‘Biology as technology: an unexpected history of innovation in living things’
We haven’t forgotten about the Unit’s Seminar Series! As the series encompasses the History of Science and Technology as well as medicine, the last few seminars have focused on non-medical areas of HSMT. But this week we’re back – albeit with a very brief list of suggested reading, as plant breeding isn’t really our forté (falling more in the territory of the Radcliffe Science Library). Nevertheless, the genetic modification of plants is an interesting topic from a public health point of view .
The seminar, which is the seventh of Hilary Term, will take place at 16.00 on Monday 27th February (Week 7) in the Lecture Theatre of the History Faculty on George Street, and will be delivered by Helen Anne Curry.
Curry is a Senior Lecturer in the History of Science, at the University of Cambridge’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science. Her book Evolution Made to Order: Plant Breeding and Technological Innovation in Twentieth Century America traces the history of several early technologies used to modify genes and chromosomes. Currently, her research is in the history of global conservation, in particular efforts made to preserve the genetic diversity of agricultural crop species through the practice of seed banking, which has been the focus of a Wellcome Trust Seed Award in 2016–17. More widely, she has research interests in biology and biotechnology, the history of agriculture, horticulture and gardening, and the history of conservation and environmentalism.
In the mid-twentieth century, a series of strange tools were celebrated as revolutionary for the work of plant breeding: x-rays, chemical solutions, man-made radioisotopes. Many breeders envisioned that that these could be used to reshape plants to specification. According to scientific and popular reports, scientists would use radiation and chemicals to generate heritable variation “at will,” which would in turn allow breeders to develop agricultural organisms “to order.” There would be no more exhaustive searches for natural variations, and no more complex integration of desired variation into established breeds through hybridization and selection. Breeders would instead alter genes and chromosomes directly, transforming fruits, grains, vegetables, and flowers with unprecedented efficiency. In this talk, Curry charts the history Americans’ encounters with these early technologies for transforming plant genes and chromosomes. Drawing on this account, she will argue that it is impossible to understand early genetic technologies apart from the broader history of American technology and innovation. These were completely entangled with other areas of innovation and industrial production – electro-mechanical, chemical, nuclear – both in their material production and in the outcomes anticipated from them. In capturing this entanglement, Curry will show that many Americans envisioned and enacted the process of innovating living creatures, in this case new breeds of agricultural crops and garden flowers, little differently from that of innovating any other modern industrial product.
If you’re interested in reading more about issues surrounding human use of plants, the Unit Library holds two titles that are of particular relevance. The first is Anna Lewington’s Plants for People (SB107 LEW 1990), exploring the fundamental roles plants have in our lived in feeding, clothing, cleaning, protecting, curing, transporting and entertaining us. History of Medicine students may find the chapter on medicinal uses of plants useful: ‘Plants that cure us’. The impact of genetically modified crops is also discussed in a wider context of the heavy costs of plant use to people and the environment.
Philip Conford’s The Origins of the Organic Movement (S605.5 CON 2001) looks at organic agriculture against a backdrop of public concern about BSE and GM crops. It examines the attitudes of disparate groups which were the foundation of the organic movement, and chronicles its origins.
Please come and ask library staff if you would like any help with locating resources, or conducting further research.
Header image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/basf/4837267013
Available under CC licence: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/