Faculty of Social Sciences

Helen Curry: "Biology as technology"

  • Date: 11/7/2017 at 1:15 PM 3:00 PM
  • Location: Engelska parken - The Rausing Room
  • Organizer: Department of History of Science and Ideas
  • Contact person: H. Otto Sibum
  • Seminarium

Office for History of Science

Helen Curry, Department of History and Philsophy of Science, Cambridge University: "Biology as technology: an unexpected history of innovation in living things"

Abstract
In the mid-twentieth century, a series of strange tools were celebrated as revolutionary for the work of plant breeding: x-rays, chemical solutions, man-made radioisotopes. Many breeders envisioned that that these could be used to reshape plants to specification. According to scientific and popular reports, scientists would use radiation and chemicals to generate heritable variation "at will," which would in turn allow breeders to develop agricultural organisms "to order." There would be no more exhaustive searches for natural variations, and no more complex integration of desired variation into established breeds through hybridization and selection. Breeders would instead alter genes and chromosomes directly, transforming fruits, grains, vegetables, and flowers with unprecedented efficiency. In this talk, I chart the history of Americans' encounters with these early technologies for transforming plant genes and chromosomes. Drawing on this account, I argue that it is impossible to understand early genetic technologies apart from the broader history of American technology and innovation. These were completely entangled with other areas of innovation and industrial production - electro-mechanical, chemical, nuclear - both in their material production and in the outcomes anticipated from them. In capturing this entanglement, I show that many Americans envisioned and enacted the process of innovating living creatures, in this case new breeds of agricultural crops and garden flowers, little differently from that of innovating any other modern industrial product.