Mutant utopias: evening primroses and imagined futures in early twentieth-century America

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Endersby, Jim (2013)
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Related identifiers: doi: 10.1086/673270
  • Subject: E151 | QK | QH0359 | C1

Hugo de Vries’ mutation theory is now little more than a footnote to the history of biology; a failed theory that briefly led a few biologists astray. However, for the first quarter of the twentieth century it attracted considerable attention from both professional biologists and laypeople. De Vries’ theory – together with the plant, Oenothera Lamarckiana, that had supplied most of his evidence – became the focus of a surprising variety of imaginative hopes. Scientists and their various publics became fascinated by the utopian possibilities that the primrose seemed to offer and their discussions shaped a public culture around biology that would define the twentieth century as the “Century of the Gene”. From a conventional history of science perspective (which, in the case of twentieth-century biology often remains focused on the content of scientific theories and the professional communities that shaped them) the mutation theory seems unimportant. However, while de Vries’ new theory of evolution ultimately failed to persuade the scientific community, it was much more important than is now realised, particularly because it helped make biology part of a wide variety of public debates. Understanding the mutation theory’s story more fully suggests that we may need to rethink much of the rest of the century of the gene’s history, to think less in terms of what happened in the lab and more about how biology came to function as public culture.
  • References (13)
    13 references, page 1 of 2

    15 “New Light on the Origin of Species,” Youth's Companion, 1901, 75(31):387. This, at least, is the earliest reference I have found; I would be grateful to hear of others.

    16 The report appeared as an editorial under the title “Recent Scientific Work in Holland” on 27 June 1901 (Nature, 1901, 64[1652]:208 -209) and was signed simply “J.P.K.” I have been unable to identify the writer.

    17 J. Theo Wilson, “Evolution's Worst Knock,” San Francisco Chronicle, 2 Oct. 1904, p. 3. I have not been able to discover anything about J. Theo Wilson, and this appears to be the only article he ever wrote for the Chronicle.

    22 “New Wonders of Science in Dealing with Plants,” New York Times, 4 Oct. 1908, p. SM8 (ProQuest Historical Newspapers, Document ID 104811324).

    23 Beverly T. Galloway, “Applied Botany, Retrospective and Prospective,” Science, 1902, N.S., 16(393):49 - 59, on pp. 51, 56 -57. On Galloway see Philip J. Pauly, “The Beauty and Menace of the Japanese Cherry Trees: Conflicting Visions of American Ecological Independence,” Isis, 1996, 87:51-73.

    24 Hugo de Vries, “The Evidence of Evolution,” Science, 1904, 20(508):395- 401, on p. 400.

    44 Call, 15 Feb. 1904, p. 6 (Library of Congress, Chronicling America, sn85066387/1904-02-15/ed-1/seq-6/); “Dutch Botanist Here to Study,” Salt Lake Herald, 8 Aug. 1906, p. 10 (Library of Congress, Chronicling America,; and “Famous Plant Experts Confer at Santa Rosa,” San Francisco Chronicle, 3 July 1906.

    45 Pandora, “Knowledge Held in Common” (cit. n. 43), p. 484 (lack of esteem for Burbank among scientists); and Hugo de Vries, “A Visit to Luther Burbank,” Pop. Sci. Monthly, 1905, 67:329-347, on pp. 329 (emphasis in the original), 335.

    53 De Vries, Species and Varieties (cit. n. 6), pp. 11-12 (quotation); and Allen, “Hugo De Vries and the Reception of the 'Mutation Theory'” (cit. n. 2), p. 82.

    54 Wilson, “Evolution's Worst Knock” (cit. n. 17), p. 3; Kingsland, “Battling Botanist” (cit. n. 32), pp. 493- 494; and “Variation in Species: Scientific Investigation Pursued in a Washington Back Yard,” Washington Post, 19 Jan. 1902, p. 29 (ProQuest Historical Newspapers, Document ID 258956842). See also Charles A. White, “My Tomato Experiments,” Independent . . . Devoted to the Consideration of Politics, Social and Economic Tendencies, History, Literature, and the Arts, 16 Oct. 1902, 54(2811):2460 -2464. De Vries and White met in Washington, D.C., and White was one of those who introduced the mutation theory to the United States. See “The Mutation Theory of Hugo de Vries,” Smithsonian Report, 1903, pp. 631- 640; and Van Bavel, Hugo De Vries (cit. n. 41).

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