Concepts, Actors and Practices from the Past to the Present
Queen Mary Studies in Intellectual Property series
Edited by Stathis Arapostathis and Graham Dutfield
Chapter 10: Managing knowledge in ‘systematised plant breeding’: Mendelism and British agricultural science, 1900–1930
This was how Nature recorded the opening pleasantries of the Genetical Society’s 1944 symposium on the ‘Application of Genetics to Plant and Animal Breeding’. The theme is instantly recognisable even if the perspective is an unusual one. From the turn of the century, geneticists, or Mendelians as they were initially known, defined themselves in contrast to traditional plant and animal breeders. Furthermore, these early geneticists promised a revolution which would improve the lot of their breeder counter- parts. This is why Darlington’s perspective is unusual; surely by 1944 at least some of the promises of the early geneticists should have paid off? The idea that in the early part of the century science led the way; that attention to science, and in particular genetics, led to an improvement in the way breeders went about their business, would have been familiar to Nature’s readers.2 Yet by Darlington’s lights, and those of the assembled participants at the symposium, the question of how much genetics could give to the breeders was still an open one. The relationship between Mendelian theory and plant breeding has, over the years, been characterised in a number of different ways. In his 2005 book, Technology’s Dilemma, Jonathan Harwood gives an intriguing alter- native analysis of the development of agricultural education and research in Germany from 1860 to 1934. Harwood’s overarching concern is to explain the tendency of most institutes at which agricultural science (including plant breeding) developed to put a greater emphasis on the importance of basic science to the exclusion of practical knowledge (Harwood, 2005: 26).
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