320 pages, 29 b/w illustrations
In the mid-twentieth century, American plant breeders, frustrated by their dependence on natural variation in creating new crops and flowers, eagerly sought technologies that could extend human control over nature. Their search led them to celebrate a series of strange tools: an x-ray beam directed at dormant seeds, a drop of chromosome-altering colchicine on a flower bud, and a piece of radioactive cobalt in a field of growing crops. According to scientific and popular reports of the time, these mutation-inducing methods would generate variation on demand, in turn allowing breeders to genetically engineer crops and flowers to order. Creating a new crop or flower would soon be as straightforward as innovating any other modern industrial product.
In Evolution Made to Order, Helen Anne Curry traces the history of America's pursuit of tools that could speed up evolution. It is an immersive journey through the scientific and social worlds of midcentury genetics and plant breeding and a compelling exploration of American cultures of innovation. As Curry reveals, the creation of genetic technologies was deeply entangled with other areas of technological innovation – from electromechanical to chemical to nuclear. An important study of biological research and innovation in America, Evolution Made to Order provides vital historical context for current worldwide ethical and policy debates over genetic engineering.
"Curry recovers a neglected history of biotechnology with verve and vivid detail. Decades before recombinant DNA, eager breeders and horticulturalists exploited mutant-generating techniques from chemistry and nuclear energy to improve crops and ornamental plants. As she shows, GMOs are only the latest chapter of 'evolution to order' in agriculture."
– Angela N. H. Creager, Princeton University
"This well-written book is in part a contribution to the history of plant breeding. But more than that, it is a study of 'technological utopianism': the fervent belief that new methods of inducing mutation could transform breeding and thus boost the agricultural economy. Of particular interest is Curry's demonstration that although the new technology was a failure from the breeders' point of view, it nonetheless retained widespread support from a range of extrascientific organizations – seed companies, industrial firms, government agencies – who perceived it as a solution to their own quite different problems."
– Jonathan Harwood, Kings College London
"Early and mid-twentieth-century geneticists and plant breeders dreamed of finding ways to speed up evolution. Evolution Made to Order uses a diverse set of sources, ranging from archives and newspapers to seed catalogs, to explore how and why American researchers hoped to use radiation to produce new commercial plant varieties. Curry's innovative approach to the history of biotechnology deserves a wide audience among historians of science, technology, and medicine."
– Audra Wolfe, author of Competing with the Soviets
"Curry offers a fascinating historical journey through the American scientific and social worlds of induced-mutation work. Through extensive research, she convincingly establishes that biologists' obsession with plant mutation breeding did not begin with molecular biology and recombinant DNA but, rather, with the tools of chemical mutagenesis and radiobiology. Her lively account resurrects unknown actors, important institutional contexts, and forgotten cultural fads, and her thoughtful consideration of the successes and failures of their collective scientific endeavors provides some much-needed historical context for current ethical and policy debates over genetic engineering. Evolution Made to Order is a narrative account that is both accessible and scholarly. It makes an important contribution to the historiographies of biology and technology, and treats with appropriate parity the roles of its scientific and amateur historical actors. It is, in a word, brilliant."
– Karen Rader, Virginia Commonwealth University
List of Abbreviations
Part 1 Evolution by X-ray: The Industrialization of Biological Innovation
1 Mutation Theories
2 An Unsolved Problem
3 Speeding Up Evolution
4 X-rays in the Lab and Field
5 Industrial Evolution
Part 2 Tinkering with Chromosomes: Colchicine in the Lab and Garden
6 Artificial Tetraploidy
7 Evolution to Order
8 Better Evolution through Chemistry
9 Tinkering Technologists
10 The Flower Manufacturers
Part 3 Atoms for Agriculture: Evolution in a Large Technological System
11 Radiation Revisited
12 Mutation Politics
13 An Atomic-Age Experiment Station
14 Atomic Gardens
15 The Peaceful Atom in Global Agriculture
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Helen Anne Curry is lecturer of history and philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge.