"Equivocating Diagrams: The Many Epistemic Virtues of C.H. Waddington's Images and Arguments" by Matthew Allen


"Equivocating Diagrams: The Many Epistemic Virtues of C.H. Waddington's Images and Arguments" by Matthew Allen

“Equivocating Diagrams: the many epistemic virtues in C H Waddington’s images and arguments”
Matthew Allen

The argument has been that images are particularly revealing windows onto scientific production – choices of visualization put “epistemic virtues” on display for all to see. In Objectivity, Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison persuasively describe hard-working scientists toiling away with photographic equipment in pursuit of mechanical objectivity and experts creating interpretive drawings to convey their trained judgment. In each case, a singular scientific persona, a distinct set of visualization techniques, and a particular type of image are linked neatly together.

But what about those cases in which images equivocate and values refuse to be categorized? Sometimes in the course of knowledge generation images are deployed which suggest very different things and may even be odds with each other. In this paper I will analyze a series of diagrams created between 1940 and 1966 by developmental biologist Conrad Hal Waddington, all meant to explain the same pair of concepts (the chreod and the epigenetic landscape). Each diagram in isolation is relatively straightforward, explaining a different aspect of his theoretical concepts and suggesting different possibilities for intervention in developing embryos. But seen in the context of Waddington’s ambitious program for what he called “theoretical biology,” these images work against the deliberate typecasting done by his intellectual rivals – particularly Ernst Mayr, successful proponent of the so-called Modern Synthesis. Waddington’s diagrams act as mediating devices, helping the viewer/reader understand the subtleties of his theories. They militate against what Waddington saw as overly-simplistic attempts to bracket one area of biological knowledge from another. As a set, these contradictory images point towards a complex, nuanced theoretical model for which no simple analogy, no singular persona, and no discrete set of epistemic values would suffice. 

To open up to a larger discussion of the connections between epistemic virtues and visualization, I will end with an analysis of the most famous of Waddington’s diagrams. Placing it in the context in which it was published, and keeping a close eye on the disciplinary arguments at work, I will show that, even in this single instance, Waddington toggles between very different personas and virtues in a way that would seem schizophrenic in Daston’s and Galison’s account. This suggests that even straightforward images typically support many different ways of seeing and contrasting values, and that a larger discursive apparatus is required to either limit or expand their interpretation.

Images are depictions of Conrad Hal Waddington's concept of the epigenetic landscape. The ball represents a cell, and the branching system of valleys represents the division and specialization of cells during the development or an organism. Each valley in the landscape is formed by tension on guy ropes that are attached pegs stuck in the ground, which represent genes. From Waddington, C. H. The Strategy of the Genes (Geo Allen & Unwin, London, 1957).

Allen's talk is now an article published in Volume 4 of Contemporaneity: http://contemporaneity.pitt.edu/ojs/index.php/contemporaneity/article/view/143

  • Debating Visual Knowledge