Bateson, William

views updated May 23 2018


(b. Whitby, England, 8 August 1861; d. Merton, London, 8 February 1926)

embryology, genetics. For the original article on Bateson see DSB, vol. 1.

Since the mid-1970s the increasing attention given to the history of genetics has brought fresh studies on Bateson. A growing interest in the history of scientific institutions and the funding of research has also led to further studies of Bateson’s unusual career. A detailed account is now available of his efforts to gain financial and institutional support in Cambridge and to harness the willing hands of the young women of Newnham College, and of his role as the first director of the John Innes Horticultural Institute at Merton. The discovery in 1983 of homeobox genes that control body plans, and the abrupt alterations to those plans caused by mutations among these genes, is a reminder of the examples of just such mutants described by Bateson in 1894. The manner in which genetics and embryology come together in the homeobox helps us to appreciate the undercurrent of embryological thinking in Bateson’s conception of variability and genetics.

Variations. The first phase of Bateson’s research—using embryology to reveal phylogeny—formed a part of the research program pursued in Cambridge University’s zoology department. His decision to terminate such work can be viewed within the broad context of what Peter Bowler has called the period of “The Eclipse of Darwinism.” Skepticism concerning the role of natural selection had been opening the way to suggestions of the internal source of adaptive variation, a scenario in which natural selection seemed unlikely to have played a creative role. Bateson next turned to variation, calling it “the essential phenomenon of evolution” (Materials, 1894, p. 6). To this new agenda he brought what embryology had taught him: the importance of symmetry in the organization of living things, and the repetition of parts, or “meristic” variation, as he called it, and the substitution of parts, or “homeotic” variation. Then there were variations in “the substance of the parts themselves”; he called these “substantive” variations. The first class of variations invited analysis in terms of patterns of cell division leading to radial and bilateral symmetries. The second suggested the appeal to chemistry—ferments producing pigments that color eyes, flowers, and skin.

Bateson’s enthusiastic study of these variations led to the 600-page Materials for the Study of Variation (1894). The subtitle Treated with Especial Regard to Discontinuity in the Origin of Species announced the message of the book. It was diametrically opposed to the continuity of variation assumed by the Darwinians. But his travels to Russia and Egypt in search of discontinuities in the environment that match discontinuities between species ;proved fruitless. Henceforth he decided that the distinctiveness of species—their discontinuity—was not to be attributed to natural selection having eliminated intermediate forms from a continuously varying population, but to the discontinuity of the variations themselves. Therefore he set out to establish the extent of discontinuity in variation, compiling a long catalog of examples that fill the twenty-one chapters of Materials, from extra antennae, legs, and palpi in insects to supernumerary digits, hands, feet, teeth, and teats in humans. He even reported one case of an insect with an extra antenna issuing from one of its eyes (Materials, fig. 19, p. 151). The discontinuity of such variations, he reasoned, should be manifest in their non-blending character when crossbred. Accordingly, he concluded the book with an appeal for “the organization of systematic experiments in breeding, a class of research that, he judged, calls for more patience and more resources than any other form of biological inquiry” (p. 574).

In 1895 he began such a program, and was soon able to draw on assistance from the women of Newnham College. Here Marsha Richmond’s account of their assistance to Bateson has filled a gap in accounts of Bateson’s informal network of Cambridge researchers. Bateson suggested or assigned breeding experiments: Veronica to Dora Pertz; Mendel’s peas to Hilda Blanch Kilby; Lathyrus to Mary Hart-Davis; Antirrhinum to Muriel Wheldale; mice to his sister-in-law, Florence Durham; and canaries to her and Dorothea Charlotte Edith Marryat. Two events that encouraged this support were the failure of the campaign for degrees for women in 1897 and the ensuing exclusion of women from the Morphological Laboratory and from beginning courses in biology (Richmond, 2001, p. 64). Richmond has also described the important role played by Edith Rebecca Saunders as Bateson’s first and longest-serving collaborator from 1895 until 1910. Only when Bateson began to deputize for Professor Alfred Newton in 1899 did he gain followers among the male students, starting with Reginald Crundell Punnett in 1904, followed by Leonard Doncaster, Robert Lock, and Reginald Philip Gregory.

Promotion of the Mendelian Program. Bateson’s experience in crossbreeding prepared him to take the lead in 1900 in promoting in the English-speaking world the work of Gregor Mendel and his rediscoverers. Bateson first read about what became known as Mendelian segregation in the offspring of hybrids (F2) when Hugo de Vries sent him his first paper on the subject, published in the Comptes rendus de l’Académie des Science. Here de Vries made no mention of Mendel. Evidence has been presented to claim that this was the paper that Bateson read while traveling to London to give his lecture “Problems of Heredity.” The report of this lecture written by the

respected Dr. Maxwell Masters and published in the Gardeners’ Chronicle four days later also makes no mention of Mendel. Indeed, it appears that Bateson presented Hugo de Vries’s results as modifications of Galton’s law because he was incorporating De Vries’s results into the Galtonian framework of the talk he had prepared (Olby, 1987). This is hardly surprising, for as early as 1897 Galton had suggested how his ancestral law could be applied to non-blending characters, using data from the pedigree of basset hounds. Instead of considering ancestral contributions to offspring to be blended in each individual, he pictured them as being distributed in pure form to members of the offspring, in proportions conforming to the ancestral law, not unlike the effects of Mendelian segregation (Galton, 1897; see also Pearson, 1900). Only on his return to Cambridge did Bateson see De Vries’s second, more detailed paper in which Mendel’s work is acknowledged. Only then did he possess the information leading him to the 1865 volume of the Verhandlungen der Naturforschenden Vereines in Brünn in the Cambridge University Library.

Bateson had turned to crossbreeding experiments in order to establish that new variations, providing they were of a discontinuous character, would not be swamped by crossing with the normal form. Mendel’s paper then provided him with an explanation of the underlying stochastic process at the level of the germ cells. For Bateson, Mendel’s essential discovery was “the purity of the gametes.” Bateson’s insistence on the significance for evolution of discontinuous variations thus became attached to the Mendelian theory, a situation that guaranteed opposition to Mendelism from Darwinians. The infamous controversy between Mendelians and Darwinian biometricians that followed has been the subject of much interest, especially because Donald Mackenzie and S. Barry Barnes attempted a sociological analysis of the controversy. Bateson’s success in taking control of the Royal Society Evolution Committee in 1897—and hence gaining access to Royal Society grants for his research— undoubtedly embittered the biometricians, but it gave Bateson the resources to continue and expand his breeding studies.

Meanwhile, during the fourteen years in which Bateson carried out breeding experiments in Cambridge, apart from the award of the Balfour studentship to his collaborator, Reginald Crundall Punnett, he received no research funds from the university or from any of its associated funding bodies. In 1903, however, Bateson’s friend, Christina J. Herringham, the well-known copyist of Italian masters and wife of the Wimpole Street consultant Sir Wilmot Parker Herringham, offered to furnish the funds needed so that Bateson would be able to pay a salary for an assistant. Two years later Francis Darwin and his brothers supplied funds, enabling Bateson to have a greenhouse

constructed for the hybridization of tender plants. Any other financial support came from outside Cambridge.

In 1907 Bateson spent three months in the United States and gave the Silliman Lectures at Yale University that October. The warm reception that greeted him there raised his self-esteem, but he was not prepared when, on his return to Cambridge, the University offered him not a chair but a readership, and in zoology, not genetics. Although he was persuaded to accept, shortly thereafter a member of the University offered the funds to establish and support for five years a chair of biology that was clearly intended for Bateson. In June 1908 he was elected. The duty of the professor would be to “teach and make researches in that branch of biology now entitled Genetics (Heredity and Variation)” (B. Bateson, p. 112). Bateson now had the status and salary worthy of his achievements and international reputation, but the chair carried no funds for research, and its future after the five years was not assured. A year later, when Bateson learned of the plans for a Horticultural Institution funded by the late John Innes and of the appeal for applications for the post of director, he did not apply. On the twelve-member advisory Council for the Trust, however, were five of Bateson’s friends. Passing over two of Bateson’s excellent former coworkers—Gregory and Lock—they opened negotiations with him. Responding positively, he substantially modified the Council’s plan for the Institute, and on these terms he accepted the position. In 1910, after forty-nine years in Cambridge, he left to begin a new life.

Move to Merton. During the early years at Merton, Bateson was occupied with establishing his staff and instituting his research program. Across the ocean, Thomas Hunt Morgan, Arthur H. Sturtevant, Calvin B. Bridges, and Herman J. Muller were breeding fruit flies (Drosophila) and exploring the relation between heredity and the chromosomes. Their book, The Mechanism of Mendelian Heredity(1915), established the chromosomes as the bearers of the Mendelian factors or genes. As William Coleman has already explained, Bateson vigorously opposed it. For him the fundamental process underlying heredity and development was cell division, not chromosomes. The association of particular Mendelian factors he attributed to differential rates of “reduplication” of the gametes carrying those factors, rather than to the position of the factors close together on the same chromosome. Mechanistic theory he did support, but not the conjectured structural complexities of cell organelles, which at the time were only clearly distinguished with the magic of staining techniques. Nor could he ignore the problems posed by the theory. How can the chromosomes control differentiation if each cell has the same complement? Should not the chromosomes of cells in different tissues differ? And why did the number of chromosomes in different species not vary in accordance with the degree of complexity of the species?

Seven years after the publication of The Mechanism of Mendelian Heredity, Bateson visited Morgan’s laboratory at Columbia University and withdrew his opposition to their theory. Addressing the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Toronto, Bateson declared: “I come at this Christmas season to lay my respectful homage before the stars that have arisen in the west … The arguments of Morgan and his colleagues, and especially the demonstrations of Bridges, must allay all skepticism as to the direct association of particular chromosomes with particular features of the zygote” (B. Bateson, p. 392).

When Bateson retired from the John Innes Horticultural Institute (JIHI) in 1926 he could take special credit for the new knowledge gained concerning compatibility and incompatibility between varieties of apples, pears, plums, and cherries; his work, however, could easily give the impression of a piecemeal collection of studies lacking a clear focus. Actually, Bateson’s several projects—on double flowers, rogue peas, and plant chimeras—were aimed at demonstrating segregation without meiosis. He was following his own advice to “treasure your exceptions.” Such a strategy during his early years of working on Mendel’s laws had revealed one exception after another. Pursuing them had led to his discovery of gene interaction: epistasis and hypostasis, “coupling” (i.e., linkage), differing expressions of dominance, as in sex determination, and much else. Many of these research topics were natural choices for a horticultural institute and arose out of Bateson’s close connections with the Royal Horticultural Society and with prominent members of the trade.

Bateson had succeeded in transferring his researches from Cambridge to Merton, but unlike Morgan, he had neither built up a team of researchers at Merton, nor had he attracted colleagues of the caliber of Bridges and Muller. In altering the Council’s plan, he had abolished the four well-paid positions recommended by Council, choosing instead to offer minor grants to students, some at £50 per year, intended chiefly for “women students who wish to devote themselves to research in various fields but can scarcely afford to earn nothing at all” (Olby, 1989,

p. 506). Cyril Dean Darlington, a future director of the JIHI, began working there without pay, as did the mycologist Dorothy Cayley. On his retirement, Bateson expressed his regret that he had not achieved more at the JIHI. “When the centre of chief interest in genetics shifted away from work of my type to that of the American group,” he wrote, “I was already too old and too much fixed in my ideas to become master of so very new and intricate a development” (p. 507).

Shortly after he became established at the JIHI, Bateson was surprised to be invited back to Cambridge. This invitation resulted from the concern of former prime minister Arthur Balfour, who wished to see genetics properly established at Cambridge and thus took the lead in seeking funds for a chair of genetics there. Aided by Lord Esher and encouraged by Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, a benefactor was found: William George Watson, of the Maypole Dairy company (Opitz, 2005). In 1912, at Balfour’s instigation, the chair was offered to Bateson; by this time, however, he felt well settled at Merton and declined. The call from Cambridge, supported by two prime ministers, speaks to the reputation Bateson had acquired since the early years when the Cambridge Darwinians viewed him as a dissident member of their community who sniped at their work, often in a scornful tone.

Honors. Bateson’s work was recognized by the Royal Society with the award of the Darwin Medal in 1904, the Royal Medal in 1923, and he was the Society’s Croonian lecturer in 1920. The Royal Horticultural Society awarded him the Victoria Medal in 1911 and the Royal Institution elected him Fullerian Professor (1912-1915). At a national level he served in 1912 as chairman of Lloyd George’s important Development Commission and ten years later he was offered a Knighthood which he declined. In 1910 he received an honorary degree from Sheffield University and became an Honorary Fellow of his Cambridge College, St. John's.


Originals and copies of Bateson’s correspondence and papers (1883-1929) are preserved and cataloged at the John Innes Archive, The John Innes Center, Norwich, United Kingdom (Originally the John Innes Horticultural Institution). The originals of part of this large collection are held in the archives of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, and at Cambridge University Library. A small collection of Bateson Family Papers 1829–1921 is held at the American Philosophical Society.


Materials for the Study of Variation, Treated with Especial Regard for the Study of Variation. London and New York: Macmillan, 1894. Cited as Materials.

Problems of Genetics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1913. Reprinted in the Silliman Milestones in Science series, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979.


Bateson, Beatrice. William Bateson, F.R.S.: His Essays and Addresses together with a Short Account of His Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1928. Cited as “B. Bateson.”

Bowler, Peter. The Eclipse of Darwinism: AntiDarwinian Evolution Theories in the Decades around 1900. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

Cock, Alan. “William Bateson’s Rejection and Eventual Acceptance of Chromosome Theory.” Annals of Science40 (1983): 19–59.

Galton, Francis. “The Average Contribution of Each Several Ancestor to the Total Heritage of the Offspring.” Proceedings of the Royal Society 61 (1897): 403.

Henig, Robin M. The Monk in the Garden: The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel, the Father of Genetics. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Lipset, David. Gregory Bateson: The Legacy of a Scientist. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1980.

Mackenzie, Donald, and S. Barry Barnes. “Biometriker versus Mendelianer. Eine Kontroverse und ihre Erklarung.” Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie(1975)

Sonderheft 13, section iv, pp. 165–196, and an abbreviated account: “Scientific Judgement: The Biometry-Mendelism Controversy,” in Natural Order: Historical Studies of Scientific Culture, edited by S. B. Barnes and Steven Shapin. Beverly Hills and London: Sage Publications, 1979.

Morgan, Thomas Hunt; A. H. Sturtevant; H. J. Muller; and C. B. Bridges. The Mechanism of Mendelian Heredity. New York: Henry Holt, 1915.

Olby, Robert. “William Bateson’s Introduction of Mendelism to England: A Reassessment.” British Journal for the History of Science 20 (1987): 399–420.

;——. “Scientists and Bureaucrats in the Establishment of the John Innes Horticultural Institution under William Bateson.” Annals of Science 46 (1989): 497–510.

——. “The Dimensions of Scientific Controversy: The Biometric-Mendelian Debate.” British Journal for the History of Science22 (1988): 299–320. Critiques Mackenzie and Barnes.

——. “Horticulture: The Font for the Baptism of Genetics.” Nature Reviews Genetics1 (2000): 65–70.

——. “The Monk in the Garden” by Robert Henig. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine45 (2002): 142–145. Book review.

Opitz, Donald L. “‘No Doubtful or Uncertain Enterprise’ Balfour, Bateson, and Britain’s First Chair of Genetics at Cambridge, 1894–1914.” History of Science Society Meeting, Minneapolis, MN, 3–6 November 2005.

Pearson, Karl. “Mathematical Contributions to the Theory of Evolution—on the Law of Reversion.” Proceedings of the Royal Society66 (1900): 141.

Richmond, Marsha L. “Women in the Early History of Genetics: William Bateson and the Newnham College Mendelians, 1900–1910.” Isis92 (2001): 55–90.

;——. “The ‘Domestication’ of Heredity: The Familial Organization of Geneticists at Cambridge, 1895–1910.” Journal of the History of Biology 37 (2004): 1–41.

Robert C. Olby

William Bateson

views updated May 18 2018

William Bateson

William Bateson (1861-1926), an English biologist, was mainly concerned with evolutionary questions. His dissatisfaction with traditional Darwinian arguments about life's history led him to a career study of heredity and variation.

Under Darwin's influence, biologists of the last four decades of the 19th century turned their attention largely toward studies of the history of life. Using description and comparison of the structure and developmental characteristics of organisms as their primary tools they sought to delineate the basic life forms. Their second task was to determine variations from these forms and relationships amoung variations. Above all, they desired to reconstruct the lineage of all species. William Bateson directed his career toward a solution of the problems Charles Darwin could not answer.

Bateson was born on August 8, 1861. His father was a classics scholar and master of St. John's College, Cambridge. As a boy he showed mild interest in nature and demonstrated fair knowledge in natural history. His marks in science were encouraging, but few recognized his latent skill in this field. His father did not favor the pursuit of natural science. In this setting Bateson was described as "a vague and aimless boy."

When Bateson entered St. John's College in 1879 he experienced his first academic success and gained direction in science. In 1882 he won an honors examination, the Natural Science Tripos, and later gained a college scholarship. These successes led him to focus on biology. Adam Sedgwick and W. F. R. Weldon, renowned Cambridge scientists, contributed significantly to Bateson's knowledge and early understanding of biology.

The Iconoclast—Early Career

Bateson's first professional scientific work was done in the spirit of traditional biology. Study for the Natural Science Tripos introduced him to the acorn worm Balanoglossus. Little was known about the life history ofBalanoglossus, and Bateson wished to explore the possibility of its relation to the vertebrates. After two summers of study (1883 and 1884) under W. K. Brooks in America, Bateson published papers arguing for the position of Balanoglossusas a primitive chordate. Through this work he gained initial recognition as a biologist, and it led to his election as a Fellow of St. John's College (1885).

A seed of dissent was also found in Bateson's earliest professional work. While the Balanoglossus studies followed traditional biology in method and goal, Bateson weighted the evidence differently than did his forerunners and suggested a reorganization of the tree of phylogeny. Brooks had encouraged Bateson to view critically the conclusions about phylogeny reached through comparative studies in anatomy and embryology. Bateson came to regard these conclusions as speculative, not capable of being tested. Instead he gained an appreciation of experimental studies in heredity and variation.

In subsequent years Bateson became an outspoken critic of traditional biology. While he demanded high scientific standards for his own work and other's, his ideas were not popular, and he repeatedly failed to gain teaching appointments. His research during the early years of his career was meagerly funded through lectures and temporary fellowships, such as the Balfour Studentship, which he received in 1887.

Bateson's own program of research included rigorous experimentation and the extensive collection of facts. Through a survey of information acquired in this manner and the application of inductive reasoning, one could, Bateson believed, reach firm scientific conclusions. From 1886 to 1894 his work centered on the collection of information on variation in animals. His observation of discontinuity between species led him to believe that evolution does not take place through the selection of individuals possessing tiny, but advantageous, variations (Darwin's view). Instead, he believed that evolution, particularly the origin of a new species, takes place by great leaps in variation (hence the term discontinuous). This view was expressed in Materials for the Study of Variation (1894), a book that many regard as Bateson's best.

After ruling out the selective power of the environment as the driving factor in evolution, Bateson proposed that evolution can be understood through a study of inheritance which would, he expected, reveal the origin of variation— the phenomenon underlying evolutionary change. During the following years Bateson began an ambitious program of breeding experiments. He wished to know exactly the nature of the transmission of characteristics from parent to offspring. This understood, he could investigate errors in transmission—in short, he could study variation.

Bateson and the Discovery of Mendel

Through his work on heredity and variation, Bateson became peculiarly well suited to recognize the significance of Gregor Mendel's work. First published in 1866 and then forgotten, this work on the inheritance of characters in garden peas was discovered by Hugo De Vries in 1900. Bateson soon also read the republished paper and immediately advanced the view to students and colleagues. To his dismay, however, his former teacher and a bastion of scientific opinion in England, W. F. R. Weldon, reviewed Mendel's work and denied it any significance. Fearing that Mendel's view would be lost for a second time, Bateson formulated a vigorous defense that initiated a bitter controversy but ensured that Mendel would not easily be forgotten.

For Bateson, Mendel's view provided an answer to some vexing biological questions. First, it accorded well with a view supporting discontinuity of variation and, Bateson believed, solved the controversy about whether variation was continuous or discontinuous. Second, it proposed a hereditary unity underlying particular characters— a unity that is retained regardless of combination with other characters and maintained as a hereditary factor even if not manifested in visible character. Thus it answered the question of how a variation could remain distinct when the variable organism bred back into a large population of the normal type. Mendel's view also provided an experimental and quantitative method by which discrete characters could be followed through generations—a rigor that appealed to Bateson. It was, in fact, a principle that organized and explained all Bateson's preconceptions about the nature of organisms and evolution.

Mendelism also provided Bateson with hope for a union between his scientific conceptions and the mainstream of biological opinion. During the ten years following his discovery of Mendel, Bateson became the foremost proselytizer for the Mendelian view. In this task he met considerable success. Genetics, a term that Bateson himself applied to the study of heredity and variation, became a prodigious and respectable pursuit. Bateson subsequently gained serious and highly qualified students, among whom were R. C. Punnett, E. R. Saunders, and L. Doncaster. These students aided him in his most commonly remembered scientific achievements—the demonstration of Mendelian phenomena in animals, a determination of the distribution of hereditary factors that had initially been thought to be anomolous to the Mendelian view, and the discovery of the tendency for factors to be inherited in groups (the phenomenon later called linkage).

These achievements led to numerous honors and improvements in Bateson's academic position. In 1907 he was invited to give a series of lectures at Yale—the Silliman Lectures, published in 1913 as Problems in Genetics. In 1910 Bateson became director of the John Innes Horticultural Institution at Merton. There he continued his research and writing, but he slowly slipped from his leading role in biology.

The Conservative Period

Genetics acquired a distinctly materialistic bent in the second decade of the 20th century. Researchers at Columbia University under T. H. Morgan moved the field with their chromosome theory of inheritance. They proposed that the factors of inheritance—genes—were material units arranged serially on the chromosomes. Recognizing that they lacked the sophistication to investigate the manner by which these proposed material factors were translated into visible characters, these researchers limited their investigation to the transmission of characters from one generation to the next. Studies of the frequencies at which factors were inherited together led to a positioning of factors on chromosomes. In essence, a genetic map was created.

Results from Columbia were impressive and convinced most biologists of the accuracy of the chromosome theory. Bateson was, however, philosophically oriented against a materialistic position. He believed that substance alone possessed no capacity to reproduce and manifest itself in a visible character. On the contrary, forces—waves, for example—by causing similar arrangements of substance could be the hereditary factors. This, applied to development, could explain the repetition of body parts or, applied to inheritance, could explain why offspring were similar to parents. Even variation was regarded by Bateson not as a change in substance, but as a change in arrangement brought on by a change in force or motion during development. Thus, for Bateson, inheritance and development were intimately bound. This union was ignored by Morgan and his colleagues. While they made great strides in characterizing inheritance, their refusal to deal with development indicated, Bateson believed, the weakness of their theory.

Few biologists shared Bateson's suspicion of materialism. That evidence for the chromosome theory was circumstantial did not bother them as it bothered Bateson. While Bateson called for a demonstration that material units on chromosomes gave rise to inheritable characters, they were satisfied that linkage groups correlated well with chromosome number—this correlation was the strongest evidence the Columbia group could initially produce for the chromosome theory. It was a popular theory, however, and it became more popular as the evidence mounted in its favor. Oriented against this trend, Bateson once again found himself critic of prevailing biological thought.

Despite failing health, Bateson continued his research at the John Innes Horticultural Institution until his death in 1926. In addition, he continued his lifelong avocation, the collection of art. His election as a trustee of the British Museum was related to the knowledge gained through this avocation. This final honor pleased him greatly and topped his impressive list, which included the Darwin Medal (1904), election as president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1914), and the Royal Medal (1920).

Further Reading

The most comprehensive biography of Bateson is the memoir by his wife, Beatrice Bateson. It includes samples of his letters and is found in the book William Bateson, F. R. S. Naturalist (1928, 1985), which also contains numerous papers and addresses by Bateson. Other biographical sources are William Coleman's article in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography and "William Bateson" by his student R. C. Punnett (Edinburgh Review, 1926). Lindley Darden gives a perceptive analysis of Bateson's adoption of the Mendelian view in "William Bateson and the Promise of Mendelism, " Journal of the History of Biology (1977), and A. G. Cock writes about Bateson's breeding experiments, discusses Bateson's conflicts with the conservative factions of English biology, and characterizes Bateson's approach to scientific investigation in "William Bateson, Mendelism and Biometry, " Journal of the History of Biology (1973). "Bateson and Chromosomes: Conservative Thought in Science, " Centaurus (1970) is a lengthy article by William Coleman on the factors which contributed to Bateson's rejection of chromosome theory. For a general study of biology during this period, see Garland Allen, Life Science in the Twentieth Century (1975). □

Bateson, William

views updated Jun 11 2018

Bateson, William

(b. Whitby, England, 8 August 1861; d. Merton, London, England, 8 February 1926)

morphology, genetics.

Bateson was the son of William Henry and Anna Aiken Bateson, His father, as classical scholar, had become master of St, John’s College, Cambridge (1857), and Bateson lived in that university town until 1910. In that year he moved to London and remained there until his death.

Marked as “a vague and aimless boy” while at Rugby, Bateson confounded the doubters by taking first-class honors in the natural science tripos at Cambridge, from which he received the B.A. in 1883, A student and later (1885–1910) a fellow of St,. John’s College, his interest early came to focus on zoology and morphology. Contributing largely to his scientific development were A. Sedgwick and W. F. R. Weldon at Cambridge and, while he was in Maryland and Virginia during 1883 and 1884, W. K. Brooks at Johns Hopkins. Bateson was ill-trained in physics and chemistry and knew virtually no mathematics. His abilities as a classicist were outstanding.

Bateson’s career may be divided into three periods. During the first period (1883–1900) he turned from orthodox embryological Darwinizing to the rigorous study of heredity and variation. Dissatisfied with old truths, he was seeking a new approach to evolutionary studies. His views were distinctly out of favor with conventional zoologists, and he won no regular university teaching appointments. Bateson’s Mendelian period opened in 1900 and continued until about 1915. His contributions toward the establishment of the Mendelian conception of heredity and variation were enormous, and he finally began to harvest popular and professional esteem. The third period (ca. 1915–1926) reintroduced the discordant element. Bateson continually attacked the new glory, chromosome theory, and concentrated upon problems of somatic segregation. Once a radical, furiously disturbing his zoological elders, he now seemed conservative. His science, genetics (so named by Bateson in 1905–1906), turned largely toward chromosomes and genes. As a result, Bateson, who had been a central figure, became isolated from current developments.

Bateson received the Balfour Studentship at Cambridge in 1887. His other Cambridge positions included deputy in zoology to Alfred Newton in 1899, reader in zoology in 1907, and finally professor of genetics in 1908. His was the first such chair in Britain. In 1910 he became the first director of the John Innes Horticultural Institution, then at Merton. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1894 and belonged to numerous other societies. Among his many honors were the Darwin Medal (1904), presidency of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1914), the Royal Medal (1920), and election as a trustee of the British Museum (1922).

Bateson’s Cambridge training had emphasized genealogical reconstruction. Such work promised the recovery of a generalized view of the history of life, but it could tell very little about how such great changes had actually come to pass. True progress in evolutionary studies must, Bateson believed, reject customary phylogenetic ambitions and turn to the process wherein evolutionary novelty emerges, that is, the phenomena of heredity and, particularly, variation. From about 1887 such detailed investigation dominated Bateson’s activity. He searched the literature and began experimental hybridization, demanding exact knowledge of the transmission of heritable features from parent to immediate offspring. Then, in May 1900, he read Mendel’s report of 1866 on breeding experiments with peas.

The rediscovery of Mendel’s work transformed Bateson’s career. He reinterpreted experimental data already available in Mendelian terms. Simultaneously with L. Cuénot he proved that Mendelian behavior holds for animals as well as plants. His research group, which included R. C. Punnett, E. R. Saunders, and L. Doncaster, demonstrated the existence of epistatic modifications of simple Mendelian ratios and the phenomena of reversion and (as it was subsequently designated) linkage. As spokesman for the new discipline Bateson knew no peer, yet his work was financed with great difficulty and only by personal funds, private gifts, and the Evolution Committee of the Royal Society. Reports to the latter body were the main vehicle of Mendelian publication in Britain until Bateson and Punnett began the Journal of Genetics in 1910.

Behind all technical achievements persisted Bateson’s concern for the “salt of biology,” evolution theory, and its indispensable adjunct, the determinative mechanism(s) of inheritance. The chromosome theory of inheritance, rising from bare enunciation in 1902 to evident triumph around 1920, offered a formed, material element in the cell nucleus as the agent of heredity. But Bateson demanded a direct—indeed, a visible—correlation between any chromosome and consequent bodily feature, and her found none. Moreover, chromosome theory was patently materialistic, and this, for numerous and complex reasons, he could not tolerate. In place of the chromosome theory Bateson devised an ostensibly nonmaterialistic vibratory theory of inheritance, founded on force and motion. This theory and the phenomena that appeared consistent with it (especially plant variegation) were utterly unacceptable to most geneticists, and in its defense Bateson became increasingly an advocate without adversaries. Significant discussion of his views largely disappeared from leading genetics journals.

An ardent evolutionist, Bateson vigorously opposed the doctrine of natural selection. Like Fleeming Jenkin and St. G. Mivart, he failed to see how few and slight variations, the raw material for Darwinian selection, could be truly useful. He rejected the entire “utility” aspect of orthodox Darwinism. What, then, could be the source of undeniable evolutionary change? The answer was found in the organismic quality of any significant biological variation. Genuine evolutionary novelty was, therefore, not the product of gradual accumulation of seemingly trivial variations but the consequence of saltatory or major modifications. Variation was the driving force of evolutionary change, and Bateson always hoped to find its explanation in his vibratory theory of heredity. Perhaps the disputatious Bateson’s most famous public battle was against the biometrical school led by W. F. R. Weldon and Karl Pearson. At issue was the nature of evolutionary change and how it might best be studied. Bateson emphasized the imprecision in individual instances of statistical analyses and decried the biometricians’ ardent defense of natural selection. In straightforward Mendelism he found both support for evolutionary discontinuities and a dependable experimental approach to matters of descent.

Bateson’s broad interests and remarkable personality greatly influenced his scientific thought. A man of deep and well-cultivated aesthetic sensibilities (he was a major collector of Oriental works of art and the creations of William Blake), he despaired before the harsh spiritual and economic realities of late Victorian England. He was at once a radical empiricist, wanting his facts absolutely secure, and a rather unconscious intuitionist. From his intuition, fed by insights taken from transcedental morphology, he developed his conception of the functionally integral organism. The same view informs his conception of human society, in which an intellectual elite is struggling desperately against a rising and insensitive middle-class horde bent on leveling all men to their own mediocrity. To Bateson this was not life, but mere existence. This complex of ideas and intuitions set Bateson firmly against utilitarian rationalism and its near neighbor, materialism. In natural selection and the chromosome theory he saw both at work, and would have none of them.


I. Original Works. With few and unimportant exceptions Bateson’s scientific contributions were collected and reissued by R. C. Punnett as Scientific Papers of William Bateson, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1928). His often remarkable general biological and social essays are available in B. Bateson, ed., William Bateson, F.R.S. Naturalist. His Essays and Addresses (Cambridge, 1928). Bateson’s major publications are Materials for the Study of Variation Treated with Especial Regard to Discontinuity in the Orgin of Species (London, 1894); Reports to the Evolution Committee of the Royal Society, I–V (London, 1902–1909); Mendel’s Priniciples of Heredity. A Defence (Cambridge, 1902); Mendel’s Principles of Heredity (Cambridge, 1909, 1913); and Problems of Genetics (New Haven, 1913). Punnettt has provided a bibliography of Bateson’s writings in Scientific Papers, II 487–494.

The Bateson papers, in the possession of his family, constitute an extensive and exceptionally valuable archive. A comprehensive selection of scientific items from this collection has been microfilmed (a copy is deposited in the Library of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia) and roughly catalogued. All aspects of Bateson’s career are represented, including his large and interesting correspondence, unpublished speculative essays, and abundant documentation to published works. These papers are described in The Mendel Newsletter, no. 2 (Philadelphia, 1968). Lesser collections of Bateson MSS are held by the John Innes Institute (to join the University of East Anglia, Norwich, ca. 1970), the Royal Society of London, and the American Philosophical Society.

II. Secondary Literature. The principal biographical source is B. Bateson, “Memoir,” in William Bateson, F.R.S. Naturalist, pp. 1–160. Other notice, particularly concerned with his scientific endeavor, are R. C. Punnett, “William Bateson,” in Edinburgh Review, 244 (1926). 71–86; and T. H. Morgan, “William Bateson,” in Science, 63 (1926), 531’535. See also O. Renner, “William Bateson and Carl Correns,” in Sitzungsberichte der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, Mathematische-naturwissenschaftliche Klasse, 6 (1960–1961), 159–184; L. C. Dunn, A Short History of Gentics (New York, 1965), pp. 55–87; and C. D. Darlington, The Facts of Life (London, 1953), pp. 95–116. An excellent discussion of Bateson’s peculiar later conception of the heredity mechanism is R. C. Swinburne, “The Presence-and-Absence Theory,” in Annals of Science, 18 (1962), 131–145. Bateson’s refusal to pursue phylogenetic reconstruction is recorded in W. Coleman, “On Bateson’s Motives for Studying Variation,” in Actes du XIeCongrès International d’Histoire des Sciences, V (Warsaw-Cracow, 1968), 335–339.

William Coleman

William Bateson

views updated May 29 2018

William Bateson


English Biologist

William Bateson was one of the scientists who, at the turn of the twentieth century, expanded the views of evolution and helped to describe the force of heredity and variation. He promoted the ideas contained in the newly rediscovered paper by Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) about inheritance of characters, and applied those ideas to Darwinian evolution. Bateson also coined the term "genetics," and conducted a wide range of experiments that broadened understanding in this area.

Bateson was born on August 8, 1861, in Whitby, Yorkshire, England. Throughout his childhood, he maintained a limited interest in the natural world, considerably different from his father, who was a classics scholar at St. John's College in Cambridge. The young Bateson enrolled at St. John's in 1879. His childhood interests came to the forefront three years later when he won an honors examination in the natural sciences. While studying for that test, he became intrigued by the acorn worm, an elongate marine animal, and spent the next two summers in America studying whether it was actually a primitive chordate. (Current classification places it under the phylum Hemichordata, which has some of the characteristics of chordates but lacks a notochord.) After publishing his research, he earned a position as a fellow at St. John's College in 1885.

Bateson's investigations of the acorn worm led him to challenge the then-current biological thought, going so far as to dispute the accepted phylogeny of organisms, which he felt lacked sufficient scientific evidence to back it up. These controversial views stalled his career a bit, but by 1908, he had accepted the position of professor of biology at Cambridge University. In 1910 he became director of the John Innes Horticultural Institution at Merton Park in Surrey, England, a position he held for the rest of his life. In 1912, he also took a two-year appointment as Fullerian professor of physiology at the Royal Institution.

Through the years, Bateson continued to investigate variation, or the differences between animals, and the role of heredity in that variation. When Mendel's 1866 paper on inheritance in peas resurfaced in 1900, Bateson began to consider whether the inheritance characters Mendel described were at work in animal variation. He felt that these characters, or genes, could explain his view that evolution is discontinuous, or proceeds by sudden jumps, rather than gradual and minute changes as Darwinian evolution proposed. He also felt that Mendel's paper helped explain how some characters—those traits associated with recessive genes—might disappear for a generation or two, then reappear. In all, he believed Mendel's paper, which Bateson ultimately translated into English, filled what he perceived as gaps in the current ideas about evolution.

He continued his studies by conducting a series of experiments in which he discovered that some genes were inherited together. That phenomenon is now known as "linkage," and occurs when certain genes are linearly arranged on the same chromosome. During his work on variation and heredity, Bateson in 1909 introduced the term "genetics" for this dynamic and growing research area. The word quickly caught on.

He continued his studies of variation, frequently challenging widely accepted concepts along the way. He was honored with the Darwin Medal in 1904, and the Royal Medal in 1920. Bateson died on February 8, 1926.


Bateson, William

views updated May 29 2018

Bateson, William (1861–1926) British geneticist, who worked at Cambridge University. In 1900 he translated and championed the rediscovered work of Mendel and went on to study inheritance in chickens, demonstrating Mendelian ratios in the inheritance of comb shapes. He also found that some traits are controlled by more than one gene. In experiments with sweet peas he showed that some traits are inherited together, but he did not accept T. H. Morgan's explanation of linkage to account for this. Bateson coined the term `genetics' (in 1905).

About this article

William Bateson

All Sources -
Updated Aug 18 2018 About content Print Topic