Graduate Workshop in the History of Biology: University of Leeds

I’ve spent the past few weeks organising a graduate workshop for students from Leeds and Manchester, which took place at the Centre for HPS (@hpsleeds) on Tuesday 07th June. Although I spent much of the workshop behind the scenes (preparing tea and coffee!), from what I saw graduate students from both universities were pursuing some intriguing research questions in the history of biology, biomedicine and the human sciences…


In my own panel, we had Clare O’Reilly exploring the correspondence between Charles Darwin and an Aberdeenshire farmer on crop hybridisation. Mathew Andrews (@UlceraVerminosa) investigated the history of maggots for wound treatment: including its modern revival with the use of “bio-bags.” I delivered a (work-in-progress!) account of why us Britons have been so hostile to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Other conferences and thesis writing have kept me busy (and absent from this blog for too long). I haven’t managed to write posts about some of my more recent talks, but you can find their abstracts on my academia page (

  • “Twentieth-Century Biotechnology in the British Landscape: Historical Reflections.” Technology, Environment and Modern Britain Workshop, University College London, 27th April 2016.
  • “Malthus’s Shallow Grave: The Population Bomb (1968) and British Agricultural Science.” British Society for Literature and Science, University of Birmingham, 8th April 2016.

Next week I’ll be attending the Three Societies conference in Edmonton, Canada – which I will blog about! You can follow events there on Twitter using the hashtag #3soc2016

History & Philosophy of Monsters: HPS in 20 Objects Lecture Series, University of Leeds

On the 16th February, the ‘History and Philosophy of Science in 20 Objects’ lecture series held its second event, featuring monsters. PhD student Laura Sellers introduced a large audience to a member of the Museum of HPS’s wet specimen collection: a two-headed shark (spiny dogfish, or Squalus acanthias). The spiny dogfish is an intriguing animal in its own right. Possessing two spines, when attacked the dogfish is able to flex its back to allow one to protrude as a venomous spike. Yet it was the two heads of this specimen (the result of gene overexpression) under examination.

The two-headed fish (right) and a one-eyed piglet (left). The two heads of the fish are the result of gene overexpression. The one eye of the piglet results from gene underexpression.

Emeritus fellow Dr. Jon Hodge began his lecture with an important caveat. Historians of science have long sought to overcome a temptation to tell history as a story of the triumph of modernity over traditional ways of thinking. Yet a tension runs throughout the Western history of monsters, namely between nature as studied by science and nature as interpreted as the art of god by religious traditions.

So how has the emergence of monsters been explained throughout history? Aristotle (384-322BC) viewed all natural objects as a synthesis of form and matter. Form usually imposed itself upon matter, for example turning an acorn into an oak rather than a beech tree. Monsters occurred when matter deviated from form.

Nearly two millennia later, René Descartes (1596-1650) applied his mechanical view of nature – consisting of matter plus laws of motion – to life. Rare movements accounted for the development of monsters. Yet only a generation later, the mechanical view of nature was considered inadequate to explain life: contemporaries instead turned to the divine. A popular idea was the so-called “box-within-a-box” theory; the idea that god had created all forms of life at the first moment of creation, with later forms hidden within the first plants and animals.

The “box within a box” theory was illustrated with a comparison to nesting dolls. Image from

In the early nineteenth century this theory was confronted by French morphologist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772-1844). Geoffrey experimented with animal embryos – shaking, heating or prodding them – and observed the emergence of monstrous characteristics. External influences could apparently change animals from one generation to the next.

Subsequent years saw monsters fall in and out of scientific fashion. Charles Darwin did not discuss monsters as a means of variability (1809-1882). But from the 1880s-1920s biology took a laboratory turn and adopted saltationism. Richard Goldschmidt (1878-1958) devised the theory of “hopeful monsters”: or viable deviations with an evolutionary future. Yet Ernst Mayr (1904-2005), one of the founders of the modern synthesis, thought Goldschmidt harkened back to traditional, discredited views from Plato and Aristotle. Taking a difference stance (1941-2002) was Stephen Jay Gould, who championed Geoffroy. Monsters have lived on into what we think as of modern science.

Simply put, all this reveals that straightforward, traditional to modern narratives don’t hold up. History is complex and scepticism of simple stories is part and parcel of the historians’ trade.

A video of the full lecture can be accessed at

This and other posts by students reviewing the lecture can be found at:

Herbarium, Ethics & Eels: BSHS Postgraduate Conference, University of Cambridge

A new year: another British Society for the History of Science (BSHS) postgraduate conference! The BSHS provides a friendly and relaxed venue for postgraduate researchers to present their findings. Hosted this year by Cambridge HPS, a number of biologically-themed papers and events were in evidence. It began with an outing to the Cambridge University herbarium (

Plant specimen collected by Darwin from Rio de Janeiro. Full details of Darwin’s collection can be found (with images) at the herbarium website:

Now housed in the Sainsbury laboratory, the hebarium contains specimens of great historical significance, some dating from the early-eighteenth century. The herbarium holds Charles Darwin’s plant specimens from the voyage of the Beagle, which were passed onto his friend and mentor John Henslow. Darwin’s specimens are an impressive sight, possible the result of criticism from Henslow, who asked Darwin to label his specimens correctly and refrain from sending him “scraps”. Other items of interest in the collection include plants gathered by Alfred Russel Wallace in South-East Asia (

Drawer of bird skins
Edmund Selous (1857-1934) refused to kill birds for the purposes of collection: a practice which the norm at the time.

Back at the conference, students from the University of Leeds participated in a “Evolutionary theories” panel. Clare O’Reilly introduced attendees to concepts of hybrid plants in late nineteenth-century Britain, while Emily Herring delved into the strange world of the neo-Lamarckism. Meanwhile, I was lucky enough to be the chair of the panel on zoology. Here, Mathew Andrews of the University of Manchester presented his research on Edmund Selous (1857-1934), whose scientific work on ornithology was shaped by his ethical objections to killing birds for use as specimens or for museum display. Federica Turriziani Colonna (Center for Biology and Society, ASU) then examined the work of a young Sigmund Freud on eels at the Trieste Zoological Station in 1876.

Although the BSHS annual conference will not be taking place this year, American, Canadian and British societies for the history of science will be gathering for the “Three Societies” meeting in Edmonton, Alberta from 22-25 June. Hopefully this meeting will prove to be just informative about science and the natural world!

Gregor Mendel & Scientific Fraud: iHPS Workshop, University of Durham (Part 2 of 2)


On the second day of the iHPS workshop at the University of Durham, Professor Greg Radick (University of Leeds) delivered his keynote address “Is Mendel’s Evidence “Too Good to Be True”? This year has seen the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Mendel’s two 1865 lectures “Experiments in Plant Hybridisation,” with many drawing a line directly from Mendel’s findings to modern biotechnology. Yet two ghosts exist at the Mendelian feast: the specter of eugenics and the accusation that Mendel fraudulently obtained data. Or as Ronald Fisher termed it, that Mendel’s results were “too good to be true.”

Mendel’s 1865 findings are known to many of us. Hybridising garden peas in his monastery garden revealed a reoccurring pattern of three-to-one in second-generation hybrids. In later generations, traits reversed, with gametes receiving heredity information randomly. If we flip a coin multiple times and always end up with an exact fifty-fifty split, eyebrows would be raised. In a 1902 paper by W.F.R. Weldon, statistical analysis of Mendel’s data revealed such a trend, as the latter’s result accorded remarkably with his hypothesis. The chances of Mendel arriving at his results by pure coincidence was placed by Weldon at sixteen-to-one. In 1911, Ronald Fisher spoke at the Cambridge University Eugenics Society on Weldon’s findings. By this time, Mendelian genetics has been established beyond controversy and integrated with Darwinian natural selection. At this talk and in a later 1936 paper, Fisher declared that Mendel regarded his experiments as an empirical demonstration of his conclusions. Mendel was no mere experimentalist – though his results were still fake. Fisher laid the blame at the feet of one of Mendel’s assistants, who had doctored experimental results to please his master.


Drawing upon affair, Professor Radick noted that Mendel’s peas were not intended to be “true-to-nature,” but represented absolute qualities. For historians of science, the episode suggests that a more thoughtful, systematic approach to scientific fraud is needed. We should also be aware of different approaches to genetics offered by historical figures such as Weldon, who emphasised the interaction of genes with each and other and the environment. In fact, recent results from Leeds HPS Genetic Pedagogies Project suggest that students placed on a Weldonian-style genetics course emerge less convinced of genetic determinism than their Mendelian peers.

Field & Laboratory – Darwin in the Ottoman Empire – Chinese Biology & Goldfish

Other associates of Leeds HPS also presented well received papers on the history of biology. Cultivating Innovations ( postdoc Dominic Berry (@HPSGlonk) spoke on the historical division of field and laboratory, drawing upon randomised control trials at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB). Visiting fellow Alper Bilgili (@BilgiliEnglish) described the reception of Darwinism in the Ottoman Empire. Darwin was enthusiastically embraced by some westward-leaning Turkish intellectuals who greatly admired the scientific method – while others sought to integrate Darwinism with traditional religious beliefs. Lijing Jiang (@LijingJiang), who (all too briefly) visited Leeds for some weeks, spoke on Chinese biologists’ investigations into genetics and evolution from the early-twentieth century. In contrast to the experimental cultures of many Western universities, Chinese biologists who studied native goldfish drew upon historical accounts to reconstruct the animals’ evolutionary past.

Experimental and Speculative Hypotheses in the Seventeenth Century: Integrated History & Philosophy of Science Workshop, University of Durham (Part 1 of 2)

Last Thursday and Friday saw the 10th annual UK Integrated History and Philosophy of Science Workshop (IHPS) take place at the University of Durham. One solid attempt to combine the two fields was made by Catherine Wilson (Professor of Philosophy at the University of York) in her plenary talk, which addressed seventeenth-century notions of a “hypothesis,” with a focus upon the early life of the Royal Society.

Experimental and Speculative Revisited: What was Behind the Rejection of “Hypotheses”

Early modern England saw a series of methods applied to natural philosophy, which manifested themselves in observational and experimental reports, or more speculative natural philosophy. Texts from the Royal Society disparaged the former,  causing some historians to theorise that the empirical and rational debate in philosophy stemmed from this period. The problem with speculative philosophy, as seen by members of the Royal Society, was its association with Cartesianism and Epicurean philosophy. Distinctions between practical and speculative philosophy are very clear in seventeenth-century letters. Even theologian Richard Baxter weighed in on important of use in knowledge. Natural philosophy was a multi-sensual and instrumental enterprise, the complexity of which naturally led to group work in Italy, France and England.

Philosopher John Locke spoke on both distinctions, but without denigrating the speculative, as was also the case with Francis Bacon. Corpuscularianism (that matter is composed of minute particle) was popular among Royal Society members, encouraging both approaches. Robert Hooke’s observations in his Micrographia were combined with speculation on invisible mechanisms, which were not subject to experimentation. Hooke was actually keen to be seen as a philosopher, rather than a mere “mechanic.” The activities of leading Royal Society members contradicted the Society’s publications criticising speculation.

Hooke’s drawing of a flea viewed under his microscope, “adorn’d with a curiously polish’d suite of sable Armour, neatly jointed.” See:

Even critics of Cartesianism speculated on invisible forces. Descartes’s famous drawing of the magnet mechanisms was similar to the speculations of figures such as Newton, Hooke and Boyle. As medieval scholastics were displaced by the new natural philosophers, experimental philosophers required the corpuscular hypothesis to rise above the level of messy craftsmen and mechanics. But when speculation ran too far ahead of experiment, it was criticised as “Vain” or even “Pagan” philosophy, which neglected spiritual and providence to get at rudiments of nature. Bishop Stillingfleet’s 1663 work on the doctrine of the self-formation of world condemned Epicurean philosophy and those who deceived others with hypothesis based on tradition, not from “experiments of nature.”

Descartes: Striated particles (particulae striatae) pass veins inside the earth in two senses:

Epicurean and Aristotelian philosophy became associated with dreaded “atheism.” Robert Moray even declared a ban on investigation into “original causes” by Royal Society members. Descartes’s claim that everything could be explained by laws of matter and motion was a worse sin. Natural philosophers were now expected to state that nature implied a benign god. Newton’s condemnation of atheism began with a criticism of Cartesian vortex theory: by refuting the mechanical base of the system, he could refute atheism. Newton’s own worldview required divine intervention, if only to stop the planets crashing into sun. Gravity was part of a divinely-fashioned order, not an intrinsic property of matter.

When Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, he faced a more hostile reaction in England than elsewhere. European and Scottish philosophers had addressed questions beyond the “veil of nature,” including original causes. In England, an old alliance of theology and naked-eye empiricism attacked the speculative aspect of Darwin’s theory, which linked contemporary breeding with natural history.