Eugenics: Science’s Greatest Scandal, BBC4

A two-part programme broadcast on BBC4 in October 2019.  I appeared at the beginning of the first episode, talking with the science journalist Angela Saini and the anatomical illustrator Katrina Van Grouw about Darwin and Galton on variation and selection.

Greg Radick on Genius by Stephen Hawking

Greg Radick

Genius by Stephen Hawking. PBS & National Geographic Channel

A six-part programme broadcast on PBS and the National Geographic Channel in May-June 2016.  I appeared in three episodes, sketching in some of the historical background to the scientific concepts being explored.  In this clip I talk about Einstein and the theory of relativity.

Plants: From Roots to Riches, Episode on Mendel. BBC Radio 4

In 1900 three papers by three botanists, unknown to each other, appeared in the same scientific journal. Each had independently “rediscovered” the rules of inheritance that Gregor Mendel had found four decades earlier in his solitary investigations of pea plants.

Historian Greg Radick sheds light on how Mendelism, in the years leading up to the First World War, became heavily promoted by Cambridge botanist William Bateson and was put into action by the first Professor of Agricultural Botany, Roland Biffen. His success in creating new wheat hybrids is explained by a unique international assembly of wheat ears from the early 1900s, curated by Mark Nesbitt, Head of Kew’s economic botany collection.

Producer Adrian Washbourne. Published 1 Aug 2014.

In Our Time – Social Darwinism. BBC Radio 4

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss Social Darwinism. After the publication of Charles Darwin’s masterpiece On the Origin of Species in 1859, some thinkers argued that Darwin’s ideas about evolution could also be applied to human society. One thinker particularly associated with this movement was Darwin’s near-contemporary Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’. He argued that competition among humans was beneficial, because it ensured that only the healthiest and most intelligent individuals would succeed. Social Darwinism remained influential for several generations, although its association with eugenics and later adoption as an ideological position by Fascist regimes ensured its eventual downfall from intellectual respectability.

With: Adam Kuper (Centennial Professor of Anthropology at the LSE, University of London), Gregory Radick (Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Leeds), Charlotte Sleigh (Reader in the History of Science at the University of Kent).

Producer: Thomas Morris. Published 20 February 2014. 

Discovery – Explorations in the world of science. BBC World Service

A discussion about primatology past and present. Presented by Mike Williams. Published 13 June 2011



Photo courtesy of Picture This! Entertainment.

2020. “Breeding Back to Former Glory: The Role of Eugenics in Nazi Germany.” Essay review of Amir Teicher’s Social Mendelism: Genetics and the Politics of Race in Germany, 1900‒1948. Times Literary Supplement 14 August: 23‒4.

“She wants to marry him. He wants to marry her. Should they go ahead? One couple’s quest to follow the science in reaching a decision forms a plot line in one of the theatrical hits of the early Nazi state. …”

2019. “So many free lunches: Why we should not try to be excellent.” Essay review of Daniel S. Milo’s Good Enough: The Tolerance for Mediocrity in Nature and Society. Times Literary Supplement 15 November: 36.

“Daniel S. Milo is an iconoclast about Darwinian evolution and much else besides. Here he is on that fabled non-entity, the free lunch: ‘Free lunches are common in nature and commoner in society …”

2019.  “Genes and Genocide.”  Review of T. Porter, Genetics in the Madhouse: The Unknown History of Human Heredity. In Times Literary Supplement 10 May: 29.

“As a public movement, eugenics – the breeding of supposedly better humans through science – began in the early twentieth century. But its roots are eminently Victorian. …”

2019.  “Kafka’s Wonderful Ape: Identifying Red Peter.”  Times Literary Supplement 1 March: 8‒9.

“Peter, Chimpanzee, Here. Smoking a Cigar as He Came Down the Gangplank of the Philadelphia”, announced the New York Times on August 1,1909. This ape, a star of the European stage – the Folies- Bergère in Paris, the Palace Music Hall in London – was in New York to launch an American tour. …”

2016. “The Enemy Within.” Review of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History. In Times Literary Supplement 25 November: 3-4.

“It is no ordinary history of genetics where, midway through, we read the following: ‘In the Bible, Ham’s descendants are cursed because he stumbles on his father, Noah, drunken and naked, his genitals exposed, lying in a field in the half-light of dawn….”

2015. “Dismal Destinies.” Review of Piers J. Hale’s Political Descent: Malthus, Mutualism, and the Politics of Evolution in Victorian Britain. In Times Literary Supplement 3 July: 3-4.

“H . G. Wells makes an appearance only towards the end of Political Descent. But no one in the book more fully justifies the pun in Piers Hale’s title, or his claim that the Victorian debate on Darwinism and politics should be understood through two of its subsidiary ­questions. …”

2014. “Consciously Digital.” Review of Michio Kaku’s The Future of the Mind. In Times Literary Supplement 20 June: 32.

“No matter what astronomers predict about Halley’s comet, or whether the rest of us believe them, the comet will carry on regardless….”

2014. “Saliva on the Shelf.” Review of S. Pääbo’s Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes. In Times Literary Supplement 9 May: 24.

“If you have ancestors from Europe, Western Asia, or the Near-East – the places where Neanderthals once lived – you probably have a few Neanderthal genes….”



2019.  “A Wake-Up Call on Proprietary Seeds: How India Can Shift its Agriculture from a High-Yield Ideal to a High-Value One.”  With Mrinalini Kochupillai. The Hindu 9 May.

“When the news broke that PepsiCo was suing small farmers in India for growing a potato variety that is used in its Lay’s chips, popular sympathies immediately went, of course, to the farmers. …”

2016. “Teach Students the Biology of Their Time: An Experiment in Genetics Education Reveals How Mendel’s Legacy Holds Back the Teaching of Science.”Nature 533 (19 May): 293.

“Historians study the causes and consequences of past events, but also consider alternative scenarios. What might have happened, for example, if Britain had stayed out of the war in Europe in 1914? …”

The online version has links to an associated podcast and Nature editorial (“Second Thoughts”). A German translation has been published in Der mathematische und naturwissenschaftliche Unterricht

2016. “Mendel in the Hot Seat, 1902.” by Karen Zusi. The Scientist. 1 Feb.

“At the turn of the 20th century, Gregor Mendel’s seminal 1866 paper on pea plants and the principles of inheritance resurfaced in the scientific community, thanks to a few intrepid botanists who had arrived at similar conclusions in their own research. Examining the findings reported in Mendel’s long-buried paper, Walter Frank Raphael Weldon, an Oxford University zoologist at the time, found himself embroiled in controversy….”

2015. “¿Fue Mendel el padre de la mala praxis científica?” by Javier Sampedro. El Pais. 12 October.

“Si raros son los científicos que han hecho grandes descubrimientos, los más raros de todos son los que han inventado una ciencia, como hizo Mendel al crear la genética hace 150 años. …”

2015. “Beyond the ‘Mendel-Fisher Controversy’: Worries about Fraudulent Data Should Give Way to Broader Critiques of Mendel’s Legacy.” Science 350 (9 October): 159-60.

“One hundred and fifty years ago, Gregor Mendel delivered his lectures on “Experiments on Plant Hybrids,” going on to publish them in 1866. Around the world, celebrations of the monk whose work with pea varieties made him the father of genetics are under way. Mendel has alas acquired another, less auspicious title, as “the father of scientific misconduct,” owing to suspicions that he faked some of his data. …”

2009. Review of R. J. Richards’ The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought. History Today 59 (July): 66-7.

“As an artist known for stylised paintings of nature’s diversity, Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) is still much admired. As a Darwinian biologist, he is not. …”

2009. Review of A. Desmond and J. Moore’s Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins. Times Higher Education 12 Feb.: 48‒9.

“Early in 1832, Charles Darwin nearly got himself thrown off HMS Beagle.  He was in Bahia, in Brazil, where black slaves worked the sugar plantations.  The captain, Robert FitzRoy, reported visiting a slave owner who asked some of his slaves whether they wanted to be free.  All said no – to which Darwin replied that maybe, in the master’s presence, the answer was worthless.  He survived the furious reaction and later wrote home that his “Whig principles” survived, too.  He would not be tempted away by Tories such as FitzRoy, with ‘their cold hearts about that scandal to Christian Nations, Slavery’. …”

2008. Review of M. Boulter’s Darwin’s Garden: Down House and The Origin of Species. Times Higher Education 4 Sept.: 56‒7.

“Tennyson’s phrase ‘red in tooth and claw’ has long attached to Darwinian nature. Yet Darwin was always, and sometimes mainly, concerned with plants.  As he explained in the Origin of Species (1859), he meant the term ‘struggle for existence’ to evoke not just starving animals in mortal combat, but plants fighting against the elements (drought, say) and against each other, competing for ground space for their seeds or for the attentions of seed-spreading birds. …”

2008. Review of J. Schwartz’s In Pursuit of the Gene: From Darwin to DNA. Times Higher Education 8 May: 49.

“When William Bateson introduced the word ‘genetics’ in 1905, he meant it to name a new branch of inquiry.  Bateson well knew that scientifically minded people had long been researching inheritance.  But the recent recovery of the ideas of Darwin’s contemporary Gregor Mendel had, in Bateson’s view, changed everything.  By the crossbreeding of pea varieties and the tracking of specific traits through several generations, Mendel had exposed patterns whose explanation lay, he proposed, in the combining and recombining of stable underlying factors.  Mendel’s achievement was the model for genetics. Within the next decade the new ‘Mendelians’ would start calling the factors ‘genes’. …”

2005. “The Case for Virtual History.” Introduction to a special feature (“What if?”) on counterfactuals in the history of science. New Scientist 187, no. 2513 (20 August 2005): 34-35

“Anyone who has read Robert Harris’s book Fatherland is familiar with the concept of counterfactual history. The idea is simple: pose a “what if…” about the past, in Harris’s case, “what if the Nazis had won the war?”, and then answer it with a plausible and entertaining account of what might have been. …”