Opposition to Bateson

Sword and scabbard

Opposition before 1926

Walter Frank Raphael Weldon and the Biometricians

Research and Teaching at Cambridge

Edward B. Poulton

Opposition after 1926

R. A. Fisher and L. Darwin

Richard Goldschmidt

Ernst Mayr

H. Ledyard Stebbins, and Richard Dawkins

H. Allen Orr

Robin Marantz Henig

William Coleman

Speciation as a Non-Problem- Dawkins

Steven Jay Gould

While opposition to Bateson occurred during his lifetime, a not unusual phenomenon in human affairs, it is of note that the opposition continued long after his death in 1926. Indeed, opposition seemed to increase as the 20th century progressed, reaching an apparent apogee in 1996 when an article entitled "Dobzhansky, Bateson and the Genetics of Speciation" by H. Allen Orr was published in the "Perspectives" section of Genetics, the journal of the Genetics Society of America (144, 1331-1335).


Reginald Punnett (left) joined William Bateson (right) in 1903.

Reginald Punnett and William Bateson 1907

Opposition before 1926

The following is as much of interest for what it does not contain, as for what it contains:

The Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press) had this entry for

Walter Frank Raphael Weldon

W.F.R. Weldon (1860-1906) was born in London on 15 March 1860. In 1867 he matriculated at University College, London, with the intention of qualifying for a medical career. After a year he was transferred to King's College, London. In 1878 he entered St John's College, Cambridge. At Cambridge, Weldon came under the influence of Francis Balfour and abandoned medical studies for zoology.

     In 1881 he obtained a first class degree in the natural sciences. Subsequently he spent a year's research work at the zoological station in Naples. Returning to Cambridge in 1882 he became demonstrator in zoology, fellow of St John's College, and university lecturer in invertebrate morphology. After his marriage in 1883 he and his wife spent their vacation at such resorts as offered the best opportunities for the study of marine zoology. The most important of their expeditions was to the Bahamas in the autumn of 1886. At Plymouth, Weldon worked in the laboratory of the Marine Biological Association. Until 1888 he was engaged on the morphological and embryological studies which seemed to contemporary zoologists to afford the best hope of elucidating the problems of animal evolution.

      In 1889, when Galton's recently published book on natural inheritance came into his hands, he perceived that the statistical methods explained in that book might be extended to the study of animals. He soon undertook a statistical study of the variation of the common shrimp. This study was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. In a second paper, he calculated numerical measures of the degree of inter-relation between two organs or characters in the same individual and tabled them for four local races of shrimps. These two papers were the foundation of that branch of zoological study afterwards known by the name of 'biometrics'.

     Weldon was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1890. In this year he succeeded Professor Sir E. Ray Lankester as Jodrell professor of zoology at University College, London. His tenure of the Jodrell chair (1891-99) was a period of intense activity. A brilliant lecturer and endowed with the power of exciting enthusiasm, Weldon soon attracted a large class, and his association with Professor Karl Pearson led to increased energy in the special line of research which he had initiated. In 1894 Weldon became the secretary of a committee of the Royal Society for conducting statistical inquiries into the measurable characteristics of plants and animals. In 1894, Weldon stated that "the questions raised by the Darwinian hypothesis are purely statistical, and the statistical method is the only one at present obvious by which that hypothesis can be experimentally checked."

    In 1899 Weldon was elected to the Linacre professorship of comparative anatomy at Oxford. Though the Oxford life afforded opportunities for greater intellectual leisure, Weldon disdained to make use of them. He had on hand numerous exacting projects and he tried to deal with them all at once. His leisure hours at Oxford were spent in long bicycle rides, during which he studied the fauna of the neighbourhood. 

    His vacations were spent in journeys to various parts of the continent, where he worked at his statistical calculations and collected material for fresh lines of research. In the Easter vacation of 1906, while he was staying with his wife at an inn at Woolstone, he was attacked by influenza, which on his return to London on 11 April, developed into acute pneumonia. He died in a nursing home on 13 April 1906. He was buried at Holywell, Oxford.

      A Weldon Memorial Prize for the most noteworthy contribution to biometric science was founded at Oxford in 1907.

While the DNB tells us precisely where Weldon fell terminally ill and where we may seek his tomb, there is no mention of his profound opposition, together with his fellow "biometricians" such as Karl Pearson, to Mendel's work.

"Karl Pearson is a biometrician,

And this, I think, is his position,

Bateson and co.,

Hope they may go

To monosyllabic perdition."

N. Mitchison in Haldane and Modern Biology (1969) ed by K. R. Dronamraju

This story is related in:

  •  Beatrice Bateson's "William Bateson, Naturalist," (CUP 1928),

  • Reginald C. Punnett's "Early Days of Genetics" (1950; Heredity 4, 1-10), 

  • William Provine's The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics (1971), 

  • Marsha L. Richmond's "Women in the early history of genetics" (2001; Isis 92, 55-90),

  • My brief biography of William Bateson in the Nature Encyclopaedia of Life Sciences (2001) (Click Here)  

  • The Cock-Forsdyke full biography Treasure Your Exceptions (2008) (Click Here).

The above record from the DNB was obtained from the internet several years ago. The 2004 DNB internet biography has two brief allusions to Bateson, with some indication of the intensity of Weldon's opposition to Mendel:  

"Following a much heated debate initiated by William Bateson on one of Pearson's papers on inheritance at the Royal Society on 15 November 1900, Weldon suggested to Pearson that they start their own journal for papers dealing with matters of statistical biology."

"Weldon's statistical interpretation of Mendel's data led Bateson to publish his fiercely polemical 100-page chapter to 'defend Mendel from Professor Weldon' (W. Bateson, Mendel's Principles of Heredity. A Defence, 1902, viii). Bateson's criticisms seem actively to have discouraged Weldon from adopting virtually any aspect of Bateson's work."

DRF 2007

Research and Teaching at Cambridge

Bateson founded the immensely successful Cambridge School of Genetics against much local opposition and on a shoe-string budget. He was helped by his wife, Caroline Beatrice Durham, and a host of undergraduate and graduate helpers, many of whom were women.

Beatrice Bateson, circa 1925. William Bateson's wife, biographer, research assistant and mother of 3 boys. One son was killed in 1918 in the war. One son committed suicide in 1922. In 1925 William's health was failing. This photograph is from David Lipset's biography with permission of M. C. Bateson
Beatrice Bateson circa 1925

David Lipset in Gregory Bateson: The Legacy of a Scientist (1980) cites one of Bateson's helpers, Nora Barlow (a grand-daughter of Charles Darwin), as evidence that initially Bateson had difficulty even in getting formally to teach Genetics at Cambridge:

"My first introduction to the whole subject ... was when William Bateson was giving what we called his bible class, in a remote lecture room, in the back of one of the colleges. It was outside the ordinary curriculum. It was a five or six o'clock lecture. And there he introduced a small set of people into the elements of the new Genetics. Mendelism was just coming in. ... He was a brilliant lecturer and, of course, he had an entirely new view of ordinary heredity. ... It was very inspiring indeed."


Bateson was the opening speaker at the International Conference on Plant Breeding and Hybridization held in New York in 1902. It was here that he stated:

"We have reason to believe that the chromosomes of the father plant and mother plant, side by side, represent blocks of parental characters."

Many speakers paid tribute to Bateson, as did cytologists such as Guyer, Cannon and Sutton (Click Here). In 1910 he became the first director of the John Innes Institute, then based at Merton in Surrey. This became a centre for studies of the genetics of plants and animals, and received visits from geneticists of many countries. The following photograph shows Bateson with Wilhelm Johannsen from Denmark, who introduced the term "gene" as an "accounting unit" (Rechnungseinheiten). He was Bateson's closest scientific 'soul-mate,' and many of the incorrect criticisms launched at Bateson would also have been launched at Johannsen, had the launchers read Danish or been aware of his English texts. For details see:

Roll-Hansen, N. (2014) The holist tradition in twentieth century genetics. Wilhelm Johannsen's genotype concept. J Physiol 592, 2431-2438.

Roll-Hansen, N. (2014) Johannsen's criticism of the chromosome theory. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 57, 40-56.

Roll-Hansen, N (2014) Wilhelm Johannsen and the problem of heredity at the turn of the 19th century. International Journal of Epidemiology, 2014, 1007-1013.

William Bateson and Johannsen at the John Innes Institute, Merton, Surrey circa 1923 (Queen's University Bateson Archive)

Both J. B. S. Haldane (of "Haldane's rule" fame) and A. E. Garrod (of "inborn errors of metabolism" fame) later acknowledged inspiration from Bateson. In a letter to Penrose (1934) Garrod wrote:

"Hogben in his paper on alkaptanuria has, I think, given me more credit than I am entitled to, seeing that it was Bateson who saw the daylight." (See A. G. Bearn's paper on "Archibald E. Garrod. The Reluctant Geneticist." Genetics May 1994).

Bearn reports that what appears to be the first letter from Garrod to Bateson (11th January 1902) begins:

"It was a great pleasure to receive your letter and to learn that you are interested in the family occurrence of alkaptonuria."

Poulton versus Bateson and Punnett  

The Hope Professor of Zoology at Oxford was also not supportive. Click Here . Much of the 36 page Introduction to his text Essays on Evolution (1908) was devoted to an attack on Bateson and his fellow Mendelians.


Opposition after 1926

R. A. Fisher and L. Darwin

The great pioneer in statistics, biomathematician Ronald Fisher, was guided in his understanding of the biology of evolution by one of Charles Darwin's sons, Major Leonard Darwin. In the course of a long correspondence Darwin wrote (19 Jan. 1929):

Darwin: "As to Bateson, if I had to write, I should write something like the following. But I am not well up in what he did do, and may well blunder ...

'In the future the great merit of Mendelism will be seen to rest on the proof that the ingredients of germ plasm on which heredity depends are located in pairs in each organism, one of each pair selected by chance disappearing at each sexual union. ... The merit for this discovery must mainly rest with Mendel, whilst among our countrymen, Bateson played the leading part in its rediscovery. Unfortunately he was unable to grasp the mathematical and statistical aspects of biology, and from this and other causes, he was not only incapable of framing an evolutionary theory himself, but entirely failed to see how Mendelism supplied the missing parts of the structure first erected by Darwin. Nothing but harm can come from following Bateson in regard to evolution theory, though his name will come to be honoured for his pioneer work in Mendelism when what he failed to do as regards theory has been accomplished.'

Having written it, I daresay I should tear it up, and advise you to do ditto. ..."

Fisher: "Many thanks for the note on Bateson; it puts the point admirably, and though I have already altered the wording somewhat, it seems to me just what was wanted. The only thing to do is to commend Bateson's enthusiasm for genetics, without saying, which would rather comfort my conscience, 'while greatly retarding its progress in his own country.' ... I have just been reading Samuel Butler's Luck or Cunning; what a malignant knave he must have been, yet Bateson borrowed his sneers and quoted his opinions."

(See Natural Selection, Heredity and Eugenics. Edited by J.H. Bennett. 1983. Oxford University Press. pp. 95-96)

At that time Fisher was composing his major work, The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (1930, 1958). Disregarding Darwin's caveat ("But I am not well up in what he did do, and may well blunder") he did not "tear it up." Indeed, he closely followed Darwin's wording. 

    While noting that Bateson "played the leading part" in the "early advocacy of Mendelism," Fisher wrote (p. ix): 

"Unfortunately he was unprepared to recognize the mathematical and statistical aspects of biology, and from this and other causes he was not only incapable of framing an evolutionary theory himself, but entirely failed to see how Mendelism supplied the missing parts of the structure first erected by Darwin. His interpretation of Mendelian facts was from the first too exclusively coloured by his earlier belief in the discontinuous origin of specific forms. Though his influence upon evolutionary theory was thus chiefly retrogressive, the mighty body of Mendelian researches throughout the world has evidently outgrown the fallacies with which it was first fostered. As a pioneer of genetics he has done more than enough to expiate the rash polemics of his earlier writings."

Thus, Fisher, who shortly thereafter was, through statistical analysis, to cast doubt on the soundness of the data of Mendel himself, seemed to have based his attack on Bateson on the words of someone who admitted to not having thoroughly read Bateson's work. To compound the matter, Bateson's first book, Materials for the Study of Variation (1894), was described by Fisher (p. 138) as:

"A work which owed its influence to the acuteness less of its reasoning that of its sarcasm."

Defending Bateson, Alan G. Cock (1973; J. Hist. Biol. 6, 1-36) concluded that "Fisher's criticisms are ... unfair and in large part based on a misunderstanding of Bateson's views." However, even Cock subscribed to the view that "theoretical innovation was not where Bateson's strength lay," basing his case on 

  •  (i) Bateson's incorrect "reduplication" hypothesis for why certain characters were co-inherited or "coupled" (in a linkage group, - later equated with a particular chromosome), and

  •  (ii) a misunderstanding of what Bateson meant by his "presence and absence" hypothesis to explain genetic dominance.

    In his Presidential Address to the 13th International Congress of Genetics (1974; Genetics 78, 21-33), Curt Stern noted that while the reduplication hypothesis "could not beat the [later] competition," nevertheless "it was an ingenious suggestion" to propose that "Mendelian segregation ... occurs during a somatic cell division followed by differential multiplication of the different genotypes." Indeed, some genetic phenomena can be explained along these lines (see Stern's biography of Wilhelm Weinberg (1962; Genetics 47, 1-5).

Richard Goldschmidt

Goldschmidt (1878-1958) thought along similar lines as Bateson, yet he consistently misrepresented Bateson's "presence and absence hypothesis" (concerning genetic dominance). Furthermore, in his last major scientific work, Goldschmidt wrote:

"The continuous variation with which Darwin worked ... became a matter of phenotype, while genetic variation was discontinuous. Such a system makes it rather difficult to lead evolution beyond the reshuffling of mutated genes, that is, limited permutation or variations on the same theme. The early Mendelians felt this rather keenly and assumed a skeptical attitude towards evolutionary speculations, which found its extremest expression in Bateson's Australian address (1914) with the embarrassing idea of evolution by loss of inhibitors."

Theoretical Genetics (1955) University of California Press. p. 478.

You can read the address on these web-pages (Click Here), where you will see that Bateson was merely stating that Mendelian effects can involve the loss of inhibitors, not that evolution as a phenomenon occurs in this fashion.

Ernst Mayr 

Ernst Mayr (1904-2005) was perhaps the most influential, and certainly the most relentless of the disparagers and misrepresenters of William Bateson. There was much celebration of Mayr's 100th birthday, which, at least in one quarter, was considered to overstate his achievements.

"I do not wish to belittle the work of Mayr and the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky - but our impression that they solved the species problem is illusory. They were merely the ones who translated it from the technical literature, enunciating much more clearly than before what had become the prevailing view of species among those who had thought about the problem."

James Mallet, Nature 430, 503

To give Mayr due credit, when considering linear and branching evolution (which he called transformation and diversification, respectively) he acknowledged his debt:

"Although Darwin was aware of this difference ... unfortunately he subsequently did not sufficiently stress the far-reaching independence of these two components of evolution, and this has been the cause of several of the post-Darwinian controversies. Two post-Darwinians, however, made a clear distinction between the two modes. Gulick (1888) used the term monotypic evolution for transformation and polytypic evolution for diversification. Romanes (1897), who adopted Gulick's terminology, also referred to transformation as 'transformation in time' and diversification as 'transformation in space.' Both Gulick and particularly Romanes appreciated that these were two very different components of evolution, an insight that was largely forgotten again after 1897, until Mayr (1942) and others revived it during the evolutionary synthesis."

Mayr 1982. The Growth of Biological Thought

Here is a sampling from a 1973 paper of Mayr (J. Hist. Biol. 6, 125-154):

  • "Certain aspects of evolution ... were consistently misunderstood or ignored by experimental scientists like Bateson and De Vries." (p. 127)

  • "The early hybridizers were completely right and the early Mendelians (Bateson, De Vries and so on) who ignored them and believed the opposite, were quite wrong." (p. 136)

  • "Bateson was pig-headed, intemperate, and intolerant ... uncompromising ... and ... quite incapable of understanding the nature of natural populations ... ." (p. 146)

  • "Bateson was still totally unable to grasp the nature of speciation in his Toronto address of 1922." (P. 147)

  • "Bateson's stubborn resistance to the chromosome theory resulted in much effort by members of the Morgan school that could have been devoted to new frontiers in genetics." (P. 147)

  • "Attempts to refute the power of selection were truly a comedy of errors. Bateson tried to do so ... . None of those who denied the efficiency of selection so insistently bothered to visit the animal breeders ... ." (P. 150)

For Bateson, Mayr and the Thrasybulus principle (Click Here)

    No less strident opposition came from other major figures in evolutionary biology, including H. Ledyard Stebbins, and Richard Dawkins. In The Blind Watchmaker and elsewhere (Click Here), Dawkins, shaking his head in bewilderment, found it "extremely hard for the modern mind to respond ... with anything but mirth" to the quaint ideas of the "mutationists" Bateson and De Vries. 

The above "modern" minds may have mischaracterized and dismissed Bateson, but at least they did not claim he was really on their side. At the turn of the 20th century came the "Bateson, Dobzhansky, Muller model of speciation.

     It is to Dobzhansky's credit that he resurrected the Romanes-Gulick view that reproductive isolation was of paramount importance for speciation, but he held that this reproductive isolation was usually achieved initially by differences in gene products ("genic" isolation), a view also held by H. J. Muller. 

      In "Dobzhansky, Bateson, and the Genetics of Speciation" (1996) H. Allen Orr asserted that:

"William Bateson offered the "Dobzhansky- Muller" model in 1909, just nine years after the rediscovery of Mendelism and a good quarter of a century before Dobzhansky or Muller. And when I say that Bateson offered the model, I do not mean he obliquely alluded to it. Rather, Bateson spells it out, step by step, presenting it as the likely 'secret of interracial sterility'... 

    Those who differ on larger issues, as Dobzhansky and Bateson surely did, can nevertheless arrive at the same conclusion. Recent work on speciation renders this coincidence all the happier: for Bateson and Dobzhansky not only arrived at the same conclusion, but at the right conclusion."

Of course, Dobzhansky and Muller are likely to have read enough of Bateson's writings to know, even if they did not understand him, that he most certainly did not support a genic model for speciation. Thus, they did not cite him in this respect. Orr suggests, however, that the reason they did not cite Bateson was that "neither Dobzhansky nor Muller knew of Bateson's model." Orr believes that "Bateson apparently never repeated his argument." For numerous quotations from Bateson on his non-genic view of speciation. Click Here 

    Sadly, Orr's misinterpretation was further relayed by Stewart Berlocher (1998) in chapter 1 of the multiauthor text Endless Forms. Species and Speciation, and by Jerry Coyne (with Orr) in 1998 in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (353, 287-305). In 2000 the misinterpretation was even dignified with an acronym "BDM," standing for the "Bateson, Dobzhansky, Muller model of speciation" (Lynch and Force. American Naturalist 156, 590-605). 

    By 2001 "BDM" had reached the textbooks. See:


The Evolution of Developmental Pathways by Adam Wilkins, Sinauer Associates 2001; chapter 12, pp. 459-461.

 Fitness Landscapes and The Origin of Species, Princeton Univ. Press 2004, by S. Gavrilets; Part 2, chapters 5, 6 and 7).

 Speciation by J. A. Coyne & H. A. Orr, Sinauer Associates 2004; chapter 7, pp. 269-272. 

 For more: (Click Here)


The BDM "meme" lingered on. When resurrected in Heredity in 2009 by Norman A. Johnson, I responded with a Letter to the Editor that, while published online in February 2010, did not get formal publication until 2011 Click Here. In March 2011 Genome Biology and Evolution accepted a paper by Masatoshi Nei and Masafumi Nozawa, who seemed to have independently arrived at the conclusion that it should be "DM" not "BDM":

"Orr (1996) argued that the first person who proposed the DM model is neither Dobzhansky nor Muller but Bateson (1909) and Bateson's model was identical with that of Dobzhansky and Muller. In our view, this argument is disputable. It is certainly true that Bateson considered the two-locus model of complementary genes in order to explain hybrid sterility, but he never considered how such a system can evolve. By contrast, Dobzhansky and Muller spelled out the evolutionary process of hybrid sterility genes, albeit very crudely. In evolutionary biology, it is important to understand the process of evolution. For this reason, we will refer to the model as the DM model in this paper."

The paper concludes that "the currently popular Dobzhansky-Muller model of evolution of reproductive isolation is only one of many possible mechanisms."


Nei N, Nozawa M (2011) Roles of mutation and selection in speciation: From Hugo de Vries to the modern genomic era. Genome Biology and Evolution 3, 812-829.


Robin Marantz Henig


When scientists get the story wrong, then historians may be misled, and popularizers and journalists who depend on the scientists and historians for their books and stories may compound the error. In a letter to T. H. Huxley's grandson, Julian, with whom he was collaborating on a book, H. G. Wells wrote in 1928:

"I am against any further alterations of that Bateson paragraph. I know the man. My last talk with him was with Morgan in N. Y. and he has a schoolboy pleasure in making trouble and a Samuel Butler-like hatred for Darwin. Any fool can play the negative game and no doubt some of the young fools will go on with it."

Memories. J. Huxley, p. 161.Harper & Row, N.Y. 1970

Here is "that Bateson paragraph:"

"There remains one other temperamental type which has found expression in these discussions, and that is the brilliant sceptic as typified by the late Professor William Bateson. He accepted the facts of Evolution, if only on the palaeontological evidence, but, as the outcome of a life spent largely in the study of variation and especially of Mendelism, he developed an increasing inability to satisfy himself how any progressive variation could ever occur. He crowned his scientific career by various lectures and addresses in which he reiterated his imaginative failure. This type of agnosticism was probably the negative aspect of a passionate and unquestioning faith in the implacable unteachableness and integrity of certain Mendelian units of heredity we shall presently describe and discuss. Later work has removed much of the point of his criticisms."

The Science of Life (1931) Wells, Huxley & Wells.

So what are we to make of The Monk in the Garden. The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel, the Father of Genetics by Robin Marantz Henig (2000; Houghton & Mifflin; Click Here)? This is how the book begins:



"PROLOGUE   Spring 1900
There is a kind of immortality in every garden. Stillmeadow  Daybook, Gladys Tabor, 1899-1980

The blue locomotive of the Great Eastern Railway streaked through the countryside of Cambridgeshire. To a farmer nearby, the train's cars was a rumble of teak and steel plowing through his fields, where seedlings of barley, wheat, and oats etched their own green tracks in the springtime loam. It was early May in 1900, and the earth, like the new century itself, pulsed with possibilities.

    Among the train's passengers was William Bateson, a don at St. John's College, Cambridge. Bateson, who was a zoologist, was stoop-shouldered and large. His tweed vest strained at the buttons, his handlebar mustache gleamed and only his droopy eyes saved him from looking self-satisfied or smug. He had just turned forty, and was one of Britain's chief combatants in the controversy over evolution and the theory of natural selection, still the source of strident debate more than forty years after Charles Darwin first proposed it.

    When Bateson boarded in Cambridge, he had no idea that in the next sixty minutes he would read a paper that would change the course not only of his own career, but of mankind's understanding of its place in the great cacophony of nature."



Powerful, splendid, prose - drawing the reader onward. And all the trappings of scholarship, although Robin Henig implies this is not so, stating (p. 266) concerning the list of her sources: "A simple listing of all these books and articles, such as might appear in a scholarly text, would be misleading: there were only a few that I found myself returning to again and again." 

    Nevertheless, the book ends with a long list of "notes and selected readings" and this is extensively supplemented at her web-site. Here we learn her sources for the section quoted above:

"Page 1 The blue locomotives and varnished teak cars of the Great Eastern Railway were described in Sekom, G.A., Locomotion in Victorian London, London: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Page 1 This account of the events of May 8, 1900 is based largely on the recollections of Bateson's widow, Beatrice Bateson, in her introduction to his collected writings, William Bateson, F.R.S., Naturalist, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1928, p. 73. 

    It has been contradicted by the historian Robert Olby in "William Bateson's Introduction of Mendelism to England: A Reassessment," British Journal of the History of Science, 1987, vol. 20, pp. 399-420, who says it is impossible for Bateson to have obtained a copy of the Mendel paper in time to bring it with him on the train to London, and impossible for him to read it and truly understood it all in a single hour. 

    Most historians of science believe Olby's reconstruction of events on that morning of May 8, 1900, and so do I. But I am fascinated by the legend that has been built up around Bateson's supposed epiphany on the train, first by Bateson, then by his widow in her introductory memoir of Bateson, and finally in all the subsequent instances of Mendel/Bateson mythologizing. I present the scene here because it is a compelling story, and later in the book I will revisit this scene from a different perspective."

Robin Henig does indeed tell a "compelling story" and, given the vast ground she had to cover, it is not surprising that there are some discrepancies:

  • The first sentence of Beatrice Bateson's book, cited above, should have informed Henig that William Bateson was born on 8th August 1861. This makes him still 38 on 8th May 1900, not "just turned forty". Presumably Henig did not discover an error in Bateson's birth date, or it would have been stated in her notes.

  • The Dutch botanist De Vries is held to have had "blind spots" (p. 185). Robin Henig disparages his belief "that the pangens [genes] were made in the nucleus" but "most of their movements and activities occurred in the non-nuclear parts of cells." Of course, this is De Vries' greatest insight. Genetic information (pangens) merely resides in the nucleus (as DNA) and it is transferred to the cytoplasm (as RNA) where it is responsible for the activities of the cell.

  • Henig tells us that Bateson "invented the word 'genetics' in early 1905" (p. 227). This is true if "invented" can mean turning an adjective into a noun and adding an "s". The words 'genetically' and 'genetic relation' were used, at least as early as 1864 by T. H. Huxley in his "Criticism of 'The Origin of Species'." What she means is that Bateson proposed "genetics" as the name for the new branch of biology.

At the outset, in the Prologue (above), the reader is informed that only Bateson's "droopy eyes" saved him from appearing "self satisfied and smug." This is the stuff best-sellers are made off, - and why not? The formula worked for James Watson, who opened chapter one of The Double Helix (1968)with the line: "I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood." 

    Bateson's most important paper (1902) was coauthored with an established academic who had graduated in Botany in 1888, Edith R. Saunders (1865-1945). Yet Robin Henig refers to her as "his long-time research assistant." With coauthors - particularly female coauthors - one is interested to know whether their contributions were greater than they were given credit for (e.g. the speculation about Einstein's first wife). Robin Henig takes a non-feminist position, and to her own rhetorical question "Why ... would she have stuck for so long with a man who treated her coldly ...?" replies suggesting a romantic attachment. The possibility that Edith Saunders was as excited by the scientific questions as Bateson is not considered. 

    Marsha Richmond in "Women in the early history of genetics" (2001) notes that women participated both through their labours and intellectually to the Cambridge "school in genetics" which Bateson headed, and laments that Henig "has labelled these women Bateson's 'research assistants' and presumed a romantic attachment." More kindly, J.B.S. Haldane named Edith Saunders "the 'mother' of British plant genetics." She became a prominent member of several important scientific societies and held a college appointment until her death. 

William Bateson with his wife Beatrice (centre) and two of his later research associates, Miss Cayley (left) and Miss Pellew (right) in 1919. Beatrice Bateson appears to be in black, perhaps still in mourning for the loss of her eldest son John in 1918 in the 1914-18 war. The picture is from David Lipset's biography of Bateson and his son Gregory, with the permission of M. C. Bateson.
Miss Cayley, Beatrice, William, Miss Pellew in 1919

  My concern is that The Monk in the Garden does, indeed, reveal an impressive degree of scholarship (notes, selected readings, index), which Watson's book did not have (or need to have, given Watson's scientific eminence). Robin Henig's high literary skills make it likely that many reader's will uncritically buy her account of Bateson and his ideas. The generation which is going to be misled by the influential scientific texts of Berlocher and others (see above), is also going to be misled by Robin Henig's account. 

    Crick was still around to defend himself against Watson. Bateson and Saunders cannot defend themselves against H. G. Wells and Robin Henig, and those who have influenced them. Bateson's surviving near-relatives do not seem to be into evolutionary biology, so are not in a position to question the "Bateson bashing" of the  scientists, historians and popularizers. A less near-relative, Patrick Bateson of King's College, Cambridge, offered some defence in his Darwin Lecture delivered at a Symposium on a Century of Mendelism in Human Genetics (October 2001; See also "William Bateson: A Biologist Ahead of his Time." 2002. J. Genetics 81, 49-58).  

    When writing about Linnaeus (the founder of taxonomy; p. 45) Robin Henig shows some diffidence in that "he was said to be a personally unpleasant man" (my italics). Remarks about Bateson, however, are categorical. The following should convey the flavour:


"Bateson's inability to hold two competing thoughts at once, his tendency to see the world in stark blacks and whites, drove much of the debate in the years after Mendel's discovery." (p. 196)

"...Bateson's story. But the story persisted and grew. How nicely it worked, in terms of the narrative, for the flamboyant genius of the Mendel of legend to be echoed, thirty-five years later, by another eureka moment on a southbound Great Eastern Railway train heading into Liverpool Street Station, London." (p. 196)

"... if not for Mendel, we might know - or care - very little indeed about the opinionated zoologist from Cambridge." (p. 198)

"Bateson was an arrogant man who fiercely defended his supporters and just as fiercely trounced his enemies." (p. 205)

"Despite his curmudgeonliness, Bateson attracted a constant flow of research assistants, many of whom remained devoted to him for years ... "(p. 216)

"Unlike Bateson, Morgan made a habit of admitting to his earlier mistakes." (p. 237)


The latter remark appears at odds with the perceptions of one who knew Bateson very well  -  J. B. S. Haldane:


"I never had an argument with him - and I had many - without the absolute conviction that he would no more hesitate to admit himself in the wrong if I could convince him, than to tell me that I was talking nonsense if, as was more usual, I failed to do so."

The Nation and the Atheneum. 20th February 1926. p. 713.

Perhaps the truth is that, while controversial, William Bateson was not very often wrong. What his contemporaries, and many who followed, thought was wrong, may actually have been right. Bateson wryly remarked (1907) "The term controversial is conveniently used by those who are wrong to apply to the persons who correct them."

Trains arrive in Liverpool Street Station from Cambridge
William Coleman

Among Robin Henig's cited sources is biohistorian William Coleman's influential "Bateson and Chromosomes: Conservative Thought in Science" (1970; Centaurus 15, 228-314), which led others to consider Bateson "an archetypal conservative thinker" (Mackenzie 1978), and as one of "the most recalcitrant idealists" (Allen 1978). 

    Most of Coleman's negative points were answered by Alan Cock in his, less influential, "William Bateson's Rejection and Eventual Acceptance of Chromosome Theory" (1983; Annals of Science 40, 19-59), which is also cited by Henig. Here Cock shows that Coleman "fails to get to grips with the various detailed objections raised by Bateson ... against chromosome theory," which were then substantial. 

"Bateson's criticisms are ... precisely what they appear to be on the surface: the purely scientific objections of a man examining a large body of theory and results who carefully distinguishes between those parts he is prepared to accept and those which he rejects pending further evidence. They are emphatically not the objections of a backwoodsman determined to reject the theory in toto and at all costs on philosophical or similar grounds. 

    The points that Bateson raised were all, in their time, valid and pertinent ones. ... There remains the question of why these difficulties seemed more serious to Bateson than they did to his contemporaries who ... were prepared to give them a little more leeway, to overlook difficulties and weaknesses, in the hope of seeing further advances. This is partly a consequence of Bateson's sceptical temperament, but it is partly attributable ... to the fact that he had other reasons ... for being less favourably disposed towards chromosome theory ... ."

These reasons were not of a personal nature, although we learn (p. 24) that Bateson's view (1924) of T. H. Morgan's chromosome school was not a flattering one:

"They are conceited and cliquish beyond belief, but they are not out to deceive themselves or us. Their weakest point is their profound ignorance of anything but the topical and trite in genetics outside Drosophila, and their complete satisfaction with their ignorance... There are endless reasons why the chromosomes should not do all the things that they are supposed to do, ... "

Cock argues that while "Bateson's view that between-species differences were somehow qualitatively distinct from within-species differences ... was an important source of Bateson's opposition to evolution by natural selection, it was hardly relevant to his attitude to chromosome theory."  However, I have argued that the Bateson's difficulty was in seeing how chromosomes could provide the basis for a postulated qualitative distinction which was fundamental to speciation; the latter distinction contradicts the view that "theoretical innovation is not where Bateson's strength lay" (Forsdyke, 1999; Click Here).

Speciation as a Non-Problem

It is one thing openly to attack someone whose ideas on a problem you disagree with, or even to misrepresent that person as agreeing with you (see above). However, it can be far more effective to imply that the problem is unimportant, and the person who has dedicated his/her life to the problem has foolishly been barking up the wrong tree.

     In addition to his open attack (see above) the advocate of "universal Darwinism" Richard Dawkins adopted the latter approach. He stated (1983) in Evolution from Molecules to Man that "the job we ask" of evolutionary theories is "explaining the evolution of organized, adaptive complexity," and then appeared casually to dismiss the problem Bateson had made his life's work.

"Some biologists ... get excited about 'the species problem,' while I have never mustered much enthusiasm for it as a 'mystery of mysteries.' For some, the main thing that any theory of evolution has to explain is the diversity of life - cladogenesis. Others may require of their theory an explanation of the observed changes in the molecular constitution of the genome. I would not presume to convert any of these people to my point of view."

By this sleight of hand, Dawkins implies that "the evolution of organized adaptive complexity" can somehow be separated from the problem which most concerned Bateson. So much of Dawkins' writing is profound and enlightening, that it is easy to believe it is all profound and enlightening. So much of Dawkins' writing disparages "the vacuous rhetoric of mountebanks and charlatans" ( Nature (1998) 394, 141-3), that it is easy to believe that he is holier-than-thou in this respect.

     Dawkins' powerful advocacy of selection at the gene level led many away from group selectionist ideas. In his The Extended Phenotype (1982) Dawkins (p. 6) wrote disparagingly of "sloppily unconscious group-selectionism." Two decades later David Sloan Wilson (June 2001; Q. Rev. Biol. 76), quoted with approval Joel Peck as stating that "there is no doubt that we were to hasty in trashing group selection ... the theoretical models of the 60s and 70s were very oversimplified and should be taken with a pinch of salt."

     Dawkins attack extended to Bateson's daughter-in-law, Margaret Mead. In Unweaving the Rainbow (1998; p. 211) she is described, on the authority of anthropologist Derek Freeman, as "the gullible but immensely influential American anthropologist Margaret Mead." However, remarks of the President of the American Anthropological Association, Louise Lamphere, (NY Times 12th August 2001), suggested this may have been but one more salvo from the pen of the gullible but immensely influential English biologist Richard Dawkins. 

"The 'Freeman debate' has been the subject of a number of books and scholarly articles that support her views on the importance of culture for the adolescent experience, while criticizing some details of her research.

    I have taught about the controversy for the last 18 years and am still impressed by the fact that a 24-year-old woman could produce a study so far ahead of its time. Dr. Freeman studied a different island 20 years after Mead's research, and his notion that biology is more determinative than culture is oversimplified. Most serious scholarship casts grave doubt on his data and theory."

For an example of such scholarship see: "Virginity and veracity: rereading historical sources in the Mead-Freeman controversy" by Paul Shankman (2006) Ethnohistory 53, 479-505. On the other hand, that Dawkins may not have been so gullible is suggested by E. Fuller Torrey's brilliant Freudian Fraud. The Malignant Effect of Freud's Theory on American Thought and Culture (Harper-Collins 1992). Here Mead is portrayed as leading an entire generation of US intellectuals down the mother-blaming alley.

Steven Jay Gould

"I have gone out sketching and forgotten my water-dipper; among my traps I always find something that will do, for example, the top of my tin case (for holding pencils). This is how organs come to change their uses and hence their forms, or at any rate partly how." 

Samuel Butler (Vol. 20 of Shrewbury Edition of Collected Works. 1926. p.13)

Gould and Lewontins' famous 1979 article - "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm. A Critique of the Adaptationist Program" - was the subject of a book on scientific rhetoric (Edited by Jack Selzer, Understanding Scientific Prose, 1993). Here Gould conceded that "I did not know about Bateson's invocation of Voltaire when I wrote 'Spandrels,' but the convergence is scarcely surprising, as Dr. Pangloss is a standard ... form of ridicule." To criticize the adaptionist program Bateson had introduced, not spandrels, but "toolmarks, mere incidents of manufacture, benefiting their possessor not more than the wire-marks on a sheet of paper, or the ribbing on the bottom of an oriental plate renders these objects more attractive to our eyes." Furthermore, examples of the doctrine that all is for the best "were discovered with a facility that Pangloss himself might have envied."

    In his massive The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (2002), Gould made amends for not citing Bateson in 1979. He was generally kind to Bateson quoting him extensively as supporting the view that: 

"[natural] selection is a true phenomenon, but its function is to select, not create." 

However, Gould considered Bateson's attack on Darwin as "bordering on meanness." Bateson was unambiguously labelled as an "obstinate," "stubborn," "old fogey," who "had fallen a bit behind the times," and "had his own particular axe to grind." Bateson had proposed that organic discontinuities had arisen from internal, not external, causes:

"Such discontinuity is not in the environment; may it not, then be in the living thing inself?

Gould was lost. Despite earlier heresies, he admitted to having returned to the Darwin-Wallace fold:

"I confess that I have never understood why Bateson regards this point as so telling. I think that Darwin presented a simple and perfectly satisfactory solution to this dilemma ... namely, that forms once filling the gaps between modern discontinuities have now become extinct."

There were others, such as Brian K. Hall - also kind to Bateson - who were felt to be in need of an excuse for wandering from the path of Darwinian righteousness. Concerning Charles Darwin's 1868 book The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, Olaf Breidbach and Michael Ghiselin wrote (2007, Theory in BioSciences 125, 157-171):

"Well known books by Bateson (1894) and Goldschmidt (1940) were deliberately written as polemics against it, but to the reader who does not know the background that is far from obvious. The intellectual dishonesty of Bateson and Goldschmidt and the shortcomings of the secondary literature may suffice to explain, and indeed excuse, the assertion of Hall (2002, p. 652) that Bateson's book of 1894 'was the first great treatment of variation since On the Origin of Species'."

Of course, all biohistorians (and certainly Hall) know of Darwin's 1868 book and, in context, most readers would have interpreted Hall as meaning the first major independent English treatment of variation since Darwin. Breidbach and Ghiselin seem to have seized upon Hall's lack of precision as an opportunity to take a shot at Bateson and Goldschmidt.

    And the above quote from Samuel Butler is not an isolated example. Much of his essay Quis Desiderio ... ? written in the 1890s, was on how the hand of Nature will take whatever it finds (e.g. a spandrel) and adapt it for its own purposes:

"I cannot write unless I have a sloping desk, and the Reading Room of the British Museum, where alone I can compose freely, is unprovided with sloping desks. Like every other organism, if I cannot get exactly what I want I make shift with the next thing to it; ... and set myself to consider which of the very interesting works which a grateful nation places at the disposal of its would-be authors was best suited for my purpose. For mere reading I suppose one book is pretty much as good as another; but the choice of a desk book is a more serious matter. [There then follows a discourse on the desired characters of the book.] For weeks I made experiments upon sundry poetical and philosophical works, whose names I have forgotten, but could not succeed in finding my ideal desk, until at length, more by luck than cunning, I happened to light upon Frost's "Lives of Eminent Christians," ... . [Thus] The first thing I have done whenever I went to the Museum was to take down Frost's "Lives of Eminent Christians" and carry it to my seat. It is not the custom of modern writers to refer to the works to which they are most deeply indebted [a dig at Darwin], ... but it is to this book alone that I have looked for support during many years of literary labour.


Acknowledgements. The train pictures are from Michael J. Irlam's fine page on rail history Click Here

Go to: Bateson & Saunders (1902) (Click Here)

Go to: Bateson's Melbourne address (Click Here)

Go to: Bateson's "Residue" (Click Here)

Go to: Bateson and Goldschmidt (Click Here)

Go to: Paper on Romanes' "Peculiarity" and Bateson's "Residue" (1999) (Click Here)

Go to: The B in "BDM" (response to Johnson's 2009 commentary) (Click Here)

Go to: Video Lecture on Bateson & Romanes (Click Here)

Return to: Homepage (Click Here)

Sword and scabbard

This page was established circa 2000 and last edited 07 Nov 2020 by Donald Forsdyke