Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Presidential address: Experimenting with the scientific past


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.

Hide All

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

Linked references
Hide All

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

W.F.R. Weldon , ‘Mendel's laws of alternative inheritance in peas’, Biometrika (1901–1902) 1, pp. 228254

Gregory Radick , ‘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. 159160

Weldon , ‘On the ambiguity of Mendel's categories’, Biometrika (1902–1903) 2, pp. 4455

Gregory Radick , ‘Physics in the Galtonian sciences of heredity’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (2011) 42, pp. 129138

Jeffrey M. Skopek , ‘Principles, exemplars, and uses of history in early 20th century genetics’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (2011) 42, pp. 210225

Gregory Radick , ‘Why what if?’, Isis (2008) 99, pp. 547551, 551

Alan C. Love , Robert J. Richards and Peter J. Bowler , ‘What-if history of science’, Metascience (2015) 24, pp. 524

John Henry , ‘Ideology, inevitability, and the Scientific Revolution’, Isis (2008) 99, pp. 552559

Gregory Radick , ‘Cultures of evolutionary biology’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (2003) 34, pp. 187200, 192–193

Martin Bunzl , ‘Counterfactual history: a user's guide’, American Historical Review (2004) 109, pp. 845858

Daniel Nolan , ‘Why historians (and everyone else) should care about counterfactuals’, Philosophical Studies (2013) 163, pp. 317335

Kim Sterelny , ‘Another view of life’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (2005) 36, pp. 585593

Joseph D. Martin , ‘Is the contingentist/inevitabilist debate a matter of degree?’, Philosophy of Science (2013) 80, pp. 919930

Katherina Kinzel , ‘State of the field: are the results of science contingent or inevitable?’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science (2015) 52, pp. 5566

Rosemary J. Redfield , ‘Why do we have to learn this stuff?’ A new genetics for 21st century students’, PLoS Biology (2012) 10, pp. 14

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

Gregory Radick , ‘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. 714724

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science (2013) 44, pp. 188300

The British Association’, Nature (2 September 1880) 22, pp. 410411

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The British Journal for the History of Science
  • ISSN: 0007-0874
  • EISSN: 1474-001X
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-for-the-history-of-science
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 14
Total number of PDF views: 91 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 498 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 29th June 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.