Dr. Gregory Radick PhD is Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Leeds in the UK where he has served as Director of the Centre for History and Philosophy of Science and the Leeds Humanities Research Institute. His forthcoming book, Disputed Inheritance: The Battle over Mendel and the Future of Biology, will be published next year by the University of Chicago Press.
Your book, Disputed Inheritance, which focuses on Mendel and the disputes that have influenced his legacy will be a beneficial resource to geneticists and science historians, and to those who are interested in the historical, political, and philosophical context of science. Could you share with us the approach you have taken in this book to Mendel and his legacy, and the principal insights you intend for its readers?
Although I bow to no one in my admiration of Mendel’s 1866 paper, I try to show in my book that Mendel’s status as the celebrated begetter of everything that we now know about inheritance is not merely undeserved but actually detrimental, twice over. First, it’s led to an impoverished understanding of the options for biology in the wake of the 1900 rediscovery of Mendel’s paper. I concentrate in particular on the alternative science of inheritance that the Oxford biologist and critic of nascent “Mendelism” W. F. R. Weldon was developing when he died in 1906, at the age of forty-six. Weldon regarded the Mendelian emphasis on either/or characters due only to factors “for” those characters as a backwards step for biology, since biologists already understood that differences in environments, internal and external, could modify the effects of those factors. Second, it’s behind a striking and, it seems to me, unhealthy conservatism in the teaching of genetics, where elementary Mendelian examples typically have a prominence that, from a twenty-first-century perspective, looks downright misleading as a picture of how inheritance in general works. A few years ago at Leeds, colleagues and I taught introductory genetics in a more Weldonian way, frontloading multifactorial causation and the variability it brings about. What we found was that, where students taking a traditional start-with-Mendel course were on average as determinist about genes at the end of teaching as they were from the start, students on our Weldonian course were on average less determinist. Surprisingly enough, then, the key to ensuring that students leave the genetics classroom understanding inheritance in an up-to-date way may lie with the recovery of a perspective which had been languishing in an archive.
You recently published an article on the influence of the Cold War on the beginning of the Mendel-Fisher controversy. Could you summarise why the Mendel-Fisher controversy lay mostly dormant for almost two decades after Fisher published what he privately called his “abominable discovery”?
In Fisher’s view, Mendel’s experiments were merely empirical demonstrations of truths arrived at by theoretical means, and so any corner-cutting—and Fisher guessed it was the work of a well-meaning assistant—was not a big deal. Up until the 1960s, geneticists continued to discuss the issue among themselves, but without making a public fuss over it. So what changed? I draw attention to an interesting shift that historians of science have identified in the culture of Cold War science in the West. During the late 1940s and 1950s, when the sense of crisis over the rise of Mendelism-rejecting Lysenkoism was at its peak, a policy of accentuating the positive about Mendel and his legacies became virtually mandatory among Western geneticists. But as the crisis abated, they joined in a wider tendency to show by example that scientists in the “free world”—in contrast to scientists behind the Iron Curtain—operated without limits as to what they could contemplate and criticise. Accordingly, whereas at the 1950 jubilee celebration of the rediscovery, mention of the data problem was wholly absent, in the many lectures, conferences, and books in 1965–6 marking the centennial of Mendel’s paper, the data problem was everywhere. From there it got picked up by the crusading journalist Arthur Koestler, who, in a bestselling work of popular science, The Case of the Midwife Toad (1971), used it to suggest that geneticists should really put their own house in order before accusing Lamarckians of fraud. Between the new publicity that Koestler gave to Fisher’s old analysis, and the growing readiness of Western audiences increasingly mistrustful of science to lap up stories of scientific misbehaviour, the notion that Mendel’s data are problematic, maybe even fraudulent, ceased to be a specialist concern.