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GENETICS IN AMERICA: A HISTORICAL OVERVIEW* ARNOLD W. RAVlNi The headlines of today's newspapers speak of sharp disagreement among geneticists regarding the bounty to be derived from our knowledge of genetic material [I]. The scientific strife is mirrored in public apprehension about the good of genetic research and public concern about its social control. Current bewilderment and disillusionment are a far cry from the eager and optimistic anticipation with which the science of genetics was heralded at its inception at the turn of the century. In many ways the history of genetics parallels the rise and fall of optimistic progressivism in our nation. Never before has the connection between scientific change and sociopolitical evolution seemed so clear. Of course, genetics is not alone among the scientific disciplines to have contributed to our current malaise; the advent of nuclear power, the growth of chemical industry, and the advances in biomedical technology have added their own strains to the situation. Yet it is worthwhile to look closely at the history of one field in order to ask, in its case, what went wrong. We shall see, I believe, that confidence wasjustified in the capacity of the embryonic field of genetics to develop into a powerful theoretical discipline that would at once unify and propel all of biology. This confidence was coupled, however, with philosophical and political naivete about the limits of scientific knowledge on the one hand and the values that guide and constrain the scientific enterprise on the other. Fortunately, for ease of historical investigation, we can limit our survey of genetics for the most part to the American scene. With all due credit to the European founders of Mendelism—De Vries, Correns, Tschermak, Bateson, and Johannsen—and to the recent developers of molecular biology in France, England, Germany, and Japan, genetics is to a great extent an American science. For it was in America especially that genetic theory developed rapidly. More than that, it was in America»Presented at a symposium on "The New Genetics and Society" held at Albion College. Albion Michigan, March 23-25, 1977. !Department of Biology. University of Chicago. 1 103 East 57ih Street, Chicago, Illinois 60637.©1978 by The University of Chicago. 0031-5982/78/2102-0005S01 .00 2141 Arnold Ravin · Genetics in America that the applicability of genetics to human welfare was seized upon, first in respect to animal and plant breeding for human purposes and not much later in respect to the guidance of human evolution itself. Indeed, two related themes weave their way through this paper. The first is the growth of genetics primarily as a theoretical structure, while the second is the use of genetics. Theory and application never got very far apart in this pragmatic nation of ours. News of the rediscovery of Mendel's principles had a welcome reception among certain American biologists. Among the greeters wasJacques Loeb, himself a recent émigré to this country. Much respected for his studies of animal tropisms and artificial parthenogenesis, and for his ardent advocacy ofa reductive mechanistic approach to complex biological phenomena, Loeb published in Science an address given in 1904 in which he predicted the future course of biological research [2]. Referring to "The Recent Development of Biology," Loeb saw much hope in two significant discoveries—Buchner's separation of enzymes from the living cell and Mendelism. The capacity ofagents to perform their cellular function outside the organized state of the cell fit Loeb's mechanistic predilections. Moreover, the capacity of enzymes in minute amounts to speed up selective metabolic reactions under mild physiological conditions without being significantly consumed themselves augured well for a complete understanding of the organism in physicochemical terms. What Loeb liked about Mendelism was its exactness, the quantitative precision of its laws, and its experimental testability. He called Mendel's treatise "... one of the most prominent papers ever published in biology ." Loeb was later to write extensively about enzymes in The Dynamic State ofLiving Matter, an influential book published in 1906 [3]. He was also instrumental in stimulating the earliest attempts to associate genes and enzymes [4]. This approach took a circuitous path which cannot be detailed here, but it had two happy outcomes. The first...


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