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Presidential address: Experimenting with the scientific past

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 June 2016

School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK. Email:


When it comes to knowledge about the scientific pasts that might have been – the so-called ‘counterfactual’ history of science – historians can either debate its possibility or get on with the job. Taking the latter course means re-engaging with some of the most general questions about science. It can also lead to fresh insights into why particular episodes unfolded as they did and not otherwise. Drawing on recent research into the controversy over Mendelism in the early twentieth century, this address reports and reflects on a novel teaching experiment conducted in order to find out what biology and its students might be like now had the controversy gone differently. The results suggest a number of new options: for the collection of evidence about the counterfactual scientific past, for the development of collaborations between historians of science and science educators, for the cultivation of more productive relationships between scientists and their forebears, and for heightened self-awareness about the curiously counterfactual business of being historical.

Research Article
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 2016 

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Presented in modified form at the 2015 British Society for the History of Science Annual Conference, Swansea University, 4 July 2015.


1 Mendel, Gregor, ‘Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden’, Verhandlungen des naturforschenden Vereines in Brünn (1866) 4, second part (Abhandlungen), pp. 347Google Scholar; in English translation in, e.g., Curt Stern and Eva R. Sherwood (eds.), The Origin of Genetics: A Mendel Source Book, San Francisco and London: W.H. Freeman, 1966, pp. 1–48.

2 Robert Olby's writings on Mendel, the rediscovery and the aftermath remain the best entry points into the relevant scholarship. See especially Robert Olby, Origins of Mendelism, 2nd edn, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1985; and Olby, , ‘The dimensions of scientific controversy: the biometric–Mendelian debate’, BJHS (1989) 22, pp. 299320CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

3 Olby, Robert, ‘William Bateson's introduction of Mendelism to England: A reassessment’, BJHS (1987) 20, pp. 399420CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Alan G. Cock and Donald R. Forsdyke, Treasure Your Exceptions: The Science and Life of William Bateson, Dordrecht: Springer, 2008, pp. 248–250, for Bateson's use of ‘genetics’ in private in 1905 and in public in 1906.

4 Weldon, W.F.R., ‘Mendel's laws of alternative inheritance in peas’, Biometrika (1901–1902) 1, pp. 228254CrossRefGoogle Scholar, photograph in the first insert between 254 and 255; Radick, Gregory, ‘Beyond the “Mendel–Fisher controversy”: worries about fraudulent data should give way to broader critiques of Mendel's legacy’, Science (9 October 2015) 350, pp. 159160CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Here and in the next two points I present schematically what Weldon treated expansively in his writings and correspondence. Among the former, the most important sources include Weldon, op. cit. (4); Weldon, , ‘On the ambiguity of Mendel's categories’, Biometrika (1902–1903) 2, pp. 4455CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Weldon, ‘Theory of inheritance’, 1904–1905, Pearson/5/2/10/4, Pearson Papers, Special Collections, University College London; and Weldon, ‘Inheritance in animals and plants’, in T. B. Strong (ed.), Lectures on the Method of Science, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906, pp. 81–109, 92–93. Selections from Weldon's correspondence can be found in Pearson, Karl, ‘Walter Frank Raphael Weldon. 1860–1906’, Biometrika (1906) 5, pp. 152Google Scholar.

6 Galton's take on ancestral influence and its regularities came to fresh prominence in the late 1890s with his framing of what became known as the ‘law of ancestral heredity’. For discussion see William B. Provine, The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001 (first published 1971), pp. 51–54, 179–187. (Cf. the treatment of Weldon on peas here with that in Provine's book, p. 70.)

7 Weldon, ‘Theory of inheritance’, op. cit. (5). For discussion see Annie Jamieson and Gregory Radick, ‘Putting Mendel in his place: how curriculum reform in genetics and counterfactual history of science can work together’, in Kostas Kampourakis (ed.), The Philosophy of Biology: A Companion for Educators, Dordrecht: Springer, 2013, pp. 577–595, esp. 588–589.

8 In the archive at UCL there is a draft of a chapter from Weldon's ‘Theory of inheritance’ manuscript studded with the Edwardian equivalents of post-it notes, on which Galton had scribbled minor amendments to Weldon's summary of Galton on inheritance (in comparison and contrast with Mendel). Pearson/5/2/9/13, Pearson Papers.

9 Jamieson and Radick, op. cit. (7), pp. 586–587; also Radick, Gregory, ‘Physics in the Galtonian sciences of heredity’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (2011) 42, pp. 129138CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed, esp. 132–134.

10 On the controversy, the most extensive study since Olby, ‘Dimensions of scientific controversy’, op. cit. (2), is Kyung-Man Kim, Explaining Scientific Consensus: The Case of Mendelian Genetics, New York and London: Guilford Press, 1994.

11 Cock and Forsdyke, op. cit. (3), pp. 561–564; for discussion see Sarah Wilmot, ‘Mendel and the culture of commemoration’, John Innes Historical Collections website, 3 March 2015, at

12 See e.g. Skopek, Jeffrey M., ‘Principles, exemplars, and uses of history in early 20th century genetics’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (2011) 42, pp. 210225CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Gregory Radick, ‘Scientific inheritance: how history matters for the sciences’, inaugural lecture, University of Leeds, 16 May 2012, at (very ably summarized by Rebekah Higgitt, ‘Beyond our Kuhnian inheritance’, Guardian Online, 28 August 2012, at; Jamieson and Radick, op. cit. (7), pp. 583–584, 592.

13 Richard J. Evans, Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History, London: Little Brown, 2014; ‘“What if” is a waste of time’, Guardian Online, 13 March 2013, at

14 Ian Hacking, Representing and Intervening: Introductory Topics in the Philosophy of Natural Science, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

15 Niall Ferguson (ed.), Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, New York: Basic Books, 1999 (first published 1997); Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, London: Hutchinson Radius, 1989. On the fictionalizing differences between experimental interventions, computer simulations and thought experiments as matters of degree see Radick, Gregory, ‘Why what if?’, Isis (2008) 99, pp. 547551, 551CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 On historical explanation as counterfactual see e.g. Geoffrey Hawthorn, Plausible Worlds: Possibility and Understanding in History and the Social Sciences, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995; Jon Elster, Logic and Society: Contradictions and Possible Worlds, Chichester: John Wiley, 1978, pp. 175–221.

17 Weldon, ‘Inheritance in animals and plants’, op. cit. (5), pp. 92–93.

18 James T. Cushing, Quantum Mechanics: Historical Contingency and the Copenhagen Hegemony, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1994; Peter J. Bowler, Darwin Deleted: Imagining a World without Darwin, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013. For a vigorously critical discussion of Bowler's book see Love, Alan C., Richards, Robert J. and Bowler, Peter J., ‘What-if history of science’, Metascience (2015) 24, pp. 524CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a playfully counterfactual complement to the book see Stephen Jay Gould, ‘George Canning's left buttock and the Origin of Species’, in Gould, Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History, New York: W.W. Norton, 1991, pp. 21–31.

19 Richard J. Evans, ‘In search of German social Darwinism’, in Evans, Rereading German History: From Unification to Reunification, 1800–1996, London: Routledge, 1997, pp. 119–148, 137, italics added. I learned from Ian Hesketh after my lecture in Swansea that Adam Shapiro, in a 2014 blog posting, had pointed out Evans's contradictions on this front; see Adam Shapiro, ‘What if counterfactuals were acceptable in history?’, 17 March 2014, at

20 Léna Soler, Emiliano Trizio and Andrew Pickering (eds.), Science as It Could Have Been: Discussing the Contingency/Inevitability Problem, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015; Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What?, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999, esp. pp. 78–80.

21 T. Babington Macaulay, ‘Dryden’ (1828), in Macaulay, Essays, Critical and Miscellaneous, Philadelphia: Hart, Carey & Hart, 1850, pp. 35–50, 35–36; for discussion see Robert K. Merton, ‘Singletons and multiples in science’ (1961), in Merton, The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1973, pp. 343–370, 353.

23 On the anti-individualism that is common to both older positivist and more recent contextualist historiographies see Henry, John, ‘Ideology, inevitability, and the Scientific Revolution’, Isis (2008) 99, pp. 552559CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Radick, Gregory, ‘Cultures of evolutionary biology’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (2003) 34, pp. 187200, 192–193CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 Alfred Kroeber, ‘The superorganic’, American Anthropologist (1917), n.s. 19, pp. 163–213, 199. Cf. ‘Mendel spoke the truth, but he was not dans le vrai (within the true) of contemporary biological discourse … Mendel was a true monster, so much so that science could not even properly speak of him.’ Michel Foucault, ‘The discourse on language’ (1970), in Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language, trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith, New York: Pantheon, 1972, pp. 215–237, 224.

25 Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985, p. 13.

26 On the epistemology of counterfactuals considered philosophically, psychologically and historically see respectively e.g. Williamson, Timothy, ‘Knowledge of counterfactuals’, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement (2009) 64, pp. 4564CrossRefGoogle Scholar; David R. Mandel, Denis J. Hilton and Patrizia Catellani, eds., The Psychology of Counterfactual Thinking, Oxford: Routledge, 1995; Bunzl, Martin, ‘Counterfactual history: a user's guide’, American Historical Review (2004) 109, pp. 845858CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the need to ‘go there' see Nolan, Daniel, ‘Why historians (and everyone else) should care about counterfactuals’, Philosophical Studies (2013) 163, pp. 317335CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 The abstract puzzles I have confronted most squarely are to do with the bearing of realism/anti-realism questions, the theory-ladenness of observations, and the individuation of theories (i.e. how different do they need to be to count as different?); see Gregory Radick, ‘Other histories, other biologies’, in Anthony O'Hear (ed.), Philosophy, Biology and Life, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. 21–47. Other, less systematic, attempts to bring epistemological difficulties into focus include Radick, ‘Is the theory of natural selection independent of its history?’, in Jonathan Hodge and Gregory Radick (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Darwin, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 143–167; Radick, , ‘The case for virtual history’, New Scientist (20 August 2005) 187, pp. 3435Google Scholar; Radick, The Simian Tongue: The Long Debate about Animal Language, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007, esp. pp. 365–368; and Radick, op. cit. (15) – the introduction to an edited Focus section on Counterfactuals and the historian of science’, Isis (2008) 99, 547584Google Scholar.

28 Weldon, ‘Theory of inheritance’, op. cit. (5), Chapter 5, p. 24, Jamieson transcription.

29 Theodore M. Porter, Karl Pearson: The Scientific Life in a Statistical Age, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004, p. 302.

30 Quoted in Beatrice Bateson (ed.), William Bateson, F.R.S., Naturalist[:] His Essays & Addresses, Together with a Short Account of His Life, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1928 (and facsimile reprint, New York: Garland, 1984), p. vi, italics in original.

31 On the Resilience Project see Stephen H. Friend and Eric E. Schadt, ‘Clues from the resilient’, Science, 30 May 2014, pp. 970–972, and more generally

32 Gholson J. Lyon and Jason O’Rawe, ‘Human genetics and clinical aspects of neurodevelopmental disorders’, in Kevin J. Mitchell (ed.), The Genetics of Neurodevelopmental Disorders, Hoboken: Wiley–Blackwell, pp. 289–317, 291–292.

33 Evelyn Fox Keller, The Century of the Gene, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000; Jenny Lewis, ‘Genetics and genomics’, in Michael Reiss (ed.), Teaching Secondary Biology, 2nd edn, London: Hodder Education, 2011, pp. 173–214, 175.

34 For a more detailed account of the project and its findings see Annie Jamieson and Gregory Radick, ‘Genetic determinism in the genetics curriculum: an experimental test of the effects of Mendelian and Weldonian emphases’ (submitted). The project's sine qua non was a generous research grant from the Uses and Abuses of Biology scheme of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Cambridge University.

36 A Powerpoint version of the lecture with Annie Jamieson's voiceover can be found at

37 Helpful pointers in the right direction from within recent philosophy of science include Sterelny, Kim, ‘Another view of life’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (2005) 36, pp. 585593CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Martin, Joseph D., ‘Is the contingentist/inevitabilist debate a matter of degree?’, Philosophy of Science (2013) 80, pp. 919930CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Kinzel, Katherina, ‘State of the field: are the results of science contingent or inevitable?’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science (2015) 52, pp. 5566CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed. On the way that opposing sides in a scientific debate will converge, with the ‘winner’ looking much more ‘loser’-ish by the end than at the start, a philosophical classic remains instructive: William Whewell, ‘Of the transformation of hypotheses in the history of science’, in Whewell, On the Philosophy of Discovery; Chapters Historical and Critical, London: J.W. Parker, 1860, pp. 492–503. Many thanks to Jon Hodge for this reference.

38 Redfield, Rosemary J., ‘Why do we have to learn this stuff?’ A new genetics for 21st century students’, PLoS Biology (2012) 10, pp. 14CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed. For further discussion see Jamieson and Radick, op. cit. (34).

39 Commenting on a draft of this paper, a Leeds colleague wrote, ‘I wondered whether there is a difference in determinism between introductory university genetics and more advanced. When I learnt genetics in the late ’70s, I understood plasticity of genes, and all the Weldonian stuff, although I didn't see it as anti-Mendelian (and I loved Mendelian genetics, and particularly ratios).’ A great deal of what I want to find out about is touched upon here. What is the link between Mendelism's teachability and its persistence? How, exactly, shall we characterize that persistence? And what difference would it make if students got the Weldonian stuff earlier in their learning?

40 Bowler, Peter J., ‘What Darwin disturbed: the biology that might have been’, Isis (2008) 99, pp. 560567CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

41 Hasok Chang, Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

42 For additional remarks on how this sort of enterprise might enrich exchange between science education and the history of science see Jamieson and Radick, op. cit. (34). For future development of the notion of cognitive centrality versus marginality in science, a promising resource is Ronald Giere's perspectival philosophy of science; see Ronald Giere, Scientific Perspectivism, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006.

43 Chang, op. cit. (41), pp. 235–250.

44 See, in the interim, Radick, Gregory, ‘Should “heredity” and “inheritance” be biological terms? William Bateson's change of mind as a historical and philosophical problem’, Philosophy of Science (2012) 79, pp. 714724CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and the three papers that I authored or co-authored in Christine MacLeod and Gregory Radick, eds., Owning and Disowning Invention: Intellectual Property and Identity in the Technosciences in Britain, 1870–1930, special issue, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science (2013) 44, pp. 188300CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

45 Lyon and O'Rawe, op. cit. (32), pp. 289 and 303. For Lyon's talk at the Nurturing Genetics symposium in Leeds in June 2014 see

46 Pearson, op. cit. (5), p. 8.

47 The British Association’, Nature (2 September 1880) 22, pp. 410411CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Rep. BAAS 50, pp. lxxvii, 459, 603–605, 625.

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