Textbooks & Production of Genetic Knowledge


A review of Shaping Science with the Past: Textbooks, History, and the Disciplining of Genetics, by Jeffrey Skopek.

In your high school biology class, did you read about the nineteenth-century monk Gregor Mendel carefully tending his pea experiments? Perhaps you used Punnett Squares to plot out the ratios of inherited dominant and recessive genes over several generations. These uses of history in genetics are neither isolated nor incidental, Jeffrey Skopek contends in his dissertation Shaping Science with the Past: Textbooks, History, and the Disciplining of Genetics. Rather, Skopek argues that various forms of writing involving history crucially shaped genetics – its discipline and disciples – over the course of the twentieth century. In developing this thesis, Skopek pushes far beyond Thomas Kuhn’s claim in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that textbooks primarily serve pedagogical purposes within a scientific field. Drawing from the literature of Ludwig Fleck, Greg Myers, and Steven Shapin, Skopek asserts that university textbooks should be examined as sites of knowledge production, comparable to – and revealing as much about scientific practice as – laboratories, lab notebooks, and journals. Indeed, Shaping Science with the Past showcases the insights gained from a richly nuanced textual analysis of Anglo-American university-level genetics textbooks from the first sixty years of the twentieth century. Moreover, this dissertation presents new analytical categories of history-writing which the author hopes will be useful to other scholars. Thus, Skopek enriches both the historiography of twentieth-century genetics and science studies theory.

The author opens his study with an Introduction addressing the multifarious functions of textbooks in scientific practice and the varied aims of history-writing. The first chapter demonstrates that early geneticists deployed different historical interpretations to advance their visions for the discipline’s future, and it adds another dimension to the historiography of the Mendelian-biometrician debate at the turn of the twentieth century. Skopek closely analyzes three of the earliest genetics textbooks, dating from the 1900s and 1910s: J. Arthur Thomson’s Heredity, William Bateson’s Mendel’s Principles of Heredity, and William Castle’s Genetics and Eugenics. Skopek cites numerous examples from these works to show that Thomson envisioned a genetics focused on the fundamental units comprising hereditary material, in contrast to Bateson’s celebration of Mendel’s mathematical laws, and to Castle’s focus on organismal development; each author portrayed the past to best emphasize his approach to the new discipline. In one such example, Skopek explains that Bateson applauded an experimental biology, for which Mendel’s experiments were the epitome; hence in his textbook, Bateson characterized the first half of the nineteenth century as a fruitful era of experimental breeders seeking to understand laws of hereditary transmission – until Charles Darwin launched an experimental dark ages among naturalists. Skopek observes, “Bateson projected the early twentieth century conflict between biometricians and Mendelians on the nineteenth century study of heredity” (p. 40).

I found the second chapter to be especially stimulating, and a powerful counterpoint to science studies literature which focuses on the nature of the physical laboratory and the act of experimentation. Skopek presents two types of what he terms “virtual historical environments” from 1920s-1940s genetics textbooks: representations of past experiments and problem-solving exercises. Drawing from Kuhn’s analysis of exemplars, Skopek contends that the frequent usage of historical case studies – the experiments of Mendel, Carl Correns, and Thomas Hunt Morgan – in these textbooks inculcated students to “a new way of visualizing organisms” (p. 74). Indeed, textbook authors such as Edmund W. Sinnott and L. C. Dunn viewed genetics not just as a body of knowledge, but as a way of thinking, a quantitative approach, and their use of data and problems from historically significant experiments taught both the principles and the tacit skills of the discipline. Skopek suggests that the geneticists developed a unique form of disciplinary reproduction via case-based teaching, central to which was the writing of history. His rigorous treatment of these virtual historical experiments merits application in other studies of the history and sociology of science.

Chapter Three addresses how history is woven into the narrative structure of mid-century textbooks. It juxtaposes the historical approach in textbooks, which came to dominate by the 1950s, with the logical approach; the historical focused on Mendel’s scientific laws as the foundation of the discipline, but the logical emphasized genes as units of matter. Using the classic textbook Principles of Genetics, Skopek elucidates the writing – and rewriting – of history into its dialectical narrative structure: “Mendel’s principles were explained, evidence was introduced that seemed to conflict with the principles, the principles were refined or rearticulated in light of the evidence, and seemingly problematic evidence was again introduced” (p. 115). Thus, deeply-embedded history served as a logic of organization for genetics, into which disparate facts and theories were tidily woven, giving students the sense of a cohesive science.

In Chapter Four Skopek dissects the changing meanings of the modifier “classical” in relation to genetics over the century, an analysis which further enriches the historiography on biometry and Lysenkoism. Skopek hones in on classical for its connotations of history, and he shows how geneticists deployed the term to challenge and uphold sources of scientific authority, especially within textbooks. For example, during the early years of the discipline, classical referred to experimental cases considered representative of types of heredity. The term gained political valence in the 1930s when Soviet scientist T. D. Lysenko criticized Mendelians for being “classical geneticists,” but Anglo-American scientists like Bentley Glass soon adopted that term to describe their own community. In the following decades, both critics and defenders saw classical genetics as an idealized picture of complex biology, a mathematical model. Then, with the emergence of molecular genetics in the 1960s, classical genetics was associated with the study of organisms, and molecular genetics with the biochemical study of gene action and structure.

Skopek demonstrates that all these types of history-writing were integral to shaping – and changing – the discipline of genetics. His methodology could be applied to interrogate other scientific disciplines, as could his call to treat textbooks as crucial sites of knowledge production. His dissertation upends the notion of textbooks as static repositories of accepted knowledge, in the process contributing to scholarship on the uses of Mendel’s life and work, the biometry debate, the rise of the chromosome theory of heredity, and T. D. Lysenko and Richard Goldschmidt. Shaping Science with the Past is a valuable addition to the intellectual history of Anglo-American genetics and to science studies.

Joy Rankin
History Department
Yale University

Primary Sources

Anglo-American university-level genetics textbooks circa 1900-1960
Reviews of textbooks
Other scientific literature (journal articles, books) produced by the authors of these textbooks and their contemporaries, for example: William Bateson, William Castle, Thomas Hunt Morgan, George Beadle, Bentley Glass, Jim Watson, and Francois Jacob.

Dissertation Information

University of Cambridge. 2009. 202 pp. Primary Advisor: Nick Jardine.

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