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James Elwick PhD (Toronto) MPhil (Cantab)

Department of Science & Technology Studies; Division of Natural Science

Assistant Professor

313 Bethune College
York University
4700 Keele St.
Toronto, Canada
M3J 1P3
Email: jelwick@yorku.ca

I study the history of written science examinations, focusing on the historical 'arms races' between examiners and the people trying to beat their tests. This includes everything from instructors 'teaching to the test' to unlikely exam coaches such as H.G. Wells; from students desperately 'cramming' for exams to candidates finding inventive ways to cheat on them. The project is guided by three questions. First, how were exams - physical documents and the invisible routines used to administer them - standardized to make them trustworthy "daguerreotypes of the mind" (Horace Mann), able to circulate on an industrial, eventually global, scale? Second, how did exams allow credentials to become important as signs of a person's competence and trustworthiness? Third, how did both standardization and credentials contribute to the belief that exams fostered transparency, accountability, and selection by 'merit'?

I also work on the history of the life sciences, situating technical research in its cultural and social context. Specific topics include biological individuality, the work of the evolutionary polymath Herbert Spencer, and common methods found across the life sciences and neurosciences of the early-to-mid nineteenth century.

John Tyndall Correspondence Project
I'm Coordinator and co-Series Editor of the John Tyndall Correspondence Transcription Project, a Mellon Foundation, SSHRC, and U.S. National Science Foundation funded effort to transcribe the 7553 letters to and from the 19th century Irish-Anglo physicist John Tyndall. Tyndall helped contribute to the modern-day notion that "science" and "religion" were at war. He's also relevant to our own day as the scientist who discovered that carbon dioxide was a greenhouse gas. This distributed project brings York University scholars into collaboration with academics from around the world, including the Universities of Aberystwyth, Auckland, Cambridge, Duke, Exeter, Harvard, Leeds, Leicester, and Oklahoma, as well as Arizona State University, Brock University, New York University and the Royal Dublin Society. The resulting publication series, The Correspondence of John Tyndall, was launched at the Royal Institution of Great Britain on March 4, and at Trinity College Dublin on March 9, 2015


2011 Faculty of Science and Engineering Excellence in Teaching Award Recipient

Courses taught include:
SC/NATS 1760 6.00, Science, Technology and Society
SC/NATS 1690 6.00, Evolution
SC/STS 3780 3.0, Biomedical Science in Social & Historical Context
SC/STS 3740 3.0, Life Sciences in Modern Society
SC/STS 2411 3.0, Introduction to Science & Technology Studies

Styles of Reasoning in British Life Sciences: Shared Assumptions, 1820-1858Book 1 of the Science and Culture in Nineteenth-Century Britain series (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2007).

Correspondence Series:
Co-Series Editor (with Bernard Lightman and Michael Reidy). The Correspondence of John Tyndall. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 18 volumes, 2015-2023).

  • Volume 1: Jan. 1840-August 1843, edited by Geoffrey Cantor and Gowan Dawson; Volume 2: September 1843-December 1849, edited by Janet Browne and Melinda Baldwin.

  • List of letters to and from Tyndall (as of May 1, 2015).

  • Link to timeline of Tyndall's life at the Royal Institution.

Edited Reprint Series:
Co-Editor (with David Amigoni). The Evolutionary Epic. Volume 4 of the Victorian Science and Literature reprint series, edited by Gowan Dawson (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2011).

Articles and Reviews:
(Forthcoming) "Distrust that Particular Intuition: Resilient Essentialisms and Empirical Challenges in the History of Biological Individuality," for E Pluribus Unum: Bringing Biological Parts and Wholes into Historical and Philosophical Perspective, ed. Lynn Nyhart and Scott Lidgard (publisher and publication date TBA).

Review of William J. Reese, Testing Wars in the Public Schools: a Forgotten History, in Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 50:3, Summer 2014, pp. 323-324.

Review of Steve Jones, The Darwin Archipelago: the Naturalist's Career beyond Origin of Species (Yale, 2011), in Victorian Studies 56.2, Winter 2014, p. 346-348.

"Containing Multitudes: Herbert Spencer, Organisms Social, and Orders of Individuality," for Herbert Spencer: Legacies, ed. Mark Francis and Michael W. Taylor (Routledge, 2014), pp. 89-110.

 "Economies of Scales: Evolutionary Naturalists and the Victorian Examination Mania," for Victorian Scientific Naturalism: Community, Identity, Continuity, ed. Gowan Dawson and Bernard Lightman (University of Chicago Press, 2014).
  • This is part of a larger book project: Victorian Examinations and an Infrastructure of Common Knowledge, 1840-1890.

"Layered History: Styles of Reasoning as Stratified Conditions of Possibility,"  Studies in History and Philosophy of Science (A),  43, 2012, 619-627.

Review of Mark Francis, Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life, in Isis 99, 2008, p. 423.

"Styles of Reasoning in Early to Mid-Victorian Life Research: Analysis and Palaetiology," Journal of the History of Biology 40, 2007, pp. 35-69.

"The 'Philosophy of Decapitation': Analysis, Biomedical Reform, and Devolution in Bodies Politic, London 1830-1850," Victorian Studies 47.2, 2005, pp. 174-187. Article invited by Harriet Ritvo, MIT, guest editor; commentary in "Narratives of Nature: a Response," pp. 188-193.

"Herbert Spencer and the Disunity of the Social Organism," History of Science xli (2003), pp. 35-72.

"Nature's Commonwealths: Dugés, Milne Edwards and the Question of Compound Individuality in Early 19th Century French Invertebrate Zoology," Actes du Colloque Ontario-Québec en histoire et sociopolitique des sciences et techniques, ed. Jean-François Auger (Montréal: C.I.R.S.T., 2001), pp. 17-32.