Janina Wellman & Caroline Arni: Medical Humanities

Biological Motion: A History Of Life; And Of Human Born: Fetal Lives 1800-1850
Thursday, April 25, 2024, 6:00 pm7:30 pm


Event Description

Labyrinth Books and Princeton University’s Humanities Council are pleased to present an evening of conversation in the medical humanities about histories of conceptions of (fetal) life. We will be celebrating two important new books on the subject with their authors.

In Biological Motion, Janina Wellman studies the foundational relationship between motion and life. To answer the question, “What is Life?,” the prize-winning historian of science engages in a transdisciplinary investigation of motion as the most profound definition of living existence.

For decades, information and structure have dominated the historiography of the life sciences with its prevailing focus on DNA structure and function. Now more than ever, motion is a crucial theme of basic biological research. Tracing motion from Aristotle’s animal soul to molecular motors, and from medical soft robotics to mathematical analysis, Wellmann locates biological motion at the intersection of knowledge domains and scientific and cultural practices. She offers signposts to mark the sites where researchers, technologies, ideas, and practices opened up new paths in the constitution of the phenomenon of motion. An ambitious rethinking of the life sciences, Biological Motion uncovers the secret life of movement and offers a new account of what it means to be alive.

Janina Wellmann is a Researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and the author of The Form of Becoming: Embryology and the Epistemology of Rhythm, 1760–1830.

At a time when the becoming of a human being in a woman’s body has, once again, become a fraught issue—from abortion debates and surrogacy controversies to prenatal diagnoses and assessments of fetal risk—Of Human Born presents the largely unknown history of how the human sciences came to imagine the unborn in terms of “life before birth.”

Caroline Arni shows how these sciences created the concept of “fetal life” by way of experimenting on animals, pregnant women, and newborns; how they worried about the influence of the expectant mother’s living conditions; and how they lingered on the question of the beginnings of human subjectivity. Such were the concerns of physiologists, pediatricians, psychologists, and psychoanalysts as they advanced the novel discipline of embryology while, at the same time, grappling with age-old questions about the coming-into-being of a human person. Of Human Born thus draws attention to the fundamental way in which modern approaches to the unborn have been intertwined with the configuration of “the human” in the age of scientific empiricism.

Arni revises the narrative that the “modern embryo” is quintessentially an embryo disembedded from the pregnant woman’s body. On the contrary, she argues that the concept of fetal life cannot be separated from its dependency on the maternal organism, countering the rhetorical discourses that have fueled the recent rollback of abortion rights in the United States.

Caroline Arni is Professor of Modern History at the University of Basel. She is the author of an acclaimed anthology of biographical essays, Lauter Frauen: Zwölf historische Porträts. (Lots of Women: Twelve Historical Potraits)

This event is co-presented by Labyrinth and Princeton University’s Humanities Council and co-sponsored by Princeton’s Program in the History of Science and Gender and Sexuality Studies Department.

Scholarly Series
History of Science – Other