Tuesday, 9 October 2012

The battle over Mendelism

Royal Society, 5 October 2012
The reverse of the Darwin medal. From the Royal Society website.
Although intended to commend achievements, do these awards also stifle debate?

A forgotten dispute over heredity reveals prejudice in the way true theories are established.

How does science progress? Which is also: how do we learn the truth about our world?

In the past, these questions seemed less important than what the truth might be, or what we mean by truth.

But at least since Thomas Kuhn published his historical, sociological work on how specific scientific revolutions happened, we’ve realised that the actual process is worth studying.

This is different from say, ‘do atoms exist?’ We might have all sorts of opinions on that question, but the sociology of science is interested in how we came to believe that atoms exist, or at least that we came to care about their existence.

And this isn’t as academic as it might first appear, as this public lecture at the Royal Society illustrated.

We heard about the role of the society in the early days of genetics. It can seem hard to believe, but only a century ago, not only were words like genome and DNA not yet coined, but the very idea of genetics was new and questionable.

Genetics is a theory of heredity – a proposed mechanism for how characteristics are inherited. And as should happen with any theory, when it emerged, some people were sceptical.

According to Gregory Radick, the ideas of Mendel were ignored for several years, then reappeared with venom at the turn of the twentieth century, championed by William Bateson. His friend Raphael Weldon disagreed, and the Royal Society, smelling a potential academic controversy, duly stirred one.

This leads to the sociology. According to Radick, the Society employed three 'hard Cs' in order to facilitate progress– communications (better, controversy, I think); committees and commendations. In short, it emerged that Bateson was the better controversialist, manipulated the channels of patronage and then capped his victory by receiving the prestigious Darwin Prize and effectively closing debate.

OK, that’s putting it far too cynically, and the disagreement was much less rancorous than my summary suggests. But the confirmation of the truth of Mendelism didn’t happen by experts recognising it as true, through an exhaustive intellectual debate.

In fact, Radick claims that with Weldon’s premature death, his masterful alternative to Mendelism wasn’t published, a sad fact Radick and his colleagues at the University of Leeds intend to rectify soon.

Does it matter? We now accept Mendel discovered the truth, even if we have a significantly modified version of his basic idea. But its in the modifications that we see the results of this early debate, and others. Bateson – and his followers – apparently incorporated the early criticisms into their new version of heredity.

Then it’s a question of counterfactual. What would have happened if the debate had run differently, and Weldon had won it?

As Mendelism is true, we would expect some version of it to have survived regardless. But perhaps a Weldonian version of heredity would incorporate Mendel’s insights yet be more broadly in line with our current complex view of genetics. This, at least, is what Radick claims.

He plans to produce, in the long term, a textbook that will adopt a broadly Weldonian approach to genetics. Then, we will be able to see for ourselves how much the Royal Society may have influenced our understanding of the truth.

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