Model Behavior: Animal Experiments, Complexity, and the Genetics of Psychiatric Disorders

Model Behavior: Animal Experiments, Complexity, and the Genetics of Psychiatric Disorders. Nicole C. Nelson, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018, 255 pp.

A furry, one-ounce human? In Model Behavior: Animal Experiments, Complexity, and the Genetics of Psychiatric Disorders, Nicole C. Nelson offers an engaging account of the daily work of experimentation in animal behavior genetics. Taking the reader into the laboratory and other spaces of scientific inquiry, Nelson details the multifaceted processes through which researchers build and sustain mouse models as tools for producing knowledge about human psychiatric disorders. In doing so, she highlights complexity as a key organizing principle for experimentation. Scientists mobilize complexity to address the practical constraints of laboratory work and to navigate the ambivalent relationship between genes and behavior.

Nelson makes a striking argument—namely, that complexity expresses an epistemological rather than an ontological commitment in scientific practice. It is her focus on epistemology that allows her to unpack, expand, and challenge key concepts in Science and Technology Studies (STS)  approaches to scientific knowledge production—including social constructionism, model organisms, claims-making, and the stabilization of epistemic objects. Weaving together ethnographic descriptions of laboratory practice with critical readings of scientific publications and vivid descriptions of ongoing interdisciplinary methodological debates, Nelson depicts complexity as a polysemic concept, one that unites heterogeneous views about the reality of behavior into a shared, albeit provisional, understanding about how best to model it.

In an era of expansive big data approaches to studying behavior that aim to capture complexity and smooth out uncertainty through sheer volume (p. 8), Nelson trains attention on the ways that complexity surfaces and endures in the highly controlled space of the laboratory. Such an approach challenges established understandings of animal models as tools for making universal claims. Nelson details how, in a postgenomic era, animal behavior geneticists engage in much more modest work—establishing particular behavioral analogs between species rather than generalizing about entire classes of organisms. This work is often collective, and Nelson pushes against longstanding depictions of scientists as self-interested and competitive by showing how behavioral models provide new opportunities for multidisciplinary collaborations.

The book is organized into three parts, each of which draws from research conducted in what Nelson calls the Smith Laboratory at Coast University. Part I discusses the ways researchers use complexity to create consensus about how to study psychiatric disorders in animal models. Complexity can signal a variety of seemingly intractable epistemic problems, such as breaking down complex phenomena into manageable units, using one complex organism to model another, and managing the myriad ways that environmental factors impact behavior. As early-stage researchers become aware of these problems, they experience what Nelson calls a “complexity crisis,” which prompts them to significantly diminish their expectations about what they can know about psychiatric disorders. These diminished expectations are historically conditioned, and more senior scientists draw on past controversies surrounding methods, particularly gene knockout experiments, to decide how to make more careful claims about the relationship between genes and behavior. In ways that resonate with STS arguments about the emergent nature of scientific objects, Nelson shows how, in their “complexity talk,” Coast researchers depict behavior as an inherently unstable epistemic entity.

The greatest strengths of this book lie in Part II, where Nelson takes the reader into the lab to view the quotidian work of animal experimentation. Chapter 3 develops the concept of the “epistemic scaffold.” Built up from provisional arguments and evidence, the scaffold is a flexible and mobile platform that scientists use to generate more enduring findings. Using the example of the Elevated Plus Maze experiment, in which mice move between enclosed and unenclosed elevated walkways, Nelson shows how experimenters mobilize different kinds of evidence that link mouse movements to anxiety-like behaviors. Going further, Nelson details how animal behavior geneticists collectively build up and break down their own scaffolds to grapple with the complexity of animal behavior, and to maintain disciplinary credibility in the eyes of funders and researchers from other fields. Provisionality and contingency are the name of the game in this domain of knowledge production and the means by which researchers establish cultural capital.

Chapter 4 continues the foray into laboratory work by detailing the production of “epistemic by-products.” Here we see researchers fixated on controlling a plethora of stimuli (everything from corn husk bedding to deodorant use) in an attempt to account for the messy confluence of environmental and genetic factors in behavior. And while their published work centers on genetics, the unpublished environmental observations made in the lab both validate these claims and inform longer-term research programs. Like scaffolding, managing and valuing epistemic by-products is a collective endeavor, one that informs broader discussions about how best to produce knowledge about the genetics of behavior.

Part III scopes out beyond the laboratory to examine how animal models shape scientific and cultural understandings of psychiatric disorders. Pushing against arguments that geneticists employ reductionist and medicalized ideas about drinking behavior, Nelson elaborates the binge drinking model to show how experimenters account for situational triggers to more accurately reflect the biological and structural factors that lead to binge drinking. But although scientists employ a high degree of “interpretive flexibility” in their analyses of experimental results, such flexibility is largely invisible to the non-specialist, and Coast researchers therefore feel as though they have little power to shape popular messages about genes and behavior. Nelson here argues for the importance of ethnography in informing public perceptions of genetics. She insists that it is critical to explore the culture of careful claims-making and the flexible interpretations that underpin them if we want to create interventions that are based on shared commitments rather than antagonisms between geneticists and popular audiences. Precisely how non-specialists like journalists and other media contributors might engage more rigorously with the processes of knowledge production that Nelson describes remains unclear. Nevertheless, a recognition of the provisionality of scientific knowledge, and a more patient reading of scientists’ carefully calibrated truth claims are surely first steps in fostering such shared commitments. Nelson provides a strong model for anthropologists and scholars in the social studies of science to begin this work.

Model Behavior is an engaging and meticulously argued account of the ways in which complexity animates experimental practice. It is a must read for anthropologists interested in mental illness, laboratory work, and the social study of genomics. In a protracted moment of postgenomic scientific uncertainty, characterized by accusations of reductionism and the rise of big data approaches to behavior, Nelson provides a fresh view onto the well-trodden terrain of the laboratory to show how epistemic communities grapple with complexity and contingency in their everyday work. In doing so, she paints a picture of experimentation as a process that, rather than seeking to reduce and manage complexity, actively pursues and compounds it. Here, then, is a new vision of animal models whose purpose is not to find universal biological truths, nor make transspecific comparisons, but rather to capture specific behavioral processes and to engender more careful methodologies and multidisciplinary collaborations. This book is a critical step in developing medical anthropology and STS theorizations of how scientists preserve uncertainty as they build research programs.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email