International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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TUESDAY, JULY 7  /  11:00 - 12:30  /  DS-M320
Organized session / standard talks
Topics in the history of genetics (1)

Marsha Richmond (Wayne State University, United States)

Genetics witnessed some of the most dramatic advances in knowledge of any of the natural sciences in the twentieth century. From the rise of the Mendelian chromosome theory in the first two decades of “classical genetics,” the development of biochemical and structural techniques for unravelling the nature of the genetic material and its functioning, and the rise of population genetics leading to the Evolutionary Synthesis, the discipline witnessed dramatic breakthroughs in knowledge and in practice. These two sessions focus on pivotal moments in the historical trajectory of the discipline of genetics in the 20th century. The first examines episodes in theory construction and social practice in genetics, while the second highlights human-oriented studies of populations and the rise of the field of human and medical genetics.

Two different ways of doing science: Bateson, Morgan and the chromosome theory (1910-1926)

Lilian Al-Chueyr Pereira Martins (Universidade de São Paulo de Ribeirão Preto, Brazil)

William Bateson (1861-1926) and Thomas Hunt Morgan (1866-1945) who had been previously students of William Keith Brooks (1848-1908), were both interested in evolution and brought contributions to genetics. However, they adopted different attitudes towards the chromosome theory during their scientific careers. Bateson kept an attitude of critical expectation (scientific agnosticism). Before 1910, Morgan’s attitude may be regarded as a complete rejection and, after that, of complete commitment. The aim of this communication is to offer an explanation to the conflict between them. It will be defended that Bateson and Morgan had different “styles of scientific thought”. Firstly, departing from the analysis made by Harwood (1993) related to the German community of Geneticists in the Inter-War-Years, it will show Bateson had several characteristics similar to the representatives of the Alfred Kuhn’s school (comprehensive thought). On the other hand, Morgan had several characteristics similar to Erwin Baur’s school (pragmatic thought). Secondly, it will discuss the several domains and aspects of opposition between Bateson and Morgan including methodology, epistemology, scientific work, religion, science and nationalism. The present analysis leads to the conclusion that Bateson and Morgan had different and sometimes conflicting ways of doing science. They adopted different research programs that embodied different methods and purposes. They also represented nature in different ways. The way in which Bateson understood and did science would hinder him to establish chromosome theory or to accept it as a whole contrary to Morgan’s one.

Women's work in British genetics (1900-1950): The John Innes Horticultural Institute and the Edinburgh Institute of Animal Genetics

Marsha Richmond (Wayne State University, United States)

Women have been contributors to genetics since the founding of Mendelism in 1900. To date, however, we know very little about the nature of their work. To a large extent, this is because their participation in science—including the problems they studied, their publications, and their role in the broader scientific community—has been hidden from view by a system that accorded primary recognition to the men who directed the laboratories or institutes where they were employed. A continuation of the organization Steven Shapin described in recognizing the “invisible technicians” of the 17th century, this system operated until the 1970s, when social changes, including the rise of feminism and greater opportunities for women to assume leadership roles, emerged and provided greater visibility to women. As part of a broader international comparison of women’s work in genetics, this paper examines the work of women at the John Innes Horticultural Center in Britain and at Edinburgh’s Institute of Animal Genetics, 1910 to 1950. By analyzing the nature of the work undertaken by women at these two leading genetics establishments in Britain, it is possible to identify significant changes in the organization of scientific research in the twentieth century—namely, the transition from the pursuit of individual research projects to the development of programs carried out by groups of researchers.

Selfish genes: A tipping point for evolutionary theory?

Myrna Perez Sheldon (Rice University, United States)

During the past century, there have been few evolutionary thinkers with as much public charisma (and who have stoked as much political controversy) as Richard Dawkins. But his most significant contribution to evolutionary theory was perhaps in his first book in 1976, The Selfish Gene. In this book, Dawkins championed the notion of gene-centered evolution, helping a generation of science readers to visualize their DNA as the primary objects of evolutionary change. Although widely acknowledged as a watershed moment in the popular understanding of evolution, little has been done to assess the impact of Dawkins’s work on the technical science of genetics. Was The Selfish Gene simply a more comprehensible distillation of the work of evolutionists such as Robert Trivers and W.D. Hamilton? Or was The Selfish Gene, in fact, a crucial catalyst for the theoretical underpinnings of the field of sociobiology and later evolutionary psychology? This paper examines both the popular and technical influences of The Selfish Gene with two primary aims: first, to assess the book’s role in crucial transformations regarding genetics within evolutionary biology during the 1970s and early 1980s. And second, to consider more generally, the role of semi-popular books in shaping technical developments in evolutionary theory during the last quarter of the twentieth century.