I’ve published widely on the history of biology and the human sciences after 1800, with particular emphases on Darwin and Darwinism, genetics and eugenics, and the sciences of mind, language and behaviour. I’ve also pursued more general questions about scientific knowledge, especially to do with history-of-science counterfactuals (e.g. “What would biology be like now if the Mendelians had not triumphed in the early 20th century?”) and intellectual property, narrowly and broadly construed (including ownership grabs by scientific disciplines or sub-disciplines, e.g. Mendelian genetics grabbing plant breeding).
My research has been more historical than philosophical, but philosophical questions come up all the time, for me as much as for the people I study. (I’m with those who think that science goes better for a close association with philosophy – and vice versa.)
Darwin and Darwinism
In the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin argued for an evolutionary theory built around two main ideas, common ancestry (which leads to a branching tree of life) and natural selection (which adapts varieties to surrounding conditions). I find the lives and afterlives of these ideas, in Darwin’s own work and thereafter, inexhaustibly interesting. One theme running through my varied Darwiniana is the complex relationship between theory and evidence. A book that I’m currently completing with my Leeds colleagues Roger White and Jonathan Hodge — coeditor with me of The Cambridge Companion to Darwin — will offer a new historical and philosophical interpretation of Darwin’s argument for natural selection by analogy from selection on the farm. Another theme is the politics of scientific knowledge, from the micro-level (e.g., was Darwin’s science affected by his family’s anti-slavery convictions?) to the macro-level (e.g., what are the links between capitalism and Darwinism?).
Some recent publications:
2021. Darwin’s Argument by Analogy: From Artificial to Natural Selection. With Roger M. White and Jonathan Hodge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2021. “Of Lice and Men: Charles Darwin, Henry Denny and the Evidence for the Human Races as Varieties or Species.” With Mark Steadman. In The Descent of Darwin: Race, Sex, and Human Nature, eds Erika L. Milam and Suman Seth. BJHS Themes 6: 1‒15.
2019. “Darwinism and Social Darwinism.” In The Cambridge History of Modern European Thought, eds Warren Breckman and Peter E. Gordon. 2 vols. Vol. 1, The Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 279‒300.
2018. “How and Why Darwin Got Emotional about Race.” In Historicizing Humans: Deep Time, Evolution, and Race in Nineteenth-Century British Sciences, ed. Efram Sera-Shriar. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, pp. 139‒71. I presented the paper in lecture form in November 2016 when I gave the annual Thomas S. Hall Lecture in History and Philosophy of Science, Washington University in St. Louis.
Genetics and Eugenics
When I was a graduate student, teaching a course on genetics and eugenics past and present, I first encountered this image: one of my favourites in the whole history of science. It’s from an article that the Oxford biologist W. F. R. Weldon published early in 1902, in response to growing enthusiasm for the recently rediscovered experiments of Gregor Mendel with hybrid peas. Everyone today learns about Mendel and his peas when we learn genetics: his discovery, for example, that in seed colour, yellowness is “dominant” to greenness, in the way that — we’re told — in humans, brown eye-colour is dominant to blue. But when Weldon examined peas for himself, he found that, though some peas were yellow and some were green, all shades in between were represented. He went on to develop a critique of emerging Mendelism that, to my mind, remains worth knowing about, for the light it throws on what genetics became and also what it might yet become. Making that case is the aim of my forthcoming book Disputed Inheritance: The Battle over Mendel and the Future of Biology, to be published by the University of Chicago Press.
Some recent publications:
2021. “Francis Galton and the Complexities of History and Heredity.” Galton Review 15: 15‒19.
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.
2020. “Making Sense of Mendelian Genes.” In Making Sense of Metaphor: Evelyn Fox Keller and Commentators on Language and Science, eds Marga Vicedo and Denis Walsh. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 45: 299-314.
2019. “Genes and Genocide.” Review of T. Porter, Genetics in the Madhouse: The Unknown History of Human Heredity. Times Literary Supplement 10 May: 29.
Sciences of Mind, Language and Behaviour
Meet Richard Garner: a bull-necked son of the American South who, in the early 1890s, became astonishingly famous by inventing a new kind of evolutionary experiment. Using an Edison wax-cylinder phonograph, he recorded the vocal utterances of monkeys and then played the recordings back to the monkeys, observing their responses in order to work out what the utterances “meant” to the monkeys. On this basis, Garner claimed to have vindicated the Darwinian theory through his discovery of “the simian tongue,” different only in degree from the lowest forms of human language. I wrote a master’s essay, then a PhD dissertation, and eventually a 577-page book (The Simian Tongue) about the rise, fall and rise again of the primate playback experiment, along the way tracing a path through twentieth-century psychology, anthropology, linguistics, and ethology. I’m still following up leads from the project, not long ago completing a revisionist account of the origins of the Chomskyan programme (Isis 2016).
Some recent publications:
2019. “Kafka’s Wonderful Ape: Identifying Red Peter.” Times Literary Supplement 1 March: 8‒9.
2017. “Animal Agency in the Age of the Modern Synthesis: W. H. Thorpe’s Example.” In Animal Agents: The Non-Human in the History of Science, ed. Amanda Rees. BJHS Themes 2: 35-56. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2016. “The Unmaking of a Modern Synthesis: Noam Chomsky, Charles Hockett, and the Politics of Behaviorism, 1955-1965.”Isis 107: 49-73. Under the title “Ideas and Ghosts,” Lorraine Daston and I published a brief exchange about the article on the Isis Facebook page.
2014. “Consciously Digital.” Essay review of Michio Kaku’s The Future of the Mind. Times Literary Supplement 20 June: 32.
Above I raised the question of the links between capitalism (a competitive social system) and Darwinism (which describes a competitive natural system). One way to investigate those links is to ask whether something like Darwin’s theory of natural selection was inevitable, no matter what the prevailing social arrangements, or whether, on the contrary, the theory depended for its existence and uptake on a very particular kind of society, with a history like Darwin’s. To put a question in this form is to engage what, for better or worse, has come to be known as “counterfactual history,” to do with what might have been, had certain features of the past been different. I explored the capitalism-Darwinism relationship in this spirit in my chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Darwin. I’ve since looked at other aspects of counterfactual history-of-science, notably in connection with Weldon’s critique of Mendelism. In a pilot-scale study, Annie Jamieson and I developed Weldonian teaching materials in introductory genetics to test whether students taught with them might be interestingly different from students taught the usual Mendelian curriculum. We found that, where students coming out of the Mendelian classroom were just as determinist about genes at the end of teaching as they were at the start (with some evidence of determinism increasing), students coming out of the Weldonian classroom — where interaction and variability were stressed throughout, in keeping both with Weldon’s work and with 21st-century genetics — emerged less determinist about genes. The further development of the interactionist curriculum is now underway within a large-scale project funded by the National Science Foundation in the US..
Some recent publications:
2017. “Genetic Determinism in the Genetics Curriculum: An Exploratory Study of the Effects of Mendelian and Weldonian Emphases,” with Annie Jamieson. Science and Education (26): 1261‒90.
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. 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. “Presidential Address: Experimenting with the Scientific Past.” British Journal for the History of Science 49: 153-72.
2013. “Putting Mendel in His Place: How Curriculum Reform in Genetics and Counterfactual History of Science Can Work Together.” With Annie Jamieson. In The Philosophy of Biology: A Companion for Educators, ed. K. Kampourakis. Dordrecht: Springer, pp. 577-95.
Intellectual Property, Narrowly and Broadly Construed
Beginning with a paper I published in 2002 on the historical structure of the controversy over the patenting of human genes, I’ve been trying to understand intellectual property and its roles in the interconnected lives of science, technology and society. During the AHRC Leeds-Bristol “Owning and Disowning Invention” project (2007-10), I proposed a new general framework and also, with my Leeds colleague Berris Charnley, made a start on rethinking the beginnings of Mendelian genetics as a case study. The general framework encourages the tracing of interactions between profit-maximizing legal instruments such as patents — intellectual property narrowly construed — and other, broader forms of the ownership of ideas, notably priority claims (claims to public credit as an innovator) and, a little more originally, what I’ve called productivity claims, made when enthusiasts for a body of knowledge insist that it’s the key to future success in a given practical area (and conversely, that such practical success demonstrates the truth of that knowledge). My hunch is that the early Mendelians’ work in publicizing the utility of Mendelian principles for breeders, of plants and animals (humans included), is an important part of the explanation for why those principles became so popular so quickly. More recently, in collaboration with the legal scholar Mrinalini Kochupillai and the Art of Living Foundation in Bangalore, I’ve been exploring the value of this framework for promoting a more sustainable form of agriculture among small farmers in rural India.
Some recent publications:
2019. “Incentivizing & Promoting Sustainable Seed Innovations in India: A Three-Pronged Approach.” With Mrinalini Kochupillai (lead author), Julia Köninger, Natalie Kopytko, Jasper Matthiesen, and Prabhakar Rao. Delivered to representatives of the Indian government at the Sustainable Indigenous Seeds Innovation 2.0 conference, Bangalore, 30 July.
2013. “Intellectual Property, Plant Breeding and the Making of Mendelian Genetics,” with Berris Charnley. In the Owning and Disowning Invention special issue. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 44: 222-33.
2013. “Claiming Ownership in the Technosciences: Patents, Priority and Productivity,” with Christine MacLeod. Introduction to Owning and Disowning Invention special issue. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 44: 188-201.
2013. Owning and Disowning Invention: Intellectual Property and Identity in the Technosciences in Britain, 1870-1930, coedited with Christine MacLeod. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 44: 188-300.
Some recent grants in connection with these interests include:
Interdisciplinary Research Cultures in Mid-20th-Century British Science: The Working Worlds of AI Pioneer Donald Michie (1923-2007) (WRoCAH CDA award, in collaboration with the British Library, 2023-6)
“Complex Diseases / Simple Models” (LAHRI Sadler Seminar, 2021‒2)
“The Working Life of Scientists: Exploring the Culture of Scientific Research through the Personal Archive of Donald Michie” (AHRC CDP with the British Library, 2019-22)
“Disputed Inheritance: The Battle over Mendel and the Future of Biology” (Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship, 2017-19)
with Sean Dyde as researcher, “Making Biological Minds” (Marie Curie Individual Fellowship, 2017-9)