The Decline of Natural History & Rise of Biology in 19thc Britain

For the past few weeks, the history and philosophy of biology (HPBio) reading group here at the University of Leeds has been tackling a series of readings on a contentious historical issue: how biology came into existence and what it replaced.

E. Donovan, 1805 Instructions for Collecting and Preserving Various Subjects of Natural History. Second edition. Plate 2, Figures 5-9.

Natural history: Consisting of field observation, collection and classification, natural history consisted a grand civic and scientific project in Victorian society. Clubs and societies, with associated journals and museums sprang up across nineteenth-century Britain. Natural history was (at least in theory) open to all comers, from both genders and any social class. The field remained remarkably stable for a long period, in terms of the practices and equipment utilised. Historian of natural history David Allen remarks that in entomology, basic field equipment used in the 1950s such as the collecting tin and the vasculum were indistinguishable from their mid-eighteenth century counterparts (Allen. 1998: 362).

Its decline: Allen (1998) goes on to claim that natural history suddenly lost its preeminence in the late-nineteenth century. A rising class of professional scientists – largely based in universities – turned against amateurish natural history in favor of a new experimental biology, often based in the laboratory. These professionals derided practitioners of natural history as ‘bug-hunters’ while the latter returned fire by labeling laboratory biologists ‘worm slicers’ (Allen, 1998: 366). Attempts by naturalists to reintegrate themselves in British science were unsuccessful. In ecology, amateur naturalists initially found a role for their taxonomic expertise in biological surveys. Yet by the outbreak of the First World War, ecology adopted a physiological approach, pushing out the naturalists. Ecology remains ‘dauntingly technical’, especially following its adoption of statistics (Allen, 1998: 367).

John Richardson, 1837. Fauna boreali-americana. Volume 4.

Biology: The word biology is generally perceived to have been coined early in the nineteenth century. Joseph Caron (1988: 247) locates the emergence of a distinct science of biology in England between the 1850s and 1890s. Here, scientists such as T.H. Huxley proposed a new synthetic and general perspective on living beings and life in general (Caron, 1988: 247). These calls were backed up by action, with figures such as J.D. Hooker working to have ‘biology’ adopted at the university level. As it lacked a distinct research programme, Caron (1988: 253) describes English biology during this period as a publicist science par excellence. Controlling university teaching and examination allowed the subject to flourish – a point both Allen and Caron agree upon.

Our reading:

Allen, D.E., ‘On parallel lines: natural history and biology from the late Victorian period’, Archives of Natural History 25 (1998): 361-371

Caron, J.A., ‘Biology’ in the life sciences: a historiographical contribution’, History of Science 26 (1988): 223-268

Johnson, K., ‘Natural history as stamp collecting: a brief history’, Archives of Natural History 34 (2007): 244-258



Taxonomic Technology: Electrophoresis & Classification in Agricultural Botany (Part 1)

My second ever work-in-progress seminar at the University of Leeds introduced attendees to the second chapter of my PhD, which examines the use of laboratory machinery and biochemical methods to identify and analyse crop varieties at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) during the 1980s. By the late-twentieth century, classifying agricultural plants was a difficult task. More and more varieties were submitted to NIAB by plant breeders, while the distinguishing characteristics of varieties grew smaller and smaller. Identifying and classifying varieties had traditionally relied upon botanically-trained observers. Yet visual scrutiny of plants’ morphological characteristics was problematic, requiring both considerable expertise and grown specimens.

The problem of classifying of agricultural plants is demonstrated by these images of celery varieties. Each column here represents a distinct variety: the correct classification of these samples by eye would be a near-impossible task for the untrained observer. From G.W. Horgan, M. Talbot and J.C. Davey, ‘Plant variety colour assessment using a still video camera’, Plant Varieties and Seeds (1995) 8: 161-169.

An escape route was provided to NIAB via a form of protein fingerprinting developed in biochemistry: electrophoresis. For historians of biology, electrophoresis is best known for its use by Lewontin and Hubby to break an impasse in population genetics during the 1960s. Electrophoresis was trialed at NIAB during the same period, to little avail. Matters changed during the early years of the 1980s, when staff at NIAB’s Chemistry and Quality Assessment Branch were able to apply electrophoresis to cereal varieties. Electrophoresis works by running an electric current through a gel in which a sample sits. As different proteins carry different charges, they separate into distinct “bands” (see below).

An early image of a completed electrophoresis sample. The darker protein “bands” can be seen once the gel is chemically dyed. From R.P Ellis, ‘The identification of wheat varieties by the electrophoresis of grain proteins’, Journal of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (1971) 12: 223-235.

Electrophoresis provided a new means of classifying agricultural plants and was promoted in NIAB’s publications as an efficient and modern technique of variety identification. The experience of the Institute during the 1980s chimes with what historians of science have termed the “molecularisation movement” in the life sciences. This movement is usually associated with genetics and the role of DNA and nucleic acids. Yet historians have called for broader studies under the theme of molecularisation, not least because of the broad use of terms such as “molecular biology” by scientists themselves. Financial gain and prestige came from NIAB’s research into electrophoresis; the technique still appears in guidelines issued by international agricultural bodies today, despite the rise of DNA sequencing. Yet electrophoresis was not the only method of classification investigated by NIAB during the 1980s, as future posts will explore…



Book Review: Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914

Mosquito Empires examines the dynamics of empire in the ‘Greater Caribbean’ – the Caribbean Islands and the coastal regions of North, Central and South America – bringing disease and ecology into traditional political and social history. John Robert McNeill argues that ecological change led to the proliferation of mosquito vectors which shaped subsequent wars, empires and revolutions (p.3). Mosquito Empires is divided into four main parts, structured around chronological case studies. McNeill first establishes the lethality of malaria and yellow fever through accounts of conquest and colonisation by Atlantic powers prior to the proliferation of mosquito vectors. This is followed by multiple examples of the deadly effect of disease on Western arrivals, including the disastrous malaria epidemics suffered by the 1655 English assault on Jamaica, establishing the rise of a new ‘ecological-military order’ (p.101). The second section studies British attempts to conquer Spanish possessions in the Caribbean (1690-1780) and the defeat of General Cornwallis’s forces during the American War of Independence, all of which suffered in varying degrees from malaria and yellow fever. In its third part, the book discusses the role of disease in the success of Caribbean revolutions in St. Domingue, New Granada and Cuba, from 1790-1898. Finally, the book concludes with the eventual overthrow of the ‘Mosquito Empire’ as means of controlling yellow fever and malaria emerged via the experience of the United States in Cuba and Panama (p.313).

John Trumbull’s ‘Surrender of Lord Cornwallis’ 1820. Cornwallis’s forces suffered from heavily from malaria at Yorktown

In the historiographical context, Mosquito Empires draws upon a tradition of incorporating disease into wider historical contexts. A well-known example is the works of Alfred Crosby, which places microbes alongside soldiers in the battle for the Americas. McNeill’s work similarly identifies the role of disease in the formation of empires. In the Greater Caribbean, ecological changes produced by the transition to plantation economies allowed mosquitoes carrying malaria and yellow fever to flourish, wreaking havoc among non-resistant populations, particularly European expeditions and colonialists (p.4). Mosquito Empires supports the idea of Western expansion as a two-way process, facilitating the movement of disease while creating new environments for disease vectors. The example given of U.S. triumph in Cuba and Panama appears to confirm disease control as a tool of empire, allowing conquest in regions previously closed off by the disease barrier. McNeill – to his credit – also covers clashes between Western empires in disease ridden zones, encompassing differential immunity among colonists and the manipulation of disease environments as a strategic defense (pp.141-142).

McNeill contrasts the heavy toll suffered by French workers on the Panama Canal in the 1880s with American efforts following anti-mosquito campaigns from 1904-1914 (pp.310-312). “The Panama Canal — The Great Culebra Cut” by Charles Graham (1852-1911), artist – Reproduced from an original illustration drawn from photographs and published in Harper’s Weekly.–_The_Great_Culebra_Cut.jpg

Occasionally overarching statements and interpretations weaken the author’s arguments. The link between man-made ecological change and the establishment of the ‘mosquito empire’ lacks firm evidence, respective diagnosis is problematic and questions over human agency and environmental determinism are left unresolved. The importance of human agency is ambiguous, the book being ‘not quite an essay in mosquito determinism’ (p.6). Certain claims made in the book surrounding the heritability of disease immunity (p.46), would benefit from the inclusion of arguments in K.F Kiple’s The Caribbean Slave (1984), which goes unmentioned despite its presence in the bibliography. Yet the book produces a sound main thesis, drawing heavily upon contemporary sources, while telling a forgotten story through a combination of environmental, political, military and medical history.

McNeill, John Robert, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 

Book Review: Food, Inc: Mendel to Monsanto – The Promises and Perils of the Biotech Harvest

So little ground has shifted in the genetically modified food debate that a twelve-year old volume remains pertinent today. Food, Inc. examines a series of controversies surrounding transgenic foods in ten chapters. The book begins with a whirlwind tour of agricultural genetics, from Gregor Mendel’s garden to the biotech revolution in agriculture since the 1980s. Following chapters are based around specific points of health, environmental and commercial contention, from the erosion of genetic diversity to bio-piracy and patenting. Journalist Peter Pringle – author of Cornered: Big Tobacco at the Bar of Justice (New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1998) – attempts to occupy what remains of ‘the middle ground’ amidst what he perceives to be a divisive plethora of special interest groups.

‘Golden Rice grains are easily recognisable by their yellow to orange colour. The stronger the colour the more β-carotene [provitamin A]’:
Pringle begins with one of the ‘most vigorously investigated botanical mysteries’: asexuality or apomixis (p. 11). Understanding apomixis could result in fixed traits in crops, unchanging throughout the generations. Yet if the secret of apomixis is patented, the dominance of industrial capital over farming will advance still further. A central dilemma in Food, Inc., this is further explored in chapter two. Here the development of vitamin-A rich Golden Rice in 1999 provides a case in point; as a supposedly humanitarian effort to counter global malnutrition degenerated into a row on the funding of science and private ownership of biotech techniques and products. By contrast, chapter four covers the 1994 outcry over the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of the Flavr Savr tomato. To Pringle this episode is indicative of the poor conduct of the Reagan administration, food regulatory bodies and the ambiguous criteria of ‘substantial equivalence’ used to judge the safety of transgenic crops (p.65).

Yet anti-biotech forces do not emerge intact from the book. The British scientist and activist Mae-Wan Ho, is virulently refuted over her arguments on the instability of transgenic organisms containing mosaic viruses (p.98). Pringle divides the anti-biotech community into three categories: rejectionists, reformers and organic advocates. With the exception of reformers, these activists are portrayed as having played a significant role in creating public confusion on the safety of genetically modified foods. Other factors in the latter’s rejection of transgenic crops include an irresponsible media and Monsanto’s public relations disaster in Britain.

A monarch butterfly: Food, Inc, discusses a 1999 controversy on the impact of Bt corn pollen on potted common milkweed plants, which host the butterflies.

Historian of science James Secord has argued that simplistic notions of scientific genius are often present in scientific journalism. Food, Inc. acknowledges a range of opposition to genetically modified food, from ‘anarchists and ideological scientists’ to trade unions and religious groups (p.118). Yet Pringle has little to contribute on the development of these movements. Instead the biographies of individual (often colourful) campaigners are covered. In a reflection of Secord’s criticism of scientific journalism, Pringle may have put too much focus on anti-heroic geniuses as driving opposition to the science of genetic modification. Food, Inc. readily equates a high media profile with practical influence over the anti-biotech movement.

For an introduction to current themes in agriculture and biotechnology, Food, Inc. is a useful resource. Yet room for expansion on several of its themes remain; the emergence and character of environmental protest being one area. Another would be critiques of a now-established (US-based) narrative of commodification of the natural world by an industrial elite. One topic of interest to historians of science mentioned in the book is the life and work of Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov. This noteworthy story is covered in a 2008 work by Pringle, which this blog will review at a later date. Food, Inc. ultimately comes down in favour of genetic modification, albeit with misgivings. The book’s arguments should therefore be considered by all those interested in the biotech debate.

Pringle, Peter, Food, Inc: Mendel to Monsanto – The Promises and Perils of the Biotech Harvest. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.

What is a Biological Individual & Why Does it Matter?

Back in July I was invited to attend my first summer school, a gathering of young scholars at Gut Siggan in Holstein, Germany. The subject of our collective brainstorming was ‘Superorganisms, Organisms and Suborganisms as Biological Individuals’. In other words, what is an ‘individual’ in biology, how do we arrive at this definition and why does it matter? The summer school had a distinctly interdisciplinary twist, bringing in biologists, philosophers, sociologists and even a few historians – including yours truly. During the various lectures and seminars we heard varied examples from the history of microbial classification to perspectives on modern DNA testing to remind ourselves what a difficult – and often controversial – task labeling something as a biological individual can be.

Attendees of the ‘Superorganisms, Organisms and Suborganisms as Biological Individuals: First Interdisciplinary Summer School on Individuality in the Life Sciences’, 27-31 July 2015. The organisers were Marie L. Kaiser, Thomas Reydon, Christian Sachse & Marianne Schark.

Participants were pointed to one particularly interesting piece of reading by Lynn Nyhart and Scott Lidgard ‘Individuals at the Center of Biology: Rudolf Leuckart’s Polymorphismus de Individuen and the Ongoing Narrative of Parts and Wholes’ (Journal of the History of Biology 44 (2011): 373-443). Nyhart and Lidgard point out that biological individuality was as central a problem to pre-1859 naturalists as evolution. Philosophical notions followed discoveries in cell theory, discussions on compound organisms and debates over the existence of single-celled organisms (p. 374). Zoologists like Leuckart were also involved in ongoing disputes in taxonomy, dividing and creating animal groups to create new classification systems (p. 377). In the concluding paragraphs of their paper, Nyhart and Lidgard attempt to draw parallels between modern trends in biology – including interest in modular organisms and developmental modularity – and nineteenth-century discussions of individuality (p. 406). But does the latter really possess relevance today? Do seemingly arbitrary and ever changing definitions actually make a practical difference in the world?

Invited speaker Mathias Grote (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) introduces the history and philosophy of microbiology.

In a series of important contexts, yes. To take one example from my own research, getting a new breed of plant recognised as a variety can bring intellectual property protection and potentially lucrative commercial awards. Other speakers at the summer school pointed out that what we recognise as a biological individual is important in how we carry out conservation programmes; we need to know what we are actually trying to preserve. Yulia Egorova, a lecturer from the University of Durham, revealed the impact of DNA testing on cultural and religious groups. How we perceive human individuality can often have dangerous consequences for how we view ourselves and others. What constitutes a biological individual is not simply a question best left to philosophy.

Molecular Biology and Evolution at ISHPSSB 2015, Université du Québec à Montréal

The Blog is Back! Following a few hectic weeks of international travel, including the International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB) 2015 conference in Montreal, normal service can resume. ISHPSSB was the first international conference I had ever attended. With hundreds of attendees, it was also the largest! Nominally I was there to present a paper on a facet of my PhD research – the history of a largely ignored form of biotechnology know as somatic hybridisation ( But with multiple panels and sessions, ISHPSSB’s speakers were delving into everything from Darwin to embryology, ecology to agriculture. One of the most intriguing (and popular) panels discussed aspects of molecular biology and the modern synthesis in biology. As always, a few textual snapshots are provided below:

But first, some Montreal landmarks…


Vassiliki Betty: The modern evolutionary synthesis brought together botanists, geneticists and paleontologists under a single conceptual framework – one which combined evolutionary ideas and Mendelian genetics – during the mid-twentieth century. By the end of 1950s, advocates of the synthesis was arguing for evolution as the unifying theory of biology. Links between chemistry, physics and biology also grew as biologists jumped on the ‘DNA bandwagon’. Yet all was not well in the new world of biology, as rifts between the new molecular biologists and traditional organism-focused biologists occurred in American Ivy League institutions. One well-known example is found in E.O Wilson’s memoirs, which described his Harvard colleague James Watson (co-discover of the structure of DNA) as the ‘Caligula of biology’, who aggressively drove the molecularisation of biology and even blocked the appointment of ecologists to the department.

Yet other noted figures felt no such clash. Botanist George Ledyard Stebbins Jr. embraced the techniques of molecular biology by the mid-1950s, despite his training in taxonomy and museum work. Chair of Genetics at UC-Davis during the 1950s and ’60s, Stebbins encompassed developmental genetics (which challenged Mendelian genetics) and postulated new mutation processes, including the easier formation of inter-specific hybrids in plants. In a 1968 paper he stated that modern synthetic theory was based upon multiple disciplines and acknowledged there were different answers to how characteristics – for example the neck of a giraffe – developed, given by field naturalists, Darwinians, developmental genetics and molecular biologists. None were wrong. All were correct, but incomplete.

ISHPSSB President Michel Morange speaks to a packed room at the molecular biology session.

Michel Morange: Jumping to the mid-1980s, molecular biologists had accepted evolutionary synthesis, as the Luria-Delbrück experiments chased Lamarckianism out of microbiology. Molecular biologists used Darwinism in their work, isolating mutations to demonstrate the creative power of variation and selection. François Jacob (1982) stated that embryonic development had been ignored. But various molecular biologists continued to have ideas about the molecular mechanisms of evolution. Research was not always straightforward. The T-complex model, proposed by Dorothea Bennett in 1975, was supposed to demonstrate how embryonic development of mice was disrupted. Unfortunately the T-complex turned out not to exist. Yet other models, including gene regulation and  heterochronic mutation were successfully integrated. It is now acknowledged that there are different forms of evolution and progress in evolution occurs independently of the environment. The molecular biologists were largely Darwinian but did not follow the evolutionary synthesis to the letter.

The Travelling Rat (1850-1950) at BSHS Conference, University of Swansea

Last week, a surprisingly high proportion of beach-goers on the coast near Swansea were historians or philosophers of science. The British Society for the History of Science annual conference was underway, featuring subjects as diverse as science fiction, Renaissance anatomy and nineteenth-century beliefs in extraterrestrials. One panel that caught the eye of many was “The Travelling Rat, 1850-1950,” which featured three presentations on historical attitudes towards our furry neighbors:

The Rat Catcher’s Prank – Neil Pemberton 

Jack Black, rat-catcher by appointment to Queen Victoria:

It is unsurprising to see that rat-catching practices are shaped by continuous battle with the ingenuity and behavior of rats. One man who understood this was Jack Black, rat-catcher by appointment to Queen Victoria. Black paraded around Victorian London in a self-made uniform, complete with a belt covered in iron rats. One of his numerous exploits involved confronting another rat-catcher in a pub, after stealing 10 live rats from the rival’s cart. Black displayed them to his rival’s dismay, the latter being bitten as he attempted to retrieve his lost rats. In this context, rats were objects of public display and spectacle. Yet today, rats are considered vectors of disease, not a subject for humorous pub pranks. Contact with rats has not always been perceived as dangerous. Jack Black boasted of being bitten everywhere (even in places he couldn’t name). Others catchers killed rats like dogs, using their teeth. In his interview with a Victorian journalist, Black didn’t talk about the sewer-dwelling habits of rats. Such a setting was hardly suitable for spectacle. To avoid plagues of rats on London streets, Black advocated the fitting of rat-proof drain grating. Strangely, hunting rats in their natural (sewer-based) habitat would constitute a form of “animal murder”.

Rattus-Homo-Machine: Rats as Seafarers in the Nineteenth Century – Kaori Nagai

Joseph Conrad’s novel Youth (1898) describes the spectacle of rats abandoning the author’s ship following a refit. Later Conrad’s ship caught fire and sank, proving the innate wisdom of seafaring rats. During this time, it was quite normal for rats to inhabit ships, embarking and disembarking at their leisure. Alexander Selkirk, the real Robinson Crusoe, was greatly pestered by rats and cats on his island. He was forced to tame the latter to keep the rats away. With rats taken on shipping routes to countries all over the world, nineteenth-century writers characterised rats as the ultimate colonisers. These animal colonisers caused their human counterparts no end of trouble, attacking farms and plantation. Rats also preyed on both native and other introduced species. According to Joseph Hooker, the Maori of New Zealand stated that just as European rats had driven away their native ones, the same phenomenon would occur on the human level. In the Encyclopaedia of Natural History (1837), Charles Partington recognised that the alarming multiplication of rats abroad was entirely the fault of human migrants.

The ‘Modern’ Management of Rats Moving Across Farm and Field: 1900-1940 – Karen Sayer   

Rat catchers, 1900's (5) (1)
Rat-catchers in Sydney, c. 1900.

By the late-nineteenth century, rats had long been subject to population control in rural Britain. Existing attitudes towards rats as “vermin” were reinforced by a (minor) outbreak of plague in rural Suffolk in 1910. Newspapers panicked and staff from the Lister Institute were sent to examine rats and their fleas. There were also debates in Parliament, which predictably pronounced the affair a matter for the local authorities. Detractors noted that reliance upon local controls were clearly insufficient when rats are able to travel. In 1919 the rats and mice destruction act was passed, threatening fines for those who allow rats to inhabit their land. In a new era of regulated control, modern, “scientific” methods of extermination, including gas and salmonella bacterium were promoted. The Victorian-era rat-catcher was confined to the annals of history. Newspapers dismissed traditional practitioners as part of an idyllic, or “silly” illusion of the countryside.