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

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.

Book Review: Spaceship Earth in the Environmental Age, 1960-1990

In Spaceship Earth in the Environmental Age, 1960-1990, Sabine Höhler, associate professor of science and technology studies at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, considers the emergence of ideas of Earth as a self-sustaining spacecraft. A powerful realisation, combining technological complexity, globalisation and environmentalist discourse, “Spaceship Earth” offered a blueprint for a planet in equilibrium, with the biosphere acting as its life-support system. Höhler draws upon traditional materials for cultural historians, ranging from architecture to cartoons in her analysis of the phenomenon from the 1960s.


Left: “Blue Marble,” 1972. Right, the Unisphere, built for New York’s World Fair features on the cover of Life magazine, May 1964.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the great era of human expansion closed in the face of natural and political limits. This age was replaced by a kind of global stability, which developed at the height of the Cold War – a strategic equilibrium enforced by threat of nuclear annihilation. Space exploration offered one way to break the deadlock, but instead offered a new perspective on an isolated and fragile Earth, famously photographed as the “Blue Marble” by the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. The conception of “Spaceship Earth” emerged out of a dual revelation, namely that earth was both ecologically frail and isolated in the cosmos.


Shot from Silent Running (Douglas Turmbull, 1972). The Earth’s surviving flora and fauna orbit the polluted planet in the American Airlines space freighter Valley Forge.

“Spaceship Earth” is a complex term, encompassing numerous metaphors, scientific fields and political movements. Höhler works through an array of thinkers, from designer Richard Buckminster Fuller to Jay Forrester (whose planetary model appeared in his 1971 work World Dynamics). Each contributed their own expertise to “Spaceship Earth,” whether through cybernetics, feedback mechanisms or Malthusian population fears. On the cultural level, activist groups such as ZPG (Zero Population Growth), campaigned for birth restrictions  in the late 1960s, while films such as Silent Running (1972) and Logan’s Run (1976) explored themes of environmental destruction, dystopian futures and flight from an overpopulated society or dying planet.

Countless actors, cultural phenomenon and scientific disciplines were incorporated under the banner of “Spaceship Earth.” Höhler provides her reader with a whistle-stop tour of Cold War fears and technological optimism. “Spaceship Earth” lost its appeal during the 1990s, as biosphere projects failed and populations of industrialised nations began their decline. What is sometimes lacking from Spaceship Earth in the Environmental Age is a clear direction in a vast plethora of interconnected ideas. Yet for an overview of ecological thought and space-orientated science and technology, Höhler’s book provides a well-researched series of compelling examples.

Sabine Höhler, Spaceship Earth in the Environmental Age, 1960-1990 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2015).