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Evolution Made to Order

Plant Breeding and Technological Innovation in Twentieth-Century America

Helen Anne Curry

Evolution Made to Order

Helen Anne Curry

320 pages | 29 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2016
Cloth $45.00 ISBN: 9780226390086 Published November 2016
E-book $45.00 About E-books ISBN: 9780226390116 Published November 2016
In the mid-twentieth century, American plant breeders, frustrated by their dependence on natural variation in creating new crops and flowers, eagerly sought technologies that could extend human control over nature. Their search led them to celebrate a series of strange tools: an x-ray beam directed at dormant seeds, a drop of chromosome-altering colchicine on a flower bud, and a piece of radioactive cobalt in a field of growing crops. According to scientific and popular reports of the time, these mutation-inducing methods would generate variation on demand, in turn allowing breeders to genetically engineer crops and flowers to order. Creating a new crop or flower would soon be as straightforward as innovating any other modern industrial product.
 
 In Evolution Made to Order, Helen Anne Curry traces the history of America’s pursuit of tools that could speed up evolution. It is an immersive journey through the scientific and social worlds of midcentury genetics and plant breeding and a compelling exploration of American cultures of innovation. As Curry reveals, the creation of genetic technologies was deeply entangled with other areas of technological innovation—from electromechanical to chemical to nuclear. An important study of biological research and innovation in America, Evolution Made to Order provides vital historical context for current worldwide ethical and policy debates over genetic engineering.
 
Contents
List of Abbreviations
 
Introduction
 
Part 1   Evolution by X-ray: The Industrialization of Biological Innovation
 
1          Mutation Theories
2          An Unsolved Problem
3          Speeding Up Evolution
4          X-rays in the Lab and Field
5          Industrial Evolution
 
Part 2   Tinkering with Chromosomes: Colchicine in the Lab and Garden
 
6          Artificial Tetraploidy
7          Evolution to Order
8          Better Evolution through Chemistry
9          Tinkering Technologists
10        The Flower Manufacturers
 
Part 3   Atoms for Agriculture: Evolution in a Large Technological System
 
11        Radiation Revisited
12        Mutation Politics
13        An Atomic-Age Experiment Station
14        Atomic Gardens
15        The Peaceful Atom in Global Agriculture
 
Epilogue
 
Acknowledgments
Notes
Bibliography
Index
 
Review Quotes
Science
"A fascinating foray into a mutated cornucopia of agricultural and horticultural products and the tools that made them. Such varied and important insights into the history of biological innovation and its many aspirations seem as relevant as ever in our ongoing search for new tools to reshape living things to our goals, needs, and desires—and to envision life as it could be."
Choice
"In this fascinating, well-researched history of genetic innovation, Curry explores the hype, intensive investigation, and, ultimately, the disappointment accompanying the application of new technologies offering the promise of human control over plant evolution to breed superior agricultural and horticultural crops in the early to mid-20th century. The utilization of these tools for plant breeding is placed in the broader context of innovations in the electromechanical, chemical, and nuclear industries and the desire to control living organisms in a manner similar to any other industrial product. Certain historical events, such as America’s entry into World War II and the subsequent desire for national self-sufficiency that developed, helped fuel the hope that these technologies could deliver the necessary genetic advances, despite the available evidence to the contrary. Fascinating and entertaining throughout, this historical account of genetic technological innovation helps provide context for discussion over current, and by every measure much more successful, genetic engineering technologies utilized for plant improvement and the societal, ethical, and ecological questions surrounding them. Highly recommended."
Quarterly Review of Biology
"In her book Evolution Made to Order, Curry elucidates three major innovations in American plant breeding techniques during the
20th century––the use of X-rays, colchicine, and radioisotopes to bring about mutations and speed up evolution. Along the way, she introduces us to important plant breeders and scientists, including Albert Blakeslee, David Burpee, Bernard Nebel, Mable Ruttle, Arnold Sparrow, Lewis Stadler, Ralph Singleton, and others who strove to feed the world."
Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
"Curry’s history is well researched, well written, clear, and subtle.... She does us a service by taking 'failures' seriously. The bias toward studying successes blinds us to the alternative paths that seemed just as realistic, in their time and place, as the eventual successes.We need more studies of scientific and technological dead ends if we are to gain a full understanding of the ways scientists and engineers tried to change the world at any given time."
Angela N. H. Creager, Princeton University
“Curry recovers a neglected history of biotechnology with verve and vivid detail. Decades before recombinant DNA, eager breeders and horticulturalists exploited mutant-generating techniques from chemistry and nuclear energy to improve crops and ornamental plants. As she shows, GMOs are only the latest chapter of ‘evolution to order’ in agriculture.”
Jonathan Harwood, Kings College London
“This well-written book is in part a contribution to the history of plant breeding. But more than that, it is a study of ‘technological utopianism’: the fervent belief that new methods of inducing mutation could transform breeding and thus boost the agricultural economy. Of particular interest is Curry’s demonstration that although the new technology was a failure from the breeders’ point of view, it nonetheless retained widespread support from a range of extrascientific organizations—seed companies, industrial firms, government agencies—who perceived it as a solution to their own quite different problems.”
Audra Wolfe, author of Competing with the Soviets
“Early and mid-twentieth-century geneticists and plant breeders dreamed of finding ways to speed up evolution. Evolution Made to Order uses a diverse set of sources, ranging from archives and newspapers to seed catalogs, to explore how and why American researchers hoped to use radiation to produce new commercial plant varieties. Curry’s innovative approach to the history of biotechnology deserves a wide audience among historians of science, technology, and medicine.”
Karen Rader, Virginia Commonwealth University
“Curry offers a fascinating historical journey through the American scientific and social worlds of induced-mutation work. Through extensive research, she convincingly establishes that biologists’ obsession with plant mutation breeding did not begin with molecular biology and recombinant DNA but, rather, with the tools of chemical mutagenesis and radiobiology. Her lively account resurrects unknown actors, important institutional contexts, and forgotten cultural fads, and her thoughtful consideration of the successes and failures of their collective scientific endeavors provides some much-needed historical context for current ethical and policy debates over genetic engineering. Evolution Made to Order is a narrative account that is both accessible and scholarly. It makes an important contribution to the historiographies of biology and technology, and treats with appropriate parity the roles of its scientific and amateur historical actors. It is, in a word, brilliant.”
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