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Egenis · Events

Berris Charnely 'From the Origin to Cairo; rogues and purity in British genetics, 1900-1925'

Seminar   20.10.2009






Mr Berris Charnely, PhD Student, IPBio Network, University of Leeds

Organised by



University of Exeter,Egenis,Byrne House,St Germans Road,Exeter, EX4 4PJRoom no: GF7, Byrne House

Event details

Time: 3:30 - 5:00 PMThe purity of hereditary factors, or gametic purity, was a central plank in early Mendelian thought. Under this conception a variety’s type was determined solely by its parents, because hereditary factors were pure, there was no need to take a variety’s long run pedigree into account. If an organism inherited a green factor it was green through and through and devoid of any yellow factor that might have been present in its distant ancestors. According to Christophe Bonneuil (‘Producing Identity, Industrialising Purity’, in A Cultural History of Heredity IV (MPIWG, 2008) pp.81-110), in order for consensus to emerge around the purity of hereditary factors, an older Darwinian conception of purity as a rare and unstable phenomena had to be overturned. On a Darwinian view there might always be some yellow factor hiding in the pedigree waiting to pop up. Bonneuil argues that Wilhelm Johannsen's work on pure lines helped underwrite the genetic consensus on purity in America and on the Continent. But how did British Mendelians deal with this re-conceptualisation? This paper seeks to analyse three aspects of British work on rogue (out of type) plants conducted by Cambridge trained Mendelians between 1900-1925; William Bateson’s work on peas and Rowland Biffen’s on wheat in Britain and William Balls’ work on Egyptian cotton in Cairo. In Biffen and Balls’ work a historical re-conceptualisation of rogues as indicators of external varietal contamination (caused by impure seed stocks) rather than internal varietal instability can be clearly traced. In Bateson’s work another, less straightforward and more theoretical explanation of rogues was offered. But all three men insisted that rogues were a sign of external problems rather than internal hereditary impurity. Despite Bateson, Biffen and Ball’s best efforts, and their assimilation of Johannsen’s work, closure on the issue of rogues was never fully achieved. Recovering their work on rogues, which has until now been overlooked by historians of science, helps extend Bonneuil’s analysis of the changing meaning of purity to the British case.

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