How Can We Know What Might Have Been in the Scientific Past? Reflections on the Debate over Mendelism
Une science radicalement différente est-elle plausible? Université de Lorraine, Nancy, 18-19 December 2019
We make judgments all the time about all kinds of claims about the might-have-been or counterfactual past. At least some of the time, those judgments take into account evidence from the actual course of history. Concentrating on claims about the counterfactual scientific past, this talk will consider the kinds of evidence that can bear in deciding questions about whether a given scientific achievement was inevitable, i.e independent of its particular history, or whether, had that history gone differently, science might have gone differently too. The kinds of evidence to be considered are: (i) evidence from histories converging on the scientific achievement in question; (ii) evidence from histories diverging from that achievement; (iii) evidence of alternatives under contempation at the time; and (iv) evidence from attempts to develop those alternatives in the present. Throughout I’ll draw on examples from my own studies of the post-1900 debate over Mendel, including, under (iv), an experiment assessing the effects of teaching genetics from a Mendelian or a “Weldonian” starting point. I’ll suggest that the availability of (iv) potentially puts counterfactual histories of *science* on a more secure epistemic footing than other kinds of counterfactual history. And I’ll stress that, beyond (i)-(iv), historians of science pursuing a counterfactual thesis can avail themselves of all the evidence relating to what was dependent on what in the post-achievement history of science.
Mendel the Fraud? A Social History of Truth in Genetics
New Directions in the Historiography of Genetics workshop, Cohn Institute, Tel Aviv University, 18-19 November 2019
Abstract: Two things about Gregor Mendel are common knowledge: first, that he was the “monk in the garden” whose experiments with peas in mid-nineteenth-century Moravia became the starting point for genetics; second, that, despite that exalted status, there is something fishy, maybe even fraudulent, about the data that Mendel reported. This talk will explore the cultural politics of this accusation of fraudulence against Mendel. Although the notion that Mendel’s numbers were, in statistical terms, too good to be true was well understood almost immediately after the famous “rediscovery” of his work in 1900, the problem became widely discussed and agonized over only from the 1960s, for reasons having as much to do with Cold War geopolitics as with traditional concerns about the objectivity of science. Appreciating the Cold War origins of the problem as we have inherited it can, I will suggest, be a helpful step towards shifting the discussion in more productive directions, scientific as well as historiographic.
The Role of NIAB in the Success of Mendelism
NIAB at 100: Change and Continuity in Agricultural Botany and its Institutions 1919‒2019, Cambridge, 24 October
The LPLS and its Museum in Historical Perspective: Some Highlights from Recent Research
With Jonathan Topham. Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society Bicentennial Conference, Leeds, 19 October.
Abstract for my part: Charles Darwin seems never to have doubted that the different human races originated from a common ancestral stock. But he was remarkably open-minded and even-handed about whether the races might nevertheless be so different from each other as to rank as distinct species, and not merely as varieties of just one species. For decades, from Darwin’s time on the Beagle voyage through to the publication of the Descent of Man, he used an apparent association between the different human races and distinctive species of lice as material for thinking through the species/varieties question. Throughout these investigations he corresponded with Britain’s leading expert in the natural history of lice, Henry Denny, curator of the scientific collections of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society. Drawing on a forthcomng paper with Mark Steadman (“Of Lice and Men,” BJHS Themes, 2021), this talk reconstructs the long run of Darwin’s inquiry and interactions on race, lice, and evolutionary history.
Disputed Inheritance: The Battle over Mendel and the Future of Biology
Institute for Basic Research into Developmental Disabilities, Staten Island, NY, 5 September.
How Changes in Agricultural Education Can Help Promote Sustainable Agriculture in India
Sustainable Seed Innovations 2.0 conference, Art of Living campus, Bangalore, 30 July
Abstract: This conference will be launching a Position Paper outlining a three-pronged approach to promoting a more sustainable future for Indian agriculture, stressing the revival of Traditional Ecological Knowledge systems (Prong 1), the updating of agricultural education to promote sustainability (Prong 2), and the use of new smart technologies to incentivize and monetize farmer-level innovation with indigenous seeds in an ecologically and socially sustainable manner (Prong 3). In addition to introducing the background to the Sustainable Seed Innovations Project, I’ll be presenting the Prong 2 material, which is currently available in draft form on the Spicy IP website. It addresses the need to redesign elements of agricultural training to ensure a better fit with the goal of greater sustainability, looking in particular at how my historical research into the organization of knowledge in two areas — Mendelian genetics and intellectual property — has opened up new options worth considering.
Classroom Mendelism and its Role in Sustainable Agriculture
John Innes Centre, Norwich, 24 July
Abstract: In this talk I’ll be examining links between (i) what we might call the “Green Revolution” high-yield agricultural ideal, emphasizing the use of genetically standardized seeds along with the fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation systems etc. with which farmers give those seeds the standardized environments they need; and (ii) what we might call the “start with Mendel” pedagogic ideal in genetics education, emphasizing the use of elementary Mendelian patterns and explanations as foundational for understanding how heredity works, viz. as, in the first instance, down to which “genes for” traits are present and in what forms. Drawing on some recent collaborative work with partners in India, I’ll explore the possibility that, in India and perhaps elsewhere, changing from a high-yield to a high-value agricultural system, where the emphasis is instead on indigenous varieties sustainably grown in the regions to which they’re adapted, in ways that are good for biodiversity as well as for farmer dignity and income, community building etc., partly depends on giving farmers a scientific education in which gene-environmental interactions are seen not as an extra complication or a nuisance but as fundamental to how heredity works.
Caricature du journal Le Pèlerin, ‘Bilan fin de Siecle!’ Date 1900
Degeneration and Victorian Cultural History: The Surprising Challenge from the New Historiography of Quantitative Genetics
ISHPSSB conference, Oslo, 7‒12 July.
Abstract: A commonplace about nineteenth-century cultural history, in Europe and beyond, is that it was an age characterized by increasing anxiety about biological degeneration. Like any such generalization, this one has its uses, but it also has its limits. In this talk I want to consider how differently the topic of degeneration looks when it’s no longer viewed as the cultural equivalent of an irresistible force, seeping miasma, doomily enervating mood music etc. The inspiration for this exercise is Ted Porter’s Genetics in the Madhouse: The Unknown History of Human Heredity (Princeton, 2018), where, among many other things, Porter shows that the French asylum doctor B. A. Morel’s claims about degeneration as the universal fate of the human species were subjected to severe criticism by his professional peers, who were able to mount their arguments thanks to painstainkingly accumulated quantitative data on the inheritance of insanity. Porter’s work illustrates how the new historiography of quantitative genetics, for all its specialist appeal, can cast light on subjects of much wider historical interest.
Monoculture rice terrace
Against Monocultures, Intellectual and Agricultural
Integrated HPS workshop, University of Exeter, 20‒21 June.
Gregor Johann Mendel (20 July 1822 – 6 January 1884)
‘If Only Darwin Had Read Mendel…’
International Mendel’s Day conference, Royal Institution, London, 8 March 2019. Afterwards I recorded this podcast interview about the talk with Kat Arney. Here’s Kat’s intro:
“While we know that Mendel read Darwin, as evidenced by his pencil-marked copy of Origin of Species at the Abbey, did Darwin read Mendel? I was particularly fascinated to hear from one of the Mendel Day speakers, Professor Greg Radick from the University of Leeds – a leading expert in the history of genetics – who’s been speculating on this scenario.
So, I just had to drag him out of the drinks reception at the end of the day to chat about Darwin’s ideas about heredity, and to bust some myths about the intellectual relationship between these two men.
Greg: Well, they had no interaction as people or as thinkers. Mendel read Darwin, that we know for sure. Mendel’s copies of the Origin of Species and another book of Darwin’s exist, they’ve been studied….”
There was No Such Thing as the Mendelian Gene and this is a Talk about it
How Scientific Objects End workshop, University of Cambridge, 3 December 2018.
Evelyn Fox Keller’s The Century of the Gene (2000) remains the most famous obituary of the concept born out of enthusiasm for Mendel’s 1866 paper. If we define Mendelian genes as those dominant-or-recessive entities whose pairings do the explanatory work in elementary genetics (in answering, e.g., the question of why blue-eyed parents have only blue-eyed children), then, on Keller’s account, the Mendelian gene concept should have expired long ago, so badly does it fit the accumulated facts. But what kind of a life did that concept ever really have, anyway? Haven’t thoughtful biologists always regarded it as an oversimplification? Indeed, from early days, Mendelians allowed for all kinds of complexity. They nevertheless relentlessly showcased the power of Mendelian explanations to cut through complexity and expose underlying simplicity. In the spirit of Keller’s Making Sense of Life (2002), this paper documents this “ambi-valence” in order to suggest how crucial it has been in making the Mendelian gene concept — and the determinism it underwrites — so long-lived.