy invited a particular response against evidence of the actual response; at the same time, evidence of each response allowed me to reexamine the text itself to look for strategies that I otherwise might have failed to fully recognize.

Because this approach to scholarship takes the rhetorician's interest in analyzing the persuasive strategies of influential primary texts and adds the historian's concern with tracing evidence of influence in the historical record, it benefits from best of two worlds: it supplements studies in the history of science with a rhetorical microanalysis, while supplementing rhetorical studies with the historian's attention to documentary detail.

Each case study is centered on one primary text and is divided into two chapters. The first of the pair includes a historical analysis of the primary text and its context, and the second is a close rhetorical reading of the text and its reception. Although each case study can be read on its own, the third one draws heavily on the first two, and is therefore best understood if read in sequence. When all three case studies are brought together, they support broader claims about this genre of scientific text and how it inspires interdisciplinary activity among scientists.


Excerpted from Shaping Science With Rhetoric: the Cases of Dobzhansky, Schrodinger, and Wilson by Leah Ceccarelli Copyright © 2001 by Leah Ceccarelli. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1. Inspiring Interdisciplinarity
-Texts That Seek to Catalyze Community: An Unexamined Genre of Science
-The Close Textual-Intertextual Analysis: Combining Rhetorical Criticism and Historical Research

I. Theodosius Dobzhansky's Genetics and the Origin of Species

2. The Initiator of the Evolutionary Synthesis: Historians and Scientists Weigh In
-Conflict between Disciplines and Theories
-The Evolutionary Synthesis
-What Launched the Synthesis?
-The Influence of Dobzhansky's Genetics and the Origin of Species
-Prelude to a Rhetorical Reading

3. A Text Rhetorically Designed to Unite Competing Fields
-Simplifying Theory
-Surveying the Results of Research
-Using Language That Promotes Conceptual Change
-Addressing Social Concerns

II. Erwin Schrödinger's What Is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell

4. The "Uncle Tom's Cabin" of the Molecular Biology Revolution: Assessing the Place of a Text in History
-The Influence of Schrödinger's Text
-The Value of Untrue, Unoriginal Science
-Other Laws of Physics
-Prelude to a Rhetorical Reading

5. A Text Rhetorically Designed to Negotiate Different Interests and Beliefs
-Comparison with Other Attempts at Inspiring Interdisciplinary Work
-Negotiating Common Ground: The Value of Precision
-Negotiating Professional Goals: The Appeal to Ambition
-Negotiating Disciplinary Linguistic Practices: Conceptual Chiasmus
-Negotiating Ideological Commitments: Strategic Ambiguity

III. Edward O. Wilson's Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

6. The Controversy over Sociobiology: Scholars Offer Competing Explanations
-Wilson's Purpose
-The Effect of Wilson's Interdisciplinary Appeals
-Explanation 1: Wilson Is Wrong; the Cultural Divide Should Not Be Bridged
-Explanation 2: Critics Are Unable to See the Truth Because of Political Bias
-Prelude to a Rhetorical Reading

7. A Text Rhetorically Designed to Fuel Interdisciplinary Hostilities
-A Rhetoric of Conquest, Not Negotiation
-An Explicit Commitment to Reductionism
-Equivocation Rather Than Productive Polysemy
-What Wilson's Consilience Could Have Been

IV. Speaking to Multiple Audiences

8. The Genre
-Comparison of Dobzhansky and Schrödinger
-Wilson's Participation in the Genre

9. Contributions to Four Ongoing Conversations
-Rhetoric of Science
-Rhetorical Inquiry
-History of Science


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