Pavlov’s parables

For all its engrossing detail, it is hard not to read Ivan Pavlov: A Russian life in science as a parable of modern Russia. In Ivan Pavlov we have the archetypal collision between religion and secular modernity: a priest’s son and seminary boy from the provinces who made the break to St Petersburg University in 1870 and became a defiant positivist. Conditioned not only by the scientistic turn of the 1860s in Russia, but also by the accelerating industrialization of the later nineteenth century, Pavlov adopted factory methods in his own labs, presiding over an elaborate programme of minutely empirical studies. The scale and integrated character of his research secured him international renown with the award of a Nobel Prize in 1904 for his work on the digestive system.
By then Pavlov had shown like no one else the benefits of technological innovation and quantitative analysis for overcoming mind–body dualism. Thanks to ingenious surgical methods and hygienic lab conditions, his team was able to conduct precise measurements – above all, of the gastric secretions of dogs – that seemed to provide an objective calibration of nervous and even psychic phenomena. Pavlov’s trademark esophagotomy meant that food swallowed by a dog never reached the digestive tract, thus allowing the researcher to isolate the psychic rather than chemical causes of secretion. His key analytical concept, the conditional reflex, soon entered the scientific lexicon and even journalistic parlance. His international prestige only increased in the second half of his life, building to a climax with his hosting of the International Physiological Congress in Leningrad just months before his death in early 1936. Such was the momentum of Pavlov’s project to fuse body and mind in a single explanatory model that it gathered further steam under Russia’s new masters after the civil war. From the mid-1920s, Pavlov had state funding lavished on him. Although he was an outspoken critic of the new regime, his enormous international prestige and the materialistic bent of his research made him effectively a Soviet aristocrat. In 1927, he was assigned a Lincoln and a chauffeur, while in 1935 a bottle of champagne was flown in from Finland to aid his recovery from a dangerous bout of bronchitis. The authorities even paid for delegates to the 1935 congress to be treated to a banquet in a tsarist palace.
Yet, as Daniel P. Todes shows with unremitting perspicacity, Pavlov is too big, complicated and even self-contradictory a figure to be contained by the parable. His aura of exemplar is most obviously tarnished by the messiness of any life as actually lived. His rise to prominence depended as much on chance as on his own irresistible intellectual achievements. In his early career he did not cultivate the most advantageous patrons, and spent a few years training as a physician rather than devoting himself full-time to the research that really interested him. At the age of forty, he faced the prospect of career stagnation, having just failed to land two of the main professorships in his field of physiology. His lucky break came in the early 1890s, when he acquired the lab of his dreams in the newly created Imperial Institute of Experimental Medicine, combining this with a professorship at the Military-Medical Academy.
Thereafter, the breaks kept on coming until they became the routine dividends of fame and power. Pavlov was not an automatic choice for the Nobel Prize – some of his conclusions had come under fire, he had delivered no knock-out single discovery or application, and a sceptic might have said that he had simply got better than anyone else at inserting gastric fistulas in dogs – but by 1904, after a couple of near misses in the preceding years, he had an important advocate on the committee, Johan Erik Johansson, professor of physiology at the Karolinska Institute. During the revolution and civil war, Pavlov experienced acute hardship and uncertainty in hungry, disease-ridden Petrograd, but he soon asserted himself vis-à-vis the new regime, flirting with emigration and lobbying effectively for resources. Under the Bolsheviks, he was able to follow his nose without ever being forced to come up with firm conclusions or (still less) to demonstrate their real-world applications. Funding bodies in liberal countries would hardly have been so open-ended in their commitment. Yet, towards the end of his life, Bolshevik violence was coming very close to home: by the mid-1930s, Pavlov was almost routinely saving his colleagues from imprisonment and likely death. While his personal authority still counted, he found himself increasingly adopting the tone of petitioner that he had proudly eschewed in his earlier dealings with the Soviet state. His visceral opposition to Bolshevism was further sapped by his enduring patriotism, which was heightened by the threatening international politics of the mid-1930s, and his sense of obligation to a state that had provided him with luxurious research facilities for more than a decade.
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