Opposition to Bateson
While opposition to Bateson occurred during his lifetime, a not unusual phenomenon in human affairs, it is of note that the opposition continued long after his death in 1926. Indeed, opposition seemed to increase as the 20th century progressed, reaching an apparent apogee in 1996 when an article entitled "Dobzhansky, Bateson and the Genetics of Speciation" by H. Allen Orr was published in the "Perspectives" section of Genetics, the journal of the Genetics Society of America (144, 1331-1335).
Poulton versus Bateson and Punnett
The Hope Professor of Zoology at Oxford was also not supportive. Click Here . Much of the 36 page Introduction to his text Essays on Evolution (1908) was devoted to an attack on Bateson and his fellow Mendelians.
The great pioneer in statistics, biomathematician Ronald Fisher, was guided in his understanding of the biology of evolution by one of Charles Darwin's sons, Major Leonard Darwin. In the course of a long correspondence Darwin wrote (19 Jan. 1929):
At that time Fisher was composing his major work, The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (1930, 1958). Disregarding Darwin's caveat ("But I am not well up in what he did do, and may well blunder") he did not "tear it up." Indeed, he closely followed Darwin's wording.
While noting that Bateson "played the leading part" in the "early advocacy of Mendelism," Fisher wrote (p. ix):
Thus, Fisher, who shortly thereafter was, through statistical analysis, to cast doubt on the soundness of the data of Mendel himself, seemed to have based his attack on Bateson on the words of someone who admitted to not having thoroughly read Bateson's work. To compound the matter, Bateson's first book, Materials for the Study of Variation (1894), was described by Fisher (p. 138) as:
Defending Bateson, Alan G. Cock (1973; J. Hist. Biol. 6, 1-36) concluded that "Fisher's criticisms are ... unfair and in large part based on a misunderstanding of Bateson's views." However, even Cock subscribed to the view that "theoretical innovation was not where Bateson's strength lay," basing his case on
In his Presidential Address to the 13th International Congress of Genetics (1974; Genetics 78, 21-33), Curt Stern noted that while the reduplication hypothesis "could not beat the [later] competition," nevertheless "it was an ingenious suggestion" to propose that "Mendelian segregation ... occurs during a somatic cell division followed by differential multiplication of the different genotypes." Indeed, some later-discovered genetic phenomena can be explained along these lines.
Goldschmidt (1878-1958) thought along similar lines as Bateson, yet he consistently misrepresented Bateson's "presence and absence hypothesis" (concerning genetic dominance). Furthermore, in his last major scientific work, Goldschmidt wrote:
You can read the address on these web-pages (Click Here), where you will see that Bateson was merely stating that Mendelian effects can involve the loss of inhibitors, not that evolution as a phenomenon occurs in this fashion.
Ernst Mayr (1904-2005) was perhaps the most influential, and certainly the most relentless of the disparagers and misrepresenters of William Bateson. There was much celebration of Mayr's 100th birthday, which, at least in one quarter, was considered to overstate his achievements.
Here is a
sampling from a 1973 paper of Mayr (J.
Hist. Biol. 6, 125-154):
For Bateson, Mayr and the Thrasybulus principle (Click Here).
No less strident opposition came from other
major figures in evolutionary biology, including H. Ledyard Stebbins, and Richard Dawkins. In The Blind Watchmaker
Dawkins, shaking his head in bewilderment, found it "extremely
hard for the modern mind to respond ... with anything but mirth"
to the quaint ideas of the "mutationists"
Bateson and De Vries.
The above "modern" minds may have mischaracterized and dismissed Bateson, but at least they did not claim he was really on their side. At the turn of the 20th century came the "Bateson, Dobzhansky, Muller model of speciation."
It is to Dobzhansky's credit that he resurrected the Romanes-Gulick view that reproductive isolation was of paramount importance for speciation, but he held that this reproductive isolation was usually achieved initially by differences in gene products ("genic" isolation), a view also held by H. J. Muller.
In "Dobzhansky, Bateson, and the Genetics of Speciation" (1996) H. Allen Orr asserted that:
Of course, Dobzhansky and Muller are likely to have read enough of Bateson's writings to know, even if they did not understand him, that he most certainly did not support a genic model for speciation. Thus, they did not cite him in this respect. Orr suggests, however, that the reason they did not cite Bateson was that "neither Dobzhansky nor Muller knew of Bateson's model." Orr believes that "Bateson apparently never repeated his argument." For numerous quotations from Bateson on his non-genic view of speciation. Click Here
misinterpretation was further relayed by Stewart Berlocher (1998) in chapter 1
of the multiauthor text Endless Forms. Species and
Speciation, and by Jerry Coyne (with Orr) in 1998 in the Philosophical
Transactions of the Royal Society of London (353,
287-305). In 2000 the misinterpretation was even dignified with an acronym
"BDM," standing for the "Bateson, Dobzhansky, Muller model of
speciation" (Lynch and Force. American
Naturalist 156, 590-605).
The BDM "meme" lingered on. When resurrected in Heredity in 2009 by Norman A. Johnson, I responded with a Letter to the Editor Click Here.
When scientists get the story wrong, then historians may be misled, and popularizers and journalists who depend on the scientists and historians for their books and stories may compound the error. In a letter to T. H. Huxley's grandson, Julian, with whom he was collaborating on a book, H. G. Wells wrote in 1928:
So what are we to make of The Monk in the Garden. The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel, the Father of Genetics by Robin Marantz Henig (2000; Houghton & Mifflin; Click Here)? This is how the book begins:
The blue locomotive of the Great Eastern Railway streaked through the countryside of Cambridgeshire. To a farmer nearby, the train's cars was a rumble of teak and steel plowing through his fields, where seedlings of barley, wheat, and oats etched their own green tracks in the springtime loam. It was early May in 1900, and the earth, like the new century itself, pulsed with possibilities.
Among the train's passengers was William Bateson, a don at St. John's College, Cambridge. Bateson, who was a zoologist, was stoop-shouldered and large. His tweed vest strained at the buttons, his handlebar mustache gleamed and only his droopy eyes saved him from looking self-satisfied or smug. He had just turned forty, and was one of Britain's chief combatants in the controversy over evolution and the theory of natural selection, still the source of strident debate more than forty years after Charles Darwin first proposed it.
When Bateson boarded in Cambridge, he had no idea that in the next sixty minutes he would read a paper that would change the course not only of his own career, but of mankind's understanding of its place in the great cacophony of nature."
Powerful, splendid, prose - drawing the reader onward. And all the trappings of scholarship, although Robin Henig implies this is not so, stating (p. 266) concerning the list of her sources: "A simple listing of all these books and articles, such as might appear in a scholarly text, would be misleading: there were only a few that I found myself returning to again and again."
Nevertheless, the book ends with a long list of "notes and selected readings" and this is extensively supplemented at her web-site. Here we learn her sources for the section quoted above:
Robin Henig does indeed tell a "compelling story" and, given the vast ground she had to cover, it is not surprising that there are some discrepancies:
At the outset, in the Prologue (above), the reader is informed that only Bateson's "droopy eyes" saved him from appearing "self satisfied and smug." This is the stuff best-sellers are made off, - and why not? The formula worked for James Watson, who opened chapter one of The Double Helix (1968)with the line: "I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood."
Bateson's most important paper (1902) was coauthored with an established academic who had graduated in Botany in 1888, Edith R. Saunders (1865-1945). Yet Robin Henig refers to her as "his long-time research assistant." With coauthors - particularly female coauthors - one is interested to know whether their contributions were greater than they were given credit for (e.g. the speculation about Einstein's first wife). Robin Henig takes a non-feminist position, and to her own rhetorical question "Why ... would she have stuck for so long with a man who treated her coldly ...?" replies suggesting a romantic attachment. The possibility that Edith Saunders was as excited by the scientific questions as Bateson is not considered.
Marsha Richmond in "Women in the early history of genetics" (2001) notes that women participated both through their labours and intellectually to the Cambridge "school in genetics" which Bateson headed, and laments that Henig "has labelled these women Bateson's 'research assistants' and presumed a romantic attachment." More kindly, J.B.S. Haldane named Edith Saunders "the 'mother' of British plant genetics." She became a prominent member of several important scientific societies and held a college appointment until her death.
My concern is that The Monk in the Garden does, indeed, reveal an impressive degree of scholarship (notes, selected readings, index), which Watson's book did not have (or need to have, given Watson's scientific eminence). Robin Henig's high literary skills make it likely that many reader's will uncritically buy her account of Bateson and his ideas. The generation which is going to be misled by the influential scientific texts of Berlocher and others (see above), is also going to be misled by Robin Henig's account.
Crick was still around to defend himself against Watson. Bateson and Saunders cannot defend themselves against H. G. Wells and Robin Henig, and those who have influenced them. Bateson's surviving near-relatives do not seem to be into evolutionary biology, so are not in a position to question the "Bateson bashing" of the scientists, historians and popularizers. A less near-relative, Patrick Bateson of King's College, Cambridge, offered some defence in his Darwin Lecture delivered at a Symposium on a Century of Mendelism in Human Genetics (October 2001; See also "William Bateson: A Biologist Ahead of his Time." 2002. J. Genetics 81, 49-58).
When writing about Linnaeus (the founder of taxonomy; p. 45) Robin Henig shows some diffidence in that "he was said to be a personally unpleasant man" (my italics). Remarks about Bateson, however, are categorical. The following should convey the flavour:
The latter remark appears at odds with the perceptions of one who knew Bateson very well - J. B. S. Haldane:
Perhaps the truth is that, while controversial, William Bateson was not very often wrong. What his contemporaries, and many who followed, thought was wrong, may actually have been right. Bateson wryly remarked (1907) "The term controversial is conveniently used by those who are wrong to apply to the persons who correct them."
Among Robin Henig's cited sources is biohistorian William Coleman's influential "Bateson and Chromosomes: Conservative Thought in Science" (1970; Centaurus 15, 228-314), which led others to consider Bateson "an archetypal conservative thinker" (Mackenzie 1978), and as one of "the most recalcitrant idealists" (Allen 1978).
Most of Coleman's negative points were answered by Alan Cock in his, less influential, "William Bateson's Rejection and Eventual Acceptance of Chromosome Theory" (1983; Annals of Science 40, 19-59), which is also cited by Henig. Here Cock shows that Coleman "fails to get to grips with the various detailed objections raised by Bateson ... against chromosome theory," which were then substantial.
These reasons were not of a personal nature, although we learn (p. 24) that Bateson's view (1924) of T. H. Morgan's chromosome school was not a flattering one:
Cock argues that while "Bateson's view that between-species differences were somehow qualitatively distinct from within-species differences ... was an important source of Bateson's opposition to evolution by natural selection, it was hardly relevant to his attitude to chromosome theory." However, I have argued that the Bateson's difficulty was in seeing how chromosomes could provide the basis for a postulated qualitative distinction which was fundamental to speciation; the latter distinction contradicts the view that "theoretical innovation is not where Bateson's strength lay" (Forsdyke, 1999; Click Here).
It is one thing openly to attack someone whose ideas on a problem you disagree with, or even to misrepresent that person as agreeing with you (see above). However, it can be far more effective to imply that the problem is unimportant, and the person who has dedicated his/her life to the problem has foolishly been barking up the wrong tree.
In addition to his open attack (see above) the advocate of "universal Darwinism" Richard Dawkins adopted the latter approach. He stated (1983) in Evolution from Molecules to Man that "the job we ask" of evolutionary theories is "explaining the evolution of organized, adaptive complexity," and then appeared casually to dismiss the problem Bateson had made his life's work.
By this sleight of hand, Dawkins implies that "the evolution of organized adaptive complexity" can somehow be separated from the problem which most concerned Bateson. So much of Dawkins' writing is profound and enlightening, that it is easy to believe it is all profound and enlightening. So much of Dawkins' writing disparages "the vacuous rhetoric of mountebanks and charlatans" ( Nature (1998) 394, 141-3), that it is easy to believe that he is holier-than-thou in this respect.
Dawkins' powerful advocacy of selection at the gene level led many away from group selectionist ideas. In his The Extended Phenotype (1982) Dawkins (p. 6) wrote disparagingly of "sloppily unconscious group-selectionism." Two decades later David Sloan Wilson (June 2001; Q. Rev. Biol. 76), quoted with approval Joel Peck as stating that "there is no doubt that we were to hasty in trashing group selection ... the theoretical models of the 60s and 70s were very oversimplified and should be taken with a pinch of salt."
Dawkins attack extended to Bateson's daughter-in-law, Margaret Mead. In Unweaving the Rainbow (1998; p. 211) she is described, on the authority of anthropologist Derek Freeman, as "the gullible but immensely influential American anthropologist Margaret Mead." However, remarks of the President of the American Anthropological Association, Louise Lamphere, (NY Times 12th August 2001), suggested this may have been but one more salvo from the pen of the gullible but immensely influential English biologist Richard Dawkins.
For an example of such scholarship see: "Virginity and veracity: rereading historical sources in the Mead-Freeman controversy" by Paul Shankman (2006) Ethnohistory 53, 479-505. On the other hand, that Dawkins may not have been so gullible is suggested by E. Fuller Torrey's brilliant Freudian Fraud. The Malignant Effect of Freud's Theory on American Thought and Culture (Harper-Collins 1992). Here Mead is portrayed as leading an entire generation of US intellectuals down the mother-blaming alley.
Gould and Lewontins' famous 1979 article - "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm. A Critique of the Adaptationist Program" - was the subject of a book on scientific rhetoric (Edited by Jack Selzer, Understanding Scientific Prose, 1993). Here Gould conceded that "I did not know about Bateson's invocation of Voltaire when I wrote 'Spandrels,' but the convergence is scarcely surprising, as Dr. Pangloss is a standard ... form of ridicule." To criticize the adaptionist program Bateson had introduced, not spandrels, but "toolmarks, mere incidents of manufacture, benefiting their possessor not more than the wire-marks on a sheet of paper, or the ribbing on the bottom of an oriental plate renders these objects more attractive to our eyes." Furthermore, examples of the doctrine that all is for the best "were discovered with a facility that Pangloss himself might have envied."
In his massive The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (2002), Gould made amends for not citing Bateson in 1979. He was generally kind to Bateson quoting him extensively as supporting the view that:
However, Gould considered Bateson's attack on Darwin as "bordering on meanness." Bateson was unambiguously labelled as an "obstinate," "stubborn," "old fogey," who "had fallen a bit behind the times," and "had his own particular axe to grind." Bateson had proposed that organic discontinuities had arisen from internal, not external, causes:
Gould was lost. Despite earlier heresies, he admitted to having returned to the Darwin-Wallace fold:
There were others, such as Brian K. Hall - also kind to Bateson - who were felt to be in need of an excuse for wandering from the path of Darwinian righteousness. Concerning Charles Darwin's 1868 book The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, Olaf Breidbach and Michael Ghiselin wrote (2007, Theory in BioSciences 125, 157-171):
Of course, all biohistorians (and certainly Hall) know of Darwin's 1868 book and, in context, most readers would have interpreted Hall as meaning the first major independent English treatment of variation since Darwin. Breidbach and Ghiselin seem to have seized upon Hall's lack of precision as an opportunity to take a shot at Bateson and Goldschmidt.
And the above quote from Samuel Butler is not an isolated example. Much of his essay Quis Desiderio ... ? written in the 1890s, was on how the hand of Nature will take whatever it finds (e.g. a spandrel) and adapt it for its own purposes:
Acknowledgements. The train pictures are from Michael J. Irlam's fine page on rail history Click Here
Go to: Bateson & Saunders (1902) (Click Here)
Go to: Bateson's Melbourne address (Click Here)
Go to: Bateson's "Residue" (Click Here)
Go to: Bateson and Goldschmidt (Click Here)
Go to: Paper on Romanes' "Peculiarity" and Bateson's "Residue" (1999) (Click Here)
Go to: The B in "BDM" (response to Johnson's 2009 commentary) (Click Here)
Go to: Video Lecture on Bateson & Romanes (Click Here)
Return to: Homepage (Click Here)
This page was established circa 2000 and last edited 16 Apr 2013 by Donald Forsdyke