Teaching and Research: Bibliographic Essays

Life Sciences in the Twentieth Century

by Garland E. Allen


In teaching the history of twentieth-century biology (or any science,for that matter) there is a tendency to stick to the better-established areas and to treat science in a kind of social vacuum. I have often found it valuable to introduce one or more topics loosely called “biology and society” into courses in the history of biology. By “biology and society” I mean not so much the social history of science (which is important, too) as the direct use of an area of biology to attain or support a specific social or political end (e.g., the use of microbiology for germ warfare, of embryology for legislation on abortion, or of genetics for deciding immigration or reproductive policy). Such topics intrigue students and can introduce them to ways of thinking more carefully about similar issues today (e.g., sociobiology or the claim that criminality is genetic). I include just a few topics in this category, with references to the most basic and accessible literature on each.

Eugenics. Eugenics was a movement prominent in England, the United States, Germany, several Scandinavian countries, and, to a lesser extent, France and Russia from the early 1900s until the mid to late 1930s. It represented an attempt to use the then-new science of Mendelian genetics to explain and ultimately resolve many current social problems: chronic unemployment and poverty (pauperism), feeblemindedness, alcoholism, prostitution, rebelliousness, and criminality.

Several general histories of eugenics have been written over the past two decades. The oldest, but in some ways the most comprehensive historically, is Mark Haller’s Hereditarian Attitudes in American Thought (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1963). This book traces the intellectual history of eugenics from its nineteenth-century background. More limited in scope but excellent within its own bounds is Kenneth Ludmerer’s Genetics and American Society (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1972). Ludmerer examines specifically the efforts of eugenicists to influence legislation on immigration restriction in the United States in the 1920s. For a more radical and overtly political analysis of the same period, see Garland E. Allen’s “Genetics, Eugenics and Class Struggle,” Genetics, 1975, 79:29-45; and “The Founding of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, 1910-1940: An Essay in Institutional History,” Osiris, 1986, N.S. 2:225-264. Daniel J. Kevles’s In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (New York: Knopf, 1985) compares British and American eugenics on such issues as the importance of race and class, immigration and sterilization legislation, and education (propaganda). The latter chapters deal with the post-World War II development of eugenics as it was ultimately supplanted by what Kevles sees as the more scientifically valid study of human heredity. For British eugenics, Geoffrey R. Searle’s Eugenics and Politics in Britain 1900-1914 (Leyden: Noordhoff 1976) examines in detail the British eugenicists’ emphasis on national degeneration and class structure. On the more contemporary issue of sterilization and genetic counseling, Philip Reilly has presented a remarkable historical and social analysis: Genetics, Law and Social Policy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1977). Reilly’s book can be used as a follow-up to Ludmerer’s Genetics and American Society.

Population and Birth Control There has been much discussion and controversy in recent years about the world’s so-called overpopulation problem. Many population control groups–privately and governmentally funded–have arisen in Western countries that seek, through a variety of means, to limit population growth, especially in the non-Western, Third World countries. Like eugenics before it, the ideology of population control holds that a whole host of social problems have a biological cause: in this case, too high a reproductive rate. Advocates of population control are known as Malthusians, or neo-Malthusians, after Thomas Robert Malthus, whose Essay on Population of 1798 first posed the thesis that poverty and hunger were caused by overpopulation.

Population control is inevitably related to birth control (the planning of family size by individual couples), and the two have interacted continuously throughout the present century. One of the best historical treatments of both movements is Allan Chase’s The Legacy of Malthus (New York: Knopf, 1977). Although somewhat disorganized, Chase’s book covers the birth control and eugenics movements in the early decades of the century and their eventual evolution into the population control movement after World War II. Two books dealing more with the birth control movement alone are Linda Gordon’s Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America (New York: Basic Books, 1978) and James Reed’s From Private Vice to Public Virtue: The Birth Control Movement and American Society since 1830 (New York: Basic, 1978).

Several stimulating and provocative works exist on the population control movement. Paul R. Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (San Francisco: Freeman, 1968) is useful because it states the neo-Malthusian position clearly and forcefully and has had an enormous innuence on population thinking in the past seventeen years. The opposite point of view is presented in several highly effective sources. One of the most concise and readable, though less comprehensive, is Barry Commoner’s “How Poverty Breeds Overpopulation (and Not the Other Way Around),” Ramparts, 1975, 13:21-25. More complete and detailed, though less easy to read, is Bonnie Mass’s Political Economy of Population Control in Latin America (Montreal: Editions Latin America, 1972). This work contains a wealth of information about the socioeconomic effects of U.S. corporations, banking interests, and large-scale loans on the development of poverty and hunger in Third World countries.

Recombinant DNA and Genetic Engineering. In recent decades the dangers as well as the benefits of advances in recombinant DNA technology have been the subject of much debate, both inside and outside of the biological community. Volumes have been written on the subject from all sorts of perspectives-social and political, economic, ethical and moral, and technological. The topic of genetic engineering-specifically that branch of it associated with DNA manipulation–is one virtually all students are acquainted with. A collection of original papers from the mid 1970s can be found in The Recombinant DNA Debate, edited by David A. Jackson and Stephen P. Stich (Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice-Hall, 1979). These papers cover such issues as safety, decision making, and the role of universities in relation to business, secrecy of research, patent ownership, and the like. A systematic historical treatment of the whole recombinant DNA debate is offered in Sheldon Krimsky’s Genetic Alchemy: The Social History of the Recombinant DNA Controversy (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1982). This book presents a thorough, well-written, and balanced picture of the original controversy as it arose out of genetically remaking the adeno-S-40 virus in the mid 1970s. This is the most scholarly and authoritative study of this episode currently available. On the specific issues recombinant DNA research has raised for universities with respect to patents, secrecy, and publication rights, see Charles Weiner’s “Universities, Professors, and Patents: A Continuing Controversy,” Technology Review, 1986, 83:33-43. This article traces the history of university relations to patents from the early 1920s through the recombinant DNA controversy of the 1970s.

Scientific Creationism. The topic of scientific creationism–cumbersome, sometimes frustrating, but always intriguing–often comes up for discussion in both biology and history or sociology of science classes. Several collections present the various arguments for and against creationism, especially its recent claims to be a “science.” The most complete is the volume edited by J. Peter Zetterberg, Evolution versus Creationism: The Public Education Controversy (Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1983). This volume contains articles on evolution and science education, statements of the creationist position today, biologists’ responses to various creationist arguments, reprints of various state creationist laws, and the well-publicized Arkansas decision against creationism in the schools (1982). Another collection of essays, all against the creationist position, is Science and Creationism, edited by Ashley Montague (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1984), now available in paperback. Lengthy defenses of modern Darwinism against the creationists’ attacks are Douglas J. Futuyma’s Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983) and Michael Ruse’s Darwinism Defended: A Guide to the Evolution Controversies (Reading, Pa.: Addison-Wesley, 1982). Ruse’s book has more historical and philosophical detail, but in many ways Futuyma’s is a clearer and more up-to-date presentation of the evolutionary position. An examination of the controversy from a religious perspective is Evolution and Creation, edited by Ernan McMullin (South Bend, Ind.: Univ. Notre Dame Press, 1985). The brunt of McMullin’s own essay, as well as of others in the volume, is that there is no necessary contradiction between a creationist and an evolutionary point of view. To my mind the best account of the historical and sociological roots of the current controversy is Dorothy Nelkin’s The Creation Controversy: Science or Scripture in the Schools (New York: Norton, 1982), subtitled “A History of the Struggle between Creationists and Scientists from the Nineteenth Century to the Arkansas Trial.” On a more limited but equally interesting level is the autobiography of John T. Scopes, who went on trial in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1926 for teaching evolution in his high school biology class: John T. Scopes and James Presley, Center of the Storm: The Memoirs of John T. Scopes (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1967).