Published online by Cambridge University Press: 20 June 2018
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 new theories about inheritance and evolution (particularly Hugo de Vries's 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. From these miscellaneous writings a new and distinctive kind of utopianism emerged – the biotopia. 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. Biotopias often visualized the world as a garden perfected for human use, but this vision was tinged with gendered violence, as it became clear that realizing it entailed dispossessing, or even killing, ‘Mother Nature’. Biotopian themes are apparent in journalism, scientific reports and even textbooks, and these non-fiction sources shared many characteristics with intentionally prophetic or utopian fictions. Biotopian themes can be traced back and forth across the porous boundaries between popular and elite writing, showing how biology came to function as public culture. This analysis reveals not only how the historical significance of science is invariably determined outside the scientific world, but also that the ways in which biology was debated during this period continue to characterize today's debates over new biological breakthroughs.
Many thanks to the British Academy (for a mid-career fellowship, which funded this research). Also to Luis Campos, Helen Curry, Lynne Murphy, Katherine Pandora, Charlotte Sleigh, Kory Stamper, Charlotte Thurschwell and Pamela Thurschwell.
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26 The Forerunner got a few reviews, in the Chicago Evening Post, the Chicago Dial and the Vegetarian Magazine. And the leading US socialists Eugene Debs and Upton Sinclair both quoted from it in public. Scharnhorst, Gary, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1st edn, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985, p. 85Google Scholar.
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63 Pandora, op. cit. (57), p. 497. Jane Smith has made the same point, that the excitement around what she calls Burbank's garden of invention was ‘the possibility, for a time, that anyone could enter and see what might take root’. Smith, op. cit. (58), p. 9.
64 Endersby, op. cit. (5), pp. 476, 84, 87–92.
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103 Haldane also conveys a faint hint of contempt for the ‘aesthetically minded’, just as there was in Wells's description of Freddy Mush.
104 Haldane, op. cit. (24), pp. 66–67, 40–41.
105 Haldane, op. cit. (24), p. 69.
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115 Huxley, op. cit. (109), pp. 102, 85.
116 I am indebted to Staffan Müller-Wille and Christina Brandt, whose work first made me recognize this point. However, they suggest that the ‘view that sees (cultural as well as biological) inheritance as a common stock of dispositions seems to lie in the association of heredity with the future rather than the past’; they associate its twentieth-century meaning with the broad idea of progress, but don't offer a specific causal account of the shift. Müller-Wille, Staffan and Brandt, Christina, ‘From heredity to genetics: political, medical, and agro-industrial contexts’, in Müller-Wille and Brandt (eds.), Heredity Explored: Between Public Domain and Experimental Science, 1850–1930, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016 pp. 3–25, 17Google Scholar.
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