Readers who expect a comprehensive analysis of biological science in modern China, as the blurb on the jacket promises, may be disappointed: this book specifically contrasts the small community of followers of T. H. Morgan in Republican China with the state-sponsored rise of Lysenkoism after 1949. The first part follows the development of genetics and evolutionary theory in three universities in China, namely National Central University in Nanjing; the missionary school of Yanjing University in Beijing, linked to the Rockefeller Foundation's Peking Union Medical College; and Nanjing University, an American missionary school closely tied to Cornell. The author shows that training in biology and genetics developed in these three schools, thanks to substantial philanthropic involvement from the United States, as a “transfer” of knowledge took place between Chinese life scientists and major American institutions.
While the author presents valuable biographies of a small number of scientists such as Chen Zhen, Tan Jiazhen and Tang Peisong, and succeeds in recreating the political and institutional context within which these three geneticists operated, his work is insufficiently grounded in primary sources. The literature produced by biologists in Republican China is never invoked in any systematic way, the first chapter being largely based on Chen Zhen's biology textbook to create the impression of a neat “transfer” of knowledge from the United States. However, incompatible theories in biology were often invoked, contradictory ideas about evolution were bandied around, and vague phrases on “struggle for survival” were widespread in dozens of biology textbooks, many far more popular than Chen Zhen's work: neo-Lamarckism and Mendel-Morganism were never tidily organized into two “schools,” and they could even overlap, as very different writers from complex backgrounds struggled to make sense of an ever-growing global repertoire of biological theories. In Europe and the United States too, biologists disagreed over the relative importance of nurture versus nature, and China was no exception: diversity, elided by the author in favour of a fairly simplistic notion of an American success in Republican China before the failure of Lysenkoism under Soviet influence, is precisely what makes pre-1949 biology such a fascinating field.