Gregory Radick's new book "challenging the creation myth of genetics" is now out

The School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science celebrates the publication of a major new book offering "a root-and-branch rethinking of how history has shaped the science of genetics."

An obsession with identifying the genes for complex traits seems to be in our culture’s DNA. In Disputed Inheritance: The Battle over Mendel and the Future of Biology, published on 18 August by the University of Chicago Press, Gregory Radick, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Leeds, takes readers back to the beginnings of genetics to suggest that this familiar, heredity-is-destiny way of thinking about inheritance is both deeply misleading and far from inevitable.  

Returning to a bitter feud in the early twentieth century over the pea-crossing experiments of the “father of genetics,” Gregor Mendel, Radick conjures an alternative path for the emerging science of inheritance.  He argues that had the debate between the leading Mendelian, the Cambridge-based William Bateson (1861-1926), and his most implacable critic, the Oxford-based W. F. R. Weldon (1860-1906), gone differently – and it came tantalizingly close to doing so – the new science’s central message would have been not the destiny-directing power of genes but the limits on that power due to the modifying role of environments, internal and external.

Drawing on unpublished correspondence and manuscripts as well as fresh readings of published work, Disputed Inheritance overturns conventional wisdom not just about the Bateson-Weldon debate but about a host of famous scientific figures and developments, including Mendel, Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, the relationship between genetics and eugenics, and the rise of molecular genetics.  The book probes the historical significance of the debate with wide-ranging interdisciplinary scholarship, embracing insights from science, the history of science, the philosophy of science, the philosophy of history, and science education.  And it pushes the controversial genre of “counterfactual history” in exciting new directions, notably via a classroom experiment where introductory genetics was taught as if Weldon’s emphases on variability and the complex causal interactions that bring it about had become mainstream instead of marginalized. 

Reviewers have praised the book as “fascinating and important,” “brilliant, provocative” and outlining “an extraordinarily rich research program … that has the potential for significant impact on both science and society” (Nathaniel Comfort, Twitter and FASEB Journal), while also “provid[ing] a basis for understanding the work that has led, over the past century, to a richer understanding of heredity than Mendelian genetics could ever have provided“ (Brian Hall, Nature). On Twitter, the genetics educator and historian Kostas Kampourakis, who has described the book as “a tour de force, elegantly written and diligently documented,” wrote: “Get ready for a new book that will challenge everything you thought you knew about the history of genetics … it is wonderful, thoughtful and thought-provoking.”

An excerpt from the book’s Introduction is freely available online, as is the video of a talk introducing some of the book’s themes and a recent podcast interview on its use of counterfactual history.  Professor Radick will be speaking about Disputed Inheritance at the Ilkley Literature Festival on Saturday 7 October.