- Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding
Noel Kingsbury’s Hybrid is a rarity on two counts. First, it is a big-picture history, exploring plant improvement from the birth of agriculture up to (but not including) the most recent controversies over genetically modified (GM) foods. Second, it is unabashedly a celebration of modern plant-breeding techniques. Kingsbury’s central aim is to show how plant breeders transformed a number of spindly and unpromising wild plants into the cornucopia of varieties found in modern-day supermarkets and garden centers. In retelling the breeders’ story, with a particular focus on the scientific breeding that Kingsbury identifies as a twentieth-century phenomenon, he seeks to provide context for the GM debates of the present day. By Kingsbury’s reckoning, the plant breeder has, in the wake of these debates, become a much-maligned character; his book is an attempt at redress.
Hybrid is split into two parts. The chronological divide between them is what Kingsbury considers the birth moment for scientific plant breeding: the “rediscovery,” in the spring of 1900, of Gregor Mendel’s 1866 paper on pea hybridization. In Kingsbury’s view, the first fruits of the new discipline of Mendelian genetics were the F1 double-cross maize hybrids which became prevalent in America from the 1930s. Accordingly, everything before the arrival of F1 hybrids is lumped into the book’s first part, which, beginning with the domestication of our common food crops, covers a span of nearly 10,000 years. The second part deals with the supposed delivery of the promise of genetics to agricultural development in the twentieth century. Reflecting the current obsession with intellectual property and innovation, the book ends with a fascinating survey of intellectual property rights in recent plant varieties.
For the generalist historian, the admirable breadth of the book makes it a fine introductory text. For the specialist, however, there are disappointments. Historians of technology will despair of the old-fashioned view that scientific advance was the motor for technological developments in plant breeding. Historians of science, and especially historians of genetics, will be exasperated at the peddling of several long-demolished myths, such as that the English Mendelian William Bateson first realized the importance of Mendel’s paper on the train en route to an appearance at the Royal Horticultural Society in that famous spring of 1900. More problematically, Kingsbury’s use of secondary sources reveals that there is little new here in the way of original research. To be sure, his attempt to bring together so many events within a single narrative is novel, but most of the same information could be taken from the classic histories of plant breeding, notably by H. F. Roberts and Conway Zirkle. [End Page 474]
A problem of a different but no less troubling kind arises from the book’s heroizing mission. In glorifying the accomplishment of plant breeders, Kingsbury is following a path that, although popular for much of the twentieth century, has long since been abandoned by scholars. More recent, critical histories of plant breeding by Paolo Palladino and others explore in detail the social context of the work of plant breeders, taking seriously both their disagreements with each other and the points of view of their opponents in various controversies. Although Kingsbury refers to this work frequently, he does not engage with its larger lessons. As a result, for anyone yearning for a long-run study of plant breeding that does justice to extant research—and for all that Hybrid’s sweep and readability make it a welcome addition to the literature—the wait continues.
Berris Charnley is a research fellow at the University of Exeter’s ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society (EGENIS). His research interests include the history of early genetics, plant breeding, and food science. He recently completed his Ph.D. thesis, “Agricultural Science, Plant Breeding and the Emergence of a Mendelian System in Britain, 1880–1930.”