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 http://legomenon.com/russian-matryoshka-nesting-dolls-meaning.html

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 https://arts.leeds.ac.uk/museum-of-hstm/20objects/object-2-two-headed-fish/

This and other posts by students reviewing the lecture can be found at: https://museumofhstm.wordpress.com/

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: 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]’: http://www.goldenrice.org/
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: http://blog.hmns.org/tag/monarch-butterflies/. 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.

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 (http://leeds.academia.edu/MatthewHolmes). 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.

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 (http://www.cultivatinginnovation.org/) 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.

How Agricultural Science Struggled to Defuse the Population Bomb

Another talk! So many talks recently… But this time I was back with the welcoming home crowd at the University of Leeds, finally presenting on my PhD thesis! I began this seminar by recounting an extraordinary speech at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany’s (NIAB’s) 1972 Seed Analyst Conference. Presented by the then vice-president of the National Farmer’s Union (NFU) D.H Darbishire, the keynote address was littered with poignant phrases. The “undernourished of all mankind” were suffering as the “Doom debate” raged in industrialised nations, which were in turn a facilitator of the dichotomy between the “affluent minority and disinherited majority” of the global population.


Edward S. Deevey, Jr. “The Human Population,” in Paul R. Ehrlich, John P. Holdren & Richard D. Holm, Man and the Ecosphere (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1971), p. 49. Original printing in Scientific American, 1960.

Why was Darbishire using a Seed Analysts Conference organised by a Cambridge-based agricultural institute to espouse these views with such urgency? Well, in the same year that Darbishire spoke out, the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth published a computer simulation of human society and the environment, declaring that the growing world population was living beyond its means. This was only the latest in a series of “neo-Malthusian” themed texts, all of which declared that the globe was fast approaching its human carrying capacity.

Such a claim was by no means new in the post-war era. In 1948 ecologist William Vogt’s Road to Survival predicted that world population would crash under the weight of its own numbers, subsequently wiping out three-quarters of humanity. This claim was given new urgency by the 1968 publication of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb. Here, the claim was made that in agricultural terms, “the stork had passed the plough.” In 1966 world population had increased by seventy million, with no compensatory increase in food production.


Ecology teaching slides from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives, Robert McCabe Papers, 1971.

Agricultural science could clearly respond to this (perceived) crisis by endeavoring to increase global crop yields. Steps had been made in the right direction with the “Green Revolution,” high-yielding hybrid crops being passed onto developing nations – albeit with the associated package of chemicals, intensive irrigation and management. However, tracts like The Limits to Growth predicted these gains would soon be overrun by an exponentially growing human population. Higher yielding varieties had to become better, while regulatory institutions like NIAB had to test and promote them faster.

However, intensive monocultures of high-yielding crop varieties had vulnerabilities. Ehrlich had classed these setups as prone to ecological collapse, an opinion shared by many ecologists. Industrialised agriculture was certainly susceptible to common plant diseases like rusts and mildew. Darbishire blamed the practices of plant breeders, who sought to overcome pathogens by focusing on single, major genes. Instead, it might be better to concentrate on “a number of more humble genes.” A genetics arms race with disease strains would bring few benefits.

Clearly, the world faced problems in agriculture, genetics and the environment. How could one institution like NIAB go about responding to these problems? The Institute’s journal certainly carried multiple articles applauding increases in domestic food production across the 1970s. But actions speak louder than words. While NIAB was able to recommend crop varieties with high yields or disease resistance, its work was hindered by the increasing need for disease testing and changing regulatory standards via Britain’s 1973 entry into the European Economic Community (EEC).

At NIAB, cereal yields were portrayed as falling from their peak in the 1950s, due to a mysterious “soil microbiological interaction.” presumably the 1970s equivalent of vital forces or phlogiston theory. Later in the decade, yields were considered to be rising, but at a slow pace. On the disease front, more progress was made, with genetic solutions stepping in for pesticide use (which had taken a battering since the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring). Genetic diversity was urged in fields by NIAB officers in a 1979 newsletter, the same year seeing the publication of geneticist Norman Simmond’s textbook Principles of Crop Improvement, which also called for genetic diversity and conservation.


NIAB at work today! The 2014 Cereals Event, Cambridgeshire. Shoddy photography courtesy of the blogger.

In the event, an imminent Malthusian catastrophe turned out to be a false alarm. Although, such concerns continue to crop up (pardon the pun) in modern fears over food security – after all, the global community is still no stranger to famine. From the perspective of an environmentalist, the trend towards crop diversity and genetic conservation as the 1980s approached certainly sounds promising. However, against the background of all this, recombinant DNA  technology was making great strides. On June 16th 1980, in the case of Diamond vs. Chakrabarty, the US Supreme Court ruled five to four that manmade microorganisms were patentable inventions. Later that year, the prototype biotech company Genentech went public, experiencing a huge demand for its stock on Wall Street. A new chapter on food and environmental controversy was just opening…

Further Reading:

Ainsworth, G.C., Introduction to the History of Plant Pathology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

Ehrlich, Paul R., The Population Bomb (New York: Buccaneer Books, 1968).

Meadows, Donella H. Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers and William W. Behrens, The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind (London, Pan Books Ltd, 1972).

Schoijet, Mauricio, “Limits to Growth and the Rise of Catastrophism,” Environmental History 4 (1999): 515-530.

Silvey, Valerie and P.S. Wellington, Crop and Seed Improvement: A History of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany 1919 to 1996 (Cambridge: National Institute of Agricultural Botany, 1997).

Simmonds, Norman W. Principles of Crop Improvement (New York: Longman, 1979).