The arrival of the fittest: biology’s imaginary futures, 1900-1939
Is one of the titles I’m playing with for my next book (which might also be called Mutants, Moths and Midwives: forgotten histories of the genetic century, or something else completely…). Whatever the final title, it will be a cultural history of biology (well, mainly ideas about evolution and heredity), that focuses on the public’s ideas about how biology would shape the future. After eighteen months of research leave (which ended in December 2017), I’ve noticed that there’s a very distinctive kind of optimism about biological futures during these early decades. Various different kinds of writers predicted a kind of biological utopia (or, to some people, a dystopia), that I am called a biotopia. This is how I’ve described my ideas in a paper that has just been published:
The early decades of the twentieth century were marked by widespread optimism about biology and its ability to improve the world. A major catalyst for this enthusiasm was promising new theories about inheritance and evolution (particularly Hugo de Vries’ mutation theory and Mendel’s newly rediscovered ideas). In Britain and the USA particularly, an astonishingly diverse variety of writers (from elite scientists to journalists and writers of fiction), took up the task of interpreting these new biological ideas, using a wide range of genres to help their fellow citizens make sense of biology’s promise. These different genres produced a new and distinctive kind of utopianism – the biotopia – that embodied a confidence in humanity’s ability to reshape living things to meet our desires. Biotopias offered the dream of a perfect, post-natural world, or the nightmare of violated nature (often in the same text), but above all they conveyed a sense that biology was – for the first time – offering humanity unprecedented control over life. A characteristic biotopian trope was to visualise the world as a garden perfected for human use, but this vision was often tinged with gendered violence, as it became clear that constructing the garden would entail dispossessing, or even killing, “Mother Nature”. Biotopian themes are apparent in journalism, scientific reports and even in textbooks, and these non-fiction sources shared many characteristics with intentionally utopian fictions or prophecies, including Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915), H.G. Wells’ Men Like Gods (1923), and J.B.S. Haldane’s Daedalus (1924). The nature of biotopianism, and the connections between these different kinds of writing, become apparent in interpretations of the work of Luther Burbank, the celebrated Californian plant-breeder whose almost miraculous power to ‘create’ new species of plants gripped the popular imagination. Burbank was often portrayed as a gentle, simple (almost feminine) man who loved flowers and children, yet many writers also depicted him as a hard-headed scientist, determined to take nature in hand, curb ‘her’ wastefulness and force her to learn new tricks. Analysing the network of texts that surround writings about Burbank allows us to trace biotopian themes back and forth across the porous boundaries between popular and elite writing. These diverse writings allowed biology to function as public culture, creating a series of ways of talking and thinking about the promise of biology that shaped Anglo-American culture during this period and that continue to characterise today’s debates over the impact of new biological breakthroughs.
The Royal Horticultural Society’s magazine Orchid Review (September 2017) described my last book as “the first of its kind”, with a relaxed writing style that portrays the allure of orchids “vividly” and contains “something for everyone – from those who may know a lot to the complete beginner”.
Earlier in the year, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation featured me in “Orchids: A love story” (11th June 2017), which you can hear online.
The magazine, The Garden, reviewed Orchid: A cultural history (May 2017), describing it as compact and readable, and saying: “This book captures the allure of orchids – and there is something for everyone, from complete beginner to more knowledgeable reader”. The Times Literary Supplement reviewed the book on 24 Feb 2017 and commented that “Endersby loves all the myth-making that became entwined with the orchid, and explores with great acuity the various ways this was exploited. But, as a Reader in the History of Science at the University of Sussex, he is as adept at laying out the facts as the fiction”. London’s Sunday Times described it as “lively, gripping stuff” (15 Jan 2017), and I was interviewed about it on US public radio station WCIN. You can hear the program online.
Last year was the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Joseph Dalton Hooker, botanist, explorer and plant collector, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, friend of Charles Darwin, but most famous for having been the subject of my PhD dissertation (ahem).
I curated a small exhibition about Hooker at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery, Kew (25 March–17 September 2017). It got a wonderful review in the New Scientist on 5th May. I wrote a short piece about Hooker for Nature recently (22 June 2017).
From pseudocopulation to human flight…
… was the title that the Institute of Historical Research used for their list of ten of the most interesting historical articles published last year. I was utterly thrilled to discover that a recent paper I wrote about Darwin and orchids was one of them (and the only history of science paper in the list). I was asked to write a short piece about how my paper came about by Cambridge University Press (it appeared in one of their journals); if you’re interested, you can read it here.